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In Defense of the Term “Resistance”

Image via NYTimes

Far from being a detriment to democracy, resistance to a dictator-lite like President Trump is essential to saving it.”

With the year having come to a close, it’s becoming increasingly inevitable that 2017 will be most remembered for the exceptional political unrest displayed by the left following a most unordinary presidential election.

Attendance at protests in Washington, D.C., and around the world in January easily eclipsed turnout for the presidential inauguration. In August, neo-nazis and anti-fascists faced off in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the conspicuous initial silence of the Trump White House.

The depth of the passion within left-leaning activist circles this year was undoubtedly the story of the year in the United States. And while some — both in the media and in the movement itself — have framed the campaign in equally grandiose terms as the “Resistance,” others have found a semantic bone to pick with anti-Trumpers.

“The biggest problem with resistance as a moniker for Trump’s opponents,” political commentator Varad Mehta wrote in a February piece for National Review, “is that what they’re resisting is the outcome of a free, democratic election.”

For Mr. Mehta and other right-of-center voices, “resistance” to Donald Trump and his regime is both intellectually dishonest and politically irresponsible. According to them, the word and its moral associations apply to President Trump’s opponents no less than to Tea Partiers and Trump voters railing against the “establishment.” Applied to this year’s protests against what Mr. Mehta calls our “legitimate, duly elected government,” some conservatives even think they catch a whiff of treason in resistance, conjuring up images of violent revolt.

It might be possible to respect this kind of hand-wringing under another administration, or if Republicans themselves were willing to check the Trump administration’s outrages against basic civic norms. In the absence of either, however, it’s hard to see much more than a clever attempt to shift the blame for eroding democracy from conservatives to liberals and progressives.

From the very first moments of the Trump era, the connection between Republican political hegemony in Washington and “legitimate, duly elected government” has been tenuous at best. While it’s hard to say exactly when an election is truly “legitimate” or “democratic,” Mr. Trump’s nearly three million popular vote loss to Hillary Clinton certainly doesn’t inspire confidence. President Trump campaign officials’ admissions of directing voter suppression schemes and the president’s inability to shake accusations of a Russian connection aren’t all that reassuring, either.

Of course, election irregularities matter somewhat less now, nearly a year into Mr. Trump’s presidency. Let’s say his supporters are right and President Trump represents the legitimate choice of the people, whomever they might be. What then of his actions since entering the Oval Office?

Mr. Mehta seems to think a consensus exists that Mr. Trump’s agenda as it’s unfolded during his first 11 months in office is the right-wing equivalent of his Democratic predecessor. He equates the anti-Trump movement with the Tea Party wave that appeared early on in Obama’s tenure, seemingly suggesting that the issues themselves are no life-or-death matter.

“Trump’s adversaries,” he writes skeptically, “believed they were fighting an existential crisis.”

For Mr. Mehta, the beginning of the Trump administration represents the continuation of the great game of politics between Republican, Democrat, “establishment” and “anti-establishment.” He sees anti-Trump resistance only through the lens of how it could potentially affect abstract democratic norms.

For the vast majority of those opposed to President Trump, however, resistance is a far more visceral act, justifying what Mr. Mehta calls an overreaction. One of the anti-Trump resistance’s more catchy slogans—“respect existence or expect resistance” — encapsulates the mindset of many whose very lives are at risk from the president’s policies and rhetoric.

President Trump’s pledges to remove minority racial and religious groups from the country wholesale are nearly unprecedented in living memory of mainstream American politics. The president’s nationalist, authoritarian rhetoric has encouraged a rapid rise in hate crimes against the Muslim, Hispanic and LGBT communities that his policies promise to target.

Bigotry as brazen as what has characterized Mr. Trump and his administration is far from the norm in modern America, and neither is the political opposition to it. If anything, it’s intellectually dishonest to call anti-Trump activism anything but a resistance — and absurd to compare it to the Tea Party’s Obama-era opposition to auto bailouts and gun control.

Mr. Mehta can understand how, “in his supporters’ eyes, [Trump] represents a revolt against the ‘front-row kids,’ the establishment, the media, cities,” and the various other demons of the conservative worldview. It shouldn’t be so hard to extend this basic understanding to the multitude of marginalized Americans whose very existence is actually threatened by the Trump agenda.

Beyond the threat posed to minorities, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric promises to do far more damage to the democratic process than “resistance” protests against him ever will. His claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election has done irreparable damage to Americans’ confidence in our electoral process. His attacks on the media threaten the survival of a free press capable of keeping the state accountable to the voters. He’s politicized the Department of Justice, pardoning political allies and firing investigators with insufficient personal loyalty to him.

If those on the right can see this danger, they must be more interested in passing tax cuts than addressing it. Such priorities give conservatives little space to criticize the progressive Resistance. Far from being a detriment to democracy, resistance to a dictator-lite like President Trump is essential to saving it.