The Politics of No Meaning

Marching for what's right, whatever that is

The Politics of No Meaning

There is safety in numbers, we are told. And so, on the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as America’s forty-fifth president, millions of American women marched in safe solidarity. The crowd estimates in Washington, DC, alone surpassed half a million women and others genders, and some sources put the nationwide turnout at nearly three million.

In the keynote address for the event, acclaimed women’s rights advocate Gloria Steinem recognized the burgeoning crowds, noting that “just this march in Washington today required 1,000 more buses than [Trump’s] entire Inauguration.” After pointing out the “mental instability” of President Trump, Ms. Steinem rallied the multitude with calls for unity: “We are the people. We have people power and we will use it…. This is a day that will change us forever because we are together…. We’re staying together. And we’re taking over.”

Gloria Steinem has been giving such speeches for decades, and if the reaction of the attendees was any indication, she lived up to all expectations. But while the address was motivational, it lacked one key element: a goal. The speech included the obligatory demand for “equality,” reminding the world that “women’s rights are human rights.” But beyond these generics, there was no specific demand for action. Instead, the speech ended with the hope that some in attendance might figure out what to do on their own: “Make sure you introduce yourselves to each other and decide what we’re gonna do tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and we’re never turning back.”

The rally from this past Saturday was the latest in a string of events that attempted to replace coherent purpose with a display of numerical might. While it’s not uncommon for the masses to get caught up in a movement they don’t fully understand, recent protests have formalized this phenomenon. The Occupy Wall Street gatherings in the fall of 2011 were famous for having no specific agenda. The “We are the 99%” chant from that event made income inequality a focal point for the demonstrators, but the protests were otherwise generally free of purpose. The Liberty Square Blueprint, a manifesto pushed by some of the most prominent Occupy voices, proposed intentionally nebulous goals, and the core General Assemblies of Occupy Wall Street publicly rejected the competing 99 Percent Declaration because its demands for specific legislation were too obvious and direct. Heather Gautney of the Washington Post called the Occupy protests “a leaderless movement without an official set of demands. There are no projected outcomes, no bottom lines and no talking heads. In the Occupy movement, We are all leaders.”

This weekend’s protests across America were equally unfocused, and seemed to stem in part from an irrational fear that Donald Trump would use his womanizing statements from a decade ago as a starting point for personally accosting every single woman in America. The official web site for the nationwide event did publish a list of “Unity Principles,” including left-wing standards like “worker’s rights” and “environmental justice.” But you would be hard-pressed to find a major news story that put that list at the center. Instead, most reports focused on the size of the crowds, especially in comparison to the inauguration turnout from the previous day. These were quickly joined by “might makes right” reminders of Obama’s 2009 inauguration audience.

Compare these latest rallies with the August 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That’s the event that concluded with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, and it is remembered decades later as a key moment in the Civil Rights movement. The leaders of that event represented a collection of civil rights’ groups with disparate goals, but they came together with two clear and documented purposes: (1) “to focus nationwide attention on the plight of millions of Negro Americans,” and (2) a meeting with President Kennedy “to discuss the program of the March and plans for its implementation by [JFK’s] administration and Congress.” They achieved both of their goals.

Protests today are less goal-oriented. Instead, thanks to two decades of the Politics of Personal Destruction, the motivations for such gatherings are more individual: destroy Donald Trump, destroy those around him, and destroy everyone who voted for him. For every placard that read, “I Will Not Go Back Quietly to the 1950s”—as if that was ever an option—there were more blunt and ominous signs: “I’m 17—Fear Me!” All and all, such statements are difficult starting points for congressional legislation, or for intelligent conversations between those who disagree about the future of the nation.

Prioritizing numbers over ideas is never a winning strategy, and historically has always led to suffering and even loss of life. Filling the streets in support of a clear goal can help bring that goal to fruition. But calling out the masses with no particular goal in mind makes them perfect pawns for whoever has the authority to direct them. When someone claims that “we have people power, and we will use it,” without stating the intents of that power, the people invariably lose.

[Image Credits: flickr/Mobilus in Mobili]


  1. I’m surprised you didn’t focus on the rather late inclusion of women of color by the organizers, or the disputes about anti-choice organizations who were denied the chance to be sponsors (although no individual marchers were denied participation on that basis). It was a very ad hoc grassroots event and the organizers clearly learned as they went.

    But to your point: I think it’s easy to watch a march like this with no formal action plan on what to do next, and conclude that it all had no meaning. Occupy itself may have fizzed out, but it inspired legions of Bernie Sanders supporters and The Young Turks (TYT) media network. These two groups are organizing and running candidates for 2018. Likewise, the Women’s March itself may not become a political force, but I believe it will inspire many subsets of itself to “resist and replace” the current administration at first opportunity.

  2. “… and seemed to stem in part from an irrational fear that Donald Trump would use his womanizing statements from a decade ago as a starting point for personally accosting every single woman in America.” Really, Tim? These protesters are merely irrational women?

    I am proud to say that my daughter (and granddaughter) participated in the Women’s March. My daughter was protesting a President who has admitted that he was free to sexually assault women because of his power. Based upon my discussions and observations with others involved in the local March, there was much solidarity in that position. So this movement has at least one crystal clear message.

    Back to your quote above, I think DJT is a shrewd politician in at least one sense. He understands how to manipulate his base. His words during the campaign were prophetic: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” That may be close to the truth. Some people will justify anything he does, no matter what.

  3. Those are good points, Bob. But those represent side effects, valid side effects, but side effects nonetheless, and have nothing to do with the intent of the March itself, at least from what I can see.

  4. FMR, given what I know of your day job, you understand that “seemed to stem in part” does not lead to “merely.” So, no, I never claimed that the protesters were “merely irrational women.”

    You’re the second person to mention to me the sexual-assault aspect as the key factor in the March. I understand why people are offended, and rightly so. But my question is: Why now? How many of these protesters have demanded that popular rap artists leave the business because their lyrics glorify the objectification of women? How many of them decried Madonna’s involvement in the March, despite her publication of lurid content that was equally exploitative? How many of them watch and enjoy TV shows that repeatedly lift up the most vile perversions of mankind?

    Trump made a true statement that some women seeking a thrill or power or something will throw themselves at famous men, and that some powerful or rock-star-level men will use their positions to grab all the women they can. We saw it in Bill Clinton, in Wilt Chamberlain, in JFK. Where was the outcry then?

    • Tim, we’re not just offended. We’re shocked and disgusted. And why now? Because President Trump holds one of the most powerful jobs on the face of the earth. Because he is the leader of over 300 million citizens of the United States. Because he sets national policy and signs executive orders (daily). Because he has a direct impact on our lives, on my life. And because he is a catalyst for the fringe who are energized by his conduct. We were similarly shocked when we heard it before.

      I don’t have a connection with Madonna or rap artists, and they don’t impact my life to any degree. They are entertainers, and it’s easy for me to choose not to consume what they’re selling. And yes, I turned off Madonna’s speech at the March. On the other hand, I pledged allegiance to this Republic, and Trump is its standard-bearer. My President. That is the difference.

      Nice pivot to Bill Clinton, Chamberlin and JFK, though. That’s the same maneuver Steve Bannon employed after the 2005 interview was played. No, what Bill Clinton did was wrong, too. There was an outcry then, and then there was an impeachment. Not sure how that proves your point.

      Read the 2005 interview transcript and a summary of the President’s unrepentant words to women and about women. Are you not disgusted enough to want to protest? Let me know. That will tell me more that all of the rhetoric here.

      • You seem to think that I am defending Trump. Read the article again; you will find no such support. As I have said in public repeatedly, what Trump said about women more than a decade ago was offensive. But this I know: a snide comment about women from long ago has no power to bring down the core institutions of America. But there are things that can, and it is against those that I write.

        Some of those nation-harming things may very well come from the current president. For example, I am gravely concerned about Trump’s protectionist stand, since isolationist policies by prior administrations have actually brought harm to the nation, to its stability, and to its people.

        But there are other harms as well, including from groups who manipulate the American public into ignorance and anger. I sincerely believe that Bill Clinton’s opponents manipulated the public through Independent Counsel Ken Starr, culminating in the nation’s second presidential impeachment. Like the first one back in the 1860s, Clinton’s impeachment was a blot on the country’s political institutions, and the harm that those machinations brought are still being felt today. Clinton was a womanizer, but many Republican leaders were more than willing to use that for their own political gain, and to manipulate the public. And the worst thing is, the Republicans got almost nothing out of it, and instead helped ingrain an us-versus-them mentality concerning politics.

        I see that same type of manipulation in the recent Women’s March. Yes, Trump is a womanizer. But as with Clinton, that can be used by his opponents to manipulate the public. The danger lies with an easily manipulated populace who actually think they need to fear the personal peccadilloes of President Trump.


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