You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

The Path of Most Resistance

The promise—and perils—of the fight against Trump.

The Resistance, as it’s come to be known, was born of anger and abandonment.

The anger began the day after the election. Donald Trump, rejected by a decisive majority of voters, had been declared the next president of the United States. Republicans controlled all three branches of the federal government, as well as 32 state legislatures and 33 governor’s mansions—their strongest lock on power in nearly a century. Liberalism had been dealt its most stunning and consequential defeat in American history.

But around sunset that evening, the protests began. In New York and Chicago, demonstrators stormed Trump’s buildings. In Los Angeles, they beat orange piñatas to a pulp and spray-painted anti-Trump obscenities on the Los Angeles Times building. In Oakland and Portland, fires and fights broke out; dozens were arrested on riot charges. In at least 50 cities and towns, protesters blocked traffic, burned Trump in effigy, and scuffled with his defenders. And night after night that first week, they just kept coming out. “We! Reject! The president-elect!” they chanted. In a display of partisan fury, they took their hashtag slogan—#Notmypresident—from the Tea Party’s racist campaign to discredit Barack Obama.

The abandonment, like the anger, was swift. At the very moment that the burgeoning opposition needed stalwart leadership, the Democratic Party opted for obedience to the political norms that Trump and the Republicans had so openly flouted. Hillary Clinton delivered her concession speech and disappeared into the woods. President Obama tried to gently tutor his successor and persuade the left to chill. Bernie Sanders said he’d be “delighted” to work with Trump on trade. Even left-leaning senators like Sherrod Brown of Ohio sounded less like committed members of the opposition than a conquered people suing for peace. “Vichy Democrats” became a common jibe. Liberals determined to oppose Trump, it was clear, would not only have to fight the president at every turn—they would also have to rebuild the Democratic Party from the base up.

But it is these twin elements—the unanticipated upswelling at the grassroots and the disarray at the top—that offer Democrats their most promising opportunity since the New Left forced the party to embrace a broader and more inclusive agenda in the Sixties. For the first time in decades, liberalism has been infused with a sense of energy and purpose that goes far beyond the vague “hope and change” that Obama promised in 2008. Ever since January, when Michael Moore called for “100 days of resistance” to counter Trump’s first 100 days in office, the Resistance has been winning on virtually every front. It has emboldened wobbly Democrats in Congress and helped beat back the initial push to repeal Obamacare. It dispatched a cabinet nominee and Trump’s national security adviser, and forced his attorney general to recuse himself from the most significant and far-reaching investigation since Watergate. It has mounted successful legal challenges to Trump’s travel ban and punishment of “sanctuary cities.” And through it all, it has given birth to a host of dynamic new organizations determined to mobilize grassroots activists, fashion a more progressive and effective agenda, and rebuild a liberal majority at the state and local level, precinct by precinct. After three short months, the Resistance is shaping up to be one of the signal political forces in American history.

The movement, however, is not without peril. To begin with, there’s the name. “The Resistance” is admittedly melodramatic, if not downright grandiose. It calls to mind partisan guerrilla soldiers fending off the Nazis, not a progressive campaign for fairness and equality. Forged largely in reaction to a single man, it is by its nature reactionary, organized around what it’s against without being entirely sure what it’s for. And like the Tea Party before it, it’s prone to conspiracy thinking and purity tests, which will only serve to widen the ideological divides that have hampered Democrats for decades. Social movements like the Resistance are the performance-enhancing drugs of politics: They can help a party win, but they also fuel its rage and hamper its ability to think clearly.

The first 100 days of opposition to Trump could not have gone better if liberals had scripted them. Democrats desperately need a movement like the Resistance to shake things up and mobilize neglected constituencies and experiment with a variety of new approaches. But to harness the wrath and discontent that inevitably accompany such movements, the left must take stock of what has been accomplished so far, and where the pitfalls lie. Unless we find a mechanism to resolve the very real differences within the party and turn our initial success into coordinated action, the Resistance will prove as fleeting as Occupy Wall Street or the Rainbow Coalition. It is up to us, in short, to determine whether the Resistance will succeed where so many other uprisings have failed.

Click, hold, and drag


From the start, the Resistance knew how to do one thing supremely well: disrupt Trump. In January, when the Women’s March in Washington drew twice the crowd of his inauguration the day before—and a history-making four to five million protesters worldwide—the entire spectacle sent the new president and his administration into a tailspin during its crucial first week. While Trump’s lavish promises of action on Day One went unaddressed, he and press secretary Sean Spicer babbled about fake news and crowd photos, warring with both the media and plain, observable truth.

Protests quickly became the symbol of the Resistance. When Trump signed an executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries, thousands of demonstrators stormed airports across the country. When he opened up the Dakota Access Pipeline, thousands more rallied at Trump Tower in solidarity with the Standing Rock tribe in South Dakota. Everything, it seemed, sparked a protest—and when Trump didn’t provide a theme, the Resistance made up its own. Presidents Day became Not My President’s Day. On Tax Day, demonstrators in more than 200 cities demanded that Trump release his tax returns. Five months after his election, Trump still couldn’t stop obsessing. “I did what was an almost impossible thing for a Republican—easily won the Electoral College!” he tweeted on April 16. “Now Tax Returns are brought up again?”

But from the start, the new movement was determined to do more than simply take to the streets. In the first three months of Trump’s administration, the Resistance has made the early days of the Tea Party look like a tea party. A host of new organizations is working to reverse the tide of right-wing victories at the state and local level. Some, like Swing Left, are directing volunteers to House seats that could “swing” from red to blue in 2018. Others, like Run for Something—founded by former Clinton aide Amanda Litman—are recruiting millennials to run in down-ballot races. There’s a group training environmentalists to run for local office, and another running progressive women in Illinois. #Knockeverydoor, a Sanders-inspired effort, is using “deep canvassing” to reconnect with skeptical voters in swing districts. Veteran groups are also pitching in: The Working Families Party organized the Tax Day rallies, while Daily Kos has already raised record-breaking totals for Democratic challengers running in 2017’s off-year elections.

But the Resistance’s biggest victory—and the most persuasive evidence for its potential as a political movement—came in the fight against Trump’s effort to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Like the Tea Party before it, the Resistance mobilized to confront members of Congress at town hall meetings during the February recess. The first big target was Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, a rising-star Republican who had vowed to investigate President Hillary Clinton from Day One. Chaffetz returned home to find 1,000 furious constituents waiting to express their rage at him for giving Trump a pass, chanting: “Do your job!” The experience reduced the media-savvy Chaffetz to a bout of Trump-like whining. “I thought it was intended to bully and intimidate,” he complained. “The last four elections in Utah in a row, I’ve won the widest margin of anybody playing at this level.” By April, Chaffetz—considered a shoo-in for reelection—announced he would not be running for a sixth term.

A constituent tells GOP Congressman Andy Harris how he really feels at a town hall meeting in Wye Mills, Maryland, on March 31.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Other Republicans who returned home got the same treatment, increasingly focused on Obamacare. The town halls became a sign that all the anti-Trump energy could be effectively targeted on congressional politics. The demonstrators weren’t the “professional protesters” that Trump and Fox News were constantly fuming about, but they hadn’t just shown up, either. They had been organized by groups like Indivisible, the most effective and innovative of the new anti-Trump efforts. The group’s co-founders, two former Democratic congressional staffers, began by creating an online manual to teach liberals how to make Tea Party tactics their own. After the Indivisible Guide became the viral sensation of the Resistance, the group expanded its reach, linking up with hundreds of local activists to organize the town hall confrontations. To find out where to go and how to protest, all angry constituents had to do was punch their zip codes into Indivisible’s web site. By April, some 5,800 local groups—at least two in every single congressional district—had signed up to work with Indivisible to organize and resist Trump.

The pressure campaign forced even some of the most ardent Tea Partiers in Congress to reverse themselves on repealing Obamacare. Two weeks after being accosted by irate constituents in Arkansas—“What kind of insurance do you have?” demanded a woman whose husband is suffering from Alzheimer’s—Senator Tom Cotton called on the president to withdraw his health care plan. When Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen refused to attend town hall meetings in New Jersey, his constituents created a cardboard cutout of the 70-year-old lawmaker and proceeded without him. Wounded by the bad publicity, and worried about holding on to his seat in a swing district that Trump barely carried, Frelinghuysen also broke with the president on “repeal and replace.”

When Trumpcare went down in flames in late March, Chuck Schumer laid the defeat at the president’s doorstep. “Ultimately,” he said, “the Trumpcare bill failed because of two traits that have plagued the Trump presidency since he took office: incompetence and broken promises.” But Republicans hadn’t just blundered their way to defeat. The Resistance had effectively spread the message and mobilized the opposition, successfully focusing the left’s anger and frustration on the GOP’s single most important priority. It was a warning not only to Republicans, but to congressional Democrats as well: This time, the Resistance made clear, there would be no bargaining with the enemy.

There was one area, though, where the new movement, like the party establishment, failed to confront Trump. When the president bombed Syria in response to its chemical attacks, Democratic leaders expressed near-unanimous support, while grassroots activists largely confined themselves to the usual carping online. The Resistance organized bigger marches to protest Trump’s tax returns than his deecision to unleash the Mother of All Bombs. Rather than drawing on the lessons of the anti-war movement, from Vietnam to Iraq, grassroots activists more or less ignored Trump’s foreign aggression—and for the first time since his election, his poll numbers spiked. It’s a worrisome sign for the future: If Trump can outmaneuver the Resistance just by dropping a few bombs, how can the movement hope to prevail in the end?

The Resistance did not spring out of nowhere; it’s the product of long-running and deep-seated tensions within the Democratic Party. Two important precursors were the Rainbow Coalition that Jesse Jackson assembled in the 1980s, and the netroots activism that arose during the presidency of George W. Bush. Both represented separate wings of the Democratic left that were less broad-based than the Resistance, which includes as many Clinton supporters as Sanders fans. But both contributed directly to the rise of the current movement—and both serve as warning signs of what could go wrong.

During the Eighties, a fissure opened up among Democrats between the grassroots activists that Jackson energized and the party elite, which was torn between reviving the old model of labor-union liberalism (in the form of Walter Mondale) and recreating itself as a technocratic party of expertise (in the form of Michael Dukakis). The Rainbow Coalition offered Democrats an alternative: build a broad and diverse “coalition of the future” organized around a message of economic populism. But after three straight presidential losses, the party establishment opted instead to fend off Jackson’s insurgency and reconstitute itself around Clintonian centrism. Unable to take control of the party apparatus, the Rainbow Coalition faded away after Jackson gave up his presidential ambitions.

The netroots movement—which grew out of anti-war blogs that flourished during the Bush presidency—also flamed out after enjoying some initial success. Netroots activists pushed the Democrats to the left, helped the party retake Congress in 2006, and prefigured Obama’s use of social media. But compared to the Resistance, the netroots movement was narrowly based in online activism. Once Obama won, it left behind legacies like Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo, but stopped being a driving force in American politics.

That was partly Obama’s fault: He won by harnessing all the energy at the grassroots, then quickly shuttered the social movement that brought him into office, allowing the DNC to take over where his campaign left off. He governed as a transactional politician who attempted to mediate between elite institutions and popular discontent. As a result, activist energy during the Obama years tended to avoid the Democratic Party, flowing instead through groups like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Those groups, in turn, provided Democrats with a sharp reminder of the power of street protests, while the activists who coalesced behind Bernie Sanders formulated both an agenda and a fund-raising model that provided voters with a viable alternative to the party establishment. The Resistance, in a sense, represents the resurgence of the social movement that Obama promised, but failed, to create.

This is the best way to understand the Resistance: as a repudiation not just of Trump, but of the Democratic Party. Over the past 15 years, party elites failed to prevent three major disasters: the Iraq War in 2003, the global financial meltdown in 2008, and the rise of Trump in 2016. Every elite institution that was supposed to stop Trump failed: the GOP, the media, the Democrats. So ordinary citizens concluded that they could no longer count on the people running the party. If they wanted to stop Trump, they would have to do it themselves.

Although the Resistance is a direct descendant of both the Rainbow Coalition and the Sanders campaign, its early efforts, ironically, draw as much on Hillary Clinton’s demographic as they do on Sanders millennials. Middle-aged women helped organize the biggest marches to date, and they are the constituency most likely to call their congressmen. This, in fact, is one of the most encouraging things about the Resistance: the way it has brought together disparate strains of the left that have long been at odds with each other. Under the banner of the new movement, Clinton supporters are taking up the tactics of the Sanders campaign, as well as those of the Tea Party, Occupy, and Black Lives Matter.

Democrats in Congress have been forced to take notice and respond accordingly. Prodded by the grassroots, Democrats in the Senate have fashioned themselves as the party of Nevertheless She Persisted. Not a single Senate Democrat voted to confirm Education Secretary Betsy DeVos or Tom Price at Health and Human Services, and just one (West Virginia’s Joe Manchin) backed Attorney General Jeff Sessions. When Republicans tried to prevent members of the public from testifying against Trump’s nominees, Democrats held hearings of their own. And in April, Democrats filibustered the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, forcing Republicans to resort to the “nuclear option.”

All of which underscores the Resistance’s biggest challenge—and its greatest promise. Can it bring the party’s centrist elites more in line with the grassroots activists they have long shunned? Indivisible, in particular, is creating a smart, decentralized organization that is focused on mobilizing groups in every congressional district—effectively building a party machine from the ground up, in rural areas too often neglected by the Democratic establishment. And the rise of small-donor fund-raising, which propelled Bernie Sanders’s campaign, offers an end run around all the corporate money and political consultants who have long controlled the party apparatus. Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who plans to challenge Ted Cruz for his Senate seat in 2018, has already pledged to rely on small donors. And most of the money that Democrats used to contest April’s congressional election in Kansas was raised not by the party itself, but by activists at Daily Kos. If the Resistance can prove itself as effective at attracting small donors and winning elections as it is at organizing town halls and mobilizing protests, the party elites will have no choice but to listen.

Unfortunately, beyond its show of opposition in Congress, the Democratic establishment has indicated that it has no intention of embracing the politics of discontent. Rather than reassessing its agenda and strategy after Trump’s election, the party engaged in a three-month feud over who would chair the Democratic National Committee, choosing Obama insider Tom Perez over Resistance favorite Keith Ellison. In addition, centrist mega-donors have formed an alliance behind Clinton consigliere David Brock, founder of Media Matters, signaling that the consultant wing of the party won’t surrender control without its own resistance.

Sanders speaks at a Democratic unity rally in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 21.
George Frey / Getty Images

Even when the two sides have tried to make a show of unity, the strains have been all too evident. In April, when Sanders joined Perez for a barnstorming “Come Together and Fight Back Tour,” the senator made headlines not by attacking Trump, but by at first declining to endorse Jon Ossoff, a young Democrat who was on the verge of winning Newt Gingrich’s old seat in Georgia. It would have been a monumental breakthrough in the Deep South, and the surest sign yet that Trump’s unpopularity could demolish Republicans at the polls in 2018, even in conservative, white districts. Yet even though Sanders’s own supporters had raised much of the $8 million that fueled Ossoff’s upstart campaign, Sanders himself wasn’t impressed by the newcomer. “Some Democrats are progressive,” Sanders explained, “and some Democrats are not.”

As The Washington Post noted, the ideological litmus test imposed by Sanders threatened “to create divisions where none previously existed.” Ossoff wound up falling two points short of the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff with the top Republican vote-getter. What had looked like the brightest electoral sign for Democrats since Trump’s election had turned into a cautionary tale for the Resistance.

Some in the Resistance reject any notion of joining forces with the party elite. “Unity is a slogan meant to get us to bow our heads to the establishment and go back to the status quo,” says Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks and founder of Justice Democrats, a Sanders campaign spin-off that aims to challenge every “establishment” Democrat in the 2018 House primaries. Uygur’s group is teaming up with another startup founded by former Sanders supporters, Brand New Congress, to purge the party of its lingering centrism. In their eyes, calls for unity are nothing but a demand for the left to capitulate. “It is not going to work,” Uygur says. “There is going to be a major, major clash within the Democratic Party soon. To progressives, resistance means two things: resistance to Trump, who is a monster and a buffoon, and resistance to the establishment.”

It’s a healthy sign that Democrats aren’t papering over their differences; there are significant divides in the party that can only be healed by an honest, and perhaps bruising, fight over real and substantive issues. The reconstruction of the Democratic Party will be a key element in determining whether the opposition to Trump will turn out to be a revolutionary force in American politics like the Tea Party—or just another Rainbow Coalition or Occupy Wall Street, effective in the moment, but unable to forge lasting change.

As 2018 grows closer, the calls for “unity”—for closing ranks to retake Congress—will only grow louder. Such talk is likely to sway even some liberals who are now feeling defiant. But we must resist the urge to reduce the Resistance to a tally sheet of electoral wins and losses. The party will almost surely pick up seats in the midterms, thanks to Trump. But its greatest mistake would be to try and tamp down the activism that has erupted in the wake of his rise. The best path forward for the party, in fact, is to drop all the vague and contentless talk of “unity” and to work with the Resistance to hammer out an agenda that is genuinely capable of bringing together Democrats of all stripes. Call it the New Contract With America—a liberal spin on the ten-point platform that enabled GOP insurgents to take control of Congress in 1994. The contract would combine anti-Trump outrage (No. 1: Pass a law requiring the president to show his tax returns) with forward-looking commitments (No. 5: Raise the minimum wage to $15). This, in essence, will be the true measure of the Resistance: whether it can seize on the best of the Sanders agenda, and the worst of Trump, to force the party to embrace a message that resonates from the streets to the ballot box.

For the first time in half a century, liberals and leftists are finding their voice and finding each other. To formulate their future, Democrats must use the Resistance as a kind of real-world laboratory for democratic action. Allow it to hash out old grievances, try out unproven strategies, test new messages. Give it some time. See what works and what doesn’t. Let the best ideas prevail. Let them not look like the old ones, except where they need to. That is the promise and the potential of the opposition’s first 100 days. For now, that is all we need.