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A few weeks after Donald Trump won the election, Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, changed her Twitter photo from a headshot to a yellow square with a single word written in black.
“Resist,” her new profile photo said.
The word has become the unified rallying cry of the anti-Trump center-left since the reality show star’s upset victory in November — popping up everywhere from angry post-election hashtags to social media posts encouraging inauguration protests to Chuck Schumer’s opening speech on the floor of the Senate last week. Weeks before Trump was scheduled to take the oath of office, liberals began urging each other to form a “resistance” to push back against his promises of disruptive change — language that is far stronger than that used by minority parties in recent history. At the Department of Justice holiday party last month, Matt Miller, the former spokesman and a fierce Trump critic, even handed out pins with the Cross of Lorraine on them — a symbol of the French Resistance.
“Resistance became a watchword from Day One,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of the grassroots liberal organization MoveOn.
The night after Trump’s victory, MoveOn called for protests they described as “gatherings of solidarity, resistance and resolve.” Of those terms, the word “resistance” was the one that stuck out — and stuck. Wikler said it draws power from the way it evokes the image of the good guys fighting back against oppressive regimes in history and fiction, “from the French Resistance through the spirit of the rebel alliance in ‘Star Wars,’” which was again gaining attention thanks to the December release of the film “Rogue One.”
Grassroots activists have embraced the language, with the group carrying out civil disobedience actions at Trump Tower in Manhattan calling itself Rise & Resist. Since the election, Center for American Progress’ political action branch, Thinkprogress, has raised $200,000 selling black shirts that say “Resist” in white lettering. Last week, it was what a protester screamed when he interrupted incoming Trump press secretary Sean Spicer at a panel at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. “This is not normal, people!” the activist shouted, before being escorted outside. “Stand up and resist!”
“There’s no secret committee that decided that this was going to be the word,” said Wikler. “It was something that everyone thought of at the same time, and that’s when you know an idea has legs.” This Sunday, the group is sticking with that collectively decided call to arms, organizing 500 meetings around the country for activists to plot how to “resist” Trump’s cabinet nominations and legislative agenda.
“Resistance” has made its way from the grassroots to the Senate floor. In his opening speech as minority leader last week, Schumer vowed several times to “resist” Trump and congressional Republicans under certain circumstances. “His biggest and most consistent pledge was that he would make America great, make the lives of Americans better,” Schumer said. “We will hold him accountable for that. And we will resist him if he breaks that promise.”
The intensity of the language of opposition is reflective of Trump’s deep unpopularity on the left. Just 10 percent of Democrats said they had a favorable view of Trump in a November Gallup poll — far fewer than the 31 percent of Democrats who said they liked George W. Bush right after he was elected. Overall, just 42 percent of Americans said they had a favorable view of Trump — a figure that’s more than 15 points lower than the previous three presidents before their inaugurations, and one that makes him the least popular incoming president in at least 25 years.
The call to “resist” also embodies some liberals’ refusal to accept Trump’s win as legitimate. Many argue his win was only possible thanks to Russian meddling before Election Day and the last-minute intervention of FBI Director James Comey. Trump’s incoming White House staffers and even some Democrats have chided this refusal to acknowledge Trump’s win. “It’s over,” Vice President Joe Biden told some House Democrats who attempted to stop Trump’s Electoral College vote tally last week.
But others in the “resist” movement say the point is not to dispute Trump’s win but to organize around stopping his agenda. “He is the president, and people should not try to deny the fact that he had won fair and square in the Electoral College, but that doesn’t mean that Democrats or a majority of Americans that deemed him unfit should suddenly acquiesce to principles of his that are completely out of step with our core values,” said Brian Fallon, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.
In the idea of “resistance,” liberals also see a call to embrace new opposition tactics over the next four years, tactics that are needed because they say Trump’s campaign promises — building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, mass deportations, and banning Muslims from entering the country — fall outside the boundaries of acceptable political debate.
“The most important thing we’re trying to signal is these are not normal political debates,” Tanden said. “These are not normal times. It’s not that we’re having disagreements about one thing or another. We believe he wants to change the rules of the game and that calls for stronger opposition across the board.”
It remains to be seen whether the left will mobilize into a sustainable protest movement of “resistance” as it has in previous decades.
“The language that’s being used — resist, resistance —i s notable, it says that there is a lot of controversy about where the Trump administration proposes to take the country, but it’s also not the first time the country has entered into these phases of intense political conflict,” said Alasdair Roberts, professor of public affairs at the University of Missouri and an expert in protest movements.
The antiwar protests and opposition to President Richard Nixon in 1968 were far more intense than the level of grassroots mobilization against Trump so far, Roberts added. Protests against President Herbert Hoover ahead of the 1932 election were also more extensive. “They had to call troops and tanks out in the streets of Washington to break up protests of veterans demanding better treatment from the federal government,” he said.
Amy Ard, a political organizer in religious communities who started a Facebook group called “Swamp Revolt” after Trump won to suggest ways to fight his agenda, said she is seeing liberals who never participated in protests before start to become activists.
“People are just getting used to what it feels like to resist, and probably never in a million years would have called themselves resistors,” Ard said.
Ard suggested the newly minted activists call their members of Congress to complain when House Republicans scaled back their internal ethics watchdog last Monday night. The outpouring of protest pressured the Republicans to reinstate the ethics office.
“It’s lucky for us that ‘Star Wars’ put out a new movie and ‘The Resistance’ sounds like the team you want to be on,” Ard said.
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