Doug Todd had never organized a political event, and before February, he had never even been to a protest. But several weeks ago, he helped pack 200 people into the Tower Theatre in Roseville, California, for a town hall meeting with local Congressman Tom McClintock. An overflow crowd of nearly 800 more swarmed the sidewalk in this suburb north of Sacramento, waving signs and chanting against Republicans’ plans to repeal Obamacare. The veteran GOP congressman, who won his district with 61 percent of the vote in November, ultimately fled the scene behind a police escort, making national headlines.
Todd is one of thousands of Americans who have turned up at airports, town halls, state capitols and congressional district offices since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, part of a popular uprising that already has many comparing it to the Tea Party, the upstart conservative movement that helped elect a wave of anti-establishment, fiscally conservative Republicans beginning in 2010. Targeting members of Congress and staging protests at local public events, the Tea Party cowed GOP officials and prodded the party to take an obstructionist stance against President Barack Obama. Todd, an Obama voter, is now embracing the same playbook in pursuit of liberal aims.
It’s an approach Todd cribbed from a political memo that began making the rounds on social media in December. Known as the Indivisible Guide, it was drafted by a handful of former Capitol Hill staffers as a primer for liberals looking to influence Congress and push back against Trump. The message: Tea Party tactics work. In fact, they may prove even more potent in the Trump era than they did under Obama. With his squabbling over crowd-size at his inauguration and media coverage just a day into his presidency, Trump exposed perhaps his biggest political vulnerability: his intense sensitivity to public opinion. More than a Senate filibuster or other legislative maneuvering, this may be the progressive movement’s most potent source of leverage. That’s the lesson the so-called #Resistance is taking away from these early weeks of the Trump presidency.
A self-described political junkie, Todd first came across the Indivisible Guide when former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich shared it on Twitter, in the days after Trump’s victory. But it wasn’t until inauguration day “that I really felt like something needed to be done,” he says. Days later, Todd set up a Facebook page for a new group, Indivisible Roseville, and began posting news and events criticizing the New York real estate mogul. It now has more than 350 followers. And it’s one of 10 similar groups in a 10-mile radius of Todd.
The protest at McClintock’s town hall, planned in conjunction with other local groups and a handful of progressive organizations, was their first foray into activism. It’s just a beginning, he says. Indivisible Roseville aims to be a constant presence at the Republican congressman’s events, per the instructions of the Indivisible Guide, including holding “Action Tuesdays” protests at McClintock’s local office each week.
The massive anti-Trump Women’s Marches on January 21—which clogged the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and state capitols around the country—was cathartic for liberals disheartened by the November election, but can this energy be sustained? It’s only been four weeks, but so far, the answer seems to be a tentative “yes.” If anything, anti-Trump anger and activism appears to be building, as protests have erupted in deep-red Republican states like Utah and Tennessee. The next heat check for the movement comes over the next 10 days, when lawmakers are home for Congress' week-long Presidents Day recess, mingling with constituents.
Trump allies scoff that the rowdy crowds are the work of professional agitators, or in the words of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, “a very paid, ‘astroturf’ type movement.” And Republicans are rejecting comparisons to the Tea Party. “This is not the same thing,” Pennsylvania Congressman Scott Perry told reporters at a February 14 lunch. “Maybe some of the actions they take are similar, but when you see ads for—and they’re out there—for paid protesters to come, and when you see the signs, they’re not made in someone’s living room, they’re printed up in different languages. This is a very different operation.”
National progressive organizations are certainly trying to amplify the protests, and groups like Planned Parenthood and MoveOn.org are organizing rallies and demonstrations. Planned Parenthood boasts that since late January, nearly 50,000 people have signed up to join their “Defenders” program to take action against attacks on the abortion and women’s health care provider. But there’s no evidence that the people showing up at these town halls are paid. And whether their signs were printed at Kinkos or drawn by hand, whether they are members of national organizations or not, interviews with people helping organize these events suggest significant portions of them are real constituents with real grievances, many of them new to political activism.
If other social movements are any guide, the challenge they face in the weeks and months ahead is bringing some structure and strategy to these fragmented groups. That’s something national groups are well-equipped to do. On the flip-side, too much streamlining risks losing the grassroots authenticity that gets the attention of politicians. And it feeds into the White House narrative that this activism has been co-opted by moneyed special interests, as liberals claim was the case with the well-financed free market groups that sought to shape the Tea Party.
Billie Mays, an administrative assistant and single mother, laughs at the suggestion that she and fellow protesters agitating against Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on the streets of Cincinnati were paid by the teachers unions or other national advocates. “You know, we’re all waiting for our checks,” she guffaws. Like Todd, Mays had never organized a political event until she got involved in planning this Southwestern Ohio city’s Women’s March in January. “ I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she recalls.
The Cincinnati Women’s March drew roughly 12,000 people, a tally that floored Mays. “In Cincinnati, people come out for football games, but you never see a huge turnout for a cause.” The enthusiasm convinced her to start the local group, United We Stand Cincinnati, which has since helped organize protests against Ohio Senator Rob Portman, one of the 50 Republicans who voted confirm DeVos. Vice President Mike Pence had to break the tie in the Senate, a first on a Cabinet nominee vote.
While Democrats failed to derail DeVos’s confirmation, the intensity of the opposition to Trump’s pick for education secretary startled politicians in Washington and sent a signal to Republicans, particularly those from swing states, about the kind of scrutiny they’ll be under for the next four years. In early February, the calls coming into the Senate switchboard—largely opposing DeVos—temporarily crippled the chamber’s voice-mail system. A number of senators were forced to communicate with their constituents via Twitter. “We are experiencing heavy call volumes in all our offices,” Republican Dean Heller of Nevada tweeted on February 2. “Staff is answering as many as possible. Please continue calling to get through.”
Several national advocacy groups drove the telephone campaign. On January 23, the campaign finance reform advocacy group End Citizens United posted a message on its Facebook page, listing the number to the Senate switchboard and urging supporters to call and voice opposition to DeVos. Without any paid advertising to promote it, the post garnered nearly 30,000 views and 1,000 “likes.” Four thousand followers “liked” another End Citizens United post reporting the anti-DeVos calls flooding Senate offices.
Meanwhile, a few dozen anti-DeVos organizations in Washington shared notes on a progressive listserv dedicated to fighting her nomination, coordinated by the advocacy arm of the liberal D.C. think tank, Center for American Progress. They debated which GOP senators to target in the lead-up to her confirmation vote. Some posted public events the senators were holding back home, encouraging groups to spread the word to their local members that they should show up and protest.
Adam Bozzi, spokesman for End Citizens United, says that while his and other D.C.-based groups went on the attack with digital ads, petitions, press conferences and social media campaigns, no amount of spending or savvy organizing could have produced the flood of reaction to DeVos if there wasn’t “real anger out there.”
That anger could use more direction, volunteer organizers say. In the larger Cincinnati area alone, a handful of anti-Trump groups are already bumping up against one another as they try to rally the resistance. In addition to Mays’ United We Stand Cincinnati, there is now an Indivisible chapter; a branch of Our Revolution, the national advocacy group formed out of Bernie Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaign; and a local offshoot of the pro-Hillary Clinton Pantsuit Nation Facebook group, which goes by the name Together We Will. In recent days, the former staffers behind the Indivisible Guide announced they were forming a nonprofit to help support the more than 4,500 local organizations their guide has spawned. In Roseville, Todd has made connections with other local Indivisible Groups via social media, but has yet to have any contact with the national team. Likewise, Politico reports that the Indivisible Grand Rapids group that turned out protesters for a town hall with Representative Justin Amash on February 9 had initiated the demonstration on their own.
“I don’t know how all these groups are fitting together,” Mays admits. Local leaders in Cincinnati have begun to meet to see how they can better coordinate. Mays also worries about the large number of upcoming protests and marches planned, including a strike organized on February 17, a local event in the works for International Women’s Day on March 8 and national marches on Tax Day and Earth Day in April. People who have already been out on the streets or showing up at town halls in recent weeks are starting to complain of protest burnout. “The thing is trying to keep it going,” May says.
National progressive groups are eager to help. The Center for American Progress Action Fund, the sister organization of the 14-year-old think tank founded by former Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, is trying to bring the profusion of new anti-Trump activists under their umbrella. They’ve made contact with roughly 70 progressive organizations that have formed since the election, including the Indivisible Guide and Pantsuit Nation offshoots, to share information, staffers say. That includes things like a standing morning conference call with communications directors for various progressive groups and an online town hall search tool the group is preparing to launch to help people swarm events with their elected officials.
Ultimately, however, it’s local energy, fueled by real grievances, that will sustain the movement, national organizers acknowledge. The proposed repeal and replacement of Obamacare, a technical and political minefield, is the policy fight most likely to animate protesters in the weeks and months ahead. That’s because it’s personal for so many people, as members of Congress are already finding out from angry constituents who rely on the private health insurance exchanges or expanded Medicaid coverage for lifesaving care. Expect more of the same, at a higher volume, over the Presidents Day recess. “People are not going to stop being outraged that Trump is trying to take away their health care, because they need it,” says Adam Jentleson, senior strategist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Jentleson argues the protest movement is sustainable because the policy implications of Trump’s agenda will have immediate and tangible impacts on Americans. “The outrage is real because the effects are real.”