‘The science of resistance’ and the Trump administration


Ever since Donald Trump’s election win took the national media and much of the country by surprise, much has been written in the press and on social media about “The Resistance” to his presidency. The phrase has been embraced by the likes of comedian Sarah Silverman and former ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann, who has adopted it as the name of his new GQ online show.

“Olbermann may have claimed ‘The Resistance’ as his show’s title,” the Washington Post notes in a recent article, “but it’s also fashionable shorthand for the emerging, amorphous community — career Democrats, masked anarchists, Hollywood liberals, conservative Never Trumpers — working to topple, or at least rein in, President Trump. Not working together, mind you: The movement has only the barest organization and no true leaders. But plenty of people are looking to fill that void and, in some cases, pave their own path back to relevance.”

But while “#TheResistance” may be particularly popular on social media among Democratic strategists, for whom it seems a conveniently vague umbrella term that can be used in trying to unify a fractured political party, the term is also of interest to others who have made their careers in government, but for different reasons. A recent white paper, for example, written by retired army officers Paul Tompkins and Robert R. Leonhard and published in Small Wars Journal, examines an emerging “science of resistance.”

“The science of resistance examines the entire phenomenon of popular opposition to governments and/or occupying powers,” the authors write. “The spectrum of activity reaches from peaceful, legal activities on the one hand, to violent, mass upheavals and civil wars on the other.  Consequently, there is an important distinction between resistance movements that are peaceful and those that are militarized on one or both sides.”

The language used in the paper is similar to that of a lengthy 2012 document published by U.S. Army Special Operations Command on the subject of “legal implications of the status of persons in resistance.”

“As used here,” that document states, “the term resistance refers generally to nonviolent or armed opposition to a standing government and all actors that may be components thereof. The characteristics of a resistance and the associated status of persons in resistance can change over time depending on the organization of resistance groups and the intensity and duration of resistance activities. The examination of persons in resistance is done within the frame of a continuum.” The document goes on to elaborate on this concept of a resistance continuum at some length.

“This document refers broadly to resistance and those involved in it, meaning those individuals comprising the resistance element, US personnel supporting or countering the resistance, and the standing government. In alignment with this focus, the document explores the status of personnel particularly in foreign internal defense (FID), counterinsurgency (COIN), and unconventional warfare (UW) operations. When originally conceived,” it states, somewhat tellingly, “this manuscript was to be an updated volume of the 1961 American University Special Operations Research Office (SORO) study, The Legal Status of Participants in Unconventional Warfare.

In other words, the document lumps together everything from legal, nonviolent protest against a government to full-blown guerrilla warfare or civil war as varying degrees of the same activity, namely “resistance.” As a guide for U.S. special operators, it primarily focuses on the predicament of American government personnel who may find themselves accused, for example, of fomenting resistance in foreign countries. “Venezuela’s recent detention of a US citizen amid accusations that he was fomenting postelection violence on behalf of the US government pointedly highlights the predicament of personnel in this category,” it notes at one point. But it also explicitly notes historical examples of qualifying “resistance” to the government in the U.S.

With the rise of a contemporary movement, or at least a slogan, calling for “resistance” to the Trump administration in America, those interested in developing a “resistance science” may soon find themselves with their own urge they cannot resist. The increasingly powerful surveillance technologies now available to police across America promise to provide a data goldmine to those looking to cash in, just as a new generation of activism — some no doubt worthwhile, alongside other perhaps misguided party and media-driven protests — emerges in opposition to President Trump.

“Resistance science is interested in the embryonic stages of such movements—how resisters organize, plan, recruit, train, and administer themselves,” write Tompkins and Leonhard. “Equally important is how and when they decide to employ violence.  Military theory and doctrine focus on resistance movements that have grown—through militarization—into insurgencies, terrorism, civil wars, etc., but resistance science is equally interested in what happens before militarization as well as after.”

It is clear that the authors would like more data to work with in developing their science of resistance.

“A resistance movement could be observable (at least in some of its aspects), and hypotheses concerning the dynamics and causality of resistance might thus be proved false,” they write. “But since the phenomenon of resistance is human and societal rather than strictly physical, it is difficult to control or repeat the process.  We can partially compensate for this, however, through the use of behavioral psychology experiments, statistical analysis, simulation and comparative historical analysis.  Simulation—through the use of war games, computer models, etc.—can seek to replicate resistance movements, allowing researchers to test various hypotheses.”

It is no surprise that army officers whose careers were largely built on giving and following orders are intrigued by the idea of further developing a scientific methodology for ferreting out and eliminating resistance to authority — as well as for understanding it in order to potentially foment or control artificial resistance movements. Political protests, however, have long had a central role in keeping the U.S. government in check, and are protected by our Constitution. And let us not forget that this country would not exist were it not for its founders’ participation in a violent revolution.

Yet activists planning on resisting the Trump administration should also keep in mind the government’s capabilities — particularly in the areas of technology and surveillance — and the very real possibility that their activism in itself will be enough to get them targeted as guinea pigs in research aimed at countering similar opposition in the future, and improving the government’s understanding of how to control it.



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