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Meet the Leaders of the Trump Resistance

A broad-based movement is shaping up to thwart the incoming U.S. president’s administration.

A broad-based movement is shaping up to thwart the incoming U.S. president's administration.

Donald Trump is riding into office on a make-believe mandate: Despite a possible assist from Vladimir Putin, Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes, and he’s taking command of the Oval Office with the lowest favourability rating in modern memory: 37 percent. “A normal politician would be chastened by that,” says John Weaver, a leading Republican Trump critic, who advised Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential bid. “But the rules don’t apply to him.” Trump’s surprise victory, Weaver says, “emboldened him somehow.”

To put government power behind his darkest campaign rhetoric, Trump has assembled an extreme team – a crew that includes proud Islamophobes, heroes to white supremacists, defenders of torture, and executives from ExxonMobil and Wall Street. “What he’s going to do at a policy level is much worse than most liberals understand,” says Van Jones, the executive director of the Dream Corps and a CNN contributor. “It’s going to be a Blitzkrieg from above – against everything we care about.” The Trump agenda threatens the welfare of women, immigrants, LGBTQ Americans and, through climate denial, the health of the planet itself. “You’re talking about the rights and lives of millions of Americans at stake,” says Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU.

But even as the 45th president takes the oath of office, a fierce resistance is rising to confront and constrain the Trump presidency. From the ACLU to the Sierra Club to Everytown for Gun Safety, civil society is girding for battle – reinforced by an unprecedented upwelling of activist support and donations. With so many groups facing “unprecedented assaults,” says Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, the progressive world is experiencing a moment of “enormous solidarity – our issues and, frankly, our activists are all connected.”

Progressives are joined from day one by allies on the right, including principled #NeverTrump Republicans and the rising conservative opposition leader Evan McMullin, who countered Trump as an independent candidate for president. “Trump will blur the line between the right and left,” McMullin tells Rolling Stone. “You’ll find constitutional conservatives working with people on the left to stand up for civil liberty and stand up for equality – our shared future prosperity depends upon them.”

Rolling Stone interviewed more than a dozen top leaders of the Trump resistance. Beyond direct action and street protest, five clear opposition strategies are emerging. First, leverage Trump’s unpopularity and fragile governing coalition to defeat him outright. “He’s going to overreach dramatically, and we have to be prepared to deal him a significant setback,” says Weaver. Second, where Trump cannot be stopped, constrain his ambition by bleeding his political capital – “raise the cost of Trump radicalism,” says Frank Sharry a top immigrant-rights advocate. Third, blunt Trump’s impact with political resistance in the blue states – and even the blue cities in red states – where Trump’s agenda remains anathema. Fourth, get out of a defensive crouch: “The best defence is a good offence,” says Sierra Club Director Michael Brune. Fifth, when in doubt, sue. “Much of what President Trump is proposing is flat-out illegal,” says Romero, whose ACLU has labeled Trump a “one-man constitutional crisis.”

Squaring off against an aspiring autocrat may come at a high cost: “We need to be concerned about the use of surveillance power to go after critics,” warns a prominent rights leader. And successful resistance will depend on creating at-times uncomfortable alliances. But the earliest returns are promising: “This is a progressive coalition and a grassroots army that I have never seen more unified,” says Chad Griffin, head of the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ Americans, “or more determined to fight back.”


Some in the Trump resistance are putting on a brave face; those who advocate for immigrant rights are bracing for dark days. Trump has vowed a campaign of mass deportation – inspired by the racist and deadly Eisenhower-era program known as Operation Wetback. “Trump has been dehumanising immigrants from day one of his candidacy,” says Sharry, the longtime former director of the National Immigration Forum who now heads America’s Voice, a leading immigrant advocacy group. “We would be foolish to engage in wishful thinking that he’s going to moderate his course.”

What makes Trump so dangerous is that “the executive branch has wide latitude” on immigration, Sharry says. “There’s a lot a Trump administration can do that’s going to be difficult to stop in the courts and in Congress.” As a result, immigrant-rights activists are calling for a movement to harbor and protect those without legal status – in terms that evoke the French resistance. “It’s going to take unprecedented societal mobilisation to thwart the deportation machinery,” Sharry says, “from people who are prepared to commit acts of civil disobedience to protect people.”

To start, Trump has vowed to round up, deport or imprison as many as three million “criminal” undocumented immigrants. “That scale of deportation would be unprecedented in American history,” says the ACLU’s Romero. Trump’s ambition is disconnected from reality. “There’s nowhere near three million ‘bad hombres’ in America,” says Sharry. Only by counting common status violations – like driving without a license – as crimes can you get Trump’s totals. “We expect them to stretch the definition of ‘criminal’ to anyone who is in the country without status,” Sharry says. “That puts 11 million people at risk.”

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A group of immigrants, known as DREAMers, hold flowers as they listen to a news conference to kick off a new program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles on August 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Among the most vulnerable: 740,000 young immigrants – so-called DREAMers – brought to the country as children, who registered with the Obama administration to gain legal status and employment rights under a program called DACA. Trump has vowed to revoke this “executive amnesty” on day one. At the political level, immigrant-rights activists are going “to try to make DACA a huge fight – bloody enough that it comes with a cost,” Sharry says.

America’s cities have emerged as centers of resistance to Trump’s deportation plans. Dozens of mayors from New York to Santa Fe to Seattle have vowed to preserve “sanctuary cities” – which refuse to cooperate in federal immigration enforcement – despite threats to revoke millions in federal funding. The reality is that undocumented immigrants are more popular in America’s cities than is the president. “These mayors are not getting out in front of public opinion,” Sharry says, “but reflecting it.”

The Environment

Trump’s flamboyant climate denial and disgust for environmental regulation – calling global warming a “hoax” and vowing to leave only “tidbits” of environmental protection intact – are now becoming federal policy. Trump has nominated climate denier and fracking champion Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, an agency Pruitt sued repeatedly as attorney general of Oklahoma, including to block Obama’s carbon-reducing Clean Power Plan. Pruitt used his nomination announcement to attack the agency he hopes to lead for its “out-of-control anti-energy agenda” that he claimed, without evidence, “has destroyed millions of jobs.”

For energy secretary, Trump has nominated former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has blasted climate change as a “contrived phony mess.” Trump is counting on Perry to “take advantage of our huge natural resource deposits.” In what 350.org founder Bill McKibben calls “the most farcical chapter in the absurdist drama that is the Trump transition,” Trump has tapped as secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who was until recently CEO of ExxonMobil and who would preside over a petro-driven foreign policy and likely greenlight the Keystone XL pipeline.

Environmentalists don’t sugarcoat the dangers. But they’re far from despondent – more like defiant. “We’re not going to cower for the next four years,” says Michael Brune of the Sierra Club. “We’re going to fight like dogs – in court, in the court of public opinion, in the street and in corporate boardrooms. We’ll hold this administration accountable to the law,” he vows, “and the expectation of the American public.”

Environmentalists are keeping chins up, in part, because the market has their backs. Wind and solar increasingly beat fossil fuels on cost alone. “Trump and Tillerson can’t stop that,” says Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace. Consider that Obama’s Clean Power Plan is stalled in the courts, and likely dead under Trump, but national power plant emissions have already been slashed to meet the Obama goal for 2024.

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Climate activists in New York City

When it comes to Trump’s darker aims – rolling back core environmental regulations – environmentalists believe time and public opinion will be on their side. “Trump can’t move at the stroke of a pen to undo anything that he wants,” says Jeremy Symons, vice president of climate political affairs at the Environmental Defence Fund. Reversing regulations requires months of public comment and is subject to court challenge. “Time is our ally, because once the public sees overreach there will be a backlash,” says Symons. “Outside of special-interest lobbyists in Washington, nobody wants to move backwards.”

Powerful and diverse business interests are already pressuring Trump to reconsider his climate denial. In November, more than 300 companies – including DuPont, Intel and General Mills – signed an open letter to Trump warning that his threat to abandon the Paris climate accord “puts American prosperity at risk.” Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire CEO and former New York mayor, has called on the 128 U.S. leaders in the Global Covenant of Mayors to join the Paris accord in place of the federal government if Trump withdraws. And California is forging ahead with global leadership: “Whatever they do in Washington … we will persevere,” Gov. Jerry Brown told a gathering of climate scientists in December, declaring that if Trump acts to shutter NASA’s climate program, California will launch “its own damn satellite.”

At the grassroots level, climate activists are plotting to disrupt the Trump administration’s bid to ramp up coal, oil and natural gas extraction with direct-action protests – like the ones that shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline and stalled Keystone XL. “There’s a bigger appetite for direct action because conventional doors to democratic participation appear to be shutting on us,” Leonard of Greenpeace tells Rolling Stone. “We have been flooded with requests from other organisations to come to our direct action trainings – learning these skills. We are entering the age of resistance.”

Women’s Rights

Anchored by a vice president who has vowed to relegate Roe v. Wade to the “dustbin of history,” the Trump administration is openly hostile to women’s health and reproductive freedoms. Trump will appoint only pro-life judges, he’s said, with the aim of allowing individual states to ban abortion – forcing women to “go to another state.”

Trump is now in position to sign legislation defunding Planned Parenthood and to revoke the executive order that requires health insurers to cover birth control – a benefit to 55 million American women. Trump could also reinstate the global “gag rule” that blocks U.S. funding for aid groups that provide – or even discuss – abortion services.

“We are preparing as though the Trump administration is going to do everything within its executive power” to attack reproductive rights, says Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL. And the movement is bracing for the worst-case-scenario: a Trump-stacked Supreme Court that overturns Roe. NARAL is focused on creating “asylum zones” in cities and states where women can be confident of accessing reproductive services, and, says Hogue, to “mobilize resources so that as many women as possible can get to those safe zones in the event abortion services disappear entirely from other states.”

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An April rally for women’s rights in Indiana

Resistance to the Trump/Pence agenda is beginning with a show of force. On inauguration weekend, the Women’s March on Washington will bring hundreds of thousands to the Capitol to “demand protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families.” In a mass action on social media, Cecile Richards has launched the largest “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” campaign in the group’s history – to “agitate and engage millions” by asking Americans to share “what people are poised to lose if Planned Parenthood is blocked from serving patients.”

“This is literally whether a woman who has a lump in her breast can come to us in Ohio to have a breast exam,” Richards says. “Or whether a young person can come to us for family planning.” More than 1.5 million Americans, many of them Medicaid patients, rely on Planned Parenthood, “and for most of them we’re their only medical provider; there’s no one to take our place.” In Texas, where state Republicans have succeeded in shuttering dozens of Planned Parenthood clinics, the maternal death rate has doubled, hitting poor women of color the hardest. “It is a very serious threat,” says Richards, “but we will not go without a fight.”


Trump owes an enormous political debt to his most potent 2016 backer: the NRA, which spent more than $30 million to get him elected. “They want to get what they paid for,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, the grassroots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety.

The gun lobby’s wish list for Trump begins with replacing deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with another Second-Amendment fundamentalist – a judge who will back a constitutional right to own military-style assault weapons. The NRA is already pushing a new law to allow residents of states with lax concealed-carry laws, like Montana, to pack heat in states with tight restrictions, like Massachusetts. The NRA also expects Trump to follow through with promises to roll back gun-free zones in schools and to revoke President Obama’s executive expansion of background checks.

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Trump with the NRA’s Chris Cox and Wayne LaPierre in May

“With the NRA’s champion in office,” Watts says, “we see ourselves playing a lot of defence.” But Watts hopes that Trump’s “dangerous” NRA payback will “galvanise Americans to get off the sidelines and say ‘no’ to this dystopian vision of guns for anyone, anywhere, anytime – no questions asked.” Priority number one is building Moms Demand Action as the grassroots counterweight to the five-million-member NRA. Watts began movement-building in 2012, in the wake of the Newtown massacre. Her group now counts chapters in every state and more than three million members. “The more people join the ranks,” she says, “the less likely anything is to pass.”

Watts also sees running room in state capitals and corporate boardrooms – following the playbook of the marriage equality movement during the darkest days of the Bush administration. “We’ve gotten businesses like Starbucks, Chipotle and Target to stop open-carry inside their stores,” she says. “And we got Facebook to halt all private sales of guns.” Electorally, Watts and Everytown are focused on passing universal background checks state-by-state, and have that fight in seven states since Sandy Hook, most recently in Nevada in November. “Nearly half of all Americans now live in states that have closed their background-check loophole,” Watts says. “These states are doing what Congress won’t.”

LGBTQ Rights

President-elect Trump made news in the aftermath of the election by calling marriage equality “settled” law in an interview with 60 Minutes. But top advocates for the LGBTQ community take Trump’s words as cold comfort – pointing to the team the president has assembled, full of politicians hostile to LGBTQ rights and eager “to roll back our progress that we’ve made under President Obama,” says Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

The selection of Pence as vice president speaks loudest to Trump’s intentions. “He chose a man who has been the face of our opposition his entire life,” Griffin says. “Pence was not only against hate crimes protections, he supports conversion therapy and actually advocated revoking HIV funding in order to pay for it.” Trump put Pence in charge of the presidential transition. And Pence has entrusted the domestic-policy track to Ken Blackwell, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council who has called homosexuality a “transgression against God’s law” and a “choice” like becoming “an arsonist … or a kleptomaniac.”

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Former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell (C) arrives at the Trump Tower for meetings with US President-elect Donald Trump, in New York on November 17, 2016.

Trump can reverse Obama’s executive orders on LGBTQ rights, including a workplace non-discrimination mandate that protects employees of federal contractors, and a Department of Education order that safeguards trans students. Trump has already endorsed legislation to enshrine “Kim-Davis-style discrimination,” Griffin says – allowing people and businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans on the basis of a professed religious objection to same-sex marriage and/or gay sex.

But there is political peril in targeting LGBTQ Americans: Just ask North Carolina’s former Republican governor, Pat McCrory, who was defeated in November in a revolt against the state’s anti-trans bathroom bill. “This is the first time in our history that we have ousted a sitting elected official solely on the issue of attacking our community,” Griffin says – a victory made more remarkable because Trump carried North Carolina by more than three points.

The LGBTQ community will carry this momentum into fights for trans-inclusive nondiscrimination laws in America’s cities, including in the reddest of states. Last year the Human Rights Campaign swept through a non-discrimination law in the capital city of Mississippi. “If we can do it in Jackson,” Griffin says, “we can do it anywhere.”

True Conservatives

The election of Donald Trump has been met with quiet horror in many conservative circles. “The Republican Party normalised a lunatic,” longtime GOP strategist Stuart Steven wrote to this reporter on election night. “They knew better and refused to stand up – utter disgrace.”

Many are disgusted that Trump has given racial demagogs a voice in the GOP – and representation in his inner circle. “Gangrene has entered into the body, and either you join in the effort to cut it out – to kill it – or you acquiesce to it,” says John Weaver. “We can’t stand by and allow racists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, anti-Semites – whatever you want to call them – free reign in the public discourse. They cannot be normalised.”

Trump also faces resistance from conservatives on policy. “You have people concerned about the national security implications of Trump – his attitude toward Putin, his affection for autocrats, his not understanding the basics of engagement,” Weaver says. “Others are more concerned on the civil rights – the basic rights of Americans.” The trick, says Weaver, is to build beyond isolated pockets of dissent in the GOP ranks – Sen. John McCain on torture, or Sen. Rand Paul on surveillance. Trump will be countered, Weaver says, “by a web, not by a rifle shot.”

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Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin, (R) listens to his running mate Mindy Finn, (L) speak to supporters at an election night party on November 8, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The right’s opposition to Trump remains loose. (“People are dusting the rubble off,” says Weaver, “taking stock of really how bad it is.”) But it has emerging leadership in Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent and senior GOP House staffer who ran against Trump for president, placing third in Utah. McMullin cites the president’s “resolute alignment” with Russia and his “authoritarian playbook” to contend that “Donald Trump is not a loyal American.” The elected GOP, he adds, is focused on party power and not the national interest. “I don’t have a lot of hope that many of our public officials on the Republican side will stand up any time soon,” he says.

McMullin is marshaling conservative resistance to Trump and seeking common cause with progressives. He wants to build a movement around the foundational American principles of “equality and liberty” flouted by Trump. And he hopes the left and right can take this moment to learn from each other: with conservatives following the progressive lead on civil liberties for all Americans, and liberals cottoning to the virtues of limited government. “When conservatives say it’s really dangerous for us to have this big, centralised government, some on the left might not have understood why,” he says. “But with Donald Trump taking the presidency, I think they now understand.”

Civil Liberties

Defence of our democracy in the age of Trump will fall to the courts – and to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union that can take legal action against the incoming administration’s threatened constitutional abuses.

Anthony Romero is bracing for a full-blown “civil liberties crisis” in America under Trump. “The stakes are very high,” Romero says, “because the impact on the basic rights of so many Americans hang in the balance – whether they be Muslims or undocumented immigrants or women.” Preparing a “wholescale campaign to resist” the new administration, Romero says the ACLU is already honing legal theories, staffing up in states along the Mexican border and reaching out to Muslim communities across America.

The ACLU’s tactics will draw inspiration from GOP obstructionists. “The strategy that Republicans used so effectively – trying to gum up the machinery of the Obama administration” is the same game plan the ACLU will use, Romero says, “to forestall the ability of the Trump administration to make good on its plans.” At times, the ACLU will act preemptively “to hold off the worst of the policies from taking effect.” In other moments, it will seek to tie up Trump in court “right as the policies are taking effect – to try to deprive the administration of momentum.”

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NAACP President Cornell Brooks, Fraternal Order of Police National President Chuck Canterbury and ACLU Legal Director David Cole testify during Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing on January 11th.

The group is vigilant – but confident. Many Trump proposals are “flat-out illegal,” Romero insists: moving to reinstate torture or waterboarding is “patently unconstitutional and violates international treaties.” Trump’s threat to jail and revoke the citizenship of flag-burners is “unconstitutional and contrary to established law,” Romero says. But with other proposals, he warns, “it’s newer terrain.” The immigration ban on Muslims, he argues, “would run afoul of the First- and Fifth-Amendment protections of American Muslims” – but those theories will need to be tested in court.

Above all, Romero says the ACLU will fight to protect the rights of protesters from a president who has displayed a “complete lack of respect” for them. “If the protestors rights are trammelled, or they’re intimidated, or they self-censor,” Romero says, “then we’re in for even darker days ahead of us.”

The First Test

The first test of the Trump resistance has arrived with the confirmation hearings of the new president’s cabinet appointees.

Trump’s polarising choices have united diverse coalitions – and strange bedfellows. The nomination of Exxon’s Rex Tillerson for secretary of state has raised the hackles of environmentalists – who recoil at the company’s long history of climate disinformation – and hawks, who distrust Tillerson’s coziness with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. “Even the minority of people who voted for Trump weren’t voting to turn over the keys [on climate policy] to the head of an oil company,” insists 350.org founder Bill McKibben. Tweeting his own skepticism of Tillerson, Sen. Marco Rubio wrote, “Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for from a Secretary Of State.”

No cabinet pick has united the Trump resistance like Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator tapped to head the Justice Department, where he would have broad autonomy to set the national course on the enforcement of civil rights, drug and immigration policy.

Sessions was blocked from Senate confirmation once before, when the body refused to seat him as federal judge in the mid-Eighties, following hearings that detailed a distressing history of racism. As a U.S. attorney, Sessions had prosecuted black voting-rights activists – close associates of Martin Luther King Jr. – on trumped-up accusations of voter fraud. (The activists were found not guilty.) And he’s railed against the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive.”

According to Senate testimony, Sessions repeatedly referred to a black subordinate as “boy” and opined – during an investigation of a Ku Klux Klan lynching – that he’d thought the KKK was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” (Sessions denied denigrating his colleague, and insisted the Klan comment was a joke.) Sessions also called civil rights groups, including the NAACP, “un-American organisations teaching anti-American values.”

In his U.S. Senate career, Sessions has continued a track record as an extremist. He’s an unreconstructed drug warrior – Sessions insisted last year that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” An immigration hardliner, Sessions has long ties to the far-right organisation FAIR; “he has cavorted with groups that we consider to be hate groups,” says Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Members of the Alabama NAACP stage a sit-in at Jeff Sessions’ office in Mobile.

Sharry, the immigrant-rights leader, calls the idea of Sessions enforcing civil rights and immigration laws “preposterous.” Todd A. Cox, director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defence Fund, says “it is unimaginable that he could be trusted to enforce this nation’s civil rights laws.” Coretta Scott King warned in a 1986 letter that Sessions’ appointment to the judiciary would “irreparably damage the work of my husband.”

Sessions faces deep resistance from the drug-reform community, concerned Sessions will break the fragile federal Drug War truce that has enabled state-legal marijuana to boom into a $7 billion industry. Sessions is also opposed by conservatives, who fear he will derail bipartisan progress on issues like criminal justice reform. “Sessions illustrates the need for a new conservative movement,” McMullin says.

Given the deference senators historically show when colleagues are nominated to the cabinet, Sharry predicts “an uphill fight.” But just this act of fighting, he says, will forge alliances among “groups who don’t always work arm-in-arm.”

To have any hope of succeeding, the Trump resistance must seek out challenging allies. Responsibility for coalition-building weighs heavily on conservatives. “It’s important for the opposition to Trump to be bipartisan,” Weaver says. “It plays into his hands – and Steve Bannon’s hands – for it to be seen as coming from the far left.”

For some groups, this means embracing Trump voters themselves. “One of the most heartening, but somewhat perplexing things,” says Cecile Richards, “is the number of Trump voters who are deeply concerned now about losing access to Planned Parenthood.” Hogue says NARAL will be agitating among Trump voters to tell the new president, “Stop messing with reproductive rights and go back to trying to build infrastructure.”

The first step for progressives, says Van Jones, is to get over the shock and horror at Trump’s victory, and to stop thinking of Trump voters as the enemy, instead seeking common cause with working-class Americans who are already feeling “duped.” The coalition required to stop Trump won’t always agree, Jones says. The key is not to feed the division that is the president’s secret weapon. “Trump desperately needs everybody screaming at each other,” Jones says, “so he can get away with his agenda.”

Like Jones, McMullin sees power in love – and love of country. “If there’s a silver lining to any of this is,” he says, “it’s that people on the right and the left may come together to stand up for foundational truths and decency and unity in America. “It’s not easy to have hope right now, but that does give me hope,” he says. “We need to stand up together as Americans to make sure that our system is not destroyed.”