In Resisting Trump, Act Locally Without Succumbing to Quietism

By Michael Dorf

In two recent posts, I called on Democrats (and by implication, principled Republicans who are horrified by Trump) to resist fighting with one another over how best to resist Trump (here) and what to aim to replace Trump with (here). Today, I want to offer some thoughts on how to go about both surviving the Trump presidency with one's mental health intact and also to play a part in working against Trump for the good of the nation and our local communities.

On a personal level, people like me--straight, white, male, economically secure, and living in a very liberal enclave within a Democratic state--will probably be able to ride out a Trump presidency without much personal pain. True, the qualifier "probably" is there in recognition that Trump could start a trade war leading to a Depression or a shooting war leading to nuclear annihilation. At the very least, the cruelty and aggressive stupidity of Trump's bans on refugees and people from seven countries (none of which have been the source of terror attacks in the U.S. in decades) is already making U.S. academia less attractive to the rest of the world. Thus, even those of us who are relatively comfortable cannot be entirely secure even if we ignore the fate of those most likely to be directly harmed by Trump.

Still, it is tempting for those of us who can probably ride out the worst of Trump to each "tend our own garden," as Voltaire has Candide say at the conclusion of his horrific adventures. The temptation is especially strong for intellectuals, because the life of the mind can be an escape from the realities of the broader world. And indeed, I have found that since the election, I have been spending more time reading books and less time on social media or obsessively following the news.

Retreating from an unhealthy obsession with the latest outrageousness to emanate from Trump and his fellow travelers can be good for one's mental health. Yet taken to its logical conclusion, this attitude leads to quietism--the belief that the world is hopelessly irredeemable and so one should not court frustration by struggling against it. And quietism by those who could oppose evil makes evil more likely to triumph.

For those of us who have the luxury of choosing to engage with and resist Trump and his ilk, the key question is how. I'll consider three variations on the proposition "act locally."

(1) Let me begin by dispelling any suggestion that acting locally is inconsistent with acting nationally. It is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. More to the point, as a terrific document put together by former congressional staffers illustrates, the best way for individual citizens interested in resisting Trump to make their voices heard is by getting the ear of their respective members of Congress. Its authors draw lessons from the Tea Party movement, writing:
In spite of the fact that [Trump] has no mandate, he will attempt to use his congressional majority to reshape America in his own racist, authoritarian, and corrupt image. If progressives are going to stop this, we must stand indivisibly opposed to Trump and the members of Congress (MoCs) who would do his bidding. Together, we have the power to resist — and we have the power to win. 
We know this because we[] witnessed the rise of the Tea Party. We saw these activists take on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress. We saw them organize locally and convince their own MoCs to reject President Obama’s agenda. Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism— and they won. 
We believe that protecting our values, our neighbors, and ourselves will require mounting a similar resistance to the Trump agenda — but a resistance built on the values of inclusion, tolerance, and fairness. Trump is not popular. He does not have a mandate. He does not have large congressional majorities. If a small minority in the Tea Party can stop President Obama, then we the majority can stop a petty tyrant named Trump.
Inspirational language, no doubt, but the authors of Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda go on to give concrete practical advice about how to sway members of Congress. It's true, of course, that the Tea Party was most effective in resisting Obama after the GOP gained control of the House in the 2010 midterms, but the authors of Indivisible are also right that much of the groundwork was laid when they were still in the minority. Indivisible is one of the few things I've read in the last few months that gives me hope.

(2) Acting locally also means engaging in state and local politics. Republicans currently dominate state politics. There are more than twice as many Republican governors as Democratic ones. A full half of the states have both a Republican governor and Republican majorities in the state legislature. Only four states are comparably all-Democratic. Those numbers are bleak and gerrymandering makes them hard to change. Nonetheless, they are changeable. Republicans at the national level will likely overreach and states with Republican control will likely go along, providing opportunities for Democrats to pick up state legislative seats and governorships.

Moreover, local government can be a source of real power. Republicans have an even greater advantage in local politics because state sub-units (such as counties, cities, towns, and villages) tend to encompass unequal population units, and with Republicans more concentrated in rural areas than Democrats, they tend to control more total units.

But the flip side is Democratic urban dominance. Nine of the ten largest cities in America (including the seven largest) have Democratic mayors, as do twenty-two of the twenty-five largest cities. Although the "packing" of Democrats into cities undercuts the number of seats Democrats hold in the House of Representatives, cities also have substantial power, even when, as a formal matter, their powers are limited by state law. Among other things, local governments--including cities--often have substantial discretion in how to spend state and federal funds allocated to them. And as major economic and cultural sites, cities provide value to national leaders that gives municipal leaders leverage.

A memorable incident from the 1970s is instructive. People remember President Gerald Ford stiffing New York City during its time of need (although he never actually said "drop dead"), but they tend to forget that within two months of the infamous Daily News headline, he signed legislation providing the Big Apple with the loans it needed. Our nation's major cities are too big to fail (not least now because many of them contain Trump-branded properties), and that gives their Democratic leaders power.

Beyond the numbers game, of course, much policy is made at the state and local level, often on a non-partisan basis. A county government in a county that will lose crucial funding for its public hospital due to Obamacare repeal or that will have to shoulder the burden of cleaning up toxic waste sites without EPA assistance due to Trump/GOP gutting of the EPA is a county government that can both provide resistance to the national policies and look for ways to work around them--regardless of whether the County Board has more Republicans than Democrats.

(3) Finally, acting locally need not necessarily be defined geographically. Local activism could also mean taking action in some sphere in which one plays a role that can be a site of resistance to Trumpism. I'll give a couple of examples from my own experience.

Because of the risk faced by undocumented immigrant university students in the likely event that Trump cancels DACA, students and faculty at universities (including my own) have been urging our university administrators to take measures to protect those students. The term "sanctuary campus"[*see footnote below] movement is admittedly somewhat ill-defined and, as with all movements, there are more and less radical versions of this idea. At its most radical, the movement would have university administrators, faculty, and students providing active resistance--including law breaking--to federal authorities seeking to crack down on undocumented students. The somewhat less radical version (which I support) would have universities withhold cooperation with such efforts except under court order and replace any withdrawn federal financial support with other resources. Relatedly, it would have universities support and defend foreign students, faculty, staff, and their families against the horrid travel bans I discussed yesterday. I was heartened that Cornell (interim) President Hunter Rawlings issued a strong statement adopting most of what we faculty have been proposing. Strong leadership has also been in evidence from the University of MichiganHarvard, and elsewhere.

Another version of localism defined non-geographically means acting in one's area of expertise. Mine is law and so, while I think that nearly all of Trump's cabinet nominees are problematic, I signed a letter specifically objecting to his nomination of Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to be Attorney General because of what I regard as Sessions' hostility to the civil rights mission of the Justice Department. Others, with different expertise, might likewise oppose personnel and policies favored by Trump to which their expertise speaks.

Of course, these efforts won't always or even mostly succeed at their immediate goal. But they sometimes will. It is already conventional wisdom that the administration reversed itself yesterday and decided that the country ban doesn't apply to U.S. green card holders because of the widespread pushback against the policy. Sustained pressure could lead to more changes in the executive orders or at least to a face-saving decision to allow the policies to lapse when the Trump administration concludes that with a few cosmetic changes whatever policies are in place count as the vaunted "extreme vetting."

Meanwhile, even failed resistance can build solidarity of those already committed to the cause and raise the consciousness of others. There is value in pointing out to the public that Jeff Sessions is not just a southern conservative but someone with a long record of hostility to civil rights.

In the fight to prevent the "normalization" of Trump and Trumpism, plain-vanilla opposition to particular personnel or policies of the sort that would be appropriate even when offered against a normal Republican (or for that matter Democratic) president, his policies, and his nominees has a role to play, because just as the impact of Trump's attacks on the norms of democracy is cumulative, so is the impact of resistance.


*footnote: The term sanctuary campus refers to universities and colleges. Sanctuary campuses serve a function similar to the function of sanctuary cities. An executive order signed by President Trump last week purports to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, but as Ilya Somin notes on the Volokh Conspiracy, the order is flatly unconstitutional because only Congress has the power to condition funds on state or local compliance with federal law. As an aside, I disagree with Somin's further conclusion that 8 U.S.C. § 1373, which the Trump order cites as authority, itself violates the 10th Amendment. In Reno v. Condon, the Supreme Court distinguished between acts of Congress that demand affirmative aid from states and their subdivisions—which are invalid—and acts of Congress that forbid or pre-empt state laws limiting cooperation by others with federal authorities—which are valid. 8 U.S.C. § 1373 is a law of the latter type. Taken at face value, it does not affirmatively require state or local authorities to do anything. It merely forbids state and local power from interfering with the voluntary cooperation with the feds by state or local agencies or individuals.