An Empty Gesture of Resistance: A History

By Terence Renaud

An op-ed published in The New York Times by an anonymous official in the Trump Administration makes the extraordinary claim that a resistance group has formed inside the White House. Composed of “like-minded colleagues,” this group has covertly frustrated the President’s “worst inclinations.” The author adopts the tone of an honorable conservative and patriot, who will serve the interests of his or her country even despite the will of its commander-in-chief.

Drawing of four people pulling the United States off of a cliff with ropes.
I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” The New York Times, Sept. 5, 2018.

Quickly, the op-ed clarifies that “ours is not the popular ‘resistance’ of the left.” Indeed. This amorphous group wants the Administration to succeed, and it agrees with most of its policies such as deregulation and the tax bill. The only problem is the erratic behavior of the President himself. It’s curious that the author here places the word “resistance” in quotation marks, as if to insinuate that liberal or left resistance to Trump actually means something else. Subversion, disloyalty, crime, un-American activity? The question hovers in the air, unanswered.

Despite all the wild speculation, it doesn’t matter much who wrote the op-ed. What matters is that its author dons the mantle of resistance and draws moral legitimacy from it. Heroic gestures, such as written protests or public demonstrations, seek to change the public narrative somehow. They convey risk, self-sacrifice, and integrity. Gestures of resistance are speech acts that typically defy the laws, norms, and behavioral codes of an established regime. As a gesture of resistance, however, this op-ed fits with a peculiar genre.

Clearly it doesn’t belong to the tradition of social movements consisting of those excluded from power. One thinks of guerrilla fighters, partisans, and workers on strike. Nor does it belong to the tradition of civil disobedience, as exemplified by Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government” and the campaigns of nonviolence led by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. And yes, the author correctly distinguishes it from the liberal Resistance to Trumpism, which involves demos, marches, picketing congressional offices, knocking on doors, making phone calls, and so on.

Instead, this op-ed’s genre comprises acts of resistance committed by those in positions of power. Included within the dominant structures of government, the military, or big business, such dissidents protest some aspect of the institutions that they often helped create. The op-ed isn’t quite whistleblowing, insofar as it doesn’t expose any secret wrongdoing by the Administration that we don’t already know about. Nor does it seek to change the Administration in any substantive way. It looks more like the genre of resistance testimony, or literally “bearing witness” to tyranny or injustice through a public statement.

Religious history provides many examples of this genre. The Augustinian monk and professor of theology Martin Luther famously bore witness to corruption within the Catholic Church when he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Originally meant to reform the Church, this “protestant” act and Luther’s subsequent polemics ended up causing a historic schism that transformed all of Europe. More recently, the conservative Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò published his own fiery “Testimony” that denounces alleged wrongdoing by Pope Francis in the Church’s ongoing child-abuse scandal.

As a secular example, one of the first theorists of resistance, Carl von Clausewitz, published his “Testimonial” [Bekenntnisschrift] in 1812. Using the Protestant tradition as a model, he combined a private confession of faith in the German nation with a formal public protest against what he perceived to be a diminishing will to resist Napoleon’s armies. Clausewitz sought to dissuade his fellow Prussian military officers that resistance against France was futile. He did so by alternating between warm appeals to masculine virtues, such as honor and courage, and cool reason, such as his pragmatic plan for volunteer militias and guerrilla warfare. At stake for him was the very survival of the German nation.

On the surface the Times op-ed resembles resistance testimony. Like Luther and Viganò, its author defends the one true creed against corruption and perceived deviations. Like Clausewitz, the author evokes a national crisis and the need to pull together. But the op-ed fails to carry out the rhetorical function of resistance testimony. Instead of announcing a radical new direction, calling for reform, flirting with treason, or doing any of the things typical of that genre, it affirms the status quo and reassures its (conservative) readers, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” Its effect is soporific.

Critics have already denounced the op-ed as collaboration disguised as resistance. Surely the clandestine acts that it describes serve to stabilize the Trump Administration, not subvert it. Some wonder whether the Times should have published it all. There was at least one good reason to do so: the op-ed reveals the actual mechanism that allows the hectic and seemingly unstable Trump Administration to function. This person and the other “adults in the room” are enablers.

Another historical analogy comes to mind, albeit a fraught one. The German Resistance [Widerstand] to the Nazi regime included a diverse array of disgruntled workers, communists, writers, generals, and aristocrats. Only during the early years of the regime was it a mass phenomenon, and despite Germany’s official commemoration today of “the” Widerstand, it was never a unified movement. The most celebrated act of resistance came on July 20, 1944, when a plot by army officers and intelligence chiefs—the adults in the room—nearly assassinated Hitler. They placed a bomb inside the Führer’s command bunker near the East Prussian town of Rastenburg. Only the heft of a conference table leg shielded Hitler from the blast. Afterward, the mass reprisal against real and imagined plotters was brutal.

The July 20 plotters knew that they were committing treason. They grappled with this fact, because it conflicted with their inborn sense of duty. They also knew that they would pay the ultimate price, possibly even if they succeeded. But they decided to transgress the law and the Führer’s will in the name of morality and the higher national interest.

A more cynical interpretation of the so-called Generals’ Plot is that these conservative defenders of patriotic virtue, who disagreed with the Nazi extremists around Hitler, only decided to act after it became clear that Germany would lose the war. Defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943 had set the plot in motion. The generals reasoned that with Hitler gone, they might be able to negotiate a more favorable peace with the Allies.

It would be wrong to deny the differences in style between German militarist conservatives and outright fascists. Still, the basic principles and material interests of those two groups aligned. Without support from Reichswehr officers and elements of the aristocracy, the Nazi Party never would have taken power in the first place. Thus the belated resistance in July 1944 rings hollow, despite our courageous portraits of Claus von Stauffenberg and the rest.

So the Times op-ed fails both as resistance testimony and, following the July 20 debacle, as a principled divergence from the ideology of the dominant regime. It adopts the fashion of resistance without the substance; it writes a check that its body can’t cash. Either readers must invent a new genre to account for this rhetorical misfire, or we can just call it what it is: an empty gesture of resistance, a false testimony.

Whether inside or outside the corridors of power, resistance must involve imagining and enacting an alternative to injustice. Right after the 2016 presidential election, the writer Jenny Zhang wrote a powerful essay called “Against Extinction.” She thought of the people who would be most vulnerable under the new Administration: women, people of color, Muslims, LGBTQ. Especially for them, resistance would require education in bodily care and communal self-defense. The only power lay in solidarity, sharing skills, sheltering those in peril, and turning white male privilege to good use. Make universal connections and broad alliances, Zhang urged, so that a future alternative society could evolve from within the resistance movement itself.

Even when it succeeds, resistance inside the regime can obscure this necessary orientation toward a future alternative. There may be advantages to having people on the inside, and certainly we all hope that key officers in the military will think twice about carrying out insane or unconstitutional orders. And certainly we admire those civil servants at NASA, the National Park Service, or the Environmental Protection Agency who work against policies designed to undermine the very purpose of those agencies. They belong to what the scholar of public affairs Rosemary O’Leary calls “guerrilla government.”

But any resistance deserving of the name must be linked to forces excluded from the structures of power. It’s the Chelsea Mannings, Edward Snowdens, and Reality Winners of the world who have committed acts of defiance that help mobilize popular resistance and thus create the possibility for real social transformation. And it’s the grassroots movement itself that will rise up and declare: the Resistance will not be neutralized, plagiarized, or anonymously op-editorialized.

Terence Renaud is a visiting researcher at the Humboldt University of Berlin while on leave from a lectureship in humanities and history at Yale University. He works on German intellectual history and modern European social movements. His current book project is called New Lefts: The Making of a Radical Tradition, 1920-1970.

Title image: Photo of August Landmesser, a German shipyard worker who refused to give the Nazi salute in 1936

Further Reading:

Howard Caygill, On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance (London et al.: Bloomsbury, 2013)

Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, The Art of Revolt: Snowden, Assange, Manning [orig. 2015], trans. Erik Butler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017)

Detlev Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life [orig. 1982] (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

Jenny Zhang, “Against Extinction,” The New Inquiry (Nov. 15, 2016)

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