Whose ‘Resistance’ Is It Anyway?

The term has popped up repeatedly of late, including in a recent New York Times op-ed written by an anonymous senior official in the Trump administration. But what does the word itself really mean?

Børge Svingen / Getty

Wednesday morning, The New York Times published an op-ed titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” written by an anonymous senior government official. “There is a quiet resistance within the administration of people choosing to put country first,” he writes toward the end of the column, which describes a calculated campaign in which multiple concerned staffers in the president’s orbit have committed to “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.”

Earlier, though, the author takes great pains to note that “ours is not the popular ‘resistance’ of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.” Should the president simply stay—or be kept—out of the way, it seems, the “adults in the room” will “do what’s right.”

“This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state,” the official writes. “It’s the work of the steady state.” The op-ed notes that the in-house “resistance” has thus far shied away from invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which allows the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to recommend a president’s removal if he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” The writer cites fear of a constitutional crisis as a prohibiting factor, as though failing to formally address the president’s erratic behavior does not represent a profound disregard for that very document. The decisions described in the Times op-ed—and in the longtime Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear—appear to amount to a nefarious sort of compliance: As my colleague Adam Serwer wrote, those who “maintain some veneer of normalcy, rather than resigning and loudly proclaiming that the president is unfit, are not ‘resisters.’ They are enablers.”

But the senior official’s insistence on a “resistance inside the Trump administration” is curious not just because the rhetoric therein aligns members of the president’s inner circle with the masses of people who seek his removal from office. For all its political inefficacy, the Times op-ed does inadvertently raise worthwhile questions about the scope of language used to discuss various kinds of opposition to the president. In denotation, “resistance” is not exclusive to progressive politics, but the word’s connotation has shifted in recent years to signal efforts driven by a strongly anti-Trumpian stance. Invoking the word, then, serves as a useful rhetorical trick. It narrows the moral chasm between Trump’s most strident detractors and those within the GOP who, like the op-ed author, view the president as a pawn. Still, the Times op-ed is hardly the first example that reveals the term’s ambiguity.

Though the op-ed author refers to it as such, there is no singular, unified “resistance” movement on the left. The word “resistance”—and the human collective it implies, the resistance—has come to encompass any number of political ideologies, campaigns, and organizations. According to a Guardian piece published one year after the election, “more than 6,000 [new groups had] registered with Indivisible, the organization that grew out of the now-famous post-election guide to congressional advocacy written by a group of progressive former congressional staffers.” These groups differ in size, focus, and approach: “Some local resistance groups are quite close to their local Democratic party committees; others are resolutely non-partisan and seek to involve disaffected Republicans; still others are well to the left of both political parties.”

Still, nearly two years after the election, no widely agreed upon definition of “resistance” remains. Where some writers and pundits use the term semi-ironically to group left-leaning political commentators (especially in hashtag form, as #Resistance), others earnestly invoke it to describe events including the Women’s March, localized protests, and mass call-ins to congressional offices. The “resistance” has spawned special magazine issues, parties with formal platforms, donation maps, scammers and phonies, and, of course, profits for opportunistic brands.

For some, like those behind the “Agenda for Good Jobs, Sustainable Prosperity, and Economic Justice,” politics left of the mainstream Democratic party are a requirement. For others, the funeral of Senator John McCain merited christening as “the biggest resistance meeting yet”—apparently by virtue of some verbal subtweets directed at the “pointedly uninvited Donald Trump” during the memorial comments. Notably in attendance were former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as the former House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan—each of them hardly an avatar of progressive dissent. (It’s telling that Bush’s uncanny public-image rehabilitation, in which some liberals have named him part of the “resistance,” has been spurred largely by his critiques of Trump, some of which apply to his own presidency.)

Historically, the term “resistance,” or “political resistance,” has been used broadly but with more discernment: “In the 19th and early 20th centuries, anarchists and others married [resistance] to ideas of radical—and probably forceful—political and social change,” William E. Scheuerman, a political science professor at Indiana University, wrote in a 2017 essay for The New School for Social Research’s Public Seminar. “(Socialists and communists, in contrast, generally preferred the term revolution, in part probably because of their adulation for 1789 and the French Revolution).”

Though words certainly evolve over time and social movements are necessarily multipronged, it’s hard to imagine a natural through line between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s self-described nonviolent resistance and the so-called steady state’s relative inaction. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate,” King famously wrote in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” which includes an admonition of the white moderate “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

For individuals steeped in progressive organizing, those who have long been doing the very work that is being rhetorically co-opted by the anonymous op-ed writer, the practice of “resistance” means something specific even if it’s applied to different struggles: In the language of liberation movements helmed by marginalized peoples, “resistance” is one step along a continuum leading to social transformation. To create genuine change, effective activists and their supporters actively campaign—and build collective power using the tools at their disposal. In a 2014 post on the organization’s website, leaders from the grassroots organizing network LeftRoots extolled the virtues of marrying resistance to forward-facing strategy:

In response to the worsening conditions in our communities, and driven by a deep desire to change the systems that have made conditions so bad for our people, many social movement activists have taken up the work of organizing resistance. This work is critical. But it’s not enough. We need our fights to add up to something beyond resistance.

So often activists in reform fights say, “I don’t think that we’ll ever achieve liberation, but I want to do what I can.” The problem with this attitude is that it closes us off to seeing and seizing opportunities to take unimagined leaps forward.

By contrast, the op-ed writer within Trump’s administration not only fails to see unimagined opportunity; he or she and the rest of the “steady state” are “resisting” even as they refuse to pursue meaningful pathways to disrupting the status quo. The hordes of everyday Americans who form the loose collective of the “resistance” may not have published anonymous op-eds in the paper of record, but they have been confronting the president’s iniquities in the ways most accessible to them.

The steady state, however, has rhetorically inflated the administrative stumbling blocks it’s posed to Trump’s agenda while diminishing its responsibility to stop the president via constitutionally sanctioned means. By aligning itself with just the language of progressive politics, the “resistance” within the administration attempts to both obscure its own complicity in Trump’s various offenses and collect the spoils that proximity to him affords. There’s a different word for that.