Soon after the election of Donald Trump, a wave of protest bubbled up against the new president and his policies. Beginning with the “Women’s March” on January 21st, 2017, followed by protests on behalf of gun control and against the threat of climate change, and led by new groups like Indivisible and established ones like the ACLU, the movement reached into the legal profession when Trump, soon after entering the White House, abruptly announced a painful and chaotic ban on refugees and others from several majority-Muslim countries. When the #MeToo and Never Again movements emerged in late 2017 and early 2018, it began to seem as if American civil society was rising up in a body against the excesses and outrages of the new administration.
But these were only the most visible — and the most national — expressions of a wave of movements. Much of the energy that produced the Democratic victories of November 2018 rose up beneath the radar of the national press. As Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol wrote in a New Republic article in August, “From coal-country capitals like Washington, Pennsylvania, to well-heeled Westchester, New York, grassroots leaders are winning seats on county and state Democratic Party committees and calling for more transparency, more outreach, more action.” The energy of the Resistance cannot be pigeonholed as either on the Left or in the Center — it comes from below!
Academics and activists soon collected these varied movements under the rubric of “The Resistance,” but as David Meyer and I argued in our recent book, that label says too much and too little. It says too much because it assumes that the varied protest movements are a coherent whole, and it says too little because it fails to examine the important challenges that the Resistance poses to its supporters.
There are three major challenges:
First, the proliferation of new groups has led to a failure to identify an overarching policy goal — apart from the proximate one of opposing Donald Trump. This was not a problem as the midterm elections approached; indeed, as the President barnstormed from one rally to the next, he made himself an appealing focal point. Especially in suburban white districts, Trump’s presence in the campaign helped bring out college-educated women in droves on the Democratic side. This not only helped the Democrats win control of the House; it also challenged Republican control in state legislatures, on county boards of supervisors and in judicial races across the country. But with the end of the election season, predictable cracks are beginning to appear between progressives and centrists in the newly-enlarged Democratic majorities.
A second challenge is the result of the gap in the Resistance between those who want to defend our institutions against the president and his enablers, and those who are wary of the institutions that facilitated his rise. As the midterm elections approached, there was widespread fear that the second group would be so distrustful of the election machinery that they would stay away from the polls. But as turnout soared, especially among young voters and minorities, this fear turned out to be exaggeration. More worrying is that Trumpian takeover of institutions like the Departments of Education and Justice will persuade activists who think they are lost causes to avoid them in the name of bigger targets. This would be a mistake; as the daily news cycle focuses on Trump’s enormities, there is a slow and incremental erosion of the administrative state.
The third danger — mutual radicalization — is the most pressing challenge of all. As the midterm elections approached, and when Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, turned out to be accused of sexual abuse, the Republicans shrewdly shifted the debate from the nominee’s sexual history to his supporters in Congress, referring to opponents as “a mob.” The tactic worked: the polls showed that in the wake of the nomination fight, Trump’s personal popularity improved and Republican turnout rose in the midterms.
The Trumpian invective of the GOP’s election campaign went well beyond the President’s racist and sexist dog-whistles. In the congressional campaign of Ammar Campa-Najjar in California, in the campaign of African-American Antonio Delgado in New York, and in the campaign of Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum for the Florida governorship, the GOP attacked Democrats with scarcely-disguised racist slurs. The California Democrat was savaged for being a “security threat,” the New Yorker was attacked over the lyrics of a rap song he made in 2006,” and Gillum was accused by his opponent of wanting to “monkey this up”.
Racist attacks are nothing new in American politics. The immediate danger is that they will trigger even more vicious attacks from the cellar of the American right. Already in 2017, hate crimes had arisen by 17 percent, according to FBI figures. And in the run-up to the elections, terror attacks in Pittsburgh and in Florida targeted Jews and African-Americans.
The real danger is not the nativist right per se, but that its outrages will trigger a spiral of left/right radicalization which can only redound to the benefit of the Trumpist right. Remember the 1968 Nixon presidential campaign after urban riots and the spinoff of the Weathermen from the SDS? Though a plurality of the American public had grave doubts about the Vietnam War and was nominally in favor of civil rights, Nixon used these radical trends to forge an appeal to the “silent majority.” This is what gave rise to the GOPs “southern strategy” — which was not so much southern as white — and became the foundation of the current anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Trumpian strategy.
How the newly-expanded Democrats respond is the key to whether the 2018 midterms will result in a growing progressive majority or a movement/countermovement interaction which can only benefit the right — as it did in the 1960s. This doesn’t mean that strong left candidates can’t win elections — they did in the midterms — as long as they (or their followers) don’t displace their energies in attacking mainstream leaders like Nany Pelosi.
What can be done? “Radical” gestures like forcing Senator Ted Cruz to leave a Washington restaurant may satisfy outraged progressives, but such gestures only carry water to the Trumpian well. Cooperation can be encouraged between the Resistance groups that emerged after the 2016 election and more seasoned-campaigners like MoveOn and the ACLU. Valence issues like gun control and the Affordable Care Act can appeal to a broad constituency, as opposed to those that divide the left from more moderate groups. And in areas of the country like New York and California, policy initiatives that unite the opposition can be put forward.
This is not a plea to turn the other cheek; on the contrary, the legal community should call out every threat to the rule of law coming from Trump or his enablers. In state legislatures, ending voter suppression and reversing gerrymandered districts can bring together radicals and moderates. In the cities, opposing police violence and defending suspects from over-zealous prosecutors can unite public defenders with African-American groups. In the suburbs, advancing climate change goals can solder middle class moderate voters to progressives. Most important: while the daily news cycle will continue to shift from one Trumpian policy outrage to the next, the real danger is that the Trumpian moment may slide into a long, gradual erosion of democracy. To oppose this, neither the Left nor the Center will succeed in opposition without tapping into the mobilization potential that emerged in the midterms into a grassroots movement for democracy.
Sidney Tarrow is Professor Emeritus of Government and an Adjunct Professor at the Cornell Law School. He is the author of Power in Movement and, most recently, co-editor, with David S. Meyer, of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.