By Varad Mehta
Friday, February 03, 2017
The United States is not currently in the grip of a mass popular movement to overthrow its new president. You would never know this, however, from reading the breathless coverage of the protests against Donald Trump that have erupted in cities across the nation since he took office. Much of it reads like dispatches from the front, because that’s what it is physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Anti-Trump forces have cast themselves as a “resistance movement,” and the media has bought into this self-conception — not least, I suspect, because it fancies itself as the movement’s vanguard.
There are any number of examples of media adulation of the “resistance” to choose from. But I’m going to start with a tweet. A tweet that by answering I started a joke, which started my whole Twitter feed crying:
The Atlantic’s story, by Megan Garber, frames the Women’s March, the largest of the anti-Trump demonstrations, as a “counter-inauguration” to the presidential inauguration that had taken place the preceding day. The crucial sentence occurs about one-third into the article: “The demonstrations were an installation ceremony of a sort — not of a new president, but of the political resistance to him.”
The depiction of the march as a manifestation of opposition to President Trump didn’t bother me; that’s what it was. What stoked my ire was the implicit, casual assumption that this opposition constituted a “resistance.” Garber’s article was one of many published around the inauguration proclaiming not only the existence but the virtue of the anti-Trump movement, virtue signaled by its designation as a “resistance.” Such unthinking credulity is galling. Reporters are supposed to interrogate, to borrow a rebarbative term from academia, the idea of a resistance, rather than proselytizing on its behalf. But proselytize they have, taking for granted that there is a resistance movement without first asking whether one exists and what it would mean if it did.
There’s an element of circular reasoning involved: The media reports on the resistance because the resistance exists because the media reports on the resistance. But thinking something doesn’t make it real.
Resistance is not merely an activity; it is an idea. It conjures an array of associations and images, including those of “civilians locked in a life-or-death battle with an occupying military,” as U.S. News and World Report writer Joseph P. Williams put it in his December 23 report on “The Future of the Resistance.” What set Williams’s story apart from the post-election spate of shallow and cursory articles on “resistance” is that he did what his peers didn’t: investigate the redefinition of the term as “grassroots political warfare against President-elect Donald Trump” by delving into the burgeoning opposition and speaking with its leaders. He examined how anti-Trump forces would organize and mobilize as well as the limitations they faced. He was also alone in explaining that the opposition had chosen to brand itself as a “resistance” precisely because the term is so fraught with history.
Trump’s adversaries, Williams’s article made clear, believed they were fighting an existential struggle. This conviction increasingly colored media coverage of them until it became difficult to tell if the press was narrating the nascent revolt or participating in it. Trump thus entered office with the barricades already manned. He faced “one of the earliest resistance movements ever to greet a new president,” according to the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel. The Guardian’s Lauren Gambino introduced readers to “the up-and-coming leaders of the Trump resistance in Washington,” all of them newly elected Democratic legislators who seemed to be drafted into the role as much as they volunteered for it.
The most breathless and adulatory headlines were reserved not for politicians but for the protesters who descended on the nation’s capital to make their voices heard. Time proclaimed inauguration protesters’ “one very forceful message” reflexively: “As the presidency of Trump begins, so does the resistance to it.” If you couldn’t hear the “roar of ‘resistance,’” Variety’s Cynthia Littleton was there to echo it.
Individuals and organizations weren’t the only ones enlisting; entire states were, too. Adam Nagourney of the New York Times enumerated the steps California officials could take to thwart the new president. The largest and wealthiest state in the union, Nagourney announced, “has turned into a laboratory of resistance.” The headline on his story used a slightly more charged term than “laboratory.” California, it decreed, was the “Vanguard of the Resistance.” How the headline writer must have ached to use “Revolution” instead, before discretion or a superior prevailed.
Judging by the press treatment of the anti-Trump opposition, which has alternated between hushed and hyperventilating, you would be forgiven for thinking it is re-enacting a revolutionary drama. Committees of correspondence have been formed across the country. Once again, women are marching on Versailles to dethrone the king. All the rebels need to do to “Save the Rebellion! Save the dream!” is strike from their hidden base in California and steal the plans to the Death Star.
This is absurd, of course, but its absurdity is not the demonstrators’ fault. They are exercising their right to organize and protest, and it is only to be expected that they would have a generous view of themselves. No, the blame for turning the Trump opposition into the Trump resistance lies squarely on the media, who bought the claim wholesale and have been retailing it ever since.
By now, you may well be wondering: Didn’t we see this movie already? Didn’t we just live through eight years of resistance to Barack Obama? Don’t be silly. There was no anti-Obama resistance, because the media never said there was. There was, however, plenty of obstruction. And this rose with a different name did not smell nearly as sweet.
From Obstruction to Resistance
The word “resistance” appears in few if any stories on the opposition to President Obama. It’s missing from reports about the earliest tea-party protests in April 2009, which critics dismissed at the time as “represent[ing] the most extreme adherents of American conservatism, hardly representative of the average American.” Such language, it goes without saying, is wholly absent from mainstream coverage of the Trump “resistance.”
Trump’s opponents were dubbed a resistance immediately. Even after a year, that designation wasn’t afforded to Obama’s. It’s not present in this February 2010 New York Times dispatch about the galvanizing effect the Tea Party had on the conservative movement. There are, however, numerous articles and columns about tea partiers’ ostensible racism and bigotry and their penchant for “sing[ing] from the same George Wallace hymnal.” Typical was the condescension of Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, who lambasted the tea partiers as “narcissists . . . completely blind to how offensive the very nature of their rhetoric is to the rest of the country.”
Republicans in Congress did not engage in resistance once they took control of the House. They engaged in six years of “obstruction,” which culminated in their refusal to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Headlines and articles from 2011 onward use “Republican obstruction” so often that they function like Homeric epithets, describing not a behavior but an innate characteristic.
The only people who labeled the Tea Party and its cohorts as a “resistance” were members and supporters. A tea-party group might issue a “Resistance Pledge,” a sympathetic commentator might describe “resistance activities,” and . . . that’s it. Even if the name “Tea Party” connoted resistance to oppression and tyranny, that characterization was never applied to it. Democrats in Congress may behave toward Trump exactly as Republicans did toward Obama, but only one will be a resistance. Nor has the so-called resistance been subjected to the same skepticism of its motives and associations that the Tea Party was, even though the Women’s March unapologetically embraced some of the more controversial progressive causes.
The key difference between reporting on the Tea Party and the resistance is that the media adopted the latter’s self-conception in a way it never did the former’s. The media called the GOP “obstructionists” because that’s what the media thought Republicans were; it called the anti-Trump groups the “resistance” because that’s what the anti-Trump groups thought they were.
If you think I’m making a mountain out of a semantic molehill, you’re wrong: It was already a mountain. Very simply, language matters. How we describe something can confer a profound moral valence upon it. Conservative opposition to Obama was framed as “obstruction,” which betokens something irrational, nefarious, or even dishonest that needs to be overcome. “Resistance,” on the other hand, is noble and heroic. It conjures visions of brave, self-sacrificing Europeans standing against the Nazi terror or General Leia withstanding the First Order.
The media got one thing right: The Tea Party was never a resistance. But the anti-Trump Left isn’t one, either, because there’s no place for such a thing within the American political order.
Resisting the Resistance
From the moment Donald Trump won the election, he has met with protests, marches, demonstrations, pickets, letter-writing campaigns, petitions, phone banks, jokes, speeches, and harsh media scrutiny. In other words, he has been treated exactly like his predecessors. Admittedly, the volume and celerity of dissent are novel, but then so is Trump.
One problem with styling the opposition to Trump a resistance is that it is an empty signifier; it has no content. Its value is entirely in the title itself rather than in any activity it describes. Thus, resistance becomes the name, not the deed. Moreover, when opposition to Trump is elevated to the level of resistance, Trump too is elevated: Resistance is for existential threats, meaning Trump must be one. But while the term says too much and does too little, making it particularly ill-suited as an appellation for Trump’s opponents, its grandiosity and romanticism are precisely why it appeals to them.
The biggest problem with resistance as a moniker for Trump’s opponents, though, is that what they’re resisting is the outcome of a free, democratic election. As Ed Morrissey writes, they have “decided to pretend the loss of an election amounts to oppression and have adopted the language of revolution to rally themselves.”
In the context of American politics, resistance of this sort is a nullity. You can’t “resist” your own legitimate, duly elected government. The idea is a non sequitur. None of the marchers has abrogated their allegiance to the United States. None is seeking the overthrow of the American government. The conceit of resistance may draw ego-boosting parallels with the French Resistance, but the latter movement arose to fight a mortal confrontation with a hostile foreign power that had invaded and occupied France. If anti-Trump protesters believe that they, too, are in battle with an alien power, they are delusional.
The idea of a resistance to Trump is thus a category error: There can’t be a resistance because there is nothing to resist. The recent travel ban on immigrants from seven countries, which provoked mass protests across the country, was curtailed through the courts and the legal process, i.e., the normal functioning of our institutions of government. To resist something, there must be an opposing force to which you will apply your own. All Trump has done so far is become president. In which case what the resistance movement is resisting most of all is the bare fact of Trump’s presidency.
By that criterion, the 65 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton were resisting Donald Trump. However one chooses to define “resistance” in this political sense, the usual functioning of our electoral processes can never qualify. Otherwise, any and every form of protest or participation becomes an act of resistance. Were protests in Wisconsin against Act 10 resistance? Are strikes and pickets by unions resistance? Is the March for Life resistance? Are demonstrations by gun-rights advocates resistance?
If such basic forms of civic expression are revolutionary, then the country experienced a revolution on November 8. This is the fatal flaw in the idea of resistance as it has been injected into our political discourse since Trump’s election: Resistance is a two-way street. What seems never to have occurred to the protesters or their media champions is that a vote for Donald Trump was a form of resistance against them; that, in his supporters’ eyes, he represents a revolt against the “front-row kids,” the establishment, the media, cities, coastal contempt for fly-over states, and what one columnist appositely labeled “no-choice politics.” If Trump’s foes can engage in resistance, so can his fans — and it goes without saying that electing a president of the United States is a more powerful form of resistance than marching in the streets.
Trump voters are resisting, anti-Trump voters are resisting. What does it say about the health of the body politic when everyone is resisting the routine operation of its organs? Worst of all, the one organ that might palliate its ills has proved, in the aftermath of Trump’s election, the sickest of all.
A recent story by Real Clear Politics’s Caitlin Huey-Burns exemplifies the formulaic, reflexive quality of the “obstruction” and “resistance” tropes. Addressing Democratic strategizing about Trump’s impending Supreme Court nominee, Burns first writes that when Trump makes his choice, “Democrats will face a test of their resistance.” Then, a few paragraphs later, she states that some Democrats remain “bitter about GOP obstruction” against Obama. Democrats will attempt to do just what Republicans did — prevent a president of the opposing party from filling a vacant Supreme Court seat. Yet the language describing these tactics is not the same; it shifts according to who is playing the hand. Republicans and Democrats are thus united by a common objective and divided by uncommon language. (Though there are signs the gap may be narrowing.)
The media has so thoroughly assimilated the obstruction and resistance narratives that Burns’s choice of words was likely unconscious. It is this very unconsciousness that has led reporters to step on one rake and landmine after another since November 8, as if animated by an irrepressible impulse to validate every criticism detractors have leveled against them over the years.
Errors and misrepresentations have piled up since the election. In one week, by Washington Examiner media critic Becket Adams’s reckoning, journalists got six big stories wrong. Sean Davis of the Federalist counted a few more. The media appears to be in the grip of a Trump-inspired hysteria. This has, according to Adams, induced reporters to take anything Trump does as unprecedented merely because he is the one doing it. For his part, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat urged reporters not to succumb to “hysterical oppositionalism” and mirror “Trump’s own tabloid style and disregard for truth.” The frenzy over a false claim that Trump doctored a photo to make his hands look bigger indicated that this temptation as yet remains too strong.
Haste makes waste. The waste is evident, but why the haste? There are two answers, neither of which redounds to the media’s credit. The first is that the media has a sin to atone for: It gave Trump $5 billion in free advertising because he was great for ratings, and his election has prompted retrospective guilt at its culpability. The second is the crucial one: The media, by its own admission, is learning to do its job again after eight years spent not doing it at all.
In the wake of the election, the media confessional became a popular genre. One journalist after another pledged to get to work now that Trump was president, inadvertently confirming the doubts and accusations of critics who charged them with spending the Obama presidency in hibernation. The textbook example is a column by Politico media writer Jack Shafer. Shafer positively chortles that Trump “may be the greatest gift to Washington journalism since the invention of the expense account.” “Trump has set us free,” he declares later. He lays out a robust program of investigation and examination of the new administration. It all sounds so innovative, as if no one had ever done such a thing before. One wonders just who or what was preventing reporters from doing their jobs before now.
Shafer was hardly the only reporter to issue a manifesto describing the wonderful new superpower he had acquired. Immediately after the election, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan issued a call to arms: “We have to keep doing our jobs of truth-telling, challenging power and holding those in power accountable. . . . We have to be willing to fight back.” Apparently on November 7, they weren’t. In mid-November, the public-interest journalism site ProPublica put up a page with instructions on how to leak information to it securely in its quest to “hold people and institutions accountable.” The Times’s Nick Kristof offered his fellow journalists this New Year’s Resolution: “Let’s try harder to be watchdogs, not lap dogs.” Vox’s Ezra Klein pledged to cover the new administration “by focusing on policy, and the people affected.” A veritable sea change for one of the leading cheerleaders of Obamacare.
The message was loud and clear: The media is back on the job, awakened from its hibernation by Trump. By helping to put Trump in the White House, it crossed onto the wrong side of history. Now it wants back on the right side, and to get there it has fashioned out of whole cloth a “resistance” to Trump of which it can be the voice.
It is a voice whose own sins have condemned it to Cassandra status, forever doomed to be disbelieved even when truthful. The Obama years tarnished the media. When Obama said at his last press conference that reporters aren’t “supposed to be sycophants,” he was ironically exhorting them to stop being what too many of them had been during his presidency. Now they’re making up for lost time. Except, like a deadbeat patron who insists on putting one more on the tab, their credit is no good.
There are steps the media could take to restore trust and confidence. Instead, it has continued to engage in the same bad habits and peccadilloes that sullied its reputation to begin with, its attitude toward the so-called resistance being the most egregious example. This has cheered numerous observers on the right, many of whom refused to support Trump during the campaign and remain wary of him now that he’s president. Their schadenfreude is understandable and justified, but it can only go so far. Any reform, however modest, should be encouraged. A media purged of its excesses and foibles would serve conservatism well. It would also serve the country well.
For the plain truth is that we need the media. Much of the Right has succumbed to the infestation of Bannonite nativism and the Left has recommitted to plunging as deep into the abyss of identity politics as possible. We need a strong, robust, sober, tempered press to hold Trump to account. Right now, we’re not getting it, because the press has chosen the same path Yoda said led to the dark side of the Force: “Quicker, easier, more seductive.” That won’t defeat Trump; it will only bring you to his side. As Ross Douthat counseled, “The danger for the established press, then, is the same danger facing other institutions in our republic: that while believing themselves to be nobly resisting Trump, they end up imitating him.”
A resistance isn’t necessary to stop Donald Trump. All that is needed are the same tools of democracy Americans have always used: protests, demonstrations, petitions, and, most of all, the ballot box. The worst thing Trump’s opponents could do would be to try to live out their fantasies of resistance.
Democracy made Donald Trump, and democracy can unmake him, too. That may be cold comfort to his most passionate foes, but it is the only way to beat him that will preserve the values they claim to cherish. If democracy cannot defeat Trump, then we will have far more fearsome perils to deal with. For should the time ever come that a resistance in the true sense of the word arises in America, it will already be much too late for it to serve its purpose.