In the middle of mass protests against Donald Trump’s travel ban in January, the crowds outside the White House chanted at the president: “We will not go away! Welcome to your ninth day!”
The Trump resistance hasn’t gone away, but it has taken on a vastly different form since those frothy first days of his presidency. The millions-strong nationwide protests have given way to an array of smaller but still effective forms of opposition: Packed town halls to warn Republican members of Congress against repealing Obamacare, a full-court pressure campaign that convinced Senate Democrats to filibuster Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, and higher-than-expected turnout in a pair of special House elections that put solid red districts in play.
The first three months of the Trump administration have demonstrated that the energy and anger of the electorate has shifted unmistakably to the left as Democrats assume the role of opposition party after eight years of controlling the White House.
But the movement is decentralized and diffuse, lacking a singular leader and splintering into multiple fronts. Ask more than a dozen progressive activists to define the goals of the Trump resistance, as POLITICO did for this story, and receive almost as many different answers. The liberal revolt is being channeled through a variety of projects — from health care to climate change — and each tribe is “showing up for each other’s stuff,” as one activist put it. Trump isn’t necessarily their sole reason for being, but instead serves as a powerful motivator and a symbol of what they oppose.
These organizers and strategists, from groups like Indivisible, MoveOn.org, and the American Civil Liberties Union, do agree on at least one thing: To fight on as much turf as possible. They may lose major battles under a Republican-controlled government — Gorsuch was ultimately confirmed and Democrats failed to win either House special election this month — but they say eventually their efforts will pay off.
“That all just comes out in the wash at the end if you keep people energized, win enough victories to make people feel like it’s worth their efforts,” said Adam Jentleson, who helps lead Trump pushback for the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Jentleson, a former senior aide to ex-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), added that it might be too early for the party establishment to seek to convert grassroots Trump critics into Democratic voters.
“You could make a pretty good argument that, if you try too hard right now to start trying to turn those people into big-D Democrats, it might be counterproductive,” he added. “Folks in D.C. should be in listening mode.”
Yet listening to the anti-Trump base, and harnessing its power, is becoming an ever-more complex task.
The resistance has planned no fewer than half a dozen public demonstrations in Washington since the record-setting turnout for the post-inauguration Women’s March, including the April 15 Tax March and Saturday’s scheduled march for action on climate change.
All that progressive passion excites organizers, many of whom insist that the breadth of their movement ensures a grassroots brigade will always be on hand to fight Trump, even if the full army isn’t always available. Still, the frenetic pace of the first 100 days has forced some activist leaders to acknowledge that burnout is a real risk.
“We can try to form the tools we need for best practices, but if folks don’t show up themselves and own this and build this, there won’t be a resistance at the national level,” said Ezra Levin, executive director of the fast-rising anti-Trump group, Indivisible.
“I’m worried that Donald Trump will win if people stop showing up,” Levin added.
Trump also stands to win if Democrats cannot direct some of that enthusiasm to their candidates in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond.
“If all this resistance leads to nothing after 2018, you could see people feeling disenchanted and like their efforts don’t matter,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green said.
Democrats have responded to their base’s pleas for battle by filibustering Gorsuch, stalling a number of Trump’s Cabinet nominees and roundly opposing his legislative agenda.
Activists argue candidates who align with them will benefit at the ballot box. “The resistance will be electoralized,” according to MoveOn Executive Director Anna Galland.
But if the left starts to impose stiff litmus tests, a Democratic comeback may also be put at risk; last week’s flap over the party’s support for an anti-abortion Nebraska mayoral hopeful underscores the potential rift threatening Democrats.
Anti-Trump organizers largely reject comparisons between their efforts and the tea party wave that swept House Republicans into power in 2010. Resistance groups, for instance, have mostly stopped short of backing primary challengers to more conservative Democrats, which proved a potent weapon for the right to remake the GOP, though Galland said MoveOn hasn’t ruled out the idea.
A significant number of liberal activists also want to go beyond merely opposing the president. That approach may please Democrats who recall the failure of a Hillary Clinton campaign that staked the presidency on a highly personal anti-Trump message.
“If our struggle starts and ends with Donald Trump, we’ve missed the mark,” said Tamika Mallory, a co-chair of the Women’s March that memorably outdrew Trump’s crowds on Inauguration Day. “Donald Trump is not a stand-alone. He didn’t create this.”
Trump has often made his critics’ jobs easy with his series of stumbles. But resistance leaders say they can’t count on him to do their work for them.
“The administration’s going to get more coherent, and their agenda will probably still remain something we oppose, but they’ll probably become smarter about how they push it,” said American Civil Liberties Union national political director Faiz Shakir. “And that means the resistance has to continually be on guard for a new manner and new approach.”
The GOP’s botched health care push has been an unexpected gift for liberal organizers, many of whom assumed that Republicans would succeed in their seven-year quest to repeal Obamacare. The March collapse of the so-called American Health Care Act gave resistance groups a concrete win to show their members, particularly the constituents who have registered more than 6,000 local chapters under the Indivisible banner.
Resistance strategists also claim victory on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from investigations into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia; the withdrawal of embattled Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder; and even Bill O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News.
Yet those examples are relatively modest or incidental to the grassroots uprising. And while the ongoing probes into Trump’s ties to Moscow are among the chief concerns of voters packing rowdy town hall meetings, they hold little promise of bearing fruit soon, making the issue an elusive target for activists.
Organizing for Action, the successor to former President Barack Obama’s signature advocacy nonprofit, has opted to focus not on the Russia inquiries but instead on legislative campaigns against the GOP’s health care bill and funding for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall.
“While I may be personally concerned about Russia, it’s not the place where grassroots action is going to have the most power,” OFA spokesman Jesse Lehrich said in an interview.
On perhaps the most concrete way to measure the dynamism of the resistance, senior activists are witnessing eye-popping levels of financial support. The ACLU reported raising more than $24 million on the weekend after Trump’s first travel ban; MoveOn has tripled its base of sustaining donors; and the majority of Indivisible fundraising has come from more than 19,000 donors who gave less than $50 each.
Jessica Mackler, president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, summed up the bittersweet news for the left: “This administration is giving us no shortage of reasons to be motivated.”
By: Elana Schor