Wonder who’s fighting Trump? Meet the #Resistance
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Soon after the election of Donald Trump, a loose alliance began coalescing around the goal of resisting Trump's vision for America.
The election of Donald Trump has inspired people from across the political spectrum to oppose his administration, from liberals, environmentalists and LGBTQ activists to lifelong Republicans, veterans and ex-members of the intelligence community. Democrats and "Never Trump" Republicans have found themselves united in ardent agreement that Trump poses a threat to US democratic norms and institutions, among them a vigorous free press, the constitutionally mandated separation of powers and a national security apparatus that operates above partisan politics.
Most also view Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump team's Russia ties as vital to national security and not a "witch hunt" as Trump maintains.
There seems to be an understanding – for now – on both the left and the right that political and ideological differences must be shelved while they focus on defeating Trump's more extreme proposals and ensuring that the rule of law is upheld. Battles over policy can come later.
Opposition to Trump unites “a broad coalition of left, right and center who reaffirm the rule of law; share news, legal theories and encouragement; [and] call attention to outrageous misconduct by Trump or his cronies”, said Norman Eisen, who served as Barack Obama’s special counsel on ethics and now chairs a government watchdog, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). CREW has filed dozens of legal complaints and lawsuits against members of the administration, including against Trump himself for violating the emoluments clause by accepting payments from foreign governments.
The group’s vice chair, Richard Painter, served as George W. Bush's ethics czar and has been a vocal critic of the current administration. A lifelong Republican, Painter announced in April he was running for a Senate seat in Minnesota as a Democrat.In announcing his bid, Painter suggested the GOP had left Republicans like him behind.
“Republicans insist that if you’re going to run for political office, you have to be loyal to President Trump,” Painter told reporters. “This is wrong. This is not the America I want to live in. This is not the America I want my children to live in.”
Even many who once considered themselves apolitical were galvanized by the 2016 election. #TheResistance and #Resist hashtags quickly took off on Twitter, becoming one way for people to share relevant information and identify like-minded others. Online "follow-back resistance" parties (#FBR) encourage far-flung resisters to connect.
“When #TheResistance started, our goals were to organize a vigorous opposition to Donald Trump, to his crooked people and against Republicans and their policies which can or will harm American people at home,” said Grant Stern, a mortgage broker and radio host, in an email. Another goal was to create a movement that is ready to go “from online to offline" to resist Trump's policies and oppose "politics to the highest bidder”.
While the movement has been described as “diffuse, leaderless and lacking coherence”, it is notable for its sheer size. To date, the Women’s March remains the most visible manifestation of resistance to Trump. It was the largest single-day mobilization in US history, with the number of participants estimated at between 3.2 and 5.2 million people across the country.
In the first year of Trump’s presidency more than 6,400 protests were organized against him or his administration’s policies, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium.
By the November 2017 anniversary of his election more than 6,000 newly formed local chapters had registered with Indivisible, an organization that sprang up from a guide to advocacy written by former congressional staffers. By contrast, the right-wing Tea Party saw only between 800 and 1,000 active groups even in its heyday, according to LA Kauffman, a social movement historian, writing in the Guardian.
And there have been some notable successes. Widespread mobilization on social media and beyond arguably helped derail the GOP attempts to repeal “Obamacare”, oust Steve Bannon from his role at the White House and secure Democratic legislative victories in traditionally red states like Alabama.
Like other nascent subcultures, members of the Resistance use symbols and terms to identify each other. There is even an unofficial logo, borrowed from the Star Wars rebel alliance. On Twitter, many also use the crashing wave emoji in reference to the "blue wave" many are hoping will sweep Democrats to power in November congressional elections.
At times these symbols and even personal Twitter accounts are hijacked by Trump supporters and foreign entities, who infiltrate opposition groups to troll and impersonate members or commandeer the hashtags being used to organize protests. For example, those organizing a protest using the #MarchForJustice hashtag might be targeted by trolls tweeting false information about the event using #March4Justice.
John Schindler, a former counterintelligence officer and National Security Agency (NSA) analyst, said the Trump opposition is regularly targeted by those in the service of the Kremlin. The Resistance is “riddled with agents provocateurs” in line with “standard Russian espionage” tactics, he said.
Social media networks have become the front line in the war against the type of fake news and disinformation that may have proved decisive in the 2016 election. Trump's opponents know they are up against an army of pro-Trump Russian bots spreading dezinformatsiya aimed at muddying the waters surrounding US issues and events.
Scott Dworkin, co-founder of the Democratic Coalition – which bills itself as “the nation's largest grassroots Resistance organization” – said one of the major goals of organizing via social media is to counter these online propaganda efforts.
“One of the things we focus on is fighting foreign influence online. We counter cyberattacks like trending hashtags with other hashtags. Debunk conspiracy theories. Act as a rapid response sort of arm for fighting fake news,” he told FRANCE 24.
The advent of the 24-hour news cycle has made a deluge of information the norm; in the current media landscape, even pivotal news stories and events risk being submersed. Amplifying information on social media offers a way to ensure key developments don't go unnoticed.
“We also act as a watchdog to see if things are happening that haven’t been widely reported," Dworkin said.
“Social media are a mixed bag, because of course both sides are using it,” said Richard Rosendall, a longtime gay activist and columnist for the Washington Blade. “There have been a lot of disinformation and bots on Twitter. But social media are essential organizing tools for rapid response, so are indispensable to the resistance.”
The president himself is no stranger to disinformation tactics. CBS journalist Lesley Stahl said last week that Trump told her after the 2016 election that he slams the press specifically to "discredit" reporters so the public is less inclined to believe negative stories about him.
With the Mueller investigation threatening to turn up information that is problematic for the White House, Trump has also tweeted several disparaging references to the "deep state" that appear designed to discredit those at the FBI, CIA and Justice Department who were at the vanguard of uncovering any wrongdoing.
"In the war on truth, Twitter and Facebook are battlefields, so that's where we have to be, providing counter-propaganda and educating people about the damage being done to our country,” said an email statement from Stand Up Republic, a non-partisan group co-founded by Evan McMullin, a longtime Republican turned Independent who ran against Trump in the 2016 election. A former CIA operative, McMullin has become a leading Trump critic on Twitter, where he has more than 451,000 followers.
You are a Russian puppet and a national security threat. That’s why the FBI investigates you and your campaign as it would any other. https://t.co/M7PL2AJ7ovEvan McMullin (@Evan_McMullin) May 25, 2018
Olga Lautman, a writer who is independently investigating Trump's alleged ties to the Russian mafia, said in an email that the Resistance has become “a great grassroots movement" and that one of its key responsibilities is to “combat fake news and disinformation”.
Lautman initially joined Twitter in July 2016 because, as someone who follows Russian and Ukrainian news, she became “very alarmed” at what she was seeing in the Russian media.
“I started doing research on him (Trump) in late 2015 and became very worried as to his connections with Russian officials, mafia members, and senior oligarchs that span over decades and found that Twitter was a great outlet to put out research and educate people on what we are dealing with,” she wrote. Lautman now has more than 81,000 followers.
“We ultimately want Trump and everyone who colluded with the Russian government to be prosecuted and [to] put in place laws to prevent this from ever happening again,” she said.
Watching the red line
Building up pressure on social media can be enormously effective, a recent example of which is the #MeToo movement. What began as a flurry of disparate personal harassment stories shared on Twitter quickly became an avalanche with real-world repercussions.
Many in the Resistance expect Twitter will play a vital role in organizing mass protests in the event Trump crosses a “red line” – such as firing Mueller or Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who oversees the Mueller investigation.
“Twitter will be helpful in a ‘mission-oriented’ sense if and when Donald Trump officially declares the rule of law in America dead by placing himself above the law and firing the government officials investigating him,” said University of New Hampshire professor Seth Abramson, a former criminal defense attorney who often posts long threads on Twitter explaining the legal ramifications of developments in the Mueller probe.
Mobilizing for this eventuality is already under way: Eisen said more than 350,000 marchers have already been "lined up", ready to take to the streets in peaceful resistance if Trump ousts Mueller or Rosenstein.
But if Twitter offers a means for organizing against Trump, it also provides a constitutionally protected forum in which to engage him.
In May 2017 the president blocked Holly Figueroa O’Reilly on Twitter. With the aid of the Knight First Amendment Institute, she became a co-plaintiff in a suit alleging that Trump had violated their First Amendment rights.
"For me, resisting Trump started out as telling him that I disagreed with him until he blocked me on Twitter," Figueroa O’Reilly, who later founded Blue Wave Crowdsource to support Democratic candidates, told FRANCE 24.
Last week a federal court found in the plaintiffs' favor, ruling for the first time that the US president cannot block people on the social networking site. The New York court ruled that tweets sent from the president’s @realDonaldTrump account were part of a “designated public forum” and thus denying the plaintiffs access to them was an infringement of their rights.
“No one is above the law,” Figueroa O’Reilly said of the ruling. “Not even the president.”
Among the heroes of the online opposition are many who may not tweet using #Resist or identify as Resistance but are vocal opponents of Trump and serve as a touchstone for those who do.
Although many resisters look to Abramson to explain the legal significance of the special counsel's latest moves, he said he avoids the use of the term.
“I don't ever use the term ‘Resistance’ because it's reductive and inadvertently minimizes what those who oppose this president are doing: we're not merely resisting values and practices we detest, we're promoting the values and practices we love – and that for many decades the nation we love has loved,” he told FRANCE 24.
While Trump has produced “an American coalition aligned against him that spans political parties, demographics, and interest groups", Abramson said there really isn’t a distinct group of “resisters”.
"There is no discrete Resistance, or #Resistance, there is only a horizon-spanning swath of Americans who are intent on continuing to love our country despite what it's done to itself and is still doing to itself daily."
As a former NSA analyst, Schindler described himself in an email as “a Republican-leaning person" and thus a “bit of an anomaly” among Trump opponents.
“I warned GOP people in 2016 about Trump's longstanding ties to the Kremlin, it did no good,” he said.
Yet he is hesitant to wholeheartedly embrace those who are also opposing the president.
“I am very skeptical of the so-called Resistance, which is mostly partisan Democrats (which I am not),” he wrote. Nevertheless, many resisters follow Schindler on Twitter and count on his insider knowledge to help peel back the curtain on what might be happening behind the scenes.
Impeachment? Not so fast
Mueller’s investigation embodies the hopes of many that enough evidence of wrongdoing will be found that Trump can either be removed from office or rendered a lame duck as he finishes his term. But his opponents differ on whether impeachment is a goal of the Resistance.
“Justice is the goal,” Stern said. “Does that mean the impeachment and removal of Donald Trump? Yes.”
Trump “has already gone down the same path of Richard Nixon towards two impeachable offenses: obstruction of justice and abuse of power”, Stern said. “I can’t say what Mueller’s investigation will finally lead to, but I can say that Trump’s offensive attempts at breaching the barriers between suspected criminals and their investigators … and his improper direction of officials that exceeds the powers of his office, both mirror Nixon’s impeachable offenses.”
But others have adopted a wait-and-see approach. Investigations can take years, particularly one as multifaceted and globe-spanning as the Trump-Russia probe. The Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon's resignation, unfolded over more than two years.
“I have not endorsed impeachment and we won’t know whether it should or should not be discussed [until] we have the Mueller report or reports, or other evidence,” Eisen told FRANCE 24.
Looming over the prospect of Trump's removal is the shadow of November congressional elections, in which Democrats are hoping to regain a majority in one or both houses. A takeover of the Senate is likely a prerequisite for those hoping for impeachment, which requires the approval of two-thirds of the upper chamber.
Ultimately, Dworkin said, the “main goal is to win back the House and Senate in November”.
All hands on deck
The 2016 election and its aftermath offered something of a rude awakening for those who do not share Trump's vision of America.
"I think many of us awoke to the reality in 2016 and 2017 that if America is a nation that sees fit to put Donald Trump forward as its chief exemplar, we are no longer living in the place we once were," said Abramson.
But if unity among strange bedfellows was one unintended consequence of Trump's election, another was that a new wave of political activism was unleashed – and its members have more rallying tools at their disposal than any generation that preceded them.
A US Air Force veteran, who started the #VetsResistSquadron hashtag and now has more than 47,000 followers on Twitter, said after Trump won the presidency he wanted to unite liberal members of the US military – which tends to skew Republican – to help elect progressive veterans and aid service members in need.
“My goal is to reach as many people as possible to let them know that strength comes in numbers,” he said. “The
#Resistance is the greatest movement in this country I have seen in my lifetime.”
Stern said a new generation of activists is starting to realize that change can come from anywhere.
“If there’s one amazing thing about all of the people becoming watchdogs who were not before, it’s that they’ve discovered that you don’t need money to get involved in politics, just a willingness to learn and a passion for making your local community, county, state or this country a little better,” said Stern.
“I like to think that our efforts helped normalize protest, normalize being outspoken in the face of official repression and normalize resistance as socially acceptable,” he added.
In the face of what he called “a growing fascist movement” evidenced by far-right marches like that seen in Charlottesville, “[T]he only way to fight back is to get all hands on deck, and use people power, the power of millions of eyes, hands and mouths all seizing the moment independently, with a common goal: Resist.”
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