Have you thought about what it really means to protest Donald Trump and his administration’s policies?
Since his election, groups have cropped up to oppose his presidency, his policies, and his personality under #resist and #resistance.
Some movements started before the electoral college vote, hoping to sway electors to vote for Hillary Clinton and threatening to undermine an important electoral norm. Others have started Twitter accounts combating Donald Trump’s policies on climate change, dropping the very small fig leaf the scientific community typically dons when it seeks to claim it is objective. And women’s groups took the opportunity to protest the day after the election as well as create another protest dubbed “a day without a woman,” making heady claims about the solidarity of women against Trump.
While some may object to the divisive rhetoric associated with these movements — especially those who refer to Trump as #notmypresident — it is important to see that the right to resist rests at the core of American principles. The executive director of the ACLU hits the nail on the head: “Despite himself, Donald Trump has accomplished something beautiful — he’s awakened American democracy and reminded us that it’s ‘We the People’ who truly govern.” This concept reaches all the way back to the Declaration of Independence and arguably farther than that to the classical liberal par excellence, John Locke.
The Right to Resistance
The Founders created a document that served as more than just a declaration of war: it was also a justification for what the British called a treasonous revolt against the crown. Where the Founders previously argued for their rights as Englishmen, given rights by the government and due to their status as members of the British Commonwealth, the Declaration marked a change. In it, they claimed natural rights, ones they should enjoy without anyone’s permission and regardless of what sovereign territory they happened to occupy.
What was their argument? They claimed a right as a free people to stand up to an oppressive government — in their opinion, an illegitimate government. They claimed that a government is only legitimate if it secures the people’s rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” If a government “becomes destructive of these ends,” the people reserve the right to “alter or to abolish it.”
To our modern ears, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Of course governments exist to protect the rights of the people. Of course the people can resist or overthrow their government if it fails in this, its most fundamental task. In the 18th century, however, no one made this claim against the government. Resistance or revolt came in the pursuit of better governments, but they did not come from a natural right to resist.
The claims of the Declaration represent a radical shift in the concept of rights, one founded in meaningful part on the philosophy of Locke.
Locke created what is referred to as an ahistorical state of nature. In essence, he created a new origin story for human beings, claiming that prior to the creation of society, humans lived freely and equally. As we develop, there come times of scarcity or difficulties securing our property. To address such problems, people consent to create governments that provide basic necessities: the security of your person and property.
A government’s legitimacy stems from its ability to provide those basic goods. If it fails in this respect — for whatever reason — the people reserve the right to overthrow it and create a new government. Locke claims there is no difference between an unjust king and a thief. And much like a thief is held accountable for his crimes, the people must hold the government accountable for any rights violations.
The Responsibility to Resist
The Declaration contains similar basic principles. In the eyes of the colonists, the British had violated their rights and refused to make amends. The Lockean understanding of natural rights facilitated the transition from British citizens seeking redress from their government to human beings overthrowing an illegitimate government.
Our rights stem from our status as human beings, not as Americans. We need to remind ourselves that we are free and equal. With that status, we have the ability to assert our rights and hold governments accountable when they violate or threaten to violate those rights. It is, after all, our responsibility to make sure the government protects our rights rather than violating them. This is why Patrick Henry said,
They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power.
Americans retain the right to resist their government, thanks to efforts of the Framers to clarify what a legitimate government is and what we can do when it becomes illegitimate. More importantly, citizens have to understand what their rights are and consistently assert them against the government.