Is “Resistance” Enough?

Resist Trump pic

“RESIST” groups are popping up everywhere. In fact, a friend recently observed that they are “popping up like mushrooms.” On my own facebook page, there are at least a dozen different RESIST groups that I’m following, from all over Wisconsin and the nation. There is one thing that unites them – their pledge to oppose anything and everything the current occupant of the White House says or does. But is “resistance” to Trump going to be enough to change the course of our political ship? I say no, for two very important reasons – history and science. Here’s my analysis of why we need more than a contrarian campaign. And I’ll provide my thoughts on what to do, based on listening and discussing the issue with many progressives (and conservatives).

First, those of us who experienced the Recall of Scott Walker in 2011 have recent history to inform us; and secondly, cognitive science tells us that by merely countering your opponent’s ideas, you can unconsciously reinforce them. If the reaction against Trump is to turn into a movement that will really unite people and bring about real political change, it needs to be about something deep, meaningful, and positive.

Many of the RESIST groups were formed under the “Indivisible” umbrella, inspired by the idea launched by a group of former congressional staffers who experienced the “Tea Party takeover” of Congress. There is one aspect of their analysis that is 100% correct – the organizational aspect. The principle of organizing at the grassroots, local level, and providing resources to empower the kind of action only local residents can take is PRECISELY what I and many other progressives have been calling for, for years now!

Unfortunately, and largely I believe because of their personal bias of being “under the dome” during the Tea Party rise to power, the “Indivisible” guide misses WHY the Tea Party became so popular and so powerful. And if one doesn’t understand the concepts of cognitive framing, one is likely to have missed this point. Why? Because one fails to see the moral values and worldview the Tea Party (and broader conservative movement) represents. Today, that frame, or worldview, is our political common sense. Therefore it resonates with a vast majority of people – even many Democrats! Here’s the section from Chapter 1 of the “Indivisible Guide” that misses the mark:

“They were almost purely defensive. The Tea Party focused on saying NO to Members of Congress (MoCs) on their home turf. While the Tea Party activists were united by a core set of shared beliefs, they actively avoided developing their own policy agenda. Instead, they had an extraordinary clarity of purpose, united in opposition to President Obama. They didn’t accept concessions and treated weak Republicans as traitors.”

The idea that the Tea Party actions were “purely defensive” and were focused on “saying NO to MoCs” might be true from the perspective of these former Democratic congressional staffers, but it is not reality. In reality, the Tea Party formed around a set of core conservative values that have been accepted in public discourse for decades – thanks to the work of conservative think tanks, media, and political leaders who understand and use the power of framing and effective language. And yes, it can be used by frauds and liars to lie and defraud people (as with Trump). More importantly, framing can and must be used to communicate progressive truth in a way that people will accept, believe, and act on.

The Tea Party is and was always about a set of moral principles, and we know this to be true from research into cognitive framing and politics. While it is a moral system progressives do not agree with, it is a moral system. And it is the dominant moral system in our politics today. Democrats are failing to effectively counter it with their “comprehensive 12 point plans”, litany of issue facts, and “resist” campaigns. As we will see shortly, the mere act of resisting is actually helping Trump…and it could be part of his plan.


The Tea Party is fundamentally about two important, and connected, conservative moral ideas that are displayed on the signs above. These two connected ideas are “personal liberty” (defined as the moral right to pursue one’s own self-interest, often understood as financial), and small (or “limited”) government (so as not to impede one’s moral right to “personal liberty”). In addition, the conservative moral system is authoritarian, and based on a socio-economic hierarchy where people are viewed as moral based on their status, wealth, position, gender, religious beliefs, etc. I’ve written and discussed this in great detail over the years! Make no mistake, it is time for progressives to understand and accept that this is a largely unconscious moral system. If we are to inspire and motivate political change, we must offer people a better belief system.

Why doesn’t the act of “resisting” counter the conservative moral system? Because only one moral system can be active at a time in our brains – that’s simply how it works (mutual inhibition). If you are thinking only about your own self-interest, you can’t also be thinking about caring for others’ well being! If you are repeating ideas your opponent communicates, even if you say you are against them, you are still activating your opponents’ moral system, and making it stronger in public discourse. This is especially true if you do not provide people with an effective moral counter, in order to get people thinking in terms of your moral system. And by the way – facts and policy issues are NOT effective ways to evoke your moral system. They can only be understood (or rejected) in the context of the moral system people believe.

Two recent articles, one by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, and one by Rory Carroll in The Guardian, point out the cognitive effect through their keen observations.

After starting with an anecdote about his recent time in Oklahoma City speaking with Trump voters, Kristof makes a spot-on observation:

“When I write about people struggling with addictions or homelessness, liberals exude sympathy while conservatives respond with snarling hostility to losers who make “bad choices. When I write about voters who supported President Trump, it’s the reverse: Now it’s liberals who respond with venom, hoping that Trump voters suffer for their bad choice.”

He then recounts the response from many of his readers to his actually listening to people who voted for Trump:

“I’m just going to say it,” tweeted Bridgette. “I hate these people. They are stupid and selfish. Screw them. Lose your jobs, sit home and die.”

Kristof rightly points out that millions of Trump voters were Hispanic or African American, and they had previously voted for Barack Obama. He also observes, quite right, that to win over Trump voters is not to “normalize extremism,” it is to “adapt a strategy to combat it.” States like Wisconsin are in critical need of such a strategy – because it does not exist now, and the “RESIST” movement is insufficient. Kristof’s final paragraph underscores the need for a locally focused, positive, progressive campaign that unites people through a set of shared, non-partisan, moral values. Merely “standing in opposition to”, or attacking the person they believe to be their moral leader, will only continue to alienate people who are badly in need of hope for the future.

“…remember that social progress means winning over voters in flyover country, and that it’s difficult to recruit voters whom you’re simultaneously castigating as despicable, bigoted imbeciles.”

The recent article in The Guardian rightly asks an important question most progressives don’t want to think about – “is the resistance inadvertently helping the administration?”

The author points out the facts:

“Removals have not spiked since Trump’s inauguration, according to figures Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) supplied to the Guardian: 35,604 removals in January and February, versus 35,255 over the same period last year.”

Yet the cognitive effect on people cannot be ignored, and is influencing behavior as we would expect:

“It is enforcement through attrition – instilling so much fear that people leave on their own.” Roberto Suro, a journalism and Latino affairs scholar at the University of Southern California, said…“Fear is a natural consequence. People appear to be changing their behavior. There’s talk of folks at least thinking about going home. That obviously would suit Trump’s purposes.”

Unfortunately, the lack of understanding about cognitive framing and the power of communicating actual values has left many progressive leaders with no effective strategy. And the strategy of mere resistance leaves them reinforcing the very worldview they oppose. In fact, one of the most successful ideas conservatives have elevated to “common sense” is the idea that government is evil and immoral – and can’t be trusted. This has created a metaphorical wall between the people and their government – something that suits Trump and conservative extremists VERY well.

The administration sought to make citizens afraid of immigrants and immigrants afraid of government. Even so, said (Chris) Newman (Director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network), there was only one option: resist. “Our overall view is when in doubt, fight back, even if it means amplifying Trump’s message.”

The idea of organizing to resist is great. But there must be a core belief for people to believe in, and provide hope for those in need. There must also be empathy, an authentic and open caring for others that extends to those you disagree with. Only through such a new cognitive strategy which focuses on the “politics of caring for others” will the resistance build into a movement for real political, social change. We saw in the 2011 Recall, that a campaign built on mere resistance against an authoritarian figure will fail. People need something to believe in, and provide hope for the future.


One comment

  1. There’s a lot to what this article says (“Is Resistance Enough ?”), but I think it illustrates the bind that we’re in. To some extent, I suppose criticizing and resisting the conservatives’ message does strengthen it, but what’s the counter message we want to put in its place. I suppose it’s either a “third way” capitalism, or socialism outright, but those involve long, complicated learning curves, and have to go against the flow of the American psyche. On the other hand, don’t forget that more people did vote for Hillary than for Trump, so it isn’t exactly that Trump has some mandate from “the People”. I think that if, for cultural and emotional reasons, a lot of people are deluded by the Koch Bros. etc. There’s not much I can do about it. We need to push for equal justice, environmental protections, etc. not primarily out of empathy, or some condescending sense of “let me come to your aid, you poor benighted worker”, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do because it’s consistent with objective reality (the environment), and it’s the right thing to do because it’s consistent with the floorplan of Judeo-Christian morality, which is still our ethical starting point. I think it may be arrogant, and a waste of time, to try to court those who don’t want to be courted.


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