What’s the ‘Resistance’ Actually Resisting?


The “Resistance” is politics’ version of an optical illusion. Its formation was abstract—“born of anger and abandonment,” Jeet Heer wrote last year—but its manifestation has appeared to be in concrete opposition to Donald Trump. It was his election that inspired this movement, that prompted the Women’s March and mass public demonstrations since, and that sympathetic press accounts and activists have cited as ongoing inspiration.

“[T]he election of Donald J. Trump to the nation’s highest office has provoked an opposition movement that is extraordinary in American history, with millions of people devoted to stopping whatever it is he might want to do,” is how Yale historian Beverly Gage put it in the New York Times Magazine in January 2017. But subtly, her description betrayed how the Resistance isn’t specific to Trump. Whatever it is he might want to do, after all, could include advocating policies that predated his ascendance and are not unique to his agenda: tax reform, the repeal of Obamacare, and the curtailment of federal regulations, for example. Is this movement, then, rooted in resisting aspects of Trump that make him unique—or is it also based on the ones that don’t?

The resisters themselves imply that it’s the latter. Take Barack Obama adviser Eric Schultz, who on Tuesday criticized a Politico profile of Trump critic and Nebraska senator Ben Sasse titled “Sasse tempts Trump’s wrath by refusing to bow.”

Measuring Republican opposition to Trump by legislative voting record is old hat for the left, but that doesn’t make it useful. The argument’s core weakness is that the Senate has worked mostly on a standard center-right agenda—one that could have been pursued by almost any of the other 16 Republicans running for president in 2016. The FiveThirtyEight project “Tracking Congress in the Age of Trump,” which compares the votes of lawmakers with the position preferred by the White House, is a typical source that critics cite to attack Sasse and others. The 17 votes it has included so far in 2018 are described as:

“Expanding private care options for veterans, Nomination of Gina Haspel to be director of the CIA, Reinstating net neutrality rules, Nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state, Repeal of guidance meant to protect borrowers from discriminatory markups on auto loans, The 2018 fiscal year appropriations bill, Rolling back some bank regulations put in place by the Dodd-Frank Act, White House immigration proposal, Bipartisan immigration proposal, Two-year budget bill, Department of Defense Appropriations Act, Banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, Nomination of Alex Azar to be secretary of health and human services, Extension of government funding for three weeks, ending the shutdown, Extension of government funding for four weeks, Reauthorizing warrantless spying program as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”

The only votes among these that were on a distinct part of Trump’s agenda were the immigration bills, given the president’s hard-line stance. (Sasse actually voted against the White House proposal.) The other measures that were considered could have been debated during the administration of Jeb Bush—largely because Paul Ryan still would have been speaker of the House and Mitch McConnell still would have been Senate majority leader. A Trump dissenter calling Ben Sasse to task for his voting record isn’t taking issue with the president, but with generic right-of-center policies: those that predated Trump, did not fuel Trump’s rise and are separate from his core appeal, and have become associated with Trump only because he inherited them.

The same goes for the judiciary. Neil Gorsuch was and Brett Kavanaugh is a Supreme Court nominee who checks several boxes for run-of-the-mill conservatives: They’re qualified for the position based on merit, and while some on the right have misgivings about a few of Kavanaugh’s opinions, the judicial philosophies of both men tend closer to that of the late Antonin Scalia (a Reagan appointee) and Samuel Alito (a George W. Bush appointee) than they do to the center. They compare favorably to the kinds of judges that past Republican presidents elevated to the high court and that “originalist” legal scholars prefer.

But the progressive grassroots organization Indivisible, which was created to “resist the Trump Agenda,” characterized Kavanaugh as an agent of “Trumpism.” “If Trump successfully installs Brett Kavanaugh, Trumpism will infect the court for a generation. The stakes are no less than the fate of Roe v. Wade, the Affordable Care Act, LGBTQ rights, and our democratic institutions,” said the group’s co-founder, Ezra Levin.

Here, Trumpism is defined partly by opposition to Roe and Obamacare and the manner in which same-sex marriage proceeded through the court system—positions that are only “Trumpist” if Trumpism is synonymous with mainstream conservatism. Conservative critics of the president have spent the better part of three years strenuously making the case that it isn’t.

The prevailing resistance narrative seems to grant that Donald Trump is a peculiar specimen but a threat for the usual reasons. Slate’s Osita Nwanevu argued after Anthony Kennedy’s retirement announcement that Senate Democrats should pull a procedural trick to slow the nomination of his replacement—and also any of the Senate’s other business, in general. “Not in opposition to this or any specific Republican priority,” Nwanevu wrote, “but in protest of the Trump administration, as a whole, and the party that brought it into being.”

In documenting the Resistance’s inception, Gage, the Yale historian, noted several of the ways that the movement’s buzzword was being used and who was using it: Michael Moore did, Keith Olbermann did, and so did Indivisible, “a group of former Democratic congressional staff members [who] published a much-discussed pamphlet titled ‘Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda.’” Then there was the social media component: “On Twitter, hashtags like #ResistTrump, #NewAmericanResistance and #TheResistance document the range of concerns and movements now assembling under one banner.”

That couldn’t have been an exhaustive list. It was missing #ResistEverything.





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