Trumps’ call for an end to resistance: a dangerous assault on democracy
Facing a divided Congress, President Donald Trump in his State of the Union Address called on Washington to reject “the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.” Many commentators have pointed to the disingenuity of Trump’s appeal for co-operative government. However, lurking within his call for bi-partisanship rests something far more dangerous than mere hypocrisy. Trump’s call for co-operation without resistance is in fact nothing more than an appeal to authoritarian submission.
Trump argued that to “bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions” we must choose between “results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction.” His message was simple: resistance — the ability to voice one’s feelings and desires and thus to protest against experiences of disconnection, injustice, neglect or oppression — — hinders progress and gets in the way of unity by undermining the possibility for healing ruptures. This is a dangerous outlook and a false argument.
In fact, Trump’s negative conception of resistance could not be further from the truth. Research in the human sciences shows that resistance — far from destructive of relationships is crucial to the repairing of rupture and the maintenance of healthy human connection. Just think of the powerful impact of the baby’s cry — an inbuilt mechanism to alert the caregiver of an unmet need. Protest, it turns out, is crucial to ensuring that even the most assymetrical of relationships — that between caregiver and infant (or president and citizen) — is responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable. From this perspective healthy resistance is crucial to democracy. Our ability to recognize and protest relational violations is the cornerstone of equal voice. It threatens the structures of hierarchy and oppression. So long as those below are able to communicate their feelings, needs and desires — to resist injustice — and those on top are able to feel empathy — we are inevitably pulled toward repairing the ruptures that all forms of hierarchy create
Our recent book “Why does patriarchy persist?” shows that the persistence of patriarchy, and all forms of hierarchy, rests on the shaming and silencing of this capacity for resistance and repair. Infant research shows the damage that results when this capacity for resistance is undermined or subverted. One only protests when there is hope of repair — of being heard and responded to, not necessarily with agreement, but with respect. In environments where protest is met with silence, or worse, punishment and derision, resistance turns to despair — depressive resignation — submission and compliance. And so, the most effective way to maintain divisions, whether on the basis of identity, gender, sexuality, race, religion or class, is to compromise and constrain our democratic ability for communicating and listening to each other with respect. The necessary path to submission and despair is the shaming and silencing of resistance. Trump’s call for an end to resistance is a desperate and dangerous step down this path.
Resistance — the speaking truth to power — while from a patriarchal perspective is as a vengeful and dangerous act of defiance, is from a democratic perspective a civic duty — crucial to the creation of more just, egalitarin and responsive structures of governance. By listing resistance — the speaking of truth to power — alongside revenge and retribution and juxtaposing it to co-operation, compromise and the common good — Trump is promoting an ideal of unity devoid of healthy opposition. Unity without resistance is not co-operation but compliance. And it’s certainly not democracy.
Naomi Snider, is co-author of Why Does Patriarchy Persist (Polity 2018)