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Menace and Cringe
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Menace and Cringe

The bad romance of countercultural protests.

A sign on display at the student pro-Palestinian "Gaza Solidarity Encampment" on the West Lawn of Columbia University on April 24, 2024, in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Donald Trump has protest envy.

On Tuesday he addressed the press outside the courtroom where his criminal trial is being held. Why, he wondered, was New York City being so aggressive in keeping his supporters away from the courthouse while pro-Palestinian protesters uptown at Columbia University had their run of the place?

There are a few possible answers.

One is that security is and should be extraordinarily tight around a once and (God help us) future president at a moment as fraught as his trial, when his whereabouts are known to all and political passions are running hot. Another is that the last time he called for his supporters to gather and “peacefully” protest an alleged injustice being committed against him, it … did not go well. Go figure that the city might take precautions to prevent goons in MAGA hats from trying to break into the courtroom and hang the judge like they almost did Mike Pence.

The reality, however, is that—as usual—what Trump is claiming isn’t true.

A park right across the street from the courthouse has been set aside for his fans to demonstrate. Despite his best efforts to turn Lower Manhattan into a circus, they simply haven’t shown up. Last Friday, with the trial set to begin on Monday, his campaign sent out a fundraising email warning that there were “72 hours until all hell breaks loose.” Three days later, Trump himself urged his supporters to flex their political muscle in a post on Truth Social: “GO OUT AND PEACEFULLY PROTEST. RALLY BEHIND MAGA. SAVE OUR COUNTRY!”


Maybe MAGA diehards have learned to avoid protests since January 6, either because they fear prosecution or because they’ve been convinced that any rally of Trumpists with the potential for mayhem must be a false-flag operation organized by the Deep State. Or it may be a simpler matter of Trump’s base skewing much older than the average demonstrator at Columbia: Skipping out on class to protest is one thing, skipping out on paid employment to do so is quite another.

Or, perhaps, more Republicans than we realize are so checked out from Trump’s trials that his cries for support are falling on deaf ears. Their favorite news outlets aren’t covering the subject intensively, probably calculating that news of his criminal jeopardy hurts him more than it helps him now that the general election campaign has begun. The whole point of right-wing media at this point is to gatekeep information to serve Trump’s needs; the wrinkle this time is that Trump himself doesn’t seem to agree with their assessment of what his needs are.

Whatever the reason that his supporters aren’t showing up for him, their absence appears to have given him a terrible case of protest envy.

But it shouldn’t. He should be grateful that they’re not emulating the scene at Columbia. Because, as almost always happens when countercultural movements get restless, what’s happening there and at other universities across the nation is plainly doing the underlying cause more harm than good.

The MAGA movement doesn’t overlap much with the campus Palestinian movement (yet) but they have this much in common: They’re each prone to menacing their opponents … and each prone to extreme levels of cringe.

Get on the wrong side of either and you might find yourself threatened with death. It’s just that, in some cases, the cause of death is likely to be the intense vicarious embarrassment you feel on their behalf.

The entire Trump era in Republican politics has been a mix of menace and cringe. The supreme example is the 2020 post-election period, which simultaneously presented the greatest threat to the American constitutional order since the Civil War and played out like a comedy of errors by a gaggle of idiots convinced that some sort of Chavista conspiracy had led to the rigging of the country’s voting machines.

When I think of that period, I think of rioters swinging at cops outside the Capitol on January 6—and of Rudy Giuliani inexplicably calling a press conference at a landscaping company or addressing the media with hair dye running down his face.

Menace and cringe. Trump himself is the personification of it. When he hawks a Bible for the low, low price of $60 a pop, you worry about him weaponizing religion for his political ends. But you also laugh and groan that this irrepressible lifelong huckster still can’t say no to making a quick buck, this time on the backs of his fans’ earnest Christian devotion. Ditto for when his evangelical supporters treat him as some sort of divine savior, replete with prophecies about his return to power. How can you laugh at something that ominous? How can you not laugh at something that cringe?

Every popular demagogue will be a blend of the two, I think. The cult of personality that builds around their charisma will inevitably turn menacing toward detractors, which is frightening. But because they’ve been warped by narcissism and the encouragement of yes-men, they tend to come off as ridiculous in their personal affect. Even the less histrionic among them, like Vladimir Putin, can’t resist cringeworthy orchestrated spectacles of his physical prowess.

The Hamas apologists at Columbia don’t belong to a cult of personality, but their movement is also brimming with menace and cringe.

The “menace” part has been amply covered online this week, including by my colleagues at The Morning Dispatch. Jewish students hearing shouts of “The 7th of October is going to be every day for you!” and “Go back to Poland!” might understandably suspect that the “anti-war” faction in their midst isn’t as “anti” as it claims to be. And how could it be? The umbrella groups responsible for pro-Palestinian campus protests have been explicit about their eliminationist ambitions toward Israel. These people, so incensed by the supposed “genocide” that’s taking place, aren’t calling for coexistence between the two sides; they’re demanding the by-any-means-necessary replacement of one by the other.

“Palestine must be free from the river to the sea” is many things—but it ain’t subtle. 

Progressives will tell you that the degree of menace caused by the protests has been exaggerated by Israel’s supporters, possibly to distract from the carnage in Gaza. But the people closest to the action sure do seem to be taking it seriously. Columbia has switched to hybrid learning for the end of the semester to assure everyone’s safety; a rabbi on campus went as far as to encourage Jewish students to go home and stay home until things have calmed down. The NYPD temporarily established a “large presence” around the campus.

The menace from these protests is real. But the vibe is also so, so cringe.

I mean, really:

The spectacle of Ivy League twerps cosplaying as jihadists is so deeply embarrassing that I wonder if the worst punishment these people could face will be having to suffer through the occasional reminder in future years of what they got up to while they were at Columbia.

Many of the protest tactics seen this week are familiar and all the more humiliating for being so. The “tent city” encampment by the aggrieved and unbathed recalls the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 and the “CHAZ” fiasco in Seattle in 2020. The “human chains” being formed to keep interlopers out of the occupied space (“Attention, everyone! We have Zionists who have entered the camp!”) is reminiscent of the Mizzou protests of 2015. A movement that’s serious about convincing the average Joe to take it and its cause seriously would not seek to claim “turf” for itself and then attempt to exclude others from it, as doing so is disruptive and menacing—but it’s also ultra-cringe, as it reeks of juvenile utopian LARPing. What red-blooded American doesn’t instinctively roll their eyes right out of their head at a scene of malcontent college brats setting up their own little commune?

And not just any commune but a commune dedicated to celebrating Hamas’ cause. When a writer at The Atlantic visited Columbia and asked one protester what she thought would happen to the Jews of Israel if she and her comrades ever got their “from the river to the sea” wish, she replied, “Maybe Israelis need to check their privilege.” Which is remarkably menacing in its callousness.

But also so cringe that I can’t read it without blushing.

The ultimate symbol of menace and cringe at Columbia right now is the face mask that many protesters are wearing. The COVID pandemic is long over and the demonstrations are happening outdoors, so there’s no need for health precautions. Rather, the masks serve as a sort of tribal totem of “safety” that the left embraced four years ago: “It’s about collective safety, and it’s also about connecting this COVID neglect to the very issues that we’re marching on the DNC for,” one organizer told Semafor about the practice.

But the masks are also useful for the same reason masks have always been useful to outlaws and rebels. They help disguise the wearer’s identity.

Wearing a mask outdoors in 2024 to prevent COVID-19 transmission in the name of “collective safety” is the dictionary definition of cringe. Wearing it because you don’t want to be held accountable by the authorities for actions that you might deserve to be held accountable for is menacing.

And here’s the thing about menace and cringe: As persuasion tactics, they’re not very effective, are they?

That’s a trick question of sorts. Neither Trump’s movement nor the Hamas fan club at Columbia is trying to persuade anyone.

Trump is so disinclined toward persuasion that he won’t even reach out to disgruntled voters in his own party. Instead, his lackeys in the populist establishment vow to “eradicate” them from the GOP.

Many pro-Palestinian activists are so disinclined toward persuasion that they embrace tactics that they surely must realize will alienate many more people than they attract. To quote Democratic Sen. John Fetterman, “If you show up in a Starbucks with a bullhorn and start yelling at people, that doesn’t make you noble—it just makes you an a–hole.”

Both movements are fundamentally countercultural and so their tactics tend toward disruption and insurrection, not persuasion. They hope to smash and ultimately replace the systems they oppose, which leaves them prone to menacing their opponents. Those opponents can’t be reasoned with, many would tell you, and so more aggressive forms of pressure are needed to force political change.

Countercultural political movements will always incline toward menace, I think, unless they explicitly renounce it as a tactic. The American civil rights movement of the 1960s famously renounced violence in the belief that doing so would gain it the moral high ground and ultimately the sympathy of undecideds against segregationist forces that would—and did—resort to menace to try to stop it.

But the civil rights movement wasn’t truly countercultural. Its goal was to build support among the wider public and work within the political system to pass laws that would protect the rights of African Americans, not to smash the system entirely. As passionate as it was about its cause, I wouldn’t call it romantic: It was coldly strategic about its means and ends and demanded self-discipline from its supporters.

Trump’s movement and the Hamas campus movement are romantic movements. They attract people who find inspiration in undoing their enemies, not winning them over. They each work within the system to a degree: Trump ran for elected office, of course, and pro-Palestinian progressives are keen for Joe Biden to know that they won’t be voting for him this fall. But the “go back to Poland!” crowd isn’t ultimately interested in negotiating with Israel about the borders of a Palestinian state, just like Trump isn’t ultimately interested in serving a lame-duck second term in which he gets nothing done.

Both seem open to what we might call “extraordinary measures” to advance their agendas in a way that the civil rights movement was not, which is menacing.

It also guarantees that they’ll attract supporters whom we might politely call … cringe.

College activists are inherently cringe. Their political passions grossly outstrip their knowledge of the world and their youthful idealism encourages them to equate radicalism with personal virtue. Unless you sympathize deeply with their cause, it’s impossible to take them seriously. They’re romantic fools with too much time on their hands; most of them will leave their college activism behind as just another “phase” they went through.

But all of that makes them obvious recruits for the radical chic of the “from the river to the sea” crowd.

Trump’s movement attracts a different sort of cringe. By definition, a countercultural populist movement will appeal to an unusual degree to the fringes of society. And the more it depends on that fringe for political support, the more that fringe will expect the movement to take seriously some of their fringier norms and beliefs.

Hysterical anti-vaxxism, QAnon, knee-jerk conspiracy-theorizing about every political setback: Each of these is exceedingly cringe but it was inevitable that Trump’s movement would be filthy with all of it. His politics and personal style promised a dramatic break with the way government has traditionally been conducted in America and disaffected fringers were drawn to that promise. Marjorie Taylor Greene is the ne plus ultra of the phenomenon, having gone from a kook on Facebook to a member of Congress in a few short years without shedding most of her kooky beliefs. No one in government is more cringeworthy, yet few hold more sway over grassroots Republican opinion.

If you doubt the degree to which cringe has infected Trump’s GOP, pour a stiff drink and watch this:

It’s no coincidence, I think, that when Tucker Carlson isn’t busy musing about aliens he’s one of the more sinister nationalist demagogues in media. His political cause writ large is to convince the American right that enemies of the Western liberal order, not its champions, rightly deserve their sympathy. That’s why he’s forever running interference for Putinist Russia and, of late, accusing the Jewish state of persecuting Christians. He’s an apologist for some of the most menacing people on the planet.

But don’t forget that Tucker’s also the guy who did segments about testicle tanning in his old gig at Fox. This is what it means to go all-in on countercultural politics: When you resolve to challenge the conventional wisdom about everything, you end up challenging the conventional wisdom about … everything. And before you know it, you’re mumbling about aliens under the sea and hooking your scrotum up to a UV light.

Which is some serious cringe.

And so we’re left with the split screen in Manhattan, where the story of a makeshift shanty town erected by snot-nosed Jew-baiters is playing out alongside the saga of a coup-plotting cult leader who can’t convince his disciples to take a day off work and protest for him. Extremely disturbing—and laughably silly. That’s our politics all around now.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.