No protest movement in the United States ever succeeded by primarily critiquing the president. Yet many of the protests emerging across the country in 2017 place President Trump at the center — posters ridicule him, inflatable floats caricature him, chants indict him. While his words and actions certainly spur much of this vitriol, the rage that mobilizes people to take to the streets will soon dissipate if the larger movement continues to only focus on Trump.
There is a strategy to protest that many liberals, leftists and Democrats have forgotten: Books — the ideas they contain, their ability to persuade — matter more than street protests, no matter how clever the hand-drawn signs. Ideas help to create networks that lead to effective social movements that can then bring legislative change. Many who march assume that change primarily comes from the federal government, and so they aim their rage and their pleas for help there. Appeals to the federal government, however, are often the last stop in creating a social movement and achieving its goals, not the first stage of attack.
Many of the leading protest movements from American history began with the written word, bundled in books and pamphlets. Their authors sidestepped federal authority to effect change. In fact, a suspicion of centralized authority ran through their activism: They criticized the government and sought ways to work around it, even sideline it.
Arguments about independence in the colonial era more often focused out toward the people than up toward the sovereign. In 1776, Thomas Paine recognized there was little he could do to convince the king of England that the British government should not have power over the American colonists. So Paine focused instead on persuading the public, because, guided by the principles of the Enlightenment, he believed that power resided with the people rather than the king. He wrote “Common Sense,” a pamphlet attacking the colonial government, and distributed it in taverns and church pews. Common Sense sold an estimated 500,000 copies in its first year of publication, helping spread moral and political justifications for independence from the British authority.
Abolitionists also realized that they needed to transform their community of allies before aiming at their political enemies in the South. Well before presidents (or even Congress) considered slavery a federal issue, black abolitionist David Walker sought to build a transnational alliance of nonwhites. In his fiery 1829 pamphlet, “An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World,” he urged these potential allies to find common cause in the issue of chattel slavery — an easier task than persuading a national government committed to maintaining the Slave Power in the South.
That’s because at the time, abolitionism was still a radical idea, one whose adherents, both free and enslaved, were separated by geography. Until they could be connected, their ability to exert effective political pressure remained limited. Walker’s pamphlet connected black abolitionists, scattered across the North, to those who were enslaved on plantations throughout the South. From biblical passages that opposed slavery to indictments of Thomas Jefferson’s claims of black inferiority, the pamphlet outlined arguments that informed how people, most of whom would never meet, could resist the institution of slavery.
While activists like Walker focused on spreading a message at the grass roots out of necessity, others did so out of principle, centering their politics on the personal. The emergence of the women’s movement in the mid-20th century began with the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” which challenged the assumption that women enjoyed being housewives. To capture the shared sense of unhappiness and isolation, Friedan coined the phrase “the problem that has no name.”
The book sold more than 1 million copies in the year after it was published and paved the way for the founding of Ms. Magazine in 1971. Both publications circulated new ideas and new ways of framing women’s issues. It was in these venues that feminists created their own lexicon — popularizing phrases and ideas like pro-choice, date rape, glass ceiling and sexual harassment — to articulate their concerns.
Feminists, like other activists, turned to literature to create innovative ways of framing problems and new vocabularies to define their struggles. The publication of their ideas also established communities among people with shared political values across broad geographic regions, allowing movements to gain momentum in areas where traditional activist organizations did not exist, expanding the sites of protest from street rallies to homes, libraries and campuses throughout the nation.
Social media and technology have loosed activists from traditional print formats, but it has come at an intellectual cost. Social media has been enormously successful in spreading spontaneous protests and politically mobilizing people, but it has also limited intellectual engagement.
In the past, newspapers functioned as a way to circulate ideas about demonstrations but also as forums that sustained the agitation once the street demonstrations had ended. LGBT newspapers in the 1970s, for example, often included articles about queer history, community events and news that solidified a sense of community among activists that extended beyond reports on protests.
Current activists have clearly demonstrated that they have the drive and tenacity to travel far distances to march, but they have yet to answer what happens when the protests end.
Here, the black civil rights movement offers one possible model. It had important literature that worked in tandem with street protests and appeals to the president. In the mid-1960s, while protests continued and leaders met with President Lyndon B. Johnson, Malcolm X continued to expand the intellectual architecture of the movement. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” published in 1965, offered a rallying cry for black nationalism. His work led many activists to rethink the fight for civil rights, offering a new framework to imagine freedom and work for greater access to a wider range of rights. The Black Panthers, for example, expanded their work outside of formal politics by establishing health clinics to provide medical care to the black community.
This movement was proactive, not reactive. Activists paced themselves, they processed, and then they made their move in Washington. Ultimately, most social movements appeal to the federal government to enact or change laws. But the most successful first put forward an argument that creates a new language and new vision that can guide a presidential response.
After nine months in office, it is evident that Trump will continue to make incendiary statements and propose legislation that propel people to march on the streets. But the protest tradition reminds us that he should not be the main subject of those campaigns. Instead, we need more books and more ideas. We need activists to become authors. We need to both protest and publish.