April 18, 2017
It has been 88 days since Chief Justice John Roberts swore Donald Trump in as president, and even longer since November 9th, when half the voting public woke up in disbelief and horror at the prospect of being governed by the Orange Menace.
Since the inauguration, millions came out to Women’s Marches worldwide (in one of the largest single-day protests in history), and more than 100,000 people took to the streets April 15 to demand that Donald Trump release his tax returns (at which Trump lashed out with his usual factually challenged Tweetstorm). Before this month is over, the March for Science and the People’s Climate March are both expected to draw some of the largest crowds since the Women’s Marches on January 21st.
By some accounts, the varied grassroots measures taken since Inauguration day to protect our democracy and the lives of marginalized people living in it have worked. The American Health Care Act was pulled from the House floor and with it, Republican’s “Repeal and Replace” plan largely abandoned; judges have halted every one of Trump’s attempts at a Muslim travel ban; and over $81 million have been divested from the Dakota Access Pipeline, including entire cities pulling their funds.
By other metrics, however, the Democratic National Committee is falling further and further out of step with the Resistance. Rather than getting out the vote or listening to the grassroots message, the DNC have put all of their efforts into the Jon Osoff race in Georgia’s sixth congressional district. They lost the special election for Mike Pompeo’s vacated seat in Kansas—Democratic challenger James Thompson, who won 46 percent of the vote anyways, likely could have seized the long-time Republican-held seat with extra help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Kansas State Democratic Party.
And then there is the issue of voter turnout. A recent survey revealed that activist women are doing the bulk of the legwork in the resistance movement, but more demographics will need to join them in the voting booth for progressives to see any electoral change. The recent Los Angeles mayoral election was a sinister portent of issues to come, with historically low turnout that has Democrats on edge (turnout for the L.A. Women’s March, meanwhile, was upwards of 500,000). Political insiders may have reason to feel anxious about turnout for the midterms, a salient concern that has escaped the Left before.
But while keeping an eye toward the future is crucial, the movement is also tasked with staying alert to daily attacks on civil liberties. So which metrics matter? Is it possible progressives are winning battles, but losing the war? With nearly three months under their belt, we’re going to examine how the resistance movement is holding up so far.
Several grassroots activist groups have formed since November, and they’re employing text threads, newsletters, and a vast web of Google docs to keep each other informed. They’re organizing phone banks, letter-writing sessions, lectures, and seminars. They’re forming or taking part in new organizations like SwingLeft, Run For Something, and #KnockEveryDoor.
Over 5,000 action groups were formed as a result of the Women’s March, and thousands more have sprung from Indivisible, the congressional staffers’ guide for organizing against Trump. These groups are effectively lobbying Congress, ringing their reps’ phones off the hook to keep important legislation like the ACHA off the House floor.
“Since the election we have seen an unprecedented level of engagement from our constituents,” said a Democratic Capitol Hill staffer. “It’s our job to listen to them...some days our phone lines are completely overwhelmed with calls and the entire staff is answering the phones, from our interns to the Chief of Staff. My boss is always asking us what people are calling in about.”
Outside of electoral politics, the movement is staving off normalization by encouraging consistent dialogue and lending visibility to issues. In red states, they provide opportunities for immediate efficacy to voters for whom the midterms hold little chance of direct retribution.
In Texas, activist Patricia Hagen splits her time and resources between half a dozen organizations battling Trump’s policies, including ATXCan. This group formed after the inauguration to provide a safe space to discuss upcoming challenges; they recently hosted a “Having the Hard Conversations” workshop. Hagen also noted the renewed efforts of Refugee Services of Texas, who host a weekly “Know Your Rights” workshop, and Grassroots Leadership, who are organizing testimonies from citizens to speak out against bills on the chamber floor.
Progressive resistance movements in the U.S. have historically been criticized for not making enough direct appeals to representatives, and it seems the movement to resist Trump is taking heed. But activism of that ilk is dependent on the existence of bills or hearings that get a vote—a big part of the resistance movement’s work so far has been to find immediate fixes for people directly affected by the administration’s orders (and tweets), people who can’t afford to wait two to four years.
At airports and ICE detention centers across the country, lawyers have posted up or been dispatched to aid detainees (there’s even an app for that now). Shaun King’s Injustice Boycott has effectively pushed New York City politicians to close the notorious prison at Riker’s Island, and to pass legislation that will raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18. And via book donations and letter-writing, activists are attempting to reach the millions of disenfranchised voters in the vast criminal justice system.
But in a movement critiqued for lack of inclusivity, these groups walk a fine line between empowering the marginalized groups they seek to help, and excluding or ignoring them. So far, a consistent dialogue about this issue has helped to keep groups self-aware. In Texas, Hagen has seen efforts to ensure that activist programming is available to people of all economic backgrounds: some groups provide bus passes or arrange rides for those without vehicles, offer pre-paid phone cards at phone-banking sessions, or offer childcare at meetings.
In Missouri, Resistance STL formed for the express purpose of promoting intersectionality and inclusivity within the activist community. “We want to make sure that new people joining the fight against oppression have resources available to learn about other forms of oppression,” the group’s founders Sarah Masoud, Amanda Tello, and Aurora Schmidt said in a joint statement. “Members of our collective come from very different communities and identities...because we banned together, we have more access to all those communities.”
For Tess Ranahan, founder of the multi-city activist group UP, there is simply more power in numbers, and more that can be accomplished when resources are pooled. Her diverse group includes lawyers, journalists, professional activists, filmmakers, lobbyists, and researchers, from whom they source a diverse array of direct actions and programming.
What Needs Work
Despite the outpouring of support for the Resistance, one of the biggest concerns plaguing them is activism without action. To some observers, feminist mantras on T-shirts read more like fashion statements than political statements. Attendance at marches can seem more like a tourist activity than a protest. Demands at rallies sometimes feel broad and unattainable (an issue that befell the Occupy Wall Street movement). Facebook, admittedly useful for organizing a group or disseminating info, is more often being used to rant or stir up winnerless battles.
And these critiques can be dangerous in their own right. Criticism of fellow progressives’ methods can lead to unproductive infighting, especially if delivered with condescension or no suggested alternatives. The movement will hamstring itself if it can’t stop disagreeing about the right way to be an activist, instead of harnessing those diverse perspectives to tackle Trump’s diffuse and sundry aggressions.
There are new fires to put out every day. Under a president who uses distractions to divert media attention almost daily, it is especially important not only to delegate but to prioritize. If the movement is going to survive, they’ll need to avoid getting sucked into the wrong issue—e.g, gossiping about Kellyanne Conway’s looks or letting the Obama wiretapping accusations push AG Jefferson Sessions lying under oath out of the spotlight).
And even with the right filters, ample delegation, and the aid of buzzwords like “self-care,” burnout is still a very real concern. “From my first waking moments to waiting for the subway train at night, I’m constantly toggling between articles, NPR, drafts on Gmail, threads on Slack, feeds on Instagram and Facebook,” said Ranahan, whose group is based in New York. “I don’t think it’s the healthiest, but I don’t feel I can unplug right now.”
Hagen has taken to color-coding her calendar: “Dark blue is activism, lavender is self-care, yellow is paid work, pink is social...I try to have one color for each day and if I realize I’ve doubled up, I try to take a break from that the following day.”
“The potential for burnout is real,” said National Women’s Liberation member Natalie Amgott, who works 50-plus hours a week as a teacher in Florida and relies heavily on crockpot meals for time management. “That’s why we have to remember to delegate, that we’re not in the movement alone,” she said.
This emphasis on shared responsibility is crucial. “I think the more we build this out and can get people to commit to manageable, bite-sized roles, the more sustainable it will be for everyone,” said Grace Woodard, co-founder of the website and action-a-day Instagram account, A New Year’s Revolution.
The Resistance is starting to figure out who is good at what, and organizing those efforts around battles that can be won. If they’re successful in this, both short- and long-term needs can be addressed simultaneously, without anyone feeling sidelined. They can look to the future and get out the 2018 vote, without ignoring people who are feeling the very real effects of the Trump presidency right now.
Slowly but surely, this divide-and-conquer method is what we’re witnessing. Even cynical pols who previously criticized the movement for “resisting” rather than “defeating,” are feeling some type of hopeful about what they’re seeing at the grassroots level. Right now, the movement appears to be on its way to figuring out how to resist and defeat, at the same time.