Future of the resistance: Where does the anti-Trump movement go from here?

The anti-Trump movement has scored impressive victories — but will it be co-opted by the Democratic establishment?

Published May 17, 2017 5:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Kena Betancur)
(Getty/Kena Betancur)

It has now been six months since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and more than 100 days since the real estate billionaire was sworn into office. In that time an unmistakable movement has formed in opposition to Trump and his reactionary administration. This movement — which, for better or worse, has come to be called “the resistance” — has had many victories in a short period of time, and the more the White House stumbles, the more the resistance seems to flourish.

While President Trump and congressional Republicans have proved to be grossly unfit to govern, GOP dominance in all branches of government, along with the Trump administration circus, has inspired millions of Americans into political activism. For anyone who believes in the power of popular protest, the anti-Trump resistance is an encouraging sign indeed.

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Yet the resistance has not been without its faults. It is still unclear, for example, whether it is strictly an “anti-Trump” movement, narrowly committed to opposing the unhinged president, or a broad-based movement that is devoted not only to resisting the Trump nightmare but also fighting for progressive change. In other words, it is uncertain whether the resistance is more of an Astroturf movement committed to preserving the pre-existing political status quo against a crazed lunatic, or a progressive movement dedicated to overturning the status quo and stopping the madman who is currently at the helm.

This is obviously a complicated question, as there are many different people who may identify with the so-called resistance. If you disapprove of Trump and his reactionary agenda — which the majority of Americans do — then there’s a good chance that you support or at least sympathize with efforts to resist the billionaire. And if the resistance is a big-tent movement whose ideology is, as it were, “anti-Trumpism,” then NeverTrump conservatives like David Frum, George Will and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens may as well be at its forefront.

Of course, when a man as unhinged and unethical as Trump is in the White House, it is worth putting aside ideological differences, in some cases, to forge strategic alliances. Anti-Trump sentiment extends across the political spectrum and is somewhat of a great unifier in America today. It should be obvious, however, that a movement based on collective disdain for one political figure is not a movement that can be sustained long into the future.

In a recent column for The New York Times, conservative commentator Charles Sykes argued that the political right has essentially turned into a giant trolling operation in the age of Trump, bent on mocking and sneering at liberals — or anyone who is anti-Trump — while forgoing ideas and principles that once underpinned the conservative movement. (Sykes is being generous here, as American conservatism has long been rooted in resentment and prejudice.) “For the anti-anti-Trump pundit,” wrote Sykes, “whatever the allegation against Mr. Trump, whatever his blunders or foibles, the other side is always worse.” In the long run, Sykes observed, “it’s hard to see how a party dedicated to liberal tears can remain a movement based on ideas or centered on principles.”

Likewise, it is hard to see how a movement can be sustainable or transformative if it is predicated on partisan politics rather than ideas and centered more on political personalities than political principles. The resistance is not a monolith, of course, and its more progressive and activist wings have focused almost exclusively on fighting the Trump administration’s reactionary agenda over the past several months. At the same time, however, its establishment factions have been largely preoccupied with Trump the personality, along with Vladimir Putin and the alleged vast Russian conspiracy. (This is not to say that there is no Russia-Trump scandal; there should indeed be a special prosecutor after Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey last week. But liberals have become all too credulous in the Trump era.)

In an in-depth article last week that explored the achievements (and faults) of the resistance in Trump’s first 100 days, the New Republic’s Jeet Heer remarked that political movements 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.” Like the Tea Party during President Barack Obama's administration, Heer continueds, the anti-Trump resistance is “prone to conspiracy thinking and purity tests, which will only serve to widen the ideological divides that have hampered Democrats for decades.”

This may be true, but it’s not the more radical and left-wing elements that are prone to conspiracy thinking. As noted above, the establishment and centrist wing of the resistance has been fixated on Russia and Putin since the election, and that fixation has turned into a kind of paranoid monomania as the months have dragged on. Many liberals and Democrats have become so desperate to believe that Trump is a Russian spy and Manchurian candidate that they have turned to disreputable (and manifestly nutty) figures like Louise Mensch, the former Tory politician and right-wing conspiracist who has previously claimed that Andrew Breitbart was assassinated by Putin; the Ferguson, Missouri, protests were staged and funded by Russia; and former Rep. Anthony Weiner was catfished by a Russian hacker. Mensch, a clearly unhinged person who is about as reputable as Alex Jones, has been promoted by prominent Democrats like Donna Brazile, has appeared on MSNBC and Bill Maher's HBO show and has been published on The New York Times' op-ed page.

With respect to the so-called purity tests, the Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur, who co-founded the Justice Democrats group representing the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, debunked this media myth last month. In truth, the only requirement that Justice Democrats have for their candidates, said Uygur in a Medium post, is that they cannot take corporate and super PAC money. In other words, the progressive “purity test” is not about ideological purity but about electing politicians who are not beholden to big donors.

Which brings us to the real rift lying at the center of the resistance. On one side, there are Trump critics who believe that the president is somewhat of an anomaly, and that if we can defeat this uniquely monstrous man (that is, by impeaching him), then things will settle down and return to normal — meaning that the Democratic Party can continue cruising down the same neoliberal path it has been on for the past 30-odd years. On the other side, Trump isn’t seen as an aberration but as a product of our broken political (and economic) system, a system that has been corrupted beyond repair by moneyed interests and that needs to be overhauled in order to prevent the rising of future demagogues — conceivably more dangerous than the buffoonish Trump, who at the end of the day is not a committed ideologue.

In the New Republic, Heer wrote that the best way to understand the resistance is “as a repudiation not just of Trump, but of the Democratic Party.” While this is accurate in describing the populist faction, the party establishment has worked diligently to co-opt the whole resistance movement and make it their own. “I'm now back to being an activist citizen and part of the resistance,” declared Hillary Clinton last month, shortly before it was reported that the Democratic candidate would be forming a group (expected to be called Onward Together) that would “fund organizations working on the resistance to President Donald Trump’s agenda.”

In Jacobin magazine, Alex Press noted that Clinton has brought on board her failed presidential campaign’s finance director, Dennis Cheng, who “spent much of 2016 escorting Clinton to some of the country’s richest locales,” along with Minyon Moore, a lobbyist for the Dewey Square Group, “which helped subprime lender Countrywide win wide influence among DC politicians.”

“So much for ‘the resistance!’” remarked Press.

If “the resistance” does indeed become a vehicle for the establishment to recuperate from the catastrophic 2016 election and restore the status quo, then there is no doubt that it will fail to bring about the change needed to prevent future Donald Trumps from emerging. Anti-Trump sentiment should be an impetus to political action, but stopping one man cannot be the only or even the primary objective. The anti-Trump resistance must fight for a better future — not just a future where it is impossible for a demagogue like Donald Trump to be elected president, but a future where exploitative and unscrupulous billionaires like Donald Trump no longer exist.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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