The Future of Resistance
The word conjures up romantic images of occupied France during World War II: Citizen-spies eavesdropping on Nazi battle plans, perhaps, or clandestine underground meetings of rebel freedom fighters plotting their next hit-and-run attack.
Yet this year “resistance” has taken on a new definition in the U.S., and it centers on grassroots political warfare against President-elect Donald Trump.
Since he won the White House in a stunning upset last month, a growing progressive movement has emerged to fight back against the twin conservative agendas of Trump and congressional Republicans, who’ll jointly institute one-party control of the national government next month. Organizers say the campaign, intended to disrupt the GOP’s plans to dismantle Obamacare, among other issues, centers on grassroots organization, will involve deep-pocketed super PACs working with ground-level ad-hoc groups, and will fight fire with fire on social media and in TV ads.
And the movement, currently raising the millions of dollars needed for the fight, plans to borrow the guerilla tactics of their ideological opposites: the tea party.
“For us and for a growing number of Americans across the country, [Trump’s election] feels like a big attack” that demands a powerful response, says Igor Volsky, deputy director for the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, which has pledged to oppose the president-elect.
At least one scholar, however, says resistance is a bit of a misnomer: Given the fact that the president-elect will have powerful Republican majorities in both houses of Congress on his side when he takes office, the resistance is likely to be little more than a speed bump. That could mean they’ll have to wait until the elections in 2018 or 2020 to really make their point – but with the Democratic Party in tatters, experts say they have to start now.
“There are things that [Trump] can do independently,” like rolling back President Barack Obama’s executive orders, that won’t require any public or legislative input, says Robert Schapiro, a political science-sociology professor at Columbia University. In those cases, “that’s where this ‘resistance’ we’re talking about is irrelevant.”
Though “resistance” has gone viral among liberals, appearing on T-shirts and in online anti-Trump manifestos, Volsky makes no apologies for describing the movement with a word usually reserved for civilians locked in a life-or-death battle with an occupying military.
“I think the term of ‘resisting’ refers to fighting the effort to move us backwards” from the progress of the Obama years, he says. In that context, the word “is really the right one.”
Agreed, says anti-Trump activist Nathan Lerner, founder and executive director of Democratic Coalition Against Trump.
“People we’re hearing from really feel threatened, and the transition hasn’t done anything to ease those fears,” Lerner, whose organization urges consumers to boycott corporations that support Trump and is calling for leakers to drop dimes on the president-elect. “We expect the Trump administration to work with the Republican congress to enact policies that we find pretty objectionable, and we’re going to work to oppose them and to lay the groundwork for major victories in 2018 and 2020.”
Since Trump’s stunning upset of Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ nominee, in the presidential election, groups ranging from Priorities USA – an influential super PAC which spent $200 million on her campaign – to disgruntled progressives commiserating on Facebook are organizing themselves into a nationwide, anti-Trump force.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Democratic activist David Brock, who leads the progressive American Bridge super PAC and several other related groups, wants well-heeled donors to ante up and fund a new offensive against the incoming Republican government. Meanwhile, the State Innovation Exchange, a legislative think tank for Democrats, has signalled it wants in on the fight. Members of Obama’s former presidential campaign are getting the band back together to oppose Trump and the GOP congress, and the Democracy Alliance, a progressive umbrella group, is preparing for a March donor summit to focus entirely on how to regain power in state capitals, according to The New York Times.
“Many organizations are under assault and will need to focus on their own survival,” Democratic strategist Guy Cecil told the Post. “We want to focus on the areas where our individual fights meet and use our financial and political power to lift up and support other voices.”
Also on the resistance roster: Priorities USA Action, the Democratic super PAC that spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Clinton’s White House bid. The Post reports the PAC has linked arms with progressive organizations like the American Federation of Teachers, the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood – and gotten the thumbs-up from Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – to put more pressure on the right. And a number of left-leaning activists are planning mass demonstrations to coincide with Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., next month.
Progressives nationwide “are very proud of the accomplishments that we’ve made on the federal level, on everything from fighting climate change to marriage equality to putting forward criminal justice reforms and going after police departments” that use excessive force against African-Americans, CAP’s Volksy says. “These are strong, strong achievements. We are now very aggressively facing a situation on Jan. 20, where all of those accomplishments, all of those areas where we worked so hard … will be under attack.”
While the galvanization on the left against Trump seems impressive at first glance, skeptics point to the sharp, still-unresolved divisions between establishment-centrist Democrats, represented by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, and the progressive wing led by Sanders and Warren, who want to move the party further to the left. The schism is currently playing itself out in the battle to lead the Democratic National Committee.
Another lingering question: When and where to do battle against Trump.
The president-elect is still about three weeks away from being sworn into office, but every day brings a new concern for the left. That includes Trump’s controversial cabinet picks, his reluctance to liquidate his businesses to avoid global conflicts of interest, allowing his adult children to sit in on meetings with foreign leaders and his Twitter fights with news outlets like Vanity Fair and Newsweek.
“In terms of needing to fight Trump and get back on track in the states, the left is unified,” Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, told the Times. “The harder question is how you fight intelligently and strategically when every house is burning down.”
Anticipating those fights, a group of former Congressional staffers created a field manual of sorts for the resistance. Ezra Levin, a former aide to Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, wrote “Indivisible: A Practical Guide to Resisting the Trump Agenda” drawing from lessons he learned when the tea party hounded his former boss in 2009 and 2010.
“We saw these activists take on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress,” according to the guide. “We saw them organize locally and convince their own [members of congress] to reject President Obama’s agenda. Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism – and they won.”
While urging activists to confront elected officials at town-hall meetings and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, demanding they answer for Trump and the Republican agenda, the guidebook cautions activists to reject the uglier aspects some tea party members used against Obama – including using made-up data, hanging or burning officials in effigy, physical intimidation or foul language.
“We are better than this,” according to the guide. “We are the majority, and we don’t need petty scare tactics to win.”
Nevertheless, the long-term goal of the resistance movement is rebuilding a decimated Democratic Party, including reclaiming the working-class voters Trump seized during the November election, overturning Republican majorities in the House and Senate and establishing progressive values as an American norm. Advocates say that includes flipping state governments, where the GOP controls three-quarters of the nation’s 50 statehouses, from red to blue.
“Those efforts are going to be building on the great relationship we have in the states with state groups,” says Volksy, adding that they’ll employ tea-party tactics of confronting members of Congress at town-hall meetings in their districts. “There are senators who, when they hear from their constituents about what their agenda means to them, we hope, will be responsive to that.”
Still, the ultimate resistance to Trump and the Republicans will happen at the ballot box – in the upcoming midterm elections and when Trump is up for re-election in 2020.
“We can do whatever we want over the next four years, but if Trump gets reelected, then the opposition has failed,” says Lerner of Democratic Opposition to Trump. Republicans, he said, “worked really hard to make Obama a ‘failed president.’ I won’t go that far – I hope that Trump succeeds insofar as he’s creating jobs, rebuilding infrastructure or working on other policy aims that don’t hurt the American public.”
Nevertheless, “we’re really concerned that the bulk of the Trump administration’s aims will be harmful – cutting access to health insurance, restricting food stamps, privatizing education and cutting taxes for the rich,” says Lerner. “It’s all regressive and harmful, and we need to win elections if we’re going to stop it.”