If We Adjust to Trumpism, the Republic Is Lost

What I mean when I say I’m in the resistance

A construction crane with a sign reading RESIST stands behind the White House.
Saul Loeb / Getty

About the author: Richard Primus is the Theodore J. St. Antoine Collegiate Professor at the University of Michigan Law School.

In a speech last Friday, Attorney General William Barr attacked opponents of President Trump who think of themselves as engaged in “resistance.” The language of resistance, Barr said, suggests that the current administration is a military occupation rather than a democratically elected government. And people who think of themselves as members of a resistance will prosecute their “scorched earth, no-holds-barred war” against the administration “by any means necessary,” in the process “shredding … norms and undermining the rule of law.”

Barr’s complaining that Trump’s opponents are shredding norms and undermining the rule of law is a bit like a Visigoth’s complaining that his enemies lack respect for the city of Rome. But the attorney general is far from the only person to criticize the practice of calling opposition to the administration “resistance.” Some, like Barr, think that the paradigm of resistance purports to license unjustifiable tactics in opposition to legitimate authority. Another common critique is that the notion of resistance—with or without a capital R—is melodramatic. The archetypal (nonfictional) example of something called “the Resistance” operated in France during World War II. However awful the Trump administration is, it is not Nazi Germany, and the people opposing it are not risking their lives in clandestine meetings, one step ahead of the Gestapo. So it is easy to think that people who regard their anti-Trump activism as resistance have lost perspective.

I think otherwise. Like many terms, resistance means different things to different people. To me, resistance names a posture that goes beyond ordinary political opposition; it suggests a context in which power is wielded in unusually dangerous ways and is countered by a population with heightened consciousness, exerting itself to an unusual degree. Understood in this sense, I embrace the term: I’m a resistor. And my resistance is based on two premises. The first is that the Trump presidency is morally repugnant and a threat to the rule of law. The second is that I am obligated to exceed my normal level of civic engagement to meet the threat.

Many people disagree with my first premise—that Trump is morally repugnant and a threat to the rule of law. Roughly 40 percent of Americans say they approve of Trump’s job performance. They shouldn’t. The president is a bigot, a con man, a relentless liar, and a spoiled bully who inflicts needless suffering on vulnerable people. He pardons convicted war criminals, uses his office to enrich himself personally, and courts foreign interference in American elections. He will break any rule, violate any norm, betray any national interest for his personal benefit.  The constitutional system is not built to withstand the damage that an unscrupulous president with no sense of self-restraint can inflict. As I have explained at greater length elsewhere, the Trump presidency is the greatest internally generated threat to our republic since the 1870s.

As for the reasoning behind the second premise: I firmly believe that Americans can meet the challenge posed by Trump and Trumpism. But we cannot take anything for granted. Every system of government eventually passes away, and the United States enjoys no magical exemption from that reality. Our constitutional republic can survive Trump and Trumpism, but there is no guarantee that it will.  Whether it does depends on what we do, now, and week by week until the danger has passed. Navigating that danger successfully will take a lot of effort by a lot of people.

The required effort has both practical and psychological aspects. Practically, resistors need to devote time and energy, actively, to work that has real-world impact. Much of my resistance takes the form of legal work—a lot of it through the organization Protect Democracy—because that’s a skill I happen to have. But people without law degrees can do the field work of political organizing, and everyone who knows people who are not yet persuaded that Trump must be stopped can try to persuade them to think differently. That’s hard, but no republic worth saving is saved easily. And everyone who knows people who know Trump is bad, but keep quiet, can encourage those people to speak up. Each week resistors need to answer the question, “What did I do to address the problem?”

Psychologically, resistors must continue to affirm that the administration’s behavior is unacceptable, even as we grow to expect it. We must not normalize the pathological. And in an environment where pathological behavior rains down in buckets, avoiding normalization requires active resistance, both as a mental state and as a practical program. This point, as much as any other, explains why “resistance” is a fitting paradigm. If we don’t resist, we adjust. And to put the next point as non-melodramatically as possible: If we adjust, the republic is lost.

Barr imagines, or at least alleges, that self-identified resistors will use any tactics whatsoever to pursue their goals, because they have convinced themselves that their ends justify any means. That’s false. My resistance seeks to defend common decency and the rule of law, and my methods need to reflect those values. This is not to deny that some people who oppose Trump (like some people of any political orientation) do things they shouldn’t. But as a general matter, the people with whom I have worked in this resistance have not abandoned their ethical compasses, their sense of decency, or their commitment to the rule of law.

When I have litigated against the administration, I and the other lawyers working with me have always thought we were making valid legal arguments. We have not distorted facts, and we have not urged judges to distort the law in order to rule against Trump. Nor do I think it true, as defenders of the president have often charged, that judicial rulings going against Trump are products of a lawless resistance mind-set within the judiciary—that is, judges disregarding the law to hamstring the administration. Judges are human, and they have biases—some surely running against this administration (and others running against people the administration harms). But with a small number of exceptions, the judicial rulings that have gone against the Trump administration have seemed, to me, legally correct, involving no compromise whatsoever of the rule of law. (To take a notable example, the lower courts that ruled against the entry ban were applying the law correctly in my view, and the Supreme Court erred in reversing them.) That is as it should be. I want the courts to hold the administration to account when it acts unlawfully—and this administration breaks the law often enough to warrant many adverse judicial rulings. But I will not ask a court to act against the administration lawlessly, and I would not want courts to do that. The goal, after all, is to protect the rule of law, and a rule-of-law culture, once lost, is a hard thing to rebuild.

What makes this political engagement different from other forms of political engagement is not that the ends justify any and all means. Instead, what is unusual is the decision to spend our time and resources on this fight, rather than on the things we would do in better times. I personally want to be a teacher and a scholar, not a litigator and an activist. But the imperative to resist makes demands on what we do.

I know, of course, that my personal resistance cannot save the republic. But the resistance of a hundred thousand people can. My responsibility is to be one of them, rather than sitting it out. And this resistance will only succeed if many people make the effort to resist, even while knowing that their individual resistance is not what makes the difference. Maybe that’s true of any resistance, more or less.

For all the reasons mentioned above, thinking of opposition to the Trump administration in terms of resistance does not mean that opposing the Trump administration is like blowing up railroad tracks in France during the 1940s. But there is one respect in which I hope that, in the future, the resistance to Trump will recapitulate a feature of that earlier experience. After that fight was finally won, everyone claimed to have been in the resistance.