By Soon Park
This is a special phase in the history of the United States, one characterized by threat. Yet, the dynamics of threat are playing out a bit differently now than in the recent past. How so? A short answer: it’s about a clear and focused target for mobilization. To elaborate on that, I will first briefly discuss the concept of threat with an emphasis on how we arrived here. Then, I will consider how threat is important for both activists and observers, how the Trump-era is changing our treatment of threat, and how a historical case from East Asia helps us understand the current situation in the U.S.
Challengers as well as incumbents in contentious politics assess their political environment—some more systematically than others. Both opportunity and threat are constructed by activists and other claims-makers. But, opportunity, which refers to an “opening” in the political system, has been the primary type of political assessment that scholars have noted, particularly when we study social movements and protests in the United States and Western Europe. On the other hand, threat has often been not treated as a distinctive concept. For some, it was lack of opportunity (e.g., Kadivar 2013; Rasler 1996) and, for others, it was risk or “the cost that a social group will incur from protest” (Goldstone and Tilly 2001:183). To sum up, threat was often explained by already available concepts such as risk, repression, and opportunities. It is a more recent trend that we started to treat it more distinctively—as the real or perceived consequences of inaction (see Almeida 2003).
For activists, a critical part of the task in mobilization is to define an appropriate scope of constructed consequences and a target to which you attribute the causes of those consequences. You don’t want to blame multiple targets for too many problems because a large part of your audience may not be able to instantly make a link between two. In an award-winning study Latino Mass Mobilization, Zepeda-Millán (2017:12) explains that “[w]hen threats emerge from multiple sources, discerning responsibility for their consequences becomes more difficult. The time and resources necessary for addressing threats that lack a single focal point also dilute the impact of activists’ oppositional efforts.” In his case, the mobilization targeted the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Act of 2005, a specific type of policy threat that originated from a single source (Congress), but could possibly affect millions of Latinos and other minority groups. Likewise, threat is usually constructed within well-defined social and political domains. Other examples of the role of threat in mobilization include mobilization in communities at risk in opposition to environmentally dangerous energy projects (McAdam and Boudet 2012), reactive movements (van Dyke and Soule 2002), or campaigns against welfare privatization (Reese et al. 2005).
These arguments make sense. But then, along came President Trump. His election, and presidency, has been an unmistakable and dangerous signal for many segments of this society. We have observed many episodes of mobilization that responded to the threat posed by this particular election result. Sometimes, protest is launched in response to his administration’s policy and is therefore focused on a particular issue area, e.g., detention of immigrant children. But, the President is bringing quite an unfamiliar dynamic of contentious politics to the people in the U.S. He, as the most powerful state agent, clearly understands that the mainstream media is a threat to his agenda and perspective. (Challengers, on the other hand, seem less clear about a threat he poses on democracy.) Authoritarian leaders typically use executive power to influence the media in their favor—e.g., appointing ideologically-aligned personnel for positions of influence on the state-sponsored media. While Trump cannot do that in this capitalist-dominated media environment, he persistently uses his executive platforms for promoting the public’s distrust of media. He may be successful to some extent. But, more importantly, he is building a clearer line of conflict across the country. This type of society-wide construction of lines of conflict is usually found in societies with authoritarian states (not in the ones with a political leader with authoritarian characteristics). So, let us look at the dynamics of threat in an authoritarian setting.
Here I draw on the historical example of South Korea in the 1980s. When a fault line is clearly built in authoritarian societies, a movement for democracy thrives (especially when the civil society has at least some level of organizational strengths). In Korea, a movement for democracy failed in 1980 with the repression of the Kwangju Uprising. Activists reflected upon this failed attempt and reached the conclusion that the military regime would not voluntarily give a way to a civilian government (although that was a promise of a general-turned-president). In other words, they saw a possible and grave consequence of inaction—a military regime that never ends. This allowed them to act despite high risks. The Youth Association for Democratic Movement, a cultural equivalent to SNCC in the Civil Rights Movement in my view, stated: “We need to strengthen our organizations in each sector [e.g., students, laborers] and prepare for the setbacks that will come for sure” (my translation). Their somber realization that repression is a matter of time, rather than something they can avoid, is striking. This political assessment explains why they launched a series of brief but notable protest events even in the highly repressive period between 1980 and 1983, which helped build alliances and solidarity among civil society groups. The mobilization in this phase (1980-1984) was not as visible as in 1987. But, along with the cultural mechanisms of memory work and framing, threat construction helped the movement recruit, and therefore set the groundwork for the later stage of mass mobilization. Ultimately, the public aligned their view with the once-radical perspective that demanded the end of a dictatorial regime in 1987.
Trump is an elected President, and protest alone is unlikely to unseat him. However, his presidency gives activists a clear and focused target against which to organize a movement. This goes beyond the specifics of his policies. Whether it is a Supreme Court nominee or a draconian immigration policy, he constantly reminds people of where the threat is coming from. In a sense, he is building a wall against a large section of his people. We will continue to see episodes of mobilization and possibly their impacts on elections.