Rhythms of Resistance

by Sidney Tarrow

What can we say in the very short-run about the extraordinary wave of contention that has greeted the inauguration of Donald Trump and his first tranche of Executive Orders? We can say – as much of the press does – that the numbers of demonstrators has been impressive or – as the administration responded – that these facts don't matter. Or we can point to individual social actors: the women who marched in their hundreds of thousands on January 21st; the lawyers who appeared at airports to defend those caught up in the web of entrapment caused by Trump’s Refugee Executive Order; the young people and families who called out Republican politicians for threatening their health care; or the State Department civil servants who signed a Dissent Cable against the new administration’s emerging foreign policy. Or we can – as an increasing circle of public figures, celebrities, and tech firms have done – condemn the combination of “malevolence tempered by incompetence”, as Benjamin Wittes put it in a recent Lawfare post.

Instead, this post focuses on what I call “the rhythms of resistance” – that is, on the possibility of a common rhythm  that will create a cumulative cycle of protest, or different rhythms that may fragment the resistance just as it starts, against an administration that has shown a capacity for ruthless speed – if not for total coherence.

Since the 1960s, social movement theorists have made much of the concatenation of different threads of contention in what they have called  “cycles of protest”, by which they mean “a phase of heightened conflict across the social system, with rapid diffusion of collective action from more mobilized to less mobilized sectors, a rapid pace of innovation in the foms of contention employed, the creation of new or transformed collective action frames, a combination of organized and unorganized participation, and sequences of intensified information flow and interaction between challengers and authorities" (quoted from my POWER IN MOVEMENT, Cambridge, 2011, p. 199).

But not all cycles are the same. Some are unified against single targets while others are made up of a congeries of actors who take advantage of “opportunity structures” triggered by early risers. Some congeal around common claims and performances while others are dispersed around a number of different claims and draw on a broad repertoire of action. Most important, in some cycles different actors coordinate their efforts in coalitions, while in others, different actors proceed along different paths in relative isolation from one another.

The movement against the Vietnam war came close to the cohesive model. Although different actors opposed the war in a variety of venues using a broad repertoire ranging from stern resolutions in Congress to mass mobilizations to breaking into offices of the FBI, in the late 1960s and early ‘70s America experienced a relatively cohesive cycle of contention against an administration that was executing a savage war in Asia and breaching the rule of law at home. Likewise, there was relative coherence in the determined effort to suppress the movement, which ranged from efforts at crowd control to FBI “cointelpro” efforts to the ultimately disastrous Watergate break in.  Despite the suppression efforts and indeed as illustrated by them, the movement was successful, as no less a witness than Richard Nixon had to recognize.

Far less unified – and therefore less successful – were the movements against the excesses of the Bush administration between 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. As I tried to show in my book, WAR, STATES AND CONTENTION (Cornell, 2015, ch. 9), the efforts to rein in those excesses were too varied to summarize here, but they took three main forms: a lawyer’s movement against the illegal detention of people swept up on the battlefield that began in 2002; an anti-war movement against the invasion of Iraq in 2003; and a series of efforts by civil society groups to expose and contest the government’s increasingly intrusive surveillance, culminating in the Wikileaks and Snowden exposures early in the next decade.

These efforts drew on a wide range of contenders, utilized a broad spectrum of forms of resistance, and attacked different facets of the administration’s policies, based on the distinct efforts of lawyers, civil society groups, whistleblowers and peace activists. Not only that: they stretched out over more than a decade, punctuated by the distraction of the electoral campaign of Barack Obama, and offered no single target for their claims. The lawyers who created “the Guantanamo Bar” around the Center for Constitutional Rights were quick to focus on illegal detention, while the ACLU, which was  slower off the mark,  specialized in FOIA requests. While both of these two legal groups were full of people who sympathized with the antiwar movement, neither group was active in the movement against the Iraq war, which  was momentarily enormous, but lost much of its support as “the party in the street” gravitated to the 2004 and 2008 election campaigns, as Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas showed in their book of the same name (Cambridge 2015). As for the anti-surveillance movement, it didn’t ripen until the second Obama administration and never congealed into a unified coalition. The different rhythms of anti-Bush contestation prevented an anti-Vietnam War type movement from emerging.

Is such a dispersion what we can expect from the current contestation of the Trump presidency?  There is certainly a diversity of motives, origins, and methods of opposition in this emerging movement. The lawyers who appeared at airports around the country after Trump’s proclamation of his anti-refugee executive order were doing what lawyers do – as their predecessors in the Guantanamo Bar had done. The women -- and men -- who marched across the country – and the world – on January 21st were using a well-honed performance in the repertoire of contention – the public march and demonstration.  The hundreds of citizens’ groups who are converging at town halls and legislators’ offices to protest their representatives’ cow-towing to the Trump agenda are unabashedly copying the tactics of the Tea Party a half-decade ago; the cities and counties that are declaring themselves “sanctuaries” are using a form of resistance that goes back to the support for Central American immigrants in the 1980s; and the State Department civil servants who dissented from the Trump foreign policy were using a conventional means of expression protected by law.  As for Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General who refused to implement an immoral and possibly unconstitutional executive order, she was using yet another performance in the traditional repertoire of contention – the deliberate resignation.  And here and there, violence is breaking out against “Alt-Right” supporters of the new regime, already risking fractures in the emerging movement.

These different streams of protest could dribble off into distinct rivulets of contention. But there are reasons to suspect that the growing resistance to Trump and his gauleiters Pence and Bannon will turn out to look more like the unified anti-Vietnam movement than like the fragmented opposition to the Bush presidency.

First, the numbers of participants and the resources gravitating into the movement are enormous. Though it was started on a shoestring and its founders made a number of tactical errors, the women’s march was arguably the largest national demonstration in the nation’s history. Civil society groups of a progressive disposition have seen their contributions and their memberships soar since November 8th. People who would never have dreamt of participating in a movement are marching, making posters, phoning their representatives, and turning out for demonstrations during the coldest part of the year. And around the country, new sanctuary cities being voted by city councils  -- over ten of them since January 1st alone.

Second, although its forms of action are varied, they center on a single target – Donald Trump – who has obliged the emerging movement by choosing to put foxes in the henhouse of his cabinet and a  frightening group of consiglieri for his inner circle. Trump seems determined to offend every potential opposition group to his government  and has helped to turn the media into an opposition by labeling it one.  Most important, he is driving the normally quiescent Democratic party establishment into the arms of its progressive grassroots base – something that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton never succeeded in achieving.

Most important, perhaps driven by the fear that if he doesn’t move quickly, his combination of malevolence and incompetence will be uncovered, President Trump is helping the emerging movement to solve the problem that hobbled its predecessors in the Bush years.  The frantic rhythm of Presidential lèse majesté is condensing his offenses into such a tight time frame that the rhythms of resistance are converging. Or at least so it seems at this date.