Trumpism as Protest Movement

It is clear that Donald Trump is not a republican and his followers are not republicans, though many republicans have tagged along hoping for some benefit–e.g., lower taxes, deregulation. Trumpism fits, though imperfectly, Luhmann’s description of a protest movement, a protest movement that accidentally congealed around a xenophobic, sexist, mentally unstable demagogue. In the section on Protest Movements in Theory of Society, vol. 2, Luhmann writes,

The rise rather than fall of protest movements probably has to do with the switch of society to functional differentiation. Following Talcott Parsons, we can assume that there is a link between greater differentiation and greater generalization of the symbolic basis, especially “values,” on which society seeks to formulate its unity. But what happens if generalized values can no longer be accommodated in differentiated society? If, although formulated and recognized, they are inadequately realized? It seems that social movements are in search of an answer to this problem, and that this answer takes the form of another paradox, finding expression in protest by society (and not just single actors or specific interests) against society. . . .

Our point of departure is . . . the observation that protest movements are to be understood neither as organizational systems not as interactive systems.

They are not organizations because they do not organize decisions, but motives, commitments, ties. They seek to bring into the system what an organization presupposes and mostly has to pay for: membership motivation. . . Unlike organizations, they have infinite need of personnel. If we were to understand protest movements as organizations (or as emerging organizations), they would display a long list of deficient characteristics: they are heterarchical not hierarchical, polycentric, structured as networks, and above all, they have no control over the process of their own change. . . .

The socialist movement of the nineteenth century . . . was . . . capable of organization, indeed of theory. For today’s “new” social movements, the situation is different. They have to do with strongly individualized individuals. . . .

Their potential for recruitment is based on the considerable weakening of the importance of affiliation . .  .

The unity of the system of protest movement arises from its form, from protest. With the form of protest, it becomes apparent that, although participants seek political influence, they do not do so in normal ways. This eschewal of the normal channels of influence is also intended to show that the matter at issue is urgent, profound, and general, so that it cannot be processed in the usual fashion. Although protest movements proceed from within society–otherwise it would not be communication–it proceeds as if it were from without. It considers itself to be (the good) society, which does not, however, mean that it would protest against itself. It expresses itself from a sense of responsibility for society but against it. This does not, of course, hold true for all the concrete goals of these movements; but through the form of protest and the willingness to deploy stronger means if protest is not heeded, these movements differ from efforts at reform.

This last sentence is important. The protest movement, as a social system, is not interested in reforming what it sees as an irredeemable society. Trump’s hard-core followers (and they are followers, not supporters in the traditional sense) want a revolution, and they are hoping Trump gives it do them. But if he can’t do it (Even if he wins, politics alone can’t revolutionize society), his followers will look for other ways to overturn society.

Politics can play around with trade agreements, immigration policy, industry regulation, taxes, etc., but that alone isn’t going to change the global economy. Nor can politics prevent women and ethnic minorities from accessing the education system and gaining social power.

Also, all the talk of a “rigged” election shows that this isn’t normal party politics. This is not a case of the opposition trying to win back the power to govern. Trump and his followers don’t trust the political system; they position themselves outside of politics, protesting against legitimate, “normal politics.” You see this when early Trump supporters, like David Duke, say that Trump isn’t getting enough done because there are too many Jews in his administration (See White Rage: The Extreme Right and American Politics). They want to remain outside the legitimate power structure.

One argument against Trumpism as a protest movement is that Trump’s supporters voted in an election; they used traditional, legal means to protest the status quo. Also, not everyone who voted for Trump was a hardcore supporter; they were just republicans. Thus, we can distinguish between Trump supporters who trust normal politics and those who don’t–the latter being part of a protest movement.


  1. “With the form of protest, it becomes apparent that, although participants seek political influence(…)”
    Why is that, why does that become apparat because of its form?
    I don’t think protest wants political influence, when I look at protest communications, they want to change something, and most of the time they are directed to politics because that’s the most easy way to get things done (they think, functional differentiation thinks differently).
    So I think, isn’t saying that participants seek political influence, a sort of normative point of view?


    1. I also don’t agree that the Trump-people can be observed as a protest movement. You have the government, the opposition, and then the protest movement. The latter wants to achive its goals, if they have to govern, they have to compromise. They are, in other words much harder than the opposition.
      Next to that, a protest movement protests against the (downfalls) functional differentiation. The latter seeks to a all-inclusion, by protesting functional differentiation, they make the flaws of that attentive (Aufmerksam). That is- according to Luhmann- the big achievment of those movements, performing as a sort of immune-system.
      That is also the reason why system theory can be a lot more extreme than critical theory, protest movements in the systemtheory sense don’t protest against a decline of democrcy, or institutions that aren’t democratic enough. No, they let the functional differentiation think that there is something “wrong” with the institution in the current semantics an sich, or shows the flaws of democracy an sich.


      1. Thanks again for the comments. The distinguishing feature of a protest movement, it seems, is that it’s a movement against society from within society. “Although protest movements proceed from within society–otherwise it would not be communication–it proceeds as if it were from without.” When Trump incites violence or implies that he would not object to violence against his opponents and his followers physically attack critics (such as punching an African American man at a rally and saying things like “Light him up!”), this movement is not proceeding in a normal way.

        If you could give me some examples of what you consider a genuine protest movement, it might help me.


      2. When he speaks of protesting against society, I think he speaks of a protest against the self-description of society, in this case the functional differentiation.
        Genuine protest movements would be (from my pov) the green movement or the indignados. They protest against something specifically, for instance the capitalism nowadays, and while protesting, they show the incapacity of the political system to do something about it (because of the consequences of FD).
        That’s the way I look at it.


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