Nonviolent Resistance in the Age of Trump

It has now been just over a week since the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, was inaugurated. In that time, popular demonstrations have exploded across the country, reaching their recent pinnacle with what is likely the largest protest in American history, the Women’s March on Washington (and its many offshoots in all 50 states). These uprisings portend a strong and multifaceted opposition to Trump’s presidency. They also point to what is likely to be a definitive feature of the next four years.

Nonviolent resistance, it seems, is on the rise.

As Gene Sharp (often called the “father of nonviolent revolution”) underscores, institutional procedures are often unavailable to confront “conflicts that, in one way or another, involve fundamental principles of a society, of independence, of self-respect, or of people’s capacity to determine their own future.” He goes on to say that when such conflicts come to the fore — as they have in our own society of late — there are conventionally thought to be two courses of action: passive submission or violence. Sharp highlights that there is, however, a third way, that of nonviolent struggle.

Whether it is the pragmatic nonviolence of Sharp, or the principled nonviolence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., this form of resistance is particularly well-suited for the age of Donald Trump.

Trump is a self-styled negotiator, a badge of honor that he has carried into the presidency and that is epitomized in his book,The Art of the Deal.Nonviolent activists, the seasoned and newcomers alike, would do well to take note of this, as widespread civil resistance has the potential to be effectively leveraged at the negotiating table, leading to progress on the myriad issues represented in the burgeoning opposition movement.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King affirms this notion, pointing out, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

If individuals and organizations continue to take to the streets and stand up for the rights of women, immigrants, refugees and marginalized communities; if we relentlessly find innovative ways to confront common challenges such as climate change, racial injustice and rising inequality; and if we are resolute in upholding the freedom of the press, respect for truth in a world of “alternative facts,” and a government that works for all Americans, a creative disorder will ensue and the negotiator-in-chief will have no choice but to come to the table.

Many have lamented the actions taken by President Trump during his first week in office, but there is cause for optimism. Conflict — the likes of which we’ve seen between the new administration and the rising opposition — has to see the light of day before it can be resolved and progress can be made. Nonviolent resistance is the best tool to facilitate this process. As Veronique Dudouet, a scholar well-versed in civil resistance and conflict transformation comments, “… it magnifies existing social and political tensions, by imposing greater costs on those who want to maintain their advantages under an existing system.”

Nonviolent resistance is likely to thrive in the age of Trump, as the events of recent days foreshadow. This, however, is nothing to fear. On the contrary, if the resistance is executed creatively and consistently, it is the best weapon we can employ in combatting fear and injustice. Nonviolent resistance at its best expands our collective notion of “We the People,” and is a win-win for each and every component of the American mosaic.