Lessons from a year of resistance

January 17, 2018

Donald Trump has faced massive popular opposition at every step of his one-year-old presidency. But the challenge remains for the left to turn that sentiment into action.

IT WAS the largest day of protest in U.S. history, with some 4 million people taking to the streets--not just in Washington, D.C., but in cities and towns across the country.

The Women's Marches on January 21 one year ago represented a flood of anger at the new reactionary in the White House. But they were also an expression of a kind of relief--that millions of people would turn out to protest Trump starting on day one.

It was a decisive response to the nauseating outcome on Election Day two and a half months earlier, and it set the tone for the hopes of so many people that Trump would face an ocean of unrelenting opposition.

Trump has been opposed by huge numbers of people during his first year--more than any other president at this point in his term--and he has failed so far to deliver on important parts of his reactionary agenda.

But the anti-Trump resistance hasn't stayed mobilized for action on the scale of the Women's Marches. And this year, the events planned for the one-year anniversary of the Women's Marches will mostly have a different character--with many emphasizing the midterm congressional elections still more than three-quarters of a year away.

The streets of Washington, D.C., were filled for the Women's March
The streets of Washington, D.C., were filled for the Women's March (Mobilus In Mobili | flickr)

Large numbers of people are ready to do more than wait for November's election. But turning that sentiment into action will require organization and political discussion. Learning the lessons of the past year of resistance can be a step in that process.

DESPITE THE opposition from day one, Trump and his administration acted as if their losing campaign--no one should forget that Trump lost the election by nearly 3 million votes--had won an overwhelming mandate.

They got to work immediately trying to make good on some of Trump's most bigoted campaign promises--banning people from Muslim countries entering the U.S., threatening immigrants with more enforcement, and slashing away at Planned Parenthood and Title IX, to name a few.

Trump's win emboldened the reactionary Republicans on the right fringes of the party to think they had license to destroy whatever semblance of a social safety net still exists in the U.S.

It also gave new confidence to the far right outside Washington. The white supremacists were encouraged by how Trump's vilification of immigrants, Muslims and women, and his celebration of racism and the Confederacy, gained them a new audience.

The far right felt confident to call rallies in support of Confederate statues and to tour speakers who spouted lies about the inferiority of racial minorities. Individual fascists thought they had a green light to commit acts of terror against immigrants, Muslims and anti-racist protesters.

Still, all year long, our side met these assaults with resistance, as people horrified by Trump's policies recognized that solidarity was the only way to combat such a vicious and all-encompassing series of attacks.

The opposition hasn't been enough to stop the Trump administration in many, though not all, cases. But it has proved at every step that the latest rulers of the "world's greatest democracy" have a fight on their hands.

The millions who turned out to the Women's Marches helped set the tone. Protesters came with signs not only in defense of women's rights, but of everyone under attack in Trump's America: "No human is illegal," "Black Lives Matter," "No means no" and simply "This is not normal."

The marches were larger than anyone had guessed they would be, and they were followed by more protests, some large and others smaller, some that erupted quickly and unexpectedly and others that were organized by networks of old and new activists coming together to take on the monster in the White House.

Thousands of protesters descended on airports around the country to protest Trump's Muslim travel ban. Women's rights was the rallying cry again for protests to counter anti-abortion forces at Planned Parenthood clinics in February and for the International Women's Strike in March.

After the far right mobilized for a deadly rampage in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, there were protests around the country, including large countermobilizations in Boston, the Bay Area and Portland, Oregon. And countless people were heartened by the weekly anti-racist protests in one of the most unlikely of places: pro football stadiums.

AS 2018 begins, it can feel like Trump is getting his way on everything--all the more so after the Republicans pushed through their tax-cut rip-off.

But that's all the more reason to remember that Trump has also galvanized a greater opposition, both in public opinion and political activism, than any president in recent memory at this point in their term--more even than George W. Bush, who literally stole Florida votes in order to sail into the White House.

Now, fittingly, a year after the world heard Trump's sickening bragging about sexual assaulting women with an audiotape leaked during the campaign, we ended the year with #MeToo.

What began as a social media campaign against sexual assault and harassment has had a far greater impact than anyone guessed.

In many ways, #MeToo, like the Women's Marches a year ago, is typical of the resistance in the Trump era. Suddenly, tens of thousands of people are set into motion because they see no other choice than to respond. And when there are no formal organizations calling for a response, they organize it themselves.

The Women's March, first called on Facebook by a grandmother in Hawaii, grew within weeks into a much larger call for action on Inauguration Weekend.

With mainstream women's groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW)--which one would have hoped would rush into action in response to Trump's election--taking their cue from Democratic Party politicians' wait-and-see attitude, ordinary women and men had to organize themselves.

While many of the people who came out to demonstrate or organized friends to join them on Inauguration Weekend may have been taking action for the first time, that doesn't mean the bitterness that gave rise to the marches wasn't simmering below the surface, awaiting an outlet--just like the outpouring of #MeToo or the nearly spontaneous airport protests.

FOR ALL the people who feel committed to take a stand against injustice in the Trump era--whether they started organizing last week or a few decades ago--the question is what direction the resistance should go now.

Over the course of the year, activists took steps to build networks and organizations where people galvanized to act could connect, discuss and plan. The formations have often been small, and their activities surge and recede--but they are a first step beyond protest alone.

For example, when anti-abortion protesters announced they would try to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics on February 11 last year, small groups of reproductive rights advocates, mostly led by socialists and other leftists, came together to organize to defend the clinics.

They faced opposition not only from the right, but from the political wing of Planned Parenthood, which discouraged and even denounced the tactic of confronting the anti-choice bigots, even when they try to shut down clinics. Despite this, however, there were significant turnouts of pro-choice supporters in numerous cities.

This experience, along with many others, exposes the fact that progressives and the left came into this battle with the Trump administration shamefully outmatched and unprepared.

The mainstream organizations and institutions with the resources to organize large numbers of people in protest have been utterly unwilling to wage that kind of fight. Instead, groups like NOW followed Hillary Clinton's lead when she announced after the election that she would "wait and see" if liberals could work with Trump.

"I still believe in America, and I always will," Clinton told supporters the day after the election. "And if you do, we must accept this result. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead." This was the Democratic Party's response to Trump taking the White House, and the threats to immigrants, women and Muslims that were about to come.

IN THE coming months, different strategies will be tested about how to confront the Trump agenda. In particular, there will be pressure from some of the same voices that opposed mobilizing to defend Planned Parenthood to focus exclusively on electing Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.

On the anniversary of the Women's Marches, organizers are calling for people to travel to Las Vegas, Nevada, for a convention to initiate a huge, national voter registration drive, called the #PowerToThePolls campaign. In several cities, rallies planned for the anniversary are largely focusing on building support for Democratic candidates.

For many people, this may seem like the logical conclusion after seeing what a year of Trump looks like. But one of the takeaways from the last year has to be how unwilling the Democratic Party has been to fight back. Another is just how ready a growing number of people are to protest and be part of a new resistance.

With the #MeToo mood of opposition in the air, one could only imagine the kind of numbers that could be mobilized on the anniversary of the Women's Marches to make concrete demands to improve women's lives--reproductive justice, protection of Title IX, a defense of the social safety net.

The Democrats' unwillingness to battle Trump in the here and now shows why we have to build our own independent, bottom-up, grassroots organizations dedicated to organizing our collective power to oppose Trump's attack and demand the things working people need and deserve.

There will be extra pressure from people who claim to know better about how to make change. They will say that those organizing at the grassroots must tailor their demands and strategies in ways that will help the Democrats.

This has to be challenged above all else--because one of the most important lessons of the first year of resistance to Trump is that the real power to confront the right, challenge the lies of the reactionaries and defend justice lies with large numbers of people taking a stand, not waiting for politicians and liberal organizations to act.

Further Reading

From the archives