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2017-02-01 21:25:11
State of the Art: The Alt-Majority: How Social Networks Empowered Mass Protests Against Trump

The presidency of Donald J. Trump has been noteworthy for its speed. In his first week in office, as the president’s aides won’t tire of reminding us, Mr. Trump has already put in motion plans to do much of what he promised to do while campaigning.

But it’s not just the politician who is moving fast. It’s the population, too.

In a matter of hours on Saturday, thousands rushed to the nation’s airports, beckoned by tweets. The flash protests in response to Mr. Trump’s immigration ban, which continued to grow in many cities on Sunday, were as organized as they were instantaneous. Dispatched online, the protesters knew where to go, and they knew what to do once they arrived: to command the story by making a scene.

Mr. Trump feeds off media attention. Throughout the campaign, the bigger a spectacle he created, the larger he loomed in the public consciousness. What has been remarkable during the last two weekends is how thoroughly Mr. Trump’s own media personage was blotted out by scenes of protesters.

In a brief appearance on Saturday, the president assured the nation that his immigrant ban was “working out very nicely — you see it in the airports.” But the pictures and videos flooding across our social streams put the lie to Mr. Trump’s breezy pronouncements. Things at the airports weren’t working out very nicely; you could see it right there on Instagram.

A similar story unfolded the weekend before. In his inaugural address Mr. Trump claimed the mantle of popular will. The next day, a far larger illustration of popular will was on display at marches across the country. The people who gathered for the women’s march hijacked the media narrative.

Even for those who did not assemble on either weekend, the pictures carried special power. Amplified on social media and echoing across every TV network, they suggested something larger afoot, something democracy-defining. “Something’s happening out there,” Ana Navarro, the Republican never-Trumper and television pundit, declared on Twitter.

Something sure is. We’re witnessing the stirrings of a national popular movement aimed at defeating the policies of Mr. Trump. It is a movement without official leaders. In fact, to a noteworthy degree, the formal apparatus of the Democratic Party has been nearly absent from the uprisings. Unlike the Tea Party and the white-supremacist “alt-right,” the new movement has no name. Call it the alt-left, or, if you want to really drive Mr. Trump up the wall, the alt-majority.

Or call it nothing. Though nameless and decentralized, the movement isn’t chaotic. Because it was hatched on social networks and is dispatched by mobile phones, it appears to be organizationally sophisticated and ferociously savvy about conquering the media.

Over two weekends, the protests have accomplished something just about unprecedented in the nearly two years since Mr. Trump first declared his White House run: They have nudged him from the media spotlight he depends on. They are the only force we’ve seen that has been capable of untangling his singular hold on the media ecosystem.

The movement is new and possibly fragile; it could dissipate, like so much else that has come up against Mr. Trump.

But in such a short time, the movement has proved unusually adept. It can marshal crowds quickly, as we saw over the weekend, and it can go big, as we saw in the women’s marches, which some crowd scientists believe were the largest day of protest in American history.

The movement has other skills. It’s capable of coming up with catchy slogans, funny signs and even branding efforts to rival Mr. Trump’s own. The president has his Make America Great Again hats. Protesters at the women’s march had pink woolen hats with cat ears — “pussy hats,” a reference to the president’s confessed penchant for grabbing things.

But unlike Mr. Trump’s hats, the pink caps came from the crowd. Thousands of knitters created them in the weeks between the election and the inauguration, then mailed them off to strangers who shared their views.

There’s money, too. Since Mr. Trump’s win, the inchoate online movement has sparked millions in donations to progressive groups such as Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. Over the weekend, the A.C.L.U. raised more than $20 million.

The movement can also compel the attention of elites. In large part because of pressure from their connected work forces, the leaders of many technology companies denounced Mr. Trump’s immigration orders. Between Friday and Monday, thanks to the movement, Silicon Valley was transformed. An industry that was once merely skeptical of Mr. Trump largely became opposed to him, only because crowds forced change.

Most important, though, the movement can command the media narrative. The president has promised a lot of bold change. His boldness will involve lots of real-world consequences. Millions might lose health care coverage if he repeals the Affordable Care Act. Many might be deported if he achieves his immigration proposals.

If the last two weeks are any indication, though, none of this will happen quietly. There will be pictures and viral videos of real people facing hardship, and those pictures are sure to inspire hordes. When people are left with crippling medical bills in the absence of health insurance, or when people are deported to Mexico, you will see large gatherings on Facebook, and then on TV.

Already, a group of scientists are planning to march on Washington in opposition to what they say is Mr. Trump’s disdain for science. There are other protests planned for Tax Day in April to remind the nation that the president once promised to release his tax returns, then reneged.

You might wonder if the protests will achieve much. Americans have protested before (the war in Iraq comes to mind) and the protests did not, in themselves, alter national policy.

But if Mr. Trump has proved anything, it’s that everything is different now. We live in a culture ruled by social media streams, one in which most people are skeptical of what they see and read in the “mainstream media.”

This explains why Stephen K. Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News who is a close adviser to Mr. Trump, has been seeking to paint the news media as Mr. Trump’s primary opposition. The weakened news media is an easy mark for Mr. Trump. If the media is his only opponent, he’s got nothing to worry about.

Unlike the news media, though, protesters produce an undeniable reality. Protesters can’t easily be dismissed as “fake news.” They come to you unmediated — not from The New York Times, but from your friends and friends of friends on Facebook.

They are, in other words, just another version of your social network — the physical manifestation of an outraged News Feed. Because they’re people you know, they can’t easily be maligned as biased or unfair.

When politicians take on political crowds rather than other politicians, it usually ends badly. Hillary Clinton had to apologize for calling Mr. Trump’s supporters “deplorables.” After first bashing the women’s march on Twitter, even Mr. Trump had to praise the demonstrators.

There’s another reason for believing that protests could prove effective against Mr. Trump’s policies: The protesters seem to drive him crazy. Mr. Trump is enamored of crowds. Throughout the campaign, he and his surrogates argued that the polls were rigged, and that his large rallies suggested there was a growing tide of support for his candidacy. The crowds, in other words, became the whole ballgame. They were the only reality that mattered. If he won the crowd, he’d win the election.

Now Mr. Trump faces the same dynamic, in reverse. The crowds at his inauguration were supposed to certify his popularity. When they fizzled, and were then outmatched by opposition protests, he couldn’t help relitigating the matter for days.

Things haven’t gotten better. Now there are crowds on every screen and every feed. The people aren’t saying nice things about him. And there’s something worse than that, too: They’ve stolen the limelight for themselves.