Lessons for Fighting a Demagogue, From the People Who Survived a Plague

How the AIDS movement has given birth to the Trump resistance.

Washington DC police officers arrest an unidentified protester 06 October, 1999 during an ACT UP AIDS demonstration in front of the Offices of the US Trade Representative in Washington, DC.
Washington police officers arrest an unidentified protester during an ACT UP AIDS demonstration in October 1999.

Joyce Naltchayan/Getty Images

When Annette Gaudino, a longtime activist with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, realized that Donald Trump was going to win the election, she felt a sick sense of déjà vu. Now a middle-aged woman with an established career in health care advocacy, living in a world where the vice president of the United States presides over gay marriages, she suddenly remembered what it was like to be a young person consigned to marginality and surrounded by death. “It’s new and unprecedented, but also so familiar,” Gaudino says of our reactionary moment. “That’s what makes it feel like you’re in a dream. I could swear this happened when I was 25. How is it happening now that I’m 50? We had this little window where we all fell a little bit for the illusion of progress, but it’s like, oh, just kidding.”

Gaudino, who now works at the Treatment Action Group, an AIDS research and policy think tank that grew out of ACT UP, wasn’t sure if she could again marshal the energy to throw herself into confrontational activism. But on Nov. 22, she joined several hundred other people at a mass anti-Trump meeting called by ACT UP members and realized that she still knows how to organize in the midst of crisis and despair. “It’s like riding a bike,” she says. “The muscles are there. You just have to start using them.”

From that meeting, a new group emerged devoted to direct action against Trump and Trumpism. The name of the new outfit is still being tweaked, but it will be some variation on Resist or Resistance. Like ACT UP, which meets on Mondays, the Resistance group has been gathering weekly, every Tuesday, usually from 7–9 p.m. Eastern. It’s been convening in uptown Manhattan churches while members look for permanent space.

At this week’s meeting, the pews of the West Park Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side were packed with well over 100 activists, some brand new, some longtime ACT UP members who’ve known each other since the 1980s. Committees—on props, communication, and logistics—reported on their progress. Plans were finalized for a picket in front of Trump Tower later in the week—Thursday—to protest the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist. An activist visiting from a separate group announced a phone-jamming campaign against Trump’s hotels also directed at Bannon. (It launched on Thursday with a sign-up tool that sends Trump hotel numbers right to users’ phones.) Ideas for other demonstrations were discussed and refined.

Right now, it’s hard to imagine even the most audacious protest impacting the preening authoritarian who is about to become the most powerful man in the world. Day after day, the president-elect unveils new nominees seemingly chosen for their ability to undermine the agencies they will head. When he tweets attacks on obscure civilians like union leader Chuck Jones, he flaunts his willingness to use his awesome new power on petty vendettas. Many in the majority that voted against Trump feel stunned and paralyzed. No one knows which democratic norms or institutions will survive his presidency. No one knows if democracy itself will survive it. The well-worn tools of popular dissent—marches, guerilla art, civil disobedience—can feel futile.

ACT UP, however, offers lessons for moving forward in the face of powerlessness, grief, and horror. When ACT UP formed in March 1987, the AIDS epidemic was six years old and had killed 40,000 people, yet President Ronald Reagan hadn’t given a single speech about it. That year the Senate, by a vote of 94–2, passed an amendment banning the Centers for Disease Control from funding AIDS programs that “promote, encourage or condone homosexual activities.” Introducing the amendment, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms said, “We have got to call a spade a spade, and a perverted human being a perverted human being.”

It wasn’t just the government that treated gay people with hostile indifference. In 1987, the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome announced plans to charge $10,000 a year for AZT, the first AIDS drug approved for commercial production. As David France reported in How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, anti-gay hate crimes tripled between 1985 and 1988. People with AIDS and those who loved them were a despised, exploited minority almost completely without political representation.

Through ceaseless protest and political pressure, ACT UP played a major role in forcing a government and scientific response to the AIDS crisis. It chipped away at the stigma that enshrouded victims and pushed gay rights into the mainstream. “Back in 1981 when HIV hit, it hit a community that was isolated and marginalized and criminalized—homosexuality was illegal in most states in the country,” France tells me. “Those of us today who are feeling just as disenfranchised, the lesson is the courage we should get from what happened. Even from that far away from power, it’s possible to effect social change.”

ACT UP was able to change policy because it was relentless, and at once radical and highly pragmatic. It chose its targets carefully and stayed on them consistently. When Reagan finally formed a presidential commission on HIV, there was an ACT UP person in the room at every meeting. ACT UP activists were willing to be hated, as when they invaded St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to protest the Catholic church’s implacable opposition to condom use. But they were also eager students of power and engaged closely with the bureaucracies where life-and-death decisions were made. “Things that actually made change took a long time,” says Maxine Wolfe, another ACT UP veteran involved with the new group. She points to the effort to expand the CDC’s definition of AIDS, which before 1993 excluded many women and intravenous drug users. “Changing the CDC definition was a four-year campaign in which we used every possible strategy and tactic, from sitting in people’s offices to marching in the rain in Atlanta,” she says.

“The model of activism that ACT UP innovated is a model that they called inside-outside,” France says. “They had these armies of bodies that could show up at the drop of a phone call and stand outside these institutions that needed to be addressed, and they could do that with enough numbers, force, and clever timing that it forced somebody inside those institutions to pay attention. They also had an inside group of people who trained themselves in the science of AIDS and AIDS research. Once their comrades got those doors open, they moved through.” The group was never that big—France says its largest demonstrations drew around 3,000 people. “But they were tireless, those 3,000 people,” he says.

No one yet knows how this model will apply to the multifaceted dangers portended by Trump. “The first meeting was in many ways the easy meeting, because people are just so happy to find each other and everyone is so happy to have a chance to do something,” says Jeremiah Johnson, one of the ACT UP members who called the Nov. 22 gathering. “At the second meeting, suddenly you realize that everyone in the room has a different vision for what this group is and how it should function, and there’s no hierarchy, because it’s grass-roots.” Still, he says, “I’m incredibly optimistic right now because just the past week I’ve been flooded with emails of people doing things to try and contribute to the group.”

One thing ACT UP veterans insist on is the importance of real-world, offline organizing to figure out a new strategy. “It is messy and it is slow and I have faith that we will get there,” Alexis Danzig, who joined ACT UP in 1988, told me after the second Trump Resistance meeting. “People just have to bear with each other. Last night was a gathering of like-minded people who know that something needs to happen. Some of them are younger activists who have never faced a government that has so actively hated them. Others of us are kind of used to being hated because of who we are.”

There’s a way in which activists like Danzig have been preparing their whole lives for this moment. “That’s what a lifetime activist is,” she says. “You see the struggle coming—maybe it’s a little struggle, maybe it’s an existential crisis—and you work with it. And this is what we are doing.” She believes a new movement will rise to the challenge. “I look forward to not being crushed by fascism,” she says. “I look forward to crushing fascism.”