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Democrats may not be able to capitalize on anti-Trump movement

Protesters assemble at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, after earlier in the day two Iraqi refugees were detained while trying to enter the country. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Thousands of demonstrators who turned out at airports across the country this weekend in opposition to President Donald Trump’s ban on immigration from several Muslim-majority countries may represent the start of an organized anti-Trump resistance movement, but the president stands to gain from the conflict in some ways too.

Top Democratic politicians joined protesters in some cities, speaking passionately against executive orders signed by Trump Friday that temporarily halted acceptance of Syrian refugees and blocked immigration and travel visa approval for people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

“We must stand as witness, we must stand as resistors, we must stand in opposition to what others are trying to do to violate the law, the constitution and our values,” Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., told a crowd gathered at Dulles International Airport Sunday.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., led protesters in chants at Logan Airport in Boston, and several members of Congress posted pictures on Twitter of themselves trying to get information from customs officials at their local airports.

The hasty and hectic implementation of the orders left travelers and immigration officers unsure how to proceed. Green card holders and legal residents were detained and denied entry for hours, even after a federal judge ruled against the Trump administration on Saturday night.

Trump brushed off the protests Monday and showed no indication that he is reconsidering the policy.

“Only 109 people out of 325,000 were detained and held for questioning. Big problems at airports were caused by Delta computer outage, protesters and the tears of Senator Schumer. Secretary Kelly said that all is going well with very few problems. MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN!” he tweeted.

Despite the uproar, Trump and his aides insist the order was very successful and few people were affected. Trump advisors have claimed that it was necessary to implement the order quickly to protect the American people, but critics have questioned how the ban actually accomplishes that.

This was the second weekend straight in which Americans took to the streets in large numbers to take a stand against the newly inaugurated president. Last Saturday, hundreds of thousands in D.C. and other cities marched to support women’s rights.

According to Michael Heaney, author of “Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11” and a professor at the University of Michigan, there are several ways to measure the success of these demonstrations.

One is media coverage, which the events have clearly attracted, and another is the reaction they inspire from politicians. In addition to drawing in people like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Booker and Warren, Heaney pointed to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo overruling a Port Authority decision to shut down the AirTrain bringing protesters to JFK Airport.

“That’s a pretty high-profile ally,” he said.

Another measure will be whether the protests affect Trump administration policy or pressure them to backtrack. Press Secretary Sean Spicer aggressively downplayed the impact of the orders at a briefing Monday.

It is too soon to tell whether the protests can develop into a lasting movement that endures through Trump’s presidency and possibly beyond it.

“The challenge here is to not just delay this executive order or rewrite this executive order, but to create a real opposition to the immigration policies of the Trump administration,” Heaney said.

Former President Barack Obama applauded the protests in a statement Monday.

"President Obama is heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country. In his final official speech as president, he spoke about the important role of citizen and how all Americans have a responsibility to be the guardians of our democracy -- not just during an election but every day," Kevin Lewis, Obama's spokesman, said.

Jason Del Gandio, author of “Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists,” expects similar demonstrations to continue in the weeks ahead as long as Trump attempts to fulfill his controversial campaign promises.

“If he keeps going through with his policies, I don’t see any reason people wouldn’t protest,” said Del Gandio, an assistant professor in the department of strategic communication at Temple University.

Trump was elected without a majority of the popular vote and he entered office with the lowest approval ratings for a new president in recent history, so it was predictable that his actions would be met with a pushback. The scale of that pushback may be surprising, though.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is leading lawsuits against the administration over the new immigration orders, told CNN Monday that it received $24 million in online donations over the weekend from more than 356,000 people.

Normally, the organization gets about $4 million in online donations per year.

Even if protests fail to immediately change Trump’s policies, they could have long-term benefits for many of the politicians and organizations involved.

For the immigrants and refugees affected, the upside is the national attention drawn to their plight and the pressure protests place on Republicans to speak out against their own president.

Democratic lawmakers who flocked to these events may be looking to ride the wave of anti-Trump resentment to reelection or a 2020 presidential campaign. According to Del Gandio, the challenge for Democrats like Booker and Warren will be “speaking the language of the movement.”

“They have to speak to the kind of issues that the protest or the movement is trying to take on,” he said.

Democratic strategist Matt McDermott said the protests have helped change the way the party’s leaders position themselves against Trump.

“Senate Democrats are quickly realizing that not only are they well positioned to act as a vocal, and unrelenting, opposition to Trump, but in fact the American people are demanding it of them,” he said.

Aligning with the protests may also give Democrats an opening to capitalize on a level of media attention that their own political events rarely get.

“As we saw throughout the 2016 campaign, there are very few things that can steer media coverage away from Trump. Over the past week, it's become clear that protests uniquely can,” McDermott said.

Translating support for the movement into support for themselves can be difficult, though, and it remains unclear whether any of the current crop of Democratic leaders can pull it off.

“The truth of the matter is only a small number of people in the world have the political skill to do that,” Heaney said.

Even as Democrats seek a boost with their base, the protests might help Trump shore up his position with his. Trump senior policy adviser Stephen Miller told CBS News if White House policies were not generating protests, “then you’re probably not doing anything that matters.”

Trump supporters interviewed by media outlets have largely shrugged off the controversy over the orders, and they may want to see their president stand up to liberal protesters trying to block his agenda. Some polls have also shown his immigration policies have a stronger base of support than his opponents want to admit, including voters favoring the suspension of immigration from “terror prone regions” by a margin of 48 percent to 42 percent.

According to Del Gandio, Trump voters may rally behind him in the face of criticism.

“His base will now see that he’s under attack and perceive him as a martyr and thus perceive themselves as martyrs… I think the protests will at least in some way embolden Trump’s supporters,” he said.

The protests are highly partisan, Heaney noted, drawing largely from Democrats and Hillary Clinton voters. They may serve as a reminder for Republicans of the opportunity the GOP has to reshape government policy under Trump.

“It does energize his base because he’s actually doing the things he said he was going to do,” Heaney said.

So far, there has not been a strong organized response from Republicans to these protests. McDermott predicted that will need to change as the opposition movement grows.

“Moving forward, if they cannot find a way to harness the voices of their supporters in an equally powerful way, they're going to continue losing the messaging war,” he said.

The rate of fundraising the ACLU saw over the weekend will not continue, but it indicates the groundswell of passion and support that advocacy groups can tap into as they launch their four-year battle against Trump.

Progressive groups like MoveOn.org are already planning future demonstrations aimed at Trump’s policies on immigration, health care, and other issues. Their success depends in part on whether Trump’s actions continue to stir controversy and create weekly crises that activists can respond to, according to Heaney.

“It’s harder for activist groups to sustain that opposition because they’re just lacking in resources, and they’re also lacking institutional support,” he said.

Heaney cautioned that one of the failings of the anti-Iraq War movement was that it became so focused on George W. Bush specifically. After he left office, the protests lost purpose even as the conflict in Iraq dragged on. Opposing Trump personally may not be enough to keep activists motivated beyond the end of his term, even if problems with immigration and equality persist.

“If you make the movement all about being against a person, when that person goes, your movement goes too,” he said.

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