The slogan of Trump protesters is “Resistance”

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Before Trump’s election, anyone who claimed to have been a member of “the resistance” was most likely over the age of 85, a veteran of anti-fascist struggles in France and other Nazi-occupied territories during World War II. That resistance involved armed conflict and personal risk of the bleakest sort, with guerrilla fighters hiding in the catacombs of Paris while Hitler’s forces did their worst above ground. Under fascist rule, there were no plausible options for political engagement. It was a fight to the death, and in early 1940s Europe, before the arrival of Allied troops, the outcome was far from certain. Talking about resistance still evokes this sense of honorable struggle against an occupying power. It implies patience as well as militancy, the ability to say no over and over and over again, to refuse to cooperate until the whole system crumbles.

After the war, anticolonial movements from South Africa to Northern Ireland found their own strategies of resistance, settling in for long, sometimes bloody fights. The United States introduced its own peculiar twist on this idea, transforming a rallying cry of third-world liberation into a defense of white supremacy. In 1954, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, white Southerners opted for “massive resistance” — a phrase coined by former Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia to describe the determined and bitter campaign to prevent the desegregation of Southern society. “Massive resistance” defended the racial status quo, but it adopted the language of rebellion, casting the federal government itself as an illegitimate occupying power.

The American left created a different language of resistance, much of it focused around the anti-conscription activities of groups like the War Resisters League. This anti-draft sensibility reached its peak in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, when student activists proclaimed a transition, per one slogan, “from Protest to Resistance.” As the movement veterans Staughton Lynd and Michael Ferber pointed out in their 1971 book, “The Resistance,” that shift grew out of a desire to embrace “a deeper and riskier commitment, a move that warranted a new term to replace ‘dissent’ and ‘protest.’ ” The goal was no longer simply to object to the war; it was to throw a wrench into the war machine and make it stop. Antiwar activists continued to engage in peaceful protest — but now some also burned draft cards and firebombed R.O.T.C. centers. A small number, like the Weathermen, took up bona fide guerrilla activity, planting bombs at the Capitol, the Pentagon and other prominent buildings.

As the war and its life-or-death stakes came to an end, so, too, did the embrace of resistance as a literal armed underground conspiracy. But while it faded as a political strategy, it began to gain prominence as a category of academic social analysis, the sort of thing that anthropologists and historians looked for in their studies of human societies. This was part of a broader trend toward “social history,” with its insistence that ordinary people — not just generals and politicians — could be the agents of serious historical change. Sometimes this meant studying organized revolts, like slave rebellions or peasant uprisings. By the 1980s, though, “resistance” had come to encompass a much broader set of behaviors. Enslaved or oppressed people might resist by taking up arms, but they might also resist simply by refusing to do as they were told. The political theorist James Scott called these “everyday forms of resistance” — a category that could include giving a sullen look to an employer, deliberately misfiling forms or just living life, as much as possible, on terms of your own choosing.




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