The election of Donald Trump is rightly understood as a dangerous moment for American democracy, and it has provoked enough anxiety to shake up the orthodoxies of political discourse. Along with this anxiety, then, is the possibility of political renewal. On the Left, the most interesting development is the emergence of “the Resistance” to Trump and his pursuit of a plutocratic and white ethnonationalist policy agenda with little regard for the rule of law. While the resistance is a useful moniker for capturing the variety of forms that protest and dissent have taken since Trump’s inauguration, it is also misleading. On the one hand, it certainly acknowledges the fact that Trump is deeply unpopular and a threat to the values and concerns of much of the country. Indeed, the threat Trump poses to civil discourse and the rule of law means that one of the first tasks of the Resistance, and one that should unify all of its disparate branches, is the defense of the basic ground rules of American public life that enable dissent to thrive at all.
The Resistance is certainly a mobilization in response to this threat and, hopefully, a recognition that America’s venerable political institutions are not, by themselves, a sufficient bulwark against authoritarianism. The term captures efforts as varied as mass protests on the Mall, disruptive actions at airports, ACLU lawsuits, municipal resistance to federal immigration policy, and mobilizations to hold legislators accountable. It also captures the continuation and expansion of preexisting movements like the Living Wage movement, Black Lives Matter, and Moral Monday protests. But the Resistance is also important because the Labor and the Democratic Party, perhaps the most important organizational resources for resistance to Trump, are fragmented and rudderless–even as the Right attacks the infrastructure that sustains them. Renewal isn’t just desirable, it is necessary. But can the Resistance be the necessary vehicle for renewal?
There are two problems with this idea. First, much of the Resistance proceeds as if Trump and the white people who voted for him are the only problem. This view diverts attention from solving the institutional and infrastructural problems on the Left, much less addressing the problems of a political economy that redistributes wealth upwards while foreclosing opportunities for social mobility. Second, the idea masks the highly varied political projects that are contained within the Resistance and, therefore, masks different levels of interest and investment in the goal of political renewal. To suggest the importance of the second of these points, consider that a significant component of the Resistance is not a resistance at all but a counterinsurgency campaign being waged by the constituencies that either wholeheartedly supported or tolerated the bipartisan consensus on economic and foreign policy in favor of financialization, free trade, deindustrialization, foreign interventionism, the unshackling of corporations and capital more generally, the privileging of market fundamentalism in social policy, and a shifting of risk from society and government to the individual. This counterinsurgency is being waged not just against Trump’s ethnonationalist populism but against populisms that challenge corporate power and rising inequality as well.
The most important beneficiaries of this policy consensus have been the very wealthy, but that hardly means that they were the only beneficiaries. Credentialed individuals benefitted at the expense of manual labor, organizations oriented to the national and international scale benefitted at the expense of more local ones, the coasts benefitted at the expense of the interior, politicians benefitted from declining popular accountability, and the historical and institutional privileges that white males enjoy were devalued–at least in comparison to the orthodox authority they once enjoyed. The Clinton campaign was organized from the start around the principle of putting down an ethnonationalist insurgency that was animated by populist anger at experts, professionals, and the political class that had enabled this pattern of relative advantage and disadvantage to emerge.
Indeed, one of the most notable facts of mainstream and progressive political discourse in the Era of Trump is the extent to which it takes on the logic and structure of counterinsurgency. Trump is not to be contested with a policy program designed to construct a more positive mode of social solidarity or constrain markets that are rampaging through society in order to trade security, solidarity, and value commitments for low prices. Instead, his supporters are to be treated as irredeemable racists or worse. This depends on conveniently ignoring the voting history of pro-Trump geographies, the recent history of populist mobilizations in these regions, recent research into the constituencies of the Trump coalition, and Trump’s sophistication at manipulating group boundaries (see the forthcoming paper by Michele Lamont, Bo Yun Park, and Elena Ayala-Hurtado in the British Journal of Sociology on this point). The goal, or at least the fantasy, is to cut out the cancerous tumor trying to destroy the “progressive neoliberal” social order by means of partitions, demilitarized zones, strategic hamlets and, failing that, abandoning democracy itself in favor of technocracy and elitism “for the public good”. All of this is premised on the idea that the problem the Democrats have is with the “white working class” when their problem is actually with the uncredentialed working and middle class generally.
Unfortunately, objectifying this dynamic is not enough for many of the leaders and supporters of the Resistance because this position reflects the dispositions and interests of many of the very people doing the resisting. Dana Fisher’s preliminary research on the composition of anti-Trump protests reveals that it looks a lot like the demographics of Clinton’s support with a heavy overrepresentation of people with advanced degrees. The new “Resistance School,” no doubt a worthwhile development, is nonetheless offered by Harvard graduate students. Indivisible is organized by Congressional staffers who were impressed by the efficacy of Tea Party mobilizations against the Affordable Care Act. To the extent the Resistance is a resistance to white ethnonationalism and the assault on civil discourse and civil rights, this is all to the good. But how much of it is about defending privileges and authority in the current political economy? To the extent it is this, the Resistance is not only unlikely to generate any political renewal, but it is also a profoundly misleading label.
Despite the heavy burden of these important, but nonetheless narrow and often self-interested political projects, the term Resistance does contain within it more positive and more radical efforts to achieve political renewal. The two central tasks of any such renewal are to rebuild institutions that can sustain an inclusive and equitable form of social solidarity while including those who have been marginalized by market fundamentalist ideology, political technocracy, and a political economy that favors the credentialed and the rentier. Realizing both of these goals will both sustain a more powerful Left while undercutting the populist anger that fuels Trump’s ethnonationalism. Various community organizing efforts and the labor movement are obvious places to find a lot of these criteria, but community organizing rarely scales up effectively and the labor movement, at least as traditionally constructed, is in danger of extinction partially due to corporate assault, state hostility, and progressive indifference, and partially due to fragmentation and an absence of leadership. Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, has been an extraordinary combination of decentralized organizational structure, pragmatic and visionary policy, and timely and effective mobilizations that draw on the sort of broad-based class support that has almost completely disappeared from the landscape of advocacy and protest. Similarly, living wage mobilizations and the protest by New York cabbies against the Muslim ban both signal the energy to be tapped around core issues of inclusion and equity. But this energy will not survive renewed efforts to wed it to the policy orthodoxies and class privileges of the Clinton-Bush-Obama years.
The Resistance is necessary given the dangers of the current conjuncture. But the trajectory of our political economy, if left unchecked, is likely to produce future Trumps, unless, that is, the Resistance becomes the vehicle for a broader institutional and political transformation. But more than energy is needed. In order to not only resist Trump’s plutocratic and ethnonationalist agenda but to rebuild our political culture, protest and mobilization needs to have a vision of solidarity and institution-building that it currently only possesses in microcosm. But these microcosms are nonetheless the key. Institutional transformation occurs in conjunction with a democratizing impulse only when it is animated by broad-based mobilizations. The elite progressivism sustained in today’s Democratic Party is a chimera. But building the possibilities contained in the Resistance into a sustainable political project will take more than simple mobilization. It will require rebuilding the very infrastructure of mass politics. Finally, this effort will have to be sustained despite efforts to repress it both from the right and from within the anti-Trump resistance itself.