Trolling Trump: How viral visual taunts have changed protest in nation’s capital

An hour before dawn on Oct. 6, Robby Diesu directed a trailer onto the Mall near the Washington Monument. At a spot with a good sightline to the White House, he and a small crew set up a 160-square-foot video screen, hooked it to a laptop and hit play.

What ran on the screen for the next 12 hours was a relentless Jumbotron rewind of Donald Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape,” the hot-mic remarks that had roiled the 2016 campaign one year earlier — complete with audio and subtitles.

The three minutes of vulgarity-laced chatter (“Grab them by the p—y. You can do anything.”) looped over and over through the day, within view of the West Wing and well beyond, thanks to countless mentions in the mainstream news media and on social media. Dozens of onlookers posted their own videos of the video with the White House in the background.

“The point of actions is to create conflict with your target, and the target here is the president of the United States being a sexual predator,” said Diesu, a professional protest organizer with the DC Action Lab.

This is Washington protest in the age of Trump, when public actions increasingly combine performance art and catchy visuals to toss a made-to-go-viral insult straight at the president. It is trolling as dissent.

In the year since Trump won, activists have expanded the age-old Washington reliables of marches and rallies with more-unconventional ploys: queer dance parties, high-wire banner stunts, animated graffiti projected onto the walls of Trump’s Washington hotel. In volume and style, the digital age and the president’s own pugilistic instincts have created a unique moment in movements.

“There was outrage against [Richard] Nixon and against [Lyndon] Johnson, but those protests were mostly against policy,” said Michael Kazin, a historian of social movements at Georgetown University. “Now the focus is to a great extent on the president’s personality. They are responding to his own way of attacking people by attacking him.”

Even traditional protests seek a visually viral taunt. The Women’s March, which drew hundreds of thousands to the Mall a day after Trump’s inauguration, was forever branded by the thousands of hand-knit pink triangular hats worn as a defiant symbol of Trump’s “grab them” comment.

A towering inflatable chicken with Trumpian Orange hair made an appearance outside the White House in August (get yours on eBay for $498). After the president announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord in June, Diesu helped sneak dozens of protesters into the lobby of Trump International Hotel, where, at 7 a.m., they pulled out alarm clocks and air horns to “wake up” guests to the dangers of global warming.

The hotel, emblazoned with the president’s name, has emerged as a second White House, one without fences and Secret Service agents. Pedestrians have been known to shout “Shame!” at diners at the hotel’s sidewalk tables. Marchers frequently end the day by dumping their signs at the hotel door. And D.C. artist Robin Bell has projected animated jeers onto the building, including “Pay Trump bribes here” and “The president of the United States is a known racist and a Nazi sympathizer.”

The video screen on the Mall was the brainchild of UltraViolet, a national women’s advocacy group that wanted to remind people about Trump’s remarks, which he later described as “foolish” and dismissed as “locker-room talk.”

The group often tries to reach Trump in a way that gets under his famously thin skin, said chief campaigns officer Karin Roland. The group once purchased a 30-second ad in West Palm Beach, Fla., while Trump was staying at his Mar-a-Lago resort. The commercial — which aired during “Saturday Night Live” — displayed numbers showing that access to abortion polls more favorably than Trump does.

As the anniversary of The Washington Post’s publication of the “Access Hollywood” tape approached, Ultraviolet considered planning a large rally or march but ultimately decided that loudly recycling Trump’s own words would be more powerful.

“One of the reasons trolling him is so valuable strategically is that he does react to it,” Roland said. “You can influence the latest thing he says on Twitter or what he says by getting in his Twitter feed or on the shows that he watches.”

As many liberal activists do, UltraViolet contacted DC Action Lab, which has helped plan about 75 anti-Trump actions since his election last November. Diesu, who can quote National Park Service and Secret Service regulations by heart and is on a first-name basis with many of the officers who patrol the protests, advised Roland on where to park the screen, applied for the permit and rented the equipment. (The same screen was used outside Nationals Park that night to show a Washington Nationals playoff game.)

Other protests take a guerrilla approach. In January, Greenpeace sent seven climbers up a 30-story construction crane to unfurl a 70-foot “Resist” banner that, visually, seemed to hang directly over the White House. It was an image the activists knew would be irresistible as a media meme.

“With the framing of that image, we controlled our own message,” said James Brady, a District-based Greenpeace activist. “It was not possible to re-caption that photo.”

Two days before the inauguration, a dancing flash mob of up to 200 convened near Vice President Pence’s temporarily rented home in Washington, filling the streets with Beyoncé’s music, biodegradable glitter and rainbow banners.

“It’s a way for the queer community to occupy space and say we are here,” said Firas Nasr, who has organized what he calls queer dance parties in front of the White House, the Trump hotel, and the homes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.

The diverse modes of protest have given activists a larger variety of options to keep up with a sometimes-exhausting variety of controversies coming out of the Trump administration. A coalition of groups opposed to the president’s proposed ban on U.S. entry by citizens of several majority-Muslim countries decided last week that a conventional rally with speakers and signs near the White House would be the most attractive for the families and elderly protesters the organizers hoped to attract from across the country.

“A traditional rally is the most comfortable,” said Noor Mir, a DC Action Lab member who organized a gathering at Lafayette Square that drew a crowd to within a block of the White House. “It tends to be the best for folks that are only here for a few hours to protest.”

In September, though, Mir consulted on a splashier demonstration. Immigration advocates — angered when the administration canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — set up an enormous paper effigy of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then gleefully knocked it over as if he were a deposed dictator.

The new age of protesting has been good for the old art of protest-puppet making.

“It’s always been the case: A picture is worth a thousand words, and a puppet is worth a thousand times that,” said Nadine Bloch, the Takoma Park, Md., resident who made the ersatz Sessions and who has been one of Washington’s go-to makers of protest puppets since the Reagan era. “And if you can roll it down the street, smash it, it can be worth 1,000 times more.”

And if one of those makes the presidential Twitter feed, consider Trump trolled.

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