The first month of the Trump administration has been met with a massive outpouring of popular resistance. Public protest is rapidly becoming part of the background noise of our civic life. For anyone worried that Americans would sit passively as Trump and his enablers attempt to impose their dark vision on the nation and the world, it’s been an invigorating, almost joyful sight to behold. (An ominous one, too: a crackdown feels inevitable. But that is a topic for another post.)
Republicans say the protesters are mere provocateurs. The vulgar version of the story is that they are being paid. The Tweeter-In-Chief calls us “anarchists, thugs, and paid protesters”; Sean Spicer says we are “a very paid, AstroTurf-type movement.” Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz described the angry constituents who disrupted his town hall meeting as “a paid attempt to bully and intimidate.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, Karl Rove offered a more refined version of the smear, dismissed the protests as “largely scripted” and consisting primarily of “existing cadres of activists” led by groups such as MoveOn.org. The Rovian version has the advantage of being prima facie plausible, since it does not prompt the obvious and unanswerable follow-up question: paid by whom? But it serves the same political purpose, which is to undermine the protests’ message by deriding the motives and sincerity of those delivering it.
Protesters, according to this story, come from outside: outside my district, outside the mainstream, outside the sphere of political relevance. Their self-presentation as citizens speaking on behalf of American ideals is a sham: their patriotism is insincere, and they may not even be real Americans at all. They arrive on buses, shout their slogans, and return home with a check. (Where do they live? Unclear — but it’s definitely somewhere else.) And who could be enticed to hold up signs and shout rude slogans for ten dollars an hour? They are most likely poor and probably unemployed. Whatever principles they have are foreign-born. If money isn’t what is driving them, it is fealty to a radical ideology.
If my experience is representative, the story is dead wrong. I live in one of Money Magazine’s “100 best small towns in America.” Most of the houses on my street fly American flags. My barber’s father was also the town’s barber; at my last haircut, I chatted with the mayor, who was next in line. Our town is easily legible as normal to anyone whose sensibilities were shaped by American culture: clean and neat, very polite, completely safe, a “great place to raise a family.” But even here in the heart of normal America, I’m active with several political opposition groups that didn’t exist three months ago. Their members are nurses, teachers, small business owners, engineers, and retirees. I know of a half-dozen other such groups within a twenty mile radius. None of us is getting paid. All of us are motivated by deep concern for our country and the world.
At local rallies I always ask people if they’ve done anything like this before. The most common answers are “no” and “not since the 1960s.” A dozen new members introduced themselves at a meeting last week. Few have been politically active before; all have a burning desire to do something, but don’t know what they can. An elegantly dressed older woman found out about the group in the local newspaper. She took careful notes on what to do if she is arrested (“Write NLG number on arm in Sharpie”). A hospital manager came with two of the nurses she supervises. She choked back tears as she described how her concern for her nieces’ future in a post-Trump world had pushed her off of the political sidelines. Several spoke about the pain of being unable to discuss their views with friends and family, and their fears of being “outed” as opponents of the Trump agenda. Nearly all are planning to rally at our representative’s district office this week, even those who had never heard of MoveOn.org.
It would almost be a relief if Rove were right. An army of activists carrying out a coherent strategy of resistance would stand a fighting chance against the Trump administration and its congressional enablers. The reality on the ground feels chaotic, spontaneous, fractured, and confused. Nonetheless the movement demanding accountability from Republican representatives is having an impact around the country. After Rep. Peter Roskam’s staff turned a group of 16 constituents away from a scheduled meeting, 400 people showed up to picket him at a strip mall in his suburban Illinois district, chanting, “You work for us!” Roskam snuck out the back door. Rep. Chaffetz’s chaotic town hall meeting was widely publicized. Republican officials have been met by angry constituents, not only in blue enclaves like California and New York, but in dark red regions of Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. Eager to avoid spectacle, more than 200 Republican representatives are skipping town hall meetings typically held during the February legislative recess. Though probably politically wise in the short term, the move carries its own political risks. Nothing hurts a congressman like a credible charge of being a Washington insider, and refusing to meet with constituents is an irresistible storyline for local journalists. Though he won his district by 20 points, Roskam’s district went for Clinton by seven. If Trump continues to lose support from independents, Republicans like Roskam will have reason to be very worried.
It is far too soon to say what impact these local protests will have, much less the resistance movement as a whole. The American left has been decimated, and the odds are not in our favor. But nothing about our political future is certain, or even close to certain, in this moment of shifting alliances and upset expectations. If we can avoid the worst outcomes — civil war, nuclear holocaust, a kleptocratic police state — the Trump administration may prove to have been a great gift to the left. Comfortable liberal Americans were lulled into complacency during the dream years of the Obama administration. The right’s takeover of the levers of state power was hard to see in the glare of our first black president’s cosmopolitan celebrity. Now the realities of power are laid bare. If we manage to stifle our president’s dark authoritarian ambitions, it will be in large part because millions of ordinary people saw things as they truly are, and discovered their inner activists.