WASHINGTON — As many as 1.5 million people flooded the National Mall in Washington, D.C. this past weekend after Donald Trump called for an armed defense of his presidency, which now appears to be in total collapse. But the marchers weren’t brandishing weapons. Instead, their bold, colorful signs made clear that they had come not to rescue Trump, but to “surround hate and force it to surrender,” as a banner held in front of the Washington Monument declared.
In a now-infamous series of tweets last week, shortly after he disappeared from public view, Trump implored his “big beautiful base” to “vote with your trigger finger” and “show up like you did on Inauguration Day, ready to fight for your favorite president.” A handful of Trump supporters heeded the call. Four were arrested on weapons possession charges. Others watched glumly as counter-protesters stretched for blocks in every direction.
By day’s end, it was clear that Trump’s would-be civil war had failed miserably. The peaceful demonstration in Washington was one of more than 800 around the United States over the weekend, in what is being called the largest day of protest ever in American history. In D.C. and ten other U.S. cities, the massive protests included impromptu nonviolent blockades of Twitter offices, making it impossible for employees to return to work Monday until Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey relented and suspended @realDonaldTrump for violating Twitter’s prohibition against incitements to violence.
As remarkable as the demonstrations were, experts on political violence were even more struck by what didn’t happen: any significant response by Trump’s supporters to his call to action. “Armed uprising was a fantasy of Trump’s from the start,” said Kate Barry, a Thomas Paine University professor and political violence expert. “As more and more of the country turned against him, it became more and more clear that Trump’s endgame was violence from his most loyal base, or at least the threat of it. But the threat proved completely empty.”
Back in 2017, Trump and Fox News had begun referring to the “violent left” shortly after the NRA issued ads with barely veiled calls for violence against protesters. Some analysts warned that Trump was grooming his base for violence in case of an impeachment or other threat to his presidency.
Yet the rag-tag groups of armed Trump supporters who did show up on the National Mall were quickly surrounded by much larger groups of Trump opponents, who used classic de-escalation techniques to neutralize the messages of hate. “So many people had attended nonviolent direct action trainings this spring that they knew exactly what to do,” said Khadijah Blaine, who was part of an informal team who offered free trainings many weeknights and every weekend in D.C.’s Lafayette Park during the past month.
Barry believes that one of the reasons Trump’s call mainly fell flat is that his supporters had already heard a more positive message. “Thanks to widespread attention to the “Bundle,” Trump’s base had begun hearing the siren song of progressive solutions, and nobody was tying them to the mast of Trump’s crazy ship,” Barry said, referring to a scene in the ancient Greek epic poem, the Odyssey. “Xenophobia and fear-mongering didn’t work as well once real alternatives were on the table.”
“It takes a village to commit mass murder,” Barry said. “And Trump’s village no longer exists.”
The threat of public humiliation also had its effect. One Trump supporter who had briefly considered responding to Trump’s call for armed insurrection, and who requested anonymity, explained that he learned from the response to the Bundy militia’s 2016 takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “When they called for reinforcement, people just mailed them dildoes,” the Trump supporter explained. “Those Bundy guys became the laughingstock of the nation. I’ve never wanted to be a clown, so it felt like time to try something new.”