BOSTON – After President Donald Trump’s election, a wave of furious opposition erupted. It was an emotional mix of denial and anger, the first two stages of grief, and it wasn’t very effective.
Yet increasingly that has matured into thoughtful efforts to channel the passion into a movement organized toward results. One example: the wave of phone calls to congressional offices that torpedoed the Republican “health care plan.”
Yes, Trump opponents lost the election and we have to recognize that elections have consequences. But if “resistance” has a lefty ring to it, it can also be framed as a patriotic campaign to protect the United States from someone who we think would damage it.
So what are the lessons from resistance movements around the world that have actually succeeded? I’ve been quizzing the experts, starting with Gene Sharp, a scholar here in Boston.
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Sharp’s works – now in at least 45 languages and available free online – helped the Baltic countries win freedom from Russia, later guided students in bringing democracy to Serbia, and deeply influenced the strategy of Arab Spring protesters. Sharp is THE expert on challenging authoritarians, and orders for his writings have surged since Trump’s election.
Today, Sharp is 89 and in fading health. But his longtime collaborator, Jamila Raqib, has been holding workshops for anti-Trump activists, and there have even been similar sessions for civil servants in Washington exploring how they should serve under a leader they distrust.
The main message Sharp and Raqib offered is that effectiveness does not come from pouring out into the street in symbolic protests. It requires meticulous research, networking and preparation.
“Think!” Sharp said. “Think before you do anything. You need a lot of knowledge first.” His work emphasizes grass-roots organizing, searching out weak spots in an administration – and patience before turning to 198 nonviolent methods he has put into a list, from strikes to consumer boycotts to mock awards.
Raqib recommended pragmatic efforts seeking a particular outcome, not just a vague yearning for the end of Trump. When pushed, she said that calls for a general strike in February were insufficiently organized, and that the Women’s March on Washington, which had its first protest the day after Inauguration Day, will ideally become anchored in a larger strategy for change. But she thinks the Day Without Immigrants” protest was well crafted, and the same for the bodega strike by Yemeni immigrants.
Sam Daley-Harris, another maestro of effective protest, agrees on a focus on results, not just symbolic protest. He has overseen groups like Results and the Citizens Climate Lobby that have had outsize influence on policy, so I asked him what citizens upset at Trump should do.
“The overarching answer is to work with your member of Congress,” Daley-Harris told me. He suggested focusing on a particular issue that you can become deeply knowledgeable about. Then work with others to push for a meeting with a member of Congress, a state lawmaker or even a legislative staff member.
He recommended speaking courteously – anyone too hostile is dismissed and loses influence – and being very specific about which bill you want the person to support or oppose.
I’m encouraged by the increasing savvy of the resistance efforts, with excellent online resources cropping up and grass-roots groups like EmergeAmerica.org and RunforSomething.net developing to train people who want to run for political office. Students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government have organized “Resistance School,” a kind of online teach-in to sharpen the tools activists need. The first 90-minute webcast had more than 50,000 streams.
“We wanted to move away from a defensive response to an offensive response, not just marching but also thinking of long-term strategy,” one of the organizers, Shanoor Seervai, told me.
To students of resistance – patriotic resistance! – let me offer three lessons from my own experience reporting on pro-democracy movements over decades, from China to Egypt, Mongolia to Taiwan.
First, advocates are often university-educated elites who can come across as patronizing. So skip the lofty rhetoric and emphasize issues of pocketbooks and corruption. Centrist voters may not care whether Trump is riding roughshod over institutions, but they'll care if he rips them off or costs them jobs.
Second, movements must always choose between purity and breadth – and usually they overdo the purity. It’s often possible to achieve more with a broader coalition, cooperating with people one partially disagrees with. I think it was a mistake, for example, for the Women’s March to disdain “pro-life” feminists.
Third, nothing deflates an authoritarian more than ridicule. When Serbian youths challenged dictator Slobodan Milosevic, they put his picture on a barrel and rolled it down the street, allowing passers-by to whack it with a bat.
In recruiting for the Trump resistance, Stephen Colbert may be more successful than a handful of angry Democratic senators. Trump can survive denunciations, but I’m less sure that in the long run he can withstand mockery.
Nicholas Kristof can be contacted at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.