It hasn't gotten the attention it deserves — almost nothing does anymore — but since July 16, a colorful and boisterous protest has taken place every single night in front of Donald Trump's White House. The crowds — sometimes in the hundreds, sometimes less — try to mix it up and have a little fun. They flash neon signs reading "treason" or don dinosaur suits and welcome a parade of "resistance" celebrities like Hollywood's Alyssa Milano or lawyer Michael Avenatti.
"We don't plan on stopping until Donald Trump is gone," vow the organizers, including longtime activists like Adam Parkhomenko, a former national field director for the National Democratic Committee — who is of Ukrainian ancestry and was inspired by the mass protests in Kiev that ultimately ended an unpopular government over there. In other words, it's a free speech hangout for some of the president's most vocal dissenters.
The apogee of the event arguably came on Aug. 6, when Rosie O'Donnell and some other Broadway performers Amtraked their way down to the White House gates for a rousing night of anti-Trump show tunes. O'Donnell, longtime bête noire of the 45th president, led the troupe in "America the Beautiful" and told the assembled mass to "stand up against treason, and stop fascism before it takes over the United States."
The very next day, Aug. 7, the Trump administration's National Park Service promulgated rules that threaten protests like the nightly White House demonstrations — as well as any other would-be spontaneous large D.C. protests. The rules would restrict gatherings that now take place on a 25-foot-wide sidewalk in front of the White House to just a 5-foot sliver, severely limiting crowds. The NPS also threatens to hit political protesters on the National Mall with large security and cleanup fees that historically have been waived for such gatherings, and it wants to make it easier to reject a spontaneous protest of the type that might occur, say, if Trump fires special counsel Robert Mueller.
"President Trump might not like having protesters on his doorstep, but the First Amendment guarantees their right to be there," Arthur Spitzer, legal codirector of the D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a post opposing the rules. But foes of the measure rallied late and are running out of time: The government's comment period ends on Monday.
The ACLU notes that we've been here before. In 1967, as protests were mounting over the Vietnam War, the ACLU and other free-speech advocates had to go to court against the administration of Democrat Lyndon Johnson, which had tried to implement protest limits similar to what's being proposed in 2018.
That time, the good guys won. The courts ruled that the LBJ-era plan was an undue restriction on our First Amendment guarantees of free speech, and that outcome has allowed for mass protests near the White House ever since, as well as the rules that made it easier for spontaneous demonstrations and required speedy government action on larger rallies that require permits. "Timeliness is essential to effective dissent," Judge J. Skelly Wright wrote in 1967. "Delay may stifle protest as effectively as outright censorship."
The ACLU would likely mount a similar challenge if the new Trump-era restrictions are imposed — but past success is no guarantee of future results. This time, any court challenge will come before a judiciary that Trump and his enabler Mitch McConnell are racing to reshape in their ultra-conservative likeness. And if the issue climbs the judicial ladder all the way to the Supreme Court, the morally tainted Trump-installed Brett Kavanaugh could be the deciding vote.
The big question about the National Park Service rules is: Why now? In the short term, maybe the persistence of the Parkhomenko-led protests (and the appearance of O'Donnell, whom the president has in the past called "a total loser") set off light bulbs over the heads of Trump and his minions. The park service claims it's simply because so many people are protesting Team Trump in Washington that its budget is straining to keep pace.
But something else has changed since August, and that is the Trump strategy for holding onto Congress, which is critical for staving off Mueller's probe and preventing Trump's impeachment in 2019. In a not-so-shocking development, the original idea — that middle-class voters would somehow get excited about a massive tax cut that was skewed toward large corporations and billionaires — wasn't working, with polls showing the Democrats with a double-digit lead in the so-called "generic ballot." So the president and his allies — Republicans candidates, the Fox News Channel, talk radio — instead have amplified divisiveness and, in some cases, unleashed hate.
A judge credibly accused in sworn testimony of sexual assault, whose confirmation hearings revealed a penchant for dishonesty and a poor temperament, was nonetheless rammed onto the Supreme Court — aided by Trump openly mocking Kavanaugh's accuser, cheered on by cult-like supporters. A series of rallies where Trump called journalists "enemies of the American people" took place against the backdrop of the president's close allies, the Saudis, almost certainly killing a critical Washington Post journalist — after which the president's main concern has remained pocketing Saudi petrodollars for his hotel and a billion-dollar arms deal to slaughter more children in Yemen.
In a throwback to the Selma era that many of us naively hoped had been relegated to the dustbin of history, Republicans are now openly and blatantly working to make it harder for nonwhites — blacks in Georgia (where a black woman has a shot at becoming governor), Native Americans in North Dakota — to cast ballots. And now the latest: Team Trump — at the behest of the administration's most fanatical xenophobe, Stephen Miller — is bringing back the much-despised family separation policy at the southern border that will rip migrant babies from their mothers and fathers and dump them into a growing American gulag of detainment camps in the dusty desert.
What do these very not-normal, autocratic moves have in common? They are all making the not-always-silent majority of Americans who strongly disapprove of Trump's presidency madder than they've ever been. In the Kavanaugh caper, women who felt they weren't being heard flooded Capitol Hill, sat in at Senate offices, confronted senators in elevators and pounded on the wooden doors of the high court. The first go-round at migrant family separation sparked sizable protests last summer — so it's likely Round 2 will provoke similar spasms of protests. And when these protests occur, Fox News will highlight them for their audience of angry old men — rebranding legitimate dissent as "mob rule."
"The Democrats are willing to do anything, to hurt anyone, to get the power they so desperately crave," Trump told a Minnesota rally earlier this month. "They want to destroy." That divisive rhetoric is amplified by the essentially state-run media known as Fox News, which has made the supposed threat from left-wing violence into a staple of its prime-time lineup.
In the last 72 hours, the climate of violence has indeed escalated, but with the fisticuffs thrown not by leftists but by pro-Trump goon squads — 21st century brownshirts, essentially — called the Proud Boys, who've been captured on video this weekend inflicting actual "mob rule" mayhem in New York City and in Portland, Ore.
New York City police are still investigating a chaotic scene there on Friday night — but that didn't stop Fox News from blaming violence on the left and anti-fascists. "Antifa strikes again — swords and vandalism at New York GOP office," was the FNC headline, even as video clearly showed the sword was brandished by Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes.
Such falsehoods are not a bug, but a feature. This McCarthyite-style "Red Scare" targeting mostly nonexistent left-wing violence has coincided with a seeming uptick in polling for at least some GOP candidates in November midterms, as once ambivalent 2016 Trump voters remember the one thing that united them: Hatred of liberals and the media.
The White House protest restrictions touch the black heart of Trump's divisive crusade. If these rules go into effect, those who are most angry at the president's actions, who see America plunging into an era of authoritarianism, are likely to ignore these rules and protest anyway. And when they do, the government will now have the power to arrest dissenters — in chaotic scenes that will provide miles of new footage for Fox News. And that chaos will rally Trump's base behind even harsher restrictions on First Amendment protest, speech and the free press, until dissent is silenced totally.
This downward spiral has a name: fascism.
And yet there's something else that's equally troubling about the timing of this — coming right before the midterm elections. It's not hard to think that no matter what happens on Nov. 6, we are on the brink of much larger protests than we've seen so far.
If Democrats do recapture the House, as polls and pundits have predicted for much of this year, an impeachment-fearing Trump may move quickly to shut down the Mueller probe by replacing either Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Sessions' aide who oversees Mueller, Rod Rosenstein or by brazenly firing Mueller — assuming his rabid base, Fox News and a firewall of GOP senators will keep him in office. If that happens, some 400,000 people have signed up to take part in rapid-response protests that under new rules would be problematic and possibly now illegal in D.C.
If Republicans do better than expected in November, angry, protest-prone Democrats may look to widespread voter suppression or a renewal of 2016-style Russian interference and demand to speak out. Or Team Trump will be emboldened to step up its roundup of migrant children and their placement in cages or cruel tent cities. Either way, Trump's inclination to be a divider and not a uniter will increase both chaos and state repression.
There's so much going on right now — the elections, the Mueller probe, the Saudi crisis, etc., etc. It's easy to see some National Park Service rules on permit fees and sidewalk restrictions as a back-burner, Page A17 story. It's not. It's at the cruel core of a presidency with a stunning willingness to erode your First Amendment rights to air grievances and protest the government — the principle that has survived, however imperfectly, for 230 years. People should be very afraid — not just of these proposed rules, but about why Team Trump wants this in the first place.
Note: Section on NYC police investigating Proud Boys violence incident has been updated.