Breaking down the big impeachment rally mystery

Democrats have flooded the streets by the millions to protest Trump before. So why did the protests calling for his removal stay so modest?
Image: Impeachment protest
Despite calls on the left for Democrats to take to the streets en masse to demand Trump’s removal from office, it did not happen on a grand scale.Bebeto Matthews / AP file

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By Lauren Egan

WASHINGTON — It was Dinetta Gilmore’s second impeachment rally within 12 hours.

After joining hundreds of protesters in New York City’s Times Square last month on the eve of the House impeachment vote, the Brooklyn native packed a bag full of homemade “Reclaiming My Country” flags and caught a 2 a.m. bus to make it to Washington in time for the day-of-the-vote rally that morning on Capitol Hill.

“Yes, the fix is in, but that doesn’t mean we roll over and take it,” Gilmore, 60, said then of the likelihood that the Senate would vote to acquit President Donald Trump. Still, she — and others like her — reluctantly acknowledged that the crowd, peppered with pro-impeachment signs and gathered outside lawmakers’ offices, was smaller than they'd hoped for.

“At least it's a statement,” said John LaBrecque, a retiree from West Palm Beach, Florida, who was visiting Washington on the day of the impeachment vote. But “I was hoping there would be many more people here. Last night, I was watching the protests and there were moderate crowds, but it is nothing like the Hong Kong protests.”

It was a turnout that paled in comparison to other Trump-era protests such as the Women’s March or the March for Our Lives, which drew millions of demonstrators to the streets.

Despite calls on the left for Democrats to take to the streets en masse to demand Trump’s removal from office, it did not happen on a grand scale either before the House impeachment vote or following it — amid the continued delay as the year began that seemed to throw the process itself in doubt.

The continued absence of large-scale protests at every stage of the process to date has been particularly noticeable when compared to recent demonstrations occurring around the world demanding political change, from Hong Kong to France to Chile.

Activists and scholars say that the lack of splashy protests shutting down the streets of Washington has not been a sign of disengagement or apathy towards Trump remaining in office, but a symptom of a Democratic base that is focused on working within the political system and mobilizing voters to elect Democrats up and down the ballot in the 2020 election.

“If you really want to try and pressure people to impeach him, this is not the way to do it,” said Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and the author of "American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave."

Thousands of protesters turned out the evening before the House vote at more than 600 different rallies across the country — from the chilly march in New York City to a celebrity-dotted demonstration in Los Angeles — according to organizers of the “Nobody is Above the Law” events, with most rallies averaging a few hundred people or fewer.

But historically, protest movements rise in intensity and adopt more confrontational tactics over time, when demonstrators’ demands are not met by authorities. That didn't, and hasn't, happened with anti-Trump, pro-impeachment rallies, even as the process stalled to a near-standstill, with protests largely remaining relatively low-key, peaceful and non-confrontational.

“The organizers for these [impeachment] events never wanted it to be disruptive,” Fisher said, arguing that if the goal was to force lawmakers to remove Trump from office, there would have been an escalation in tactics, such as occupying the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington.

There is some consensus about possible contributing factors. Some activists and experts say it may be due in part to the dominant demographics of the "Resistance": educated, suburban, predominantly white women, many of whom were not showing up regularly to pre-Trump political rallies.

“Getting these women to be more confrontational is a heavy lift,” Fisher said, adding that as protests become more disruptive, it can turn some people away. “Organizers’ main goal is to work through electoral channels and the goal is to keep as many constituents engaged and excited. You do not want to turn anybody off.”

Protests also might not have escalated to the level of mass demonstrations or civil unrest due to the coalition of progressive groups that have emerged as leaders since Trump took office. The “Nobody is Above the Law” events, for example, were led by groups such as Move On and Indivisible, organizations born from mainstream politics who have channeled their energy into electoral action.

In interviews with NBC News, leaders of progressive groups pushed back on the idea that impeachment protests have paled in comparison with other anti-Trump events, arguing that the turnout ahead of the House impeachment vote was impressive considering how fluid the timing of that vote was, leaving organizers little time to mobilize demonstrators.

“We couldn’t plan around it and that lends itself to a hyperlocal strategy,” Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of Indivisible said, adding that it is “much easier” for a member of Congress “to dismiss a rally in D.C. than 20 small rallies locally.”

Meanwhile, billionaire Tom Steyer — a vocal proponent of impeachment, who long seemed poised to funnel resources to funding a grassroots effort during the process itself — has instead been focused on his presidential run.

And as the impeachment process itself seemed stalled for weeks somewhere between the House and the Senate, many of those who support it seemed to be waiting as well — seeking an obvious inflection point to focus their energies, or already looking even further down the road.

With the outcome of any Senate trial seemingly in little doubt, and the 2020 election edging nearer, there was already a sense last month that the focus and energy of anti-Trump protesters might be shifting elsewhere, with many who showed up around the country ahead of the House vote saying they viewed the demonstrations as a warning sign to Congress of potential ballot box consequences in 2020.

“Regardless [of the protest turnout], we’re here to show that the people are going to come out hard in November," said Dinetta Gilmore, the day the president was impeached. "And we’re going to take him and the whole GOP with us.”