The Duck of Minerva

Tempo, Protest, and Emergency Ethnography in the Trump Moment

31 January 2017

This is a guest post by Dr. Sherrill Stroschein, Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Politics, Department of Political Science, University College London

We have all been driven to understand what is going on over the past few days. Some of these discussions would be improved with lesser-used tools to think more systematically about events. There are three approaches that can help to do this that have had less exposure than they should.

The first is more attention to time, pace, and tempo. In coming on strong and quickly with his orders, Trump is using a pace that is unusual for domestic policymaking. It is more the pace of business, where the art of surprising one’s opponents and moving quickly can give one a clear advantage. “In only a week!,” we say. But the fast pace is part of the strategy. Congress and the judiciary, in contrast, will be moving much slower, at which point we are meant to think that these policies will be more embedded. Consider the unfolding of these events in relational terms, as an action and reaction. Research on event processes would indicate that a lack of reaction would be hard to imagine – it is simply that pace grants an initial advantage to the faster actor. This does not mean that the victories of the first actor will be lasting, as a quality pushback that takes some time may quash them. A quick back-of-the-napkin sketch of the potential actions and reactions can produce more clearheaded thinking about the potential avenues from here. The shock action is not the last event in the process, but tempo is also important. Think about politics with the insight of musical   notation – different lines interact but they are moving at different tempos. How can we then consider the dynamics of potential interactions for the next steps?

Second, protest is necessary, but will not achieve automatic success – even with great numbers. It is of course important to mobilize large numbers. Large numbers demonstrate the legitimacy of claims, and are a show of force against the power of individuals. They also can provide much-needed encouragement for engagement, and counter the demoralizing effects of the exercise of sheer power. That said, government response to protest is not automatic – there is a relational interaction (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly). In the East German 1989 scenario, as well as Ukraine in 2004, government lost power partly because an advisor or a general refused to shoot at large numbers of people. In Tiananmen Square in 1989 and in numerous other instances, shooting did take place. These might seem stark examples, but protest in less violent instances works the same way. Government might decide to accommodate, or not. These outcomes are very hard to model or predict because they often rest on the decisions of key individuals. It could be that protest is most effective when it is joined by other strategies, such as legal avenues or political pressure. Protest provides leverage for those countering the government, to demonstrate that claims against the government have legitimacy with a broad sector of the population.

Third, whatever one’s favorite method for studying politics, we all should learn some basic emergency ethnography. The performance of politics during the first week of the Trump presidency is very similar to the strategies used by strongmen (yes, usually men) in different contexts. There have been some useful comparisons of Trump’s strategies with those of Hugo Chavez, particularly insightful on the different discursive means of disarming opponents (here and here). For years I took my students to the London Assembly, where we watched then-mayor Boris Johnson respond to critical questions from Assembly members. On the Assembly, speaking time is strictly rationed by party. Johnson perfected a strategy to get his opponents to waste time by saying things to upset them. In one instance, he mocked the attendance of a female assembly member who had likely been absent for health reasons. The vibe in the room was tense and electric as the Assembly member sputtered in disbelief, her minutes ticking away. This strategy also conveniently showed Johnson’s opponents that he was willing to stoop to any level in his attacks, perhaps discouraging some interventions. These kinds of observations are important if the press and other questioners are to navigate such bullying tactics. Recognizing the tactics and remaining calm and focused is a first line of defense against them. We can probably start to figure out more ways to counter them if we all recognize them for what they are. Emergency ethnography will be crucial to this effort.

Finally, as a side note, we may need to rethink some of the means of understanding on which we have relied in the past. There is some intriguing work out now (Schaffner and Luks) that demonstrates that people are willing to lie in giving survey responses, or perhaps that there are more complex psychological mechanisms going on. We thus may need to reconsider the accuracy of survey numbers, because even a large sample size cannot correct for responses that are deliberately misleading. A more in-depth engagement with those whose responses we seek might help to counter this, as evident in work by Cramer on Wisconsin. For most people, it is easier to lie in a quick one-off response than in a conversation, or if they find themselves in a sustained group conversation with their peers present. If we are to understand some of the bases of support for the Trump project, we may need to think more seriously about how to encourage more sincere interactions with respondents.