Beverly Gage had an interesting essay in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “A ‘Resistance’ Stands Against Trump. But What Will It Stand For? In it Gage discusses the history of the word, resistance, and how it has transformed at various times from being against to finding what it is for. Right now, when we talk about resisting Trump, or perhaps I should say that when I use the term, I mean taking a stand against his proposed (and some implemented) actions that can remove my civil rights and civil liberties. I think each participant in the current Resistance stands for his or her own reasons. So how can we coalesce into a positive movement?
Before Trump’s election, anyone who claimed to have been a member of “the resistance” was most likely over the age of 85, a veteran of anti-fascist struggles in France and other Nazi-occupied territories during World War II. That resistance involved armed conflict and personal risk of the bleakest sort, with guerrilla fighters hiding in the catacombs of Paris while Hitler’s forces did their worst above ground. Under fascist rule, there were no plausible options for political engagement. It was a fight to the death, and in early 1940s Europe, before the arrival of Allied troops, the outcome was far from certain. Talking about resistance still evokes this sense of honorable struggle against an occupying power. It implies patience as well as militancy, the ability to say no over and over and over again, to refuse to cooperate until the whole system crumbles.
After the war, anticolonial movements from South Africa to Northern Ireland found their own strategies of resistance, settling in for long, sometimes bloody fights.
Of course, the American south had “massive resistance” to school integration. I remember well the year my hometown of Moorestown, New Jersey, hosted a group of young men and women from Prince Edward County, Virginia who were just trying to finish high school after “massive resistance” closed the schools.
The American left created a different language of resistance, much of it focused around the anti-conscription activities of groups like the War Resisters League. This anti-draft sensibility reached its peak in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, when student activists proclaimed a transition, per one slogan, “from Protest to Resistance.” As the movement veterans Staughton Lynd and Michael Ferber pointed out in their 1971 book, “The Resistance,” that shift grew out of a desire to embrace “a deeper and riskier commitment, a move that warranted a new term to replace ‘dissent’ and ‘protest.’ ” The goal was no longer simply to object to the war; it was to throw a wrench into the war machine and make it stop. Antiwar activists continued to engage in peaceful protest — but now some also burned draft cards and firebombed R.O.T.C. centers. A small number, like the Weathermen, took up bona fide guerrilla activity, planting bombs at the Capitol, the Pentagon and other prominent buildings.
The Michigan Republican who tweeted that we needed another Kent State to put down the current protests hasn’t read his history: Kent State stiffed the resistance to the Vietnam War rather than ending it. I remember the nonviolent movement being galvanized by Kent State.
As the war and its life-or-death stakes came to an end, so, too, did the embrace of resistance as a literal armed underground conspiracy. But while it faded as a political strategy, it began to gain prominence as a category of academic social analysis, the sort of thing that anthropologists and historians looked for in their studies of human societies. This was part of a broader trend toward “social history,” with its insistence that ordinary people — not just generals and politicians — could be the agents of serious historical change. Sometimes this meant studying organized revolts, like slave rebellions or peasant uprisings. By the 1980s, though, “resistance” had come to encompass a much broader set of behaviors. Enslaved or oppressed people might resist by taking up arms, but they might also resist simply by refusing to do as they were told. The political theorist James Scott called these “everyday forms of resistance” — a category that could include giving a sullen look to an employer, deliberately misfiling forms or just living life, as much as possible, on terms of your own choosing.
As I wrote earlier, the current resistance movement allows each participant to participate for her or his own reasons. But can we become something bigger? Gage leaves us with some hope.
As a movement-building enterprise, designed to achieve the greatest possible participation, this mode of resistance makes sense. But despite its good cheer, it still emphasizes what is not possible: It says that Trump is about to take a sledgehammer to the nation’s finest institutions and principles and that the only thing most citizens can do is shout “no” as loudly as possible.
Many organizers have vowed that this yawp of dissent represents a beginning rather than an end — and history suggests that they may well be right. Some of the most significant shifts in modern American law and political culture came out of efforts birthed in panic and despair. During World War I, for instance, the United States banned criticism of the government, interned thousands of German Americans and instituted widespread surveillance of immigrants and political radicals. Many Americans supported these policies; others feared that the country was abandoning cherished traditions of tolerance and free speech. In response, a small group of alarmed progressives founded an organization that came to be known as the American Civil Liberties Union. They lost many early courtroom battles, but their vision of a nation in which “civil liberties” were taken seriously eventually changed the face of American law and politics.
If I have any prediction about what the future holds, I think that the women’s movement, the environmental movement, and civil liberties movement will all gain strength as we each decide where to put our energy, time, and money into positive actions. While we continue to resist it all.
Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters