Empty Resistance

The Resistance is winning. Last Tuesday, Democrats won races throughout the country, securing the three highest elected offices of Virginia, the triple legislative crown of Washington State, and a smattering of offices in smaller level races throughout the country. Meanwhile, Robert Mueller’s pursuit of evidence of Russian collusion in the 2016 Election has begun to bear fruit, with his indictments of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and generic stooge/foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos. Trump’s presidency is in disarray, with no major legislative achievements. The repeal of the Affordable Care Act was an unqualified disaster, and the newly introduced tax plan looks increasingly at risk of a similar fate. After a first half of the year that looked increasingly dire (remember Jon Ossoff?), recent months have shown the power of the Resistance against Donald Trump.

Yet despite the sunny outlook that many backers of the Resistance have going into the 2018 midterms, there still exist strong reasons to doubt their movement. The issue at the core of this Resistance is that it lacks any unifying principles beyond that (admittedly successful) resistance against Donald Trump. The problems revealed by the rise of Trump have roots deeper than June 2015, and were fed into for decades by many who now claim to be against him. To truly resist Trump, the structures and individuals that enabled his triumph must be left behind, both by critiquing those who contributed to his rise and by clearly articulating a vision for a world not just without Trump but beyond him.

Instead of criticizing the American political system that led to Trump, the Resistance has decided to treat Trump as just an aberration, some creature from foreign lands that sprung out into the presidency completely unbound from the domestic political context that fueled him. This lack of context has led to the Resistance primarily elevating, from both the left and the right, the figures that helped cause the Trump presidency. The (mostly) liberal leaders of the Resistance— MSNBC talking heads, Democratic Senators, and activist-oriented celebrities— are so consumed by their vision of Trump as someone shocking and unique in his badness that they see any figure that cloaks himself in opposition to Trump and in support of a nostalgic view of a more civil era in politics as a figure to be celebrated. While this tendency has many manifestations— witness the celebration of politicians like Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who makes a lot of noise about how Trump is a corruption of our political system but votes with him 90% of the time anyways— perhaps its most worrying form is found in the veneration of political operatives from the past administrations, including those who created the conditions that allowed for Trump.

Bush-era political lackeys like David Frum, who crafted the concept of “The Axis of Evil” which was used to justify the ruinous War on Terror, are routinely trotted out on talk shows and twitter to speak to how Trump is destroying American norms and the decency of the office of the Presidency. The subtext of these messages is that the main thing wrong with the Trump administration is how uncouth, how abnormal it is— not any particular issue of policy, but instead simply its presentation. If they were in power, they’d defund Obamacare with so much more poise.  Their resistance is fundamentally hollow, and the willingness of center-left pundits to accept them as voices against Trump reveal how little thought is put into the act of anti-Trump Resistance.

The apotheosis of the naive rehabilitation of the conservative ghouls of eras past by the liberal resistance is, of course, the reconsideration of George W. Bush himself. Bush was essentially Trump before Trump in terms of the destructive nature of their conservatisms. The only real difference between the two is that Bush at least superficially had more respect for the American institutions he used to wreak havoc upon the Middle East and destabilize the nation’s economy. Yet liberal Americans have already begun to accept Dubya into their fold. After condemning Trump’s ideology in an October speech, George W. Bush now has a favorability rating of 51% among Democrats according to a poll conducted by YouGov and the Economist.

At first, opposing Bush’s involvement in the Resistance may seem overly harsh— shouldn’t a resistance movement against a uniquely noxious figure like Trump require a big, ideologically blind tent? Despite the need to actually consider the arguments and grievances of the Right, and not simply write them off as a body of deplorables, the Resistance can and should stop before accepting the figures who caused Trump as allies. President Bush’s treatment of the Middle East was a major factor in the rise of ISIS and the wave of terror that stoked the xenophobic fears that undergirded much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. His policies of financial deregulation, which were begun under Bill Clinton, helped cause the financial crisis that revealed the grievances of a white working class that would help elect Trump.

These arguments, of course, apply even more so to the Democratic figureheads of decades past. President Clinton, Joe Biden, and the whole cast of liberal superheroes so often valorized on social media and in newspaper columns as icons of a more decent time in politics did just as much to cause the problems exploited by Trump, from their roles in welfare and crime reform to their support of the Iraq War. Even President Obama, who’s achieved new highs of popularity from liberals since leaving office, is not free from blame— his lukewarm policies in the Middle East helped further the rise of ISIS, and his efforts in the recovery from the financial crisis did not go far enough in ensuring an economically stable future for Americans outside of the financial elite. In a just Resistance, all these figures would be examined not as superheroes of a bygone era but flawed figures, to be viewed with skepticism. Instead, we have a Resistance that accepts all of them and more as symbols of something better. This indiscriminate lionization is a symbol of the thoughtlessness of the Resistance as a whole.

The Resistance, at its core, has no new ideas. Their nostalgia for an era of shared American political norms and elite consensus is a tempting dream, an identification of the evident vulgarity of Trump. But where it falls short is in its failure to grapple with how these decent figures of the political establishment helped create Trump, and in its inability to move beyond merely saying that the past was better. If this Resistance wins, what world would  actually it make?

The limited vision that the Resistance currently possess may be enough to wrench control of government from a deeply unpopular president. It is not enough to build a system that will not create more Trumps in the decades to come. The Resistance needs something more than just opposition — it needs a guiding principle for its future. The ideas it adopts don’t necessarily have to be of the traditional left or right— and perhaps it is best if they aren’t, considering that the elites of both parties miserably failed to stop Trump at every stage, from the early primaries to the general election itself. The future of the US may be held in a vision of Social Democracy or in Libertarianism, or in anti-authoritarian philosophies as of yet unwritten. They may be found simply in the activist bases that successfully opposed the Republican health care bill or in the legal crusades against the travel ban. But the one certain thing is that the future cannot be found in simply glorifying the mistakes of the past.

Jacob Kuppermann

Photograph: Anti-Trump March in Washington D. C. near the White House, Nov. 10th 2016. Credit: VOA

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