Donald Trump’s presidency won’t begin for two weeks, but activism against his presidency is well underway. On Tuesday, House Republicans dropped their plan to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics after constituents inundated lawmakers with phone calls in opposition. The NAACP’s national president and others were arrested after a sit-in at Senator Jeff Session’s Mobile, Alabama office to protest his nomination for attorney general. And some 200,000 demonstrators are readying for the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump is sworn in; The Washington Post is calling it “a focal point for activists on the left who have been energized in opposing his agenda.”
This is a promising start to the resistance. With Democrats completely out of power in Washington and in half of the states, such organizing and protesting will be vital to fighting Trump’s regressive agenda. While demonstrators in particular face daunting challenges—not least an incoming president who has questioned dissent and encouraged violence against protesters—there’s reason to hope that enough mobilization could blunt the worst of Trump’s presidency.
Anti-war progressives who were active in the Bush years might roll their eyes at that sentiment, but this time appears different. For as much as the Democratic Party was decimated in 2016, progressive activists are undeniably stronger today than they were in the 2000s.
“The left is in better shape to oppose Trump than it was to oppose Bush,” said Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University. “I think the left has an agenda in a way it didn’t before.” The left wasn’t nearly as galvanized in the Bush era, he said, when many Democrats—including liberals in Congress—supported Bush’s Iraq invasion. An anti-war movement emerged before the intervention, but died down quickly afterwards.
During President Barack Obama’s tenure, meanwhile, two major movements emerged—Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter—plus many others of note, such as Keystone, Standing Rock, and the Fight for $15. Progressive activists propelled Senator Bernie Sanders further in last year’s presidential race than most thought possible, thereby mainstreaming democratic socialism, securing the most progressive Democratic platform in party history, and pushing centrist Hillary Clinton to run on an unabashedly left-wing domestic agenda.
Kazin said the left was emboldened by the current president in part because he disappointed them. They expected Obama to be more progressive, so they tried to push him further left—and succeeded at times. Thus, our current paradox: While one legacy of the Obama presidency may be Trump’s election, another is a progressive movement primed to fight back.
More than any other president before him, Obama has celebrated the patriotism of protest in American life. In 2015, speaking on the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, he noted “that at the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised” the demonstrators. “Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism challenged. And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place?” he said. “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical...”
Obama has spoken similarly of today’s protesters. Asked about the University of Missouri protests in 2015, he said, “I want an activist student body just like I want an activist citizenry, and the issue is just making sure that even as these young people are getting engaged, getting involved, speaking out that they’re also listening. I’d rather see them err on the side of activism than being passive.” He made similar remarks about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. And when asked after last year’s election about Trump protesters, he said, “I’ve been the subject of protests during the course of my eight years. And I suspect that there’s not a president in our history that hasn’t been subject to these protests. So I would not advise people who feel strongly or who are concerned about some of the issues that have been raised during the course of the campaign, I wouldn’t advise them to be silent.”
Obama has indeed been the subject of many protests, and he hasn’t always handled them in the same way.
Jennicet Gutiérrez, an undocumented transgender Latina organizer with Trans Queer Liberation Movement in Los Angeles, heckled Obama at a 2015 White House reception celebrating the progress of the LGBTQ community under his administration. “President Obama, release all L.G.B.T.Q. immigrants from detention and stop all deportations!” she shouted.
“Hey. Listen,” he said, smiling at first. “You’re in my house.” When Gutiérrez persisted, he said, “Shame on you.”
Obama “really humiliated me,” Gutiérrez told me. She remains critical of his presidency, saying, “Yes, there has been some progress, but at the same time there has to be progress for all of the community.”
Obama’s most relentless protester, though, has softened her position somewhat.
In 2013, Medea Benjamin, the founder of anti-war group Code Pink and an accomplished speech disrupter, heckled Obama multiple times during a counterterrorism speech. “You are commander in chief!” she shouted. “You can close Guantanamo today! You can release those 86 prisoners!” Obama, despite his frustration, gave a remarkable response after Benjamin was escorted from the event: “The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said, and obviously she wasn’t listening to me and much of what I said. But these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.”
Benjamin now concedes that his response was “brilliant.” Like many progressive activists, she has complicated feelings about the Obama era. Though she’s critical of much his foreign policy, she says the activist left also missed an opportunity to pressure him more, given that he was more responsive to that pressure than any other president in her lifetime. “I blame us and not Obama,” she said. “I definitely think that we as progressives would have more to show for these eight years if we had been more visible.”
The results of last year’s election puts Obama in another light, too.
“I must say I’m already missing Obama,” she said, “and just the idea of having Donald Trump and his family in the White House is making me physically ill.”
The good news is that the left developed a number of strong activist movements during the Obama years. But this is also the bad news. The Trump resistance will be messy, at least at first, because each movement will want to prioritize its own central cause.
“Obviously the task progressive demonstrators face is how they’re able to mount large protests, put together a coalition of groups on the left with different priorities, and yet also be able to not cut off their access to the Democrats, who they’re going to need to mount a really successful opposition,” Kazin said, adding that anti-Trump forces will need an “inside-outside strategy” akin to the movement against the Vietnam War. That means protests and other activism that puts pressure on Washington from the outside, while also working to elect politicians who can represent their interests on the inside.
“You gotta organize,” Kazin said. “You gotta go to PTAs and talk about the problem of privatizing public education. You gotta go to patients and talk about what doing away with the [Affordable Care Act] would do to them.” (Democrats are already planning “save health care” rallies across the country in the coming weeks.) Ultimately, though, there’s no substitute for electing representatives to resist Trump—at every level. “I think the best example is under Nixon, where there continued to be large anti-war demonstrations,” Kazin said. “Most people on the left also understood that they needed to elect liberal Democrats if they were going to stop the war,” which activists helped do in 1970 and then 1972. “You’ve got to thread the needle between going it alone as a protest movement and expecting Democrats just to do things for you.”
Activists may soon be able to expect more from Democrats in power, depending on who wins the race to become the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the progressive favorite, has garnered key endorsements from Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. His election “would represent a major shift in the party,” said Benjamin. “I don’t want to nix his chances by saying how excited I am, but I am! We’re so cynical about Congress, and so cynical about their motives, that somebody like him is a breath of fresh air.” Benjamin said Ellison “likes to engage, and he is there for the grassroots, and he has very good relationships with lots of organizers.”
Meanwhile, many activists are still figuring out the specifics of the Trump resistance.
DeRay Mckesson, a leading Black Lives Matter activist who met with the president last year to discuss police-community relations, said, “We’ll continue to see new models of activism and organizing emerge that leverage the power of technology and social media with regard to building people’s capacity, mobilizing people who beforehand didn’t see a role for themselves, and engaging coalitions in a much more broad and nuanced way.”
Alexis Goldstein, a prominent Occupy Wall Street activist, is thinking about “organizing around material needs” for Americans harmed by Trump’s presidency, much the way Occupy activists aided Hurricane Sandy victims with their “Occupy Sandy” rapid-response effort. “For me, Occupy was a very empowering experience that taught me how to organize, how to plan,” she said. “In a way, we were this sort of people-powered FEMA.”
Both Benjamin and Gutierrez expect to see a new flourishing of activism and protest under Trump, but they each stressed the need for disparate issue groups to work together. “Groups now recognize the critical importance of coalitions and intersectionality and being good allies,” Benjamin said.
It’s even more critical now that they don’t have the president’s ear.
“What was important about President Obama was he listened,” Mckesson said. “It’s not clear that Trump is even listening.”