This piece is adapted from the new book, Pranksters vs. Autocrats: Why Dilemma Actions Advance Nonviolent Activism.
If you have watched the recent footage from postelection protests in Little Rock or Los Angeles, in Dallas or Detroit, the images are by now familiar. Angry crowds chanting with hatred, huge “Black Lives Matter” signs torn and then burnt in front of an ecstatic mob, violent attacks on people who disagree, police forces under siege or using force to arrest protesters.
This Wednesday, as Congress meets to certify the results of the Electoral College, crowds of alt-right protesters will once again descend on D.C. President Donald Trump, in his ongoing denial of the reality of his election loss, has called for a “wild rally” to take place. Violence is likely.
At the core of this situation is a thorny problem: How best to effectively respond to hate speech, xenophobia, racism, and political extremism? The level of delusion and aggression among “Proud Boys”-style protesters logically triggers a response. In many cases, though, counterprotesters have met the alt-right’s anger with anti-alt-right anger, or even violence. The results have been predictably disastrous.
While it’s completely reasonable to feel angry at these marches and the odious ideas they represent, it isn’t a good political strategy for the simple reason that it doesn’t help advance your goals and may actually strengthen the alt-right. It may be tempting to combat the extremism of the alt-right with righteous anger, and for many, it sounds like a logical response; but our research shows that it is a terrible tactical one. Meeting anger with anger not only increases violence; it tends to diminish support for your movement and distract media coverage so that it centers on the violence rather than the core issues at stake.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, anger, while a useful rallying cry for a political movement, is generally not as effective in achieving a movement’s goals and often backfires during demonstrations. In the case of neo-Nazi and alt-right groups, it is an even worse tactic. As Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Tina Rosenberg noted in a 2017 New York Times article on how best to counterprotest Nazis following that year’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, alt-right rallies have six core goals: legitimize their views, strengthen their self-image as part of the downtrodden, unite their squabbling factions, attract new people to the movement, control media coverage, and feel powerful and heroic.
In her piece, she explains that aggressively counterprotesting the alt-right is exactly what they want. It allows them to build on the narrative of themselves as victims. In fact, she points out that when antifa protesters angrily respond, it helps alt-right groups accomplish all of the above goals. Since Charlottesville, examples of far-right violence have only been on the rise.
This means that if we want to meaningfully counter the far right, we need to choose a tactic different than anger. In our new study, Pranksters vs. Autocrats: Why Dilemma Actions Advance Democracy, we came up with a surprising answer: The best counter to the aggressive and delusional anger of the right is creative, playful, often humorous counterprotests. Strange as it may seem, there is a lot of evidence that proves that the lighthearted, fun-loving, ironic challenges to Nazis are more effective than anger.
One especially strong example of effective laughtivism is the case of clowns versus Nazis.
Clowns have been a successful way to counterprotest Nazis in a range of nations from Finland to Germany to the United States. In one brilliant example, Sarah Freeman-Woolpert describes a Nazi rally in Whitefish, Montana, where counterprotesters showed up in bright blue wigs with signs that read “Trolls Against Trolls” and “Fascists Fear Fun.” When the Nazi rally fizzled out, the counterprotesters gleefully deemed it a “Sieg Fail.”
Not only were the counterprotesters successful at defusing the energy at the right-wing rally; they defused each of the six core goals of alt-right rallies. They made the Nazis look like idiots and in so doing made anyone wanting to join them seem stupid too.
The reason why clowns work better than angry protesters is because they put the alt-right in a dilemma they can’t win. Either they ignore the clowns and look weak or they attack the clowns and look violent and stupid. Violent clashes between the alt-right and clowns will only backfire for the right and strengthen the left. In contrast, violent clashes where both sides are angry tend to increase polarization and alienate moderate observers.
This doesn’t always require literal clowns. There are a range of creative, playful tactics that are at the disposal of counterprotesters. Feminists have been known to sling used panties at toxic males in Burma, environmental activists have superglued their butts to Parliament in the United Kingdom, democratic activists have silent-clapped at an autocrat’s speech in Belarus, and more. The key is crafting the right dilemma—one that brings to light the internal hypocrisies that define your opponent.
Looking into a range of nonviolent movements in different contexts teaches us that not only is it the case that nonviolence is more effective when you are facing violence and oppression, but that using a strategic approach and dilemma tactics tends to make your opponent’s violence backfire.
For instance, take the recent “involuntary walk-a-thon” organized in response to an annual neo-Nazi march in the German town of Wunsiedel. The organizers used chalk markers to draw lines along the planned parade route marking the starting point, halfway point, and finish line. Then they enlisted local residents and businesses to pledge to donate 10 euros for every meter the white supremacists marched to a group called Exit Deutschland, which is dedicated to helping people leave right-wing extremist groups.
Rather than attempt to block the neo-Nazi marchers, counterprotesters chose the tactic of ironic encouragement. They came out to cheer the marchers on the day of the event, flanking the route with signs that read, “If only the Fuhrer knew!” and “Mein Mamph!” (or “My Munch”) by a table of bananas offered to the walkers. This turned the marchers into involuntary resistors of their own cause and brought the community together in unity to counter the messages of white supremacy.
These examples of creative resistance are especially helpful in the current context. With the extreme right losing its “mainstream ground” in the United States and the majority of European countries after four years of a “populist wave,” and as the topics of race, environment, and gender equality continue to become more central in social debates across the globe, it is likely that alt-right anger and aggression are only going to grow.
If we want to effectively resist the increasingly angry alt-right, progressive activists should consider confronting political divisions by using the examples of creative pranksters. Because the last thing an angry right-wing protester wants to deal with is a counterprotester making fun of them and getting all the attention. In other words: Before you hit the streets to protest the alt-right, leave your anger hanging in your closet and instead pull out your creativity, humor, or even a clown nose.