Nationwide protests over the last few weeks have been hailed as “historic” and “transformational.” Indeed, we have seen an enormous outpouring of energy, as angry demonstrators have occupied the streets of American cities in protest of police brutality. But it’s worth contextualizing the present moment within the last three and a half years of more or less continual mass mobilizations that have seized the passions of the public—and dominated news cycles—for a period of a few days or a week or two, and then disappeared.
The day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the Women’s March took place in Washington and in cities across the country. An estimated 3 million to 5 million people protested on behalf of “immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault,” and all those who felt “insulted, demonized, and threatened.”
A few days later, Trump announced restrictions on travel from seven countries that he deemed security risks to the United States. Thousands of people flocked to airports around the nation to protest the “Muslim ban.” In New York City, 1,000 Yemeni shopkeepers staged a one-day strike, and one of the co-chairs of the Women’s March headlined a large protest in Washington Square Park. In Washington, Democratic politicians including Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Jerry Nadler, and Kamala Harris demonstrated outside the White House and Supreme Court.
Two months later, on Earth Day (first celebrated on April 22, 1970, the centenary of Lenin’s birth), a March for Science was held around the country and the world. Organized explicitly to counter Trump’s hostility to the climate-change hypothesis, the March for Science was co-chaired by comedian Bill Nye. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to “defend the idea of science,” explained former Democratic congressman and physicist Rush Holt, Jr., president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The second annual Women’s March took place in January 2018. Millions of people attended these events around the country. In March 2018, the anti-gun March for our Lives took place following a mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As many as 2 million people across the U.S. took part in the demonstrations, ostensibly organized by several teenagers from the school. Two of the teens, David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, became media superstars, appearing on the cover of Time and in constant cable television interviews, discussing a range of issues.
In June 2018, tens of thousands of demonstrators staged rallies and sit-ins to protest the Trump administration’s policy of detaining alien children at the Mexican border. A massive media campaign documented the conditions of the facilities in which migrants were held. “Children in cages” became the protests’ dominant theme, and much public anger was directed at Trump himself, though he appeared to be continuing the practices of his predecessor, which had garnered no criticism. Protests focused on Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE offices were blockaded at cities around the country, sometimes for weeks. In Portland, protesters set up a 24-hour vigil around the ICE facility; local government refused to intervene. Federal police eventually dispersed the blockade by force.
In September and October 2018, protests against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court dominated the news. Thousands of demonstrators, with the apparent support of Democratic legislators, occupied Washington legislative office buildings, disrupted confirmation hearings, and screamed at senators. The protests culminated on the day of Kavanaugh’s confirmation and swearing-in, as demonstrators pounded on the brass doors to the Supreme Court.
A month later, following the 2018 midterm elections, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Massive protests broke out across the country in a coordinated demonstration to “protect Robert Mueller” and his investigation into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia to subvert the 2016 election. The protests were “part of a nationwide effort in the planning for months in the event that Trump fired Sessions,” according to a Seattle reporter.
January 2019 saw the third annual Women’s March, “directed at the Trump administration and threats to women’s rights” and drawing hundreds of thousands of people. Despite smaller turnout, the 2019 march was “bigger than you think,” affirmed the Washington Post. In April, following a partial release of the Mueller Report, thousands marched to demand that the full document be made available. In June and July, the spotlight returned to the question of children in cages on the U.S. southern border; tens of thousands expressed their anguish in marches and demonstrations against the presence of “concentration camps,” in the words of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on American soil.
In September 2019, timed to the arrival of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg in New York for the United Nations Climate Summit, millions of people participated in the Global Climate Strike. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio gave 1.1 million schoolchildren the day off from school.
Rallies organized by the Democrats to support Trump’s impeachment were remarkably tepid. The Covid-19 lockdown preempted mass protest for most of the first half of 2020. But following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, the country saw an explosion of activity, as Black Lives Matter came out of dormancy to claim status as a prominent, almost revered American institution. The enforcement on social distancing and quarantining was waived on the grounds that protesting racial injustice was also a health emergency—and apparently one that took precedence over Covid-19.
This catalog of the last several years is not exhaustive; many other smaller, local protests have taken place over this time, as is generally customary in the United States. But something different is going on in recent years, with these intense blitzes of all-consuming fury about issues of supposedly dire importance—issues about which no dissenting opinion is conceivable, let alone tolerable—and amplified by a national media megaphone that, in concert with the Democratic Party, appears motivated by singular hatred of Trump.
This period of intermittent agitation, like Orwell’s “Two-Minute Hate” in Nineteen Eighty-Four, creates and channels rage. Recently, with the rioting, looting, and destruction in multiple American cities, the rage turned violent—though this outbreak has abated, at least for the time being. Nonetheless, the spike in national cortisol levels is wrecking our equilibrium and capacity to collect ourselves and is doing the body politic no good.
Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images