There are lots of answers floating about. State governments should band together to pass laws that bind their representatives in the Electoral College to support the winner of the popular vote. Or we should begin the hard work of reconstructing the Democratic Party, finally purging the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council and its Wall Street allies, so that it speaks more convincingly to the aspirations of working people and minorities. Or we should push for the reforms that will somehow prevent gerrymandered districts after the 2020 Census. Or we should restore the Voting Rights Act and push for automatic voter registration. And of course—again, somehow—we should restrict the role of big money in elections.
I support all of these efforts, needless to say, and I sign the petitions and respond to the fund-raising appeals that their advocates generate. But I am not very hopeful that any of them can succeed, at least not in the limited time we have to protect the planet from global warming or nuclear catastrophe or both.
There is another impulse evident in the spontaneous reactions that followed Trump’s election in the streets of New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Baltimore, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Miami, Portland, and elsewhere. Lots of people—especially young people—gathered, made speeches, marched, shouted, and held up signs and banners. All of us who participated can report the lift to our morale the experience offered. We were performing the elementary rites of a social movement, rites that the influential historian Charles Tilly labeled “WUNC”—meaning that people gather together to demonstrate their worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment.
Chanting crowds are the familiar insignia of movements. And I think movement politics may even make resistance to a Trump regime possible. But while the great movements of American history were the crucial determinant of our most important democratic reforms—from the basic electoral elements of representative democracy, to Emancipation, to labor rights, to women’s and LGBTQ rights—none of these movements achieved their successes simply through the gathering of people to show their commitment. People gathered, of course, but what makes movements a force—when they are a force—is the deployment of a distinctive power that arises from the ability of angry and indignant people to at times defy the rules that usually ensure their cooperation and quiescence. Movements can mobilize people to refuse, to disobey, in effect to strike. In other words, people in motion, in movements, can throw sand in the gears of the institutions that depend on their cooperation. It therefore follows that movements need numbers, but they also need a strategy that maps the impact of their defiance and the ensuing disruptions on the authority of decision-makers.
The repercussions of such mass refusals can be far-reaching, simply because social life depends on systems of intricate cooperation. So does our system of governance. Perhaps the US government, with its famous separation of powers on the national level and its decentralized federal structure, is especially vulnerable to collective defiance. To be sure, the right wing has now taken over many of the veto points in the national government, and it dominates half of the state governments as well (although that could change in 2018, when many hard-right Republican governors will be defending their seats). But the big cities, where a majority of the population lives, have not been captured. Center-left mayors preside over cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco, for example. And that fact can nourish urban resistance movements.
People don’t easily break the rules of institutional life, and especially not collectively and publicly, if only because of the punishments that can be visited on rule-breakers. Think of the possible responses of a Trump administration! And, in fact, movements from the lower reaches of society—whose members are often the most marginalized and vulnerable—usually don’t emerge if people think they’ll have no influence over the regime in power. People are much likelier to risk defiant collective action if leading politicians appear accountable to movement constituencies. The great strike movement among industrial workers arose under Franklin Roosevelt, who promised to speak for “the forgotten man” in the midst of the Great Depression. The civil-rights movement escalated at least partly because of the reluctant encouragement of Democratic presidents newly concerned about the loyalty of urban black voters, and it triumphed under a president who felt it strategic to echo the words of the civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
A Trump administration is unlikely to give people at the bottom any reason for confidence that their demands will be heard by responsive authorities. But political leaders in big cities are beginning to provide just that sort of electoral resonance and encouragement. We can see what may be the beginnings of a movement to resist mass deportations in the emergence of sanctuary cities, churches, and universities. The mayors of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Denver have all publicly promised to protect vulnerable populations. However, this will be a contest: Because Trump is already hedging on some of his campaign promises, he will need to give at least the appearance of acting on his inflammatory boasts about ridding the nation of undocumented immigrants. Maybe he will try to build a “beautiful” wall, giving the contracts to his cronies, but the Mexican government certainly won’t pay for it. Flashy raids and roundups and registries would be cheaper and easier, but they can only be accomplished if local institutions and local people cooperate. All three depend on city records, on local police forces, and on institutions like schools and churches that are at least beginning to proclaim their resistance.
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There’s a slogan among organizers to the effect that all organizing is local, meaning that people come together in local workplaces and communities to articulate their grievances and their hopes, and to develop the muscle to act. Local organizing against Trump’s initiatives will be bolstered by the support of local politicians, and movement organizing in turn can stiffen the backs of local politicians when the Trump administration threatens to cut funding to city governments. There would be many opportunities to play a role: Even ordinary householders can take in and shield immigrants. And all of us can render registries useless by insisting on registering ourselves as Muslims or Mexicans or Moldovians. A sanctuary movement gives lots of people a role that matters. Most important, in our complex federal system, where the policies of the national government depend on cooperation by state and local authorities, these local movements have the potential to block initiatives by the incoming Trump regime.
If movements are to become an important force in the politics of the Trump era, they will have to be movements of a somewhat different kind from the labor, civil-rights, and LGBTQ activism of the recent past that we usually celebrate. Those were movements focused on progress, on winning measures that would remedy long-standing injustices, and they were movements that some elites also endorsed. Now the protests will have to aim not at winning, but at halting or foiling initiatives that threaten harm—either by redistributing wealth to the very top (the Trump tax and energy plans), or by eliminating existing political rights (the cancellation of DACA, the Obama executive order that protected undocumented-immigrant children, known as Dreamers), or by jeopardizing established protections and benefits (the looming prospect of privatizing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, or the threat to turn funding for public education into a system of vouchers for charter schools). So how do resistance movements win—if they win—in the face of an unrelentingly hostile regime? The answer, I think, is that by blocking or sabotaging the policy initiatives of the regime, resistance movements can create or deepen elite and electoral cleavages.
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Indeed, there have been resistance movements in the American past, and they have had a considerable impact on the nation’s development. The abolitionist movement is a good example: It was a resistance movement against the slaveholding South and its great influence in national politics. It was also a resistance movement against the politicians, merchants, and bankers of the North who were committed to preserving the Union and preserving the slave-based cotton economy. The more radical abolitionists saw slavery as embedded in the Constitution itself, a document that William Lloyd Garrison famously burned before an audience of thousands in Framingham, Massachusetts. It was the abolitionists’ agitation over slavery that threw the ruling cross-party coalition into disarray, provoking deep divisions in the large Protestant denominations and national political parties. This paved the way for the creation of the Republican Party in 1856 and Lincoln’s election in 1860, followed by the secession of the slaveholding states and the eruption of the Civil War. The abolitionist resistance continued to play a critical role in the war itself: Hundreds of thousands of slaves in the South took up their own cause by running away and joining the Union troops or by simply refusing to work and striking against plantation labor, thus weakening the Southern economy and hugely contributing to the Union victory. As is well known, the costs in blood and property were horrific, but with war’s end and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, a resistance movement had won at least a partial victory.
Antiwar movements also illustrate the formidable opposition that resistance efforts can confront. Because they emerge at moments of mass patriotic zeal, they have a hard time evoking sympathetic responses from political leaders. War and the patriotic fervor it incites isolate and demonize antiwar causes, so that, at least at first, they are denied the resonance and encouragement that come from the electoral echo chamber. Think only of the movement against the Iraq War, whose worldwide participants are often estimated at 10 million, but whose existence did not prevent the United States from launching what has turned out to be endless war. The anti–Vietnam War movement also had a difficult path: Years of marches and demonstrations and chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” may have influenced the tactics of the war party in Washington, but the war continued and even escalated.
The solution turned out to lie in the expansion of the anti–Vietnam War movement—and the escalation of its defiance. The war only wound down when resistance spread from the civilian population to the armed forces, the very instrument of warmaking and imperial power. Rank-and-file troops began to refuse orders, to sabotage military discipline, and even to shoot their own officers. The prospect of an army in disarray prompted military leaders to join the search for a way to wind down the war, in effect allying with the antiwar movement and ensuring its success, at least for a time.
Resistance movements are hard: They must mobilize defiant collective action against what seem formidable odds, and they risk triggering tough reprisals. Moreover, they often operate in the dark, not knowing the weak points of the regime they confront or the strains among its allies. This describes our own situation: We don’t really know much about the potential fissures among the parade of groups and individuals that Trump is inviting into the national government. Can the alt-right co-exist with the Koch brothers’ network? Will traditional Republicans continue to stomach the flamboyant improprieties of Trump’s allies and of Trump himself? Will the voters who wanted to shake things up continue to be satisfied with rhetoric and bluster?
We don’t know. But we do know something about the political dangers of a Trump administration that is allowed to move forward without mass resistance.