Events are rapidly escalating with the Trump regime, which is not surprising because that’s what he’s done all his life. He escalates. Suddenly the existential stakes are clear to a growing number of people.
Unlike other leaders with more restraint and strategic thinking—Putin of Russia, Erdogan of Turkey, Orban of Hungary, and others—Trump is not capable of a slow stripping of democratic norms, processes, and rights. He is psychologically incapable of playing the long game. He wants to win it all, and he wants to win it now.
That’s a bit of an advantage for those who oppose him, because it clarifies the lines that have been drawn. The idea of constructively engaging Trump (the go-to safe place for many people in the upper levels of politics, media, and business) or the wait-and-see approach have already been proven to be delusions. There is no constructive engagement and there’s nothing to wait for. We are in a struggle, the fate of the nation is at stake, and it is zero sum. People who normally would be apathetic or fence sitters are realizing they are complicit if they don’t speak and act against Trump’s regime. Institutions can stall Trump’s agenda but they alone won’t save us. He will ignore and intimidate the judiciary and legislative branch if he has to. What stands between authoritarianism and saving democracy is primarily systematic, collective, and strategic nonviolent resistance by US citizens.
How does this situation evolve? Victory is possible but so too is failure. It depends on us, which is both empowering and anxiety-inducing. There are at least four possible short- to mid-term outcomes. They include:
- Trump is impeached or removed from office through the 25th Amendment
- Trump is forced out in a coup
- Trump is forced out due to major defections among his government and security services, which are brought about by sustained and strategic mass public opposition to his regime
- Trump is able to prevail against the mass opposition (for the time being) through a combination of violence (by the government and his followers) and administrative repression
One can game out each of these possibilities, to figure out how each might go, what contingencies are possible, etc. However, the purpose of this piece is to identify three key principles of resistance that will increase the chance of growing our movement and protecting our country, however things evolve. We don’t know which possibility will come to fruition, nor how long it will take (it could be within weeks, or within years), but it’s important to think of possible endgame scenarios and act accordingly. Here are three principles that will serve us.
1. We need to begin affirming regularly that our resistance is nonviolent.
We are engaged in a nonviolent struggle. Our code of conduct is nonviolent.
Nothing will give Trump a stronger opportunity to “otherize” us, justify brutal and large scale repression, drive down our numbers, and re-solidify his pillars of support (including the people who voted for him and the security services and bureaucrats on whom he relies to carry out his orders) than violent resistance. We have to have a very firm line on this.
For anyone who thinks violence or property destruction will help, the evidence is strongly against you. Study after study, and case after case find that nonviolent civil resistance works and that violence has disastrous impacts on movement success rates and outcomes. Here are a few such studies:
So nonviolent means must be part of our movement’s self-definition and DNA. We don’t tolerate people engaging in violence. We don’t condone any acts of violence. No punching. No rocks. No throwing objects. No burning cars. No riots. No threats of violence. No broken windows. No weapons. No exceptions. And we must re-state our commitment to nonviolent means regularly in any public pronouncements.
We should assume that the State will attempt to provoke us, incite us, order police to use disproportionate repression, look away as Trump supporters commit acts of violence, and plant provocateurs in our midst to try to enact violence. They will try to traumatize us, which fogs our thinking, causes emotion to take over, and can tempt us to react in counterproductive ways. We cannot control their actions, but we can anticipate them and inoculate ourselves against them. And by building our nonviolent discipline, we will vastly increase the probability that violence against us backfires and imposes a great cost on the perpetrators. For those who are interested, there’s a clear process to making repression backfire, and you can learn more about here.
Through nonviolent struggle, we will also be drawing from proven examples of effective movements in history (such as the Woman’s Suffrage movement, the labor movement, the Civil Rights movements, the United Farm Workers, and others) that have stood up to state repression and won great gains in the United States. The strike. The boycott. The work slowdown. Civil disobedience. Divestment from financial institutions that do not serve us. Demonstrations and protests of all kinds—local, national, high-risk, low-risk, centralized, decentralized, public, and anonymous. And many other creative tactics (such as here and here). These are our tools. When we use them effectively, we withdraw our support from the status quo, drive up the cost of maintaining oppressive laws, and create splits in Trump’s supporters. These splits can ultimately lead to defections, which can coerce change.
2. We must recognize that we are in a struggle for legitimacy with the Trump regime, and act accordingly.
As Trump is challenged more and more and resorts to greater repression, the real question for people across this country, and those who serve in government at all levels, is who can claim to authentically represent America—Trump or those who oppose him? Trump’s approval numbers will continue to drop as his incompetent and narcissistic actions continue, but we will only be able to capitalize on this if the opposition to Trump is seen as the more legitimate representative of the American people.
To achieve such legitimacy, we have to keep several things in mind:
How we define ourselves
We represent the majority of Americans. America is not the government. America does not reside in government buildings. America-ness is not inherent in public officials. America is not something happening "out there" or on TV. America is the people. America is happening in living rooms and on the streets and cities and towns all over America. America is diversity—you, me and everyone else who lives here. Donald Trump is not America. We are America.
We need to go beyond stating that we are against Trump and also articulate a strong vision of what we stand for and what we want this country to be. This will strengthen our unity, attract more supporters, and enable us to go on the offense (there’s a great article about how we can do this here). Such a vision would show understanding and inclusivity of a wide range of people, including those in urban, suburban and rural America. It would show support, care, and respect for our increasingly diverse population as well as those white communities that have been sinking further into poverty for three decades. It would show Americans that many of us have been divided and ruled, that this has distracted us from our shared exploitation by greedy corporate and political interests that have been blind to human needs, and that our strength is in working together. We can discover that, despite our deep differences, we actually have more in common than we think.
It is important to draw on widely shared values and symbols to explain who we are, our vision, and our actions. Upholding the Constitution. Respecting the Bill of Rights. Respect for all. Opportunity for all. Equality. Fairness. A living wage for workers and a safety net for family. These are just a few.
We also should not shy away from healthy manifestations of patriotism (patriotism does not need to be narrow—a healthy patriotism includes values of inclusivity, celebration of diversity, and respect and tolerance of different perspectives). There needs to be a bridge from those of us who oppose Trump to those who do not yet. An example of this kind of bridge is the full 16-and-a-half-minutes of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington. King plays to “conservative” values of Christianity, US history, and the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He then says that if we take those values and traditions seriously, even if we are conservative, we must conclude that the times call for radical action to protect them.
The idea of patriotism may be uncomfortable for some, especially those who have been oppressed in name of American values, in the name of patriotism, and by irresponsible exercise of the majority’s will. These feelings are understandable, and everyone need not embrace symbols that they are uncomfortable embracing. However, the movement as a whole will achieve vastly greater outreach if at least part of it is grounded in love of this country, and draws from shared narratives, virtues from American history (while not overlooking past and present sins), and aspirations.
Critically, claiming patriotism also directly contests one of Trump’s primary claims to legitimacy. We saw in his inauguration speech that Trump is doing what authoritarians always do: making support for him and his agenda synonymous with love of country. He wants to say that if you're against him, then you're an enemy of the state. And if you support Trump, you're expressing your patriotism.
But Trump is no more than a demonstrated liar and con man, who is setting the stage to loot and cheat this country. He's akin to a foreign occupier, trying to overthrow government of, by, and for the people, and instead rule for the benefit of his extremely wealthy circle and his family. He doesn't represent America. He represents himself and pretends to represent America.
Our message is that if you love your country, if you call yourself a patriot, if you take your Constitution seriously, then this movement should be your home—regardless of political affiliation.
People will judge us by how we act. In our opposition to Trump, and fight for a better future, do we behave in a way that inspires confidence in the larger public? We will not win if we are, or allow ourselves to be depicted as, violent, undisciplined, disorderly, or scornful of the American mainstream.
Instead, in our actions (strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, and others), we have to show courage, organization, self-control, respect for others, and a strong moral vision for the country. We have to show that we are walking and carrying on in the finest traditions of American democracy and history. Through our actions, we are carrying the torch of those who won women’s the right to vote, who won the 40-hour workweek, who fought for fair wages, and who caused elected officials to change laws to further equality among all people. Through our actions, we are the mainstream and we are the protectors of some of Americas highest values and traditions.
3. We need to encourage those who are within the system to protect our Constitution, by asking that they not follow directives and laws that violate our Constitution.
It is outside of conventional political discourse to discuss how civil servants, security services, or other agents might disobey if they were given an unconstitutional or illegal order. We need to normalize this topic and regularly communicate the fact that those who serve our nation have a moral and Constitutional responsibility to refuse, resist, or defy unconstitutional or illegal orders. In some cases, defiance of such orders may need to be one of our core demands at our public actions. There are examples of different ways that people inside the system can directly and indirectly resist. In the face of nonviolent pressure, bureaucrats can do so, and so too can security services.
If you love your country, the time calls for dissent and disobedience. If you believe in the stated values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that all people are created equal, and that the President shall not abuse his office and accept bribes and payments (emoluments), among others things, then you have to make different choices. We empathize with the predicament of those on the inside of the system and will support and embrace them for their principled actions to protect our rights and Constitution in the face of tyranny and injustice. For those who have taken an oath to serve and to protect, the meaning of that oath is being tested right now.
Note: I highly recommend all of the resources and articles which are embedded links in this piece. Here they are, in roughly chronological order:
“An inside-outside strategy for defending the US Republic” by Maria Stephan openDemocracy.net, January 27, 2017
“A 10-point plan to stop Trump and make gains in justice and equality” by George Lakey wagingnonviolence.org, January 23, 2017
“We are witnessing the birth pangs of a Third Reconstruction” by Rev. William J. Barber, II ThinkProgress.org, December 15, 2016
“Do Protest Tactics Matter?: Evidence from the 1960s Black Insurgency” by Omar Wasow Working Paper
“People are in the streets protesting Donald Trump. But when does protest actually work?”
by Erica Chenoweth
The Washington Post, November 21, 2016
“How the world is proving Martin Luther King right about nonviolence”
by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan
The Washington Post, January 18, 2016
“Do Contemporaneous Armed Challenges Affect the Outcomes of Mass Nonviolent Campaigns”
by Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock
Mobilization, 2015, 2(4): 427-451
by Brian Martin, 2005 (updated 2012)
Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Civil Resistance by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan New York: Columbia University Press, 2011
“Power and Persuasion: Nonviolent Strategies to Influence State Security Forces in Serbia (2000) and Ukraine (2004)”
by Anika Binnendijk and Ivan Marovic Communist and Post-Communist Studies 39 (2006): 411–429
How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2005
Speech from the March on Washington Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963