Resistance, in the Light of 1776

What a year it has been. “Trump wins and the Resistance begins,” might sum it up. Into this maelstrom steps our annual “What would the Declaration say?” reflection. We could turn in three directions: toward Trump; toward “the Resistance”; toward the people who fall outside his devoted followers and fierce opponents, who wish to make some contribution to the commonweal in the midst of low-intensity civil war.

In the first case, we would seek for criteria by which to judge his actions (his real, not imagined ones), as well as guidance for him for the future.

In the second, we would look to mine the Declaration for criteria for judging legitimate efforts of resistance and to guide its principled, prudent practice.

Lastly, those who are not in either camp could look to the Declaration to gain perspective on what a steady and calm voice in the melee would sound like.

In our original Law and Liberty reflection for the holiday, we noted that the Declaration of Independence bespeaks an American mind that kept its wits in the midst of the storm and stress of dramatically unfolding events. It did so by applying principles to “Facts” (that word resonates today), by bringing an entire worldview to bear upon a set of dueling agents, and coming to a considered determination to act.

Last year’s entry took its lead from the warnings of the two political camps today concerning the nefarious agenda of the other’s standard-bearer. It turned to the Declaration’s depiction of the despotic character and deeds of the king of England and tried to draw lessons for analysis and evaluation in contemporary circumstances. Its framework for assessing an executive remains pertinent.

New since then is that the White House has switched hands—and those opposing the President are now “the Resistance,” a group comprising many elements, some well known, others not. Generalizations are difficult, but that is the nature of the political beast, and they need to be ventured to be confirmed or replaced with better. Since the Resistance does not receive nearly the scrutiny that its target does, it seems fair to turn attention on it for a bit.

The Resistance appears to have three fundamental objections to Trump: he does not represent them; he is illegitimate; he is a threat to all they hold dear. The first is a standard democratic (with a small “d”) lament after an election, but felt and taken to great lengths. Considered individually, the second and the third are each serious enough to justify resistance, while the three together are compelling, almost overwhelming, stirring deep passions of indignation, frustration, and fear. Add to that contempt for the person, and it is a very powerful brew.

Detached from their attendant passions, each of the charges has intellectual content and thus presents a theme for consideration. Each also points to affirmations in the Declaration that can be used for that consideration.

Ironically, while with its charges the Resistance points to dark clouds on the near horizon, if we look at the charges, we can begin to see other clouds of an equally dark character. Together they suggest a distinctive view of democracy, one rather exclusive in its inclusivity and monolithic in its view of diversity—in short, arguably as troubling as anything said about its opponent.

The political philosopher Pierre Manent can orient us in this matter. A few years ago, he observed an emerging “new order”:

The new order now imposing itself more and more on us rests on the contrast between legitimate and illegitimate opinions. . . . it already seems clear that with this transformation, we have started to pass from an order built on confrontation of equally legitimate opinions to one built on confrontation between legitimate opinions and illegitimate ones, between political orthodoxy and heresy.[1]

He added: “If this were true, then we would be in the process of departing from democracy as we have known it so far.”

We can retain three elements from Manent’s observation—a starkly binary character, the secularly sacred character[2], and a new understanding of democracy at work—and look for them in the thought of the Resistance. There are immediate resonances. Trump certainly threatens what it holds dear, what it holds sacred. He is profane and a profaner. He therefore has to be Resisted, this despite having run and won according to the rules of the game.

Now, Donald Trump in many ways is profane. Hillary Clinton’s most effective campaign ad brought this obvious truth to our attention. One needs to distinguish, however, his flagrant violations of norms of common morality and decency and his (real or imagined) flouting of Resistance norms and principles. Respect for women, for example, in no way necessarily entails commitment to an absolute abortion license or federal funding for Planned Parenthood. So one can agree with the Resistance, in part. But the content of its “sacred” remains to be investigated.

As for Trump’s legitimacy, the Resistance straddles two senses of the term—duly elected and morally legitimate. To express these senses, it often employs single words and short phrases—the popular vote, the Russians, Comey, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, the deplorables—so as not to have to distinguish them or expressly defend the imputation. Here, fortunately, we need not adjudicate the various claims in order to note that these planks of the anti-Trump platform represent a particular view of the facts in question, each one contestable, and a worldview within which they take on their full significance.

Now, some have tried to come to terms with the Resistance’s worldview. William Voegeli has done yeoman’s work in a number of essays.[3] The Declaration can make its contributions as well, not by direct comment, of course, but by implied questions and explicit criteria. Here is what it would have us ponder this day.

The document is not averse to worldviews; it has one that it expressed candidly. Has the Resistance expressed its worldview? Candidly? The record is mixed. There is need for more disclosure, as well as openness to criticism. Then the three areas of expressed concern: representation; legitimacy; existential threat.

The Declaration employs “representation,” or rather its cognates, twice. It refers to “Representative Houses” who earlier opposed “with manly firmness” George the Third’s “invasions on the rights of the people.” And inspired by their example,

the Representatives of the united States of America . . . appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.

Given human nature, Resistance partisans will be inclined to ascribe to their own attitude and activities vis-à-vis Trump the positive features of representative bodies. However, that is not the issue at hand: it is Trump as representative. To maintain that he does not represent their views does not entail that his representation is ipso facto illegitimate. He may represent another group of Americans. What about their right to be represented? Is that contested, too? The typical halfway answer—“n-es,” “no-and-yes”—quite literally wants it both ways. Events on college campuses and elsewhere might indicate what can happen when push comes to shove.

On the other hand, if members of the Resistance want to put themselves in the hero role, then intellectual consistency requires the application of the full set of criteria limned by the Declaration. Do they see themselves as under God? From what “good people” do they draw their authorization? Or is it self-authorization? The observation from Manent suggests that this worldview tends to circumscribe the notion of democracy in a way that is both exclusionary and self-validating. If true, it would be troubling, indicating a house dividing, if not already divided.

As for legitimate authority, the Declaration brings to the world’s attention the “abuses and usurpations” of executive power, which taken together indicate a “Design” leading to “Absolute Despotism.” But in so doing, it provides a template for detecting and measuring such possible tyrannical designs. The Resistance, to make good its claims, would have to make an actual case and make good its case. Following the Declaration, this would entail an argument that involves principles, forms, and facts, each and the whole open to discussion and rebuttal. Moreover, it reminds us all that this sort of action should not be taken for “light and transient causes” or reasons.  

This brings us to the existential threat that purportedly justifies not simply opposition, but Resistance. However, the Declaration also makes clear that such a threat justifies revolution. Is that where the Resistance wishes to go—or, better put, where its principles and worldview lead? I am reminded of Edmund Burke’s observation that the first revolution occurs in the minds of men.

In subsequent essays, I plan to delve deeper into this potentially revolutionary mindset.

[1] Pierre Manent, “Populist Demagogy and the Fanaticism of the Center,” American Affairs, Summer 2017. Originally published as “Démogogie populiste et fanatisme du centre,” in Le people existe-t-il?, edited by Michel Wieviorka, Les entretiens d’Auxerre (Auxerre: Sciences Humaines, 2012), pp. 275-286.

[2] I use the term “sacred” in the Durkheimian sense that Christopher Smith does. See his The Sacred Project of American Sociology (Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 1-2.

[3] William Voegeli, “The New Abnormal,” Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2017; William Voegeli, “The Democratic Party’s Identity Crisis,” Claremont Review of Books,  Winter 2016/17. See also William McGurn, “Why Elites Hate,” Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2017.