The rise of incompetent fascism led by Donald Trump has inspired a variety of assertions of resistance ranging from Twitter hashtags to an organized effort to replace the establishment elements of the Democratic Party. But shouting, #resist, isn’t enough. We have to consider the likelihood of success and the reaction of the population at large.
The extreme example of resistance is that done against an occupying military. Such movements are probably one day younger than the oldest invasion. But history offers no easy hope here. The Jews in the time of the Maccabees threw off the control of the Greeks, only to fall under Roman rule, the latter providing heroic opportunities to die. Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, annoyed the British during the American Revolution, and the French Maquis did the same to the Germans in World War II, though activities too often bring reprisals from armies not overly burdened with scruples.
America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq illustrate what resistance movements can do, even when standing up to a technologically advanced and well funded military — at great cost in lives and money, of course. In both cases, the United States was forced to admit that peasant fighters who combine ingenuity with a willingness to sacrifice everything for their homelands made us lose our commitment to the conflict.
Of course, not all resistance takes the form of armed combat. Black Lives Matter and the rage of citizens expressed at town hall meetings with members of Congress over the attempts to repeal Obamacare give recent examples of the American spirit of declaring no to those in power. Decades ago, the protests against the Vietnam War combined with the resistance of the Vietnamese people to bring the fighting to an end.
A term from that period — a cliché that got carried over into the thinking of our leaders in the George W. Bush presidency — illustrates the challenge of resistance: hearts and minds. Looking back from decades later, I can praise the heroism Maquisards, but that has to come with the recognition that the German military killed French civilians in reprisal, raising the questions of how many lives can acceptably be lost among the people the movement seeks to protect and also of the attitude those people will take toward the movement.
I’ve written before about protest to make oneself heard, and I’ll reiterate here that making the powerful listen is a basic human right. At the same time, stopping traffic has the effect of angering people who were hoping to drive home after work and remain blissfully uninvolved.
It’s precisely those people who must be convinced of the justice of any resistance movement. What good is protest if we can’t get the masses of the population to believe in the righteousness of our cause? This is especially a problem today with more and more Americans having to work multiple jobs to stave off a personal economic collapse.
And that’s how we make resistance only the first step. The struggles that ordinary Americans are enduring in an era of a widening gap between the rich and the rest of us, of increasing concentration of power in the hands of a few are what we resist. That will earn us the attention of the masses. But we must have something to offer as a replacement.
The good news is that progressives do have exactly that. One example is the bill introduced in the Senate by Bernie Sanders and in the House by John Conyers to provide Medicare for all Americans. Rather than only storming into a town hall meeting and screaming at the Republican politician who wants to sacrifice ordinary people to benefit the wealthy, there is a better policy ready to go.
A resistance movement cannot be satisfied with saying no. Republicans showed how successful the vigorously asserted negative is during the Obama years, but having been given the chance to do a better job at leading, they’re now coming up short. If we progressives expect our chance, we must shout to the world what is wrong, but must also make what’s right a regular part of our message. Establishment Democrats say that the party will stay true to its values, while Bernie Sanders identified specific policies that would turn those values into action, and if he hadn’t been cheated out of the nomination, he’d be president now. The 2016 election proved that the people want a new voice leading the national expression, and we have a good message to give. We’ll win if we remember to make clear what we’ll do in addition to what we oppose.
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