President Trump has finally taken public notice of the protests in Hong Kong, tweeting that President Xi “is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people ” and that “If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem. I have no doubt!”
Blithely, or perhaps intentionally, unaware of the fact that Hongkongers are protesting for more freedom and independence from Communist China, Trump believes the solution to the problem is a meeting between Dear Leader Xi and those he ignorantly considers to be Xi’s loyal subjects.
Other Americans have had a different reaction to the pictures and videos of millions of Hongkongers standing up to the Chinese government, putting their lives on the line to fight for democracy.
But while these images have inspired me, they have also left me disappointed and at times, even angry, at my fellow Americans.
Seeing the courage of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, I can’t help but question the resolve, the commitment, and the values of my own countrymen, myself included. What have we done to secure our own democracy? What have we risked? What have we sacrificed? The answer is very little.
In a recent essay, To Take Down Trump, Take to the Streets, The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey describes the recent success of sustained, non-violent protests throughout the world in confronting repressive governments, including in Algeria, Sudan, and Hong Kong, and he asks why we haven’t seen similar movements here in America in opposition to Trump. (Dickey notes we have seen such sustained protests in Puerto Rico regarding its governor.)
Trying to answer his own question, he puts forward a series of possible explanations for the lack of momentum in the anti-Trump resistance, from a lack of passion to “a hint of sloth and even of cowardice.” One of his Twitter followers suggested that “things really aren’t so bad under Trump, and most people don’t see any reason to remove him…”
Although these answers contain some truth, each misses the larger point. The main reason why the anti-Trump resistance has been so ineffective—incapable of fielding protests day after day and week after week—is because it doesn’t know what it’s fighting for. There is no unifying set of principles that might sustain marches, rallies, and protests over the course of months and years. In fact, the anti-Trump resistance, more than anything else, is an umbrella of different issues, causes, and policy positions held by a host of disparate political factions.
Hongkongers fight for democracy. Algerians fight for democracy. Sudanese fight for democracy. Russians fight for democracy. What do Americans fight for? Well, it’s a long list that includes common sense gun laws, effective climate change policy, LGBTQ rights, affordable health care and education, criminal justice reform, the humane treatment of migrants, among many others. What’s notably missing from this list is, of course, democracy itself. (Fighting for equality or against white supremacy is the closest thing we have to a unifying message.)
To be sure, the foreign “pro-democracy” movements named above all started with specific issues and grew into mass protests that included many grievances. But over time, those grievances have been subsumed under a pro-democracy banner. The same thing has not happened here, although the activist Amy Siskind on Aug. 11 announced a “We The People March” for Sept. 21 in DC.
There is a small group of academic types, Never Trumpers, and Democratic activists who see Trump for what he is: an authoritarian who seeks to undermine our democracy in order to keep himself in power. This doesn’t mean that he isn’t also a corrupt, ignorant, white supremacist or that his corruption, ignorance, and white supremacy aren’t important elements of his authoritarianism. Rather that the existential threat we face as a nation from Trump and his allies is that they seek to take our democracy away from us by cementing Republicans in minority rule through a combination of gerrymandering, voter suppression, a rigged Census, and the continued election assistance of the Russian government.
It is as simple as that and yet, it is the crucial point that the vast majority of my fellow Americans have largely missed. Indeed, upon reflection is there really any doubt that Trump and the Republican Party have abandoned all but the pretense of democracy as a governing principle?
What unifies and fuels the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is a thirst for freedom and for self-rule. It is what motivated many of the two million Hongkongers, or about ¼ of the population, to participate in a protest in June. It is what has sustained those protests both before and after, including recently “[m]ore than a thousand HKers sing[ing] Les Miserables' 'Do you hear the people sing?' at HK international airport with their calls for free election and democracy.” Can you imagine anything like this happening in America today? I can’t.
To be sure, since Trump’s election, we have seen several mass marches, including, as Dickey’s article mentions, “the Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018 and the March for our Lives after the Parkland school shooting.” And we all remember the protests and outpouring of support for Muslim immigrants at airports throughout the country after the first travel ban.
However, the very fact the most notable acts of resistance since Election Day 2016 have not been explicitly pro-democracy says a lot, especially when you consider that Trump won the presidency with the welcomed help of the Russian government and then obstructed Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election. And if you aren’t convinced, just look at the polls. In a CNN poll before the release of the Mueller report, zero percent of respondents said the Russia investigation was the most important issue for their 2020 vote. Voters are focused far more on the economy, or immigration, or health care than they are on attacks on our democracy.
Unlike the Hongkongers or our founders, for that matter, who suffered under the tyranny of King George III, we fundamentally don’t know what we’re fighting for. In part, this is because unlike those who live without freedom and yearn to taste it, we take our democracy for granted. Most of us have only known an America and a world that is free, peaceful, and prosperous, and we assume that will always be the case. But if history, even modern history, is any guide, we are wrong to make such cavalier assumptions.
I hope we realize what is at stake before it is too late and come together to fight for our birthright as Americans: freedom and self-rule. If we do, just like those brave Hongkongers who march against the mighty Chinese regime, there is nothing that can stop us.