In the days since the election, there have been many calls for anti-Trump forces to remain resolute in their resistance. “If the presidency of Donald Trump inspires anything, it should be a fierce spirit of opposition,” Leon Wieseltier wrote last weekend in these pages. “The proper response is steely resolve to wage the fight of our lives,” Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine.
But what can anti-Trump liberals and progressives actually do? With his party in control of the White House and Congress, and with Trump about to tip the balance of the Supreme Court, it’s easy to despair over how little leverage the Democrats seem to have.
One episode from history reveals reasons to hope.
In 1850, like the Democrats and their allies in 2016, the abolitionists took a terrible hit. They had worked for 20 years to bring down the worst institution in American history, chattel slavery. And they thought they might have been on the verge of a breakthrough, with a proposal to ban slavery in all the territories taken in the Mexican War. But in the Compromise of 1850, Congress basically handed those territories to the pro-slavery forces, and, with an updated Fugitive Slave Act, it conscripted every Northern citizen into an army of slave catchers, obliged to aid in sending black people back to the slaveholding South.
And yet, a little over a decade later, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The abolitionists’ comeback was impressive. And it offers a road map away from the election of 2016.
Indeed, by marching and making street theater, forces of resistance to the Trump and GOP victories have already started emulating the abolitionists.
In 1854, the federal government tried and convicted fugitive Anthony Burns, sending him back to slavery. Unfortunately for the slaveholders, the abolitionists happened to be holding their annual convention in Boston, where the trial was held. After an ax-wielding mob rushed the courthouse, Boston’s mayor put the city under martial law. And on the day of Burns’s rendition, 50,000 protesters lined the streets, as federal troops marched the hapless fugitive to the ship that would take him back to his master in Virginia. Chronicled at every step, the Via Dolorosa of Burns awakened and intensified opposition to slavery throughout the North. Boston’s Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed the feelings of many when he said of the Fugitive Slave Law: “I will not obey it, by God.’’
Today’s counterpart to the Burns rendition, of course, would be deportations. Trump has vowed to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. His recent remarks have focused on deporting criminals, but he’s also threatened to overturn the amnesty that has protected “dreamers” — immigrants brought to the United States as children.
What would the abolitionists do? They would gather in huge numbers every time federal agents came for a Hispanic honors student. They would compel those agents to use force if they wanted to proceed. They would document every moment. And they would use the media — back then it was the penny press, the Twitter of its time — to spread the images everywhere. Every vulnerable dreamer should be carrying a cellphone with a number to text if the feds come.
But periodic protests are not enough. Resistance movements need the support of permanent infrastructure. And they must be willing to engage in the time-intensive and expensive organizing that actually changes minds and behavior.
In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison and friends he called the Twelve Apostles met in a black church (no white one would have them) and signed the charter of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Theirs was the first of what would be thousands of such societies formed in the subsequent decades — and they were especially important after the 1850 defeat, when the normal channels of politics looked so hopeless. These groups were highly organized. They elected executive committees to run their affairs, dispatched speakers to spread the word and held annual conventions. They also had women’s auxiliaries; the gender divide sounds awful today, but the women were the heart of the movement. They held fairs to raise money and sell goods made without slave labor. Then they started going door to door with petitions. The pro-slavery Congress forbade them from delivering those petitions, but that didn’t matter. Each time a woman approached a neighbor about signing, she got a chance to publicize slavery’s cruelty.
Of course, the Democratic Party is an established network. But too often, it reaches out to people only at election time. In this year’s presidential campaign, its outreach to key constituencies, such as Hispanics and Rust Belt voters, was overly dependent on television and radio ads.
The party — and, just as critically, growing networks of organizations such as Black Lives Matter and Mi Familia Vota — should look to the model of the abolitionists. They should engage people in person, with concrete actions such as old-fashioned petition drives. Social media can help energize supporters, but beware of activism that never translates beyond Facebook or Twitter. The Freedom to Marry activists developed a smart approach to same-sex marriage rights: They trained supporters to each have conversations with five of their friends or relatives — and to ask people who responded positively to seek out five more.
As a leader of People United for Justice, the Arizona Hispanic outreach group that finally brought down racist sheriff Joe Arpaio, put it succinctly: “This is about community organizing rather than electoral campaigning.”
Anti-Trump forces should also embrace the potential for states and cities to become bastions of resistance.
Before the Civil War, threats of nullification and secession were not limited to the slave states. Garrison, the Massachusetts abolitionist, advocated “disunion” from the start. Who wants to be in a club with slave owners, he asked? The Northern states became the abolitionists’ strongholds in the 1850s. They passed laws ordering their officials not to participate in renditioning slaves. And when federal authorities initiated proceedings under the Fugitive Slave Act, state courts proceeded to nullify them. In Wisconsin, for instance, after abolitionist Sherman Booth was jailed for encouraging protesters who liberated a fugitive slave due to be sent back to Missouri, the state Supreme Court freed him and declared the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional. When the U.S. Supreme Court asked to review the case, Wisconsin simply refused to forward the papers. The last thing President James Buchanan did before handing the White House to Lincoln was to clear Booth.
There are echoes of this strategy in the pledge by California’s legislative leaders that they “are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output, and sense of global responsibility.” There are echoes, too, in the declarations of Washington, Chicago, New York and Seattle that they will remain “sanctuary cities,” protecting residents from deportation. And there are echoes in statements like that of the Los Angeles police chief , who said, “If the federal government takes a more aggressive role on deportation, then they’ll have to do that on their own.”
Yes, Democratic power at the state level is limited. Democrats will control the governorship and both branches of the legislature in only six states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon and Rhode Island. But they could be joined in their resistance by some populous and important states that voted against Trump by large margins and that have at least one branch in Democratic hands — Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Washington among them. Together, these states could make for a formidable opposition.
If a Trump-tipped Supreme Court overturns abortion rights or same-sex marriage, these states could offer themselves as havens. If the GOP repeals Obamacare, they could imitate Massachusetts and pass state-based health-care systems. If the Trump administration demands any records they may have of illegal immigrants, states and cities could refuse.
By doing so, they would risk losing federal money. But they would also stand to benefit. They would attract businesses and workers, especially young workers, who tend to be more progressive. As North Carolina recently demonstrated, when its transgender bathroom law prompted the loss of billions of dollars in business, defending progressive positions on social issues can make good economic sense, too.
If Democrats and their allies follow the abolitionist plan for organizing, they stand a good chance of reversing their ill fortune.
It must have seemed like a permanent failure for the abolitionists when they heard about the Compromise of 1850. But the end of slavery wasn’t as far off as they feared.