Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
In hopes of thwarting the new administration, citizens and activists in towns around the country are reverse engineering the tactics of the Tea Party.
By January 12, eight days before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the 115th Congress had already taken the first step to repeal the Affordable Care Act. That afternoon, a dozen people—most of whom barely knew each other—shuffled into the Raleigh Court Public Library in Roanoke, Virginia. Someone had brought muffins. As folks started eating them, conversation bubbled up. And soon they settled down to prepare letters to their members of Congress on behalf of around 60 members of their community.
The typed letters requested a careful reevaluation of the consequences of dismantling Obamacare. “What’s the rush?” they asked, in a clean font. Sitting side-by-side, the new acquaintances folded each letter into a paper boat. They joked about their clumsy technique. Someone pulled up a tutorial on YouTube. Others shared stories about the times they made paper boats with their grandkids.
This activity had a strategic purpose: Unfolding the little boats absorbs more congressional staff time. “That means that they’re spending time on this instead of spending time dismantling the policies that you care about,” says Myrna Ivonne Wallace Fuentes, a history professor at Roanoke College who attended the meeting.
It was also an inadvertent metaphor for the feeling that swept the room. “We realized, ‘Wait, we're all in the same boat,’” Fuentes says. “Nobody feels like they are professional agitators. We're just friends and neighbors who are astonished that this has happened to us.’”
Reeling from shock and grief after the election, Fuentes attended her first community meeting, set up by a local progressive organization. Around 100 people showed up—which, for this generally conservative southwestern part of Virginia, was a lot. After commiserating over their shared loss, the attendees broke out into groups of around 35, each focusing on a different area of concern. Protecting those in the community who were most at risk—immigrants, people of color, women—was the priority. As a mother of two who was born in Guatemala, Fuentes “felt implicated in these populations as well,” she says. She joined a group with the goal of quickly responding to news that affected vulnerable groups—a rapid task force, of sorts.
In the following weeks, Fuentes did what any good scholar would do: She started gathering literature to make sense of her new political reality. That’s when she came across the Indivisible Guide. This document, written by a team of former Congressional aides, compiles tactics that the right-wing Tea Party movement effectively employed to resist the Obama administration.
The former congressional staffers who prepared the Indivisible Guide saw how effective the Tea Party movement was on local and national politics. Its persistent members got lawmakers to hold back legislation. They shaped rhetoric. And ultimately, it left the door to the White House open for Donald Trump—all through grassroots efforts.
“It wasn't hundreds or thousands of people, it was 5, or 10, or 15 people in the living room. [They were] going to their local events, to their member of Congress's town hall, showing that member of Congress that they're there and they're listening,” says Ezra Levin, one of the guide’s creators. “The Tea Party's laser-like focus on local action, and very, very defensive action—recognizing that they couldn't set the agenda, but they could respond to it—that was what we saw as being crucial to their success.”
So Levin and his colleagues tried to reverse-engineer the Tea Party playbook, to resist the agendas of Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress. When it was complete in mid-December, Levin put it out in the Twitter-sphere; the Indivisible website went live a few days later. Messages from local groups organizing under the Indivisible umbrella started pouring in. As of inauguration week, over 3,450 local groups have registered in blue and red, big and small areas. The document, which is now available in Spanish, has been downloaded around 600,000 times.
Using the guide as her roadmap, Fuentes and her team planned their first order of business for 2017: to drop off holiday cards at the office of their representative, Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte (who made headlines at the start of this year’s session by leading an effort to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics). Their second? To deliver letters about the ACA repeal, each one folded into a time-sucking paper boat. “What we want to make clear is that … we don't want him to govern as if we don't exist,” Fuentes says. “We don't believe that kind of mandate exists for the kind of extremist policies that are being rammed through.”
As the Obama era dimmed, progressive grassroots organizations like the Working Families Party, MoveOn.org, and People's Action began to assemble the framework for this Tea-Party-esque countermovement in communities nationwide, organizing small bands of people to attend or host emergency meetings. Together, they registered over 500 such meetings on last count in 40-plus states—from Bellingham, Washington, to St. Petersburg, Florida. The size of these gatherings might range from 10 people huddled together in a living room to 1,000 in an auditorium.
At these meetings, attendees figured out what issues to tackle and how to do it. Many brought up the Indivisible Guide. Some groups reached out to local Black Lives Matter and immigrants’ rights groups. And most made contact with their local representatives. “Plans [range from] building opposition to Trump's rogues’ gallery of cabinet appointments, to pushing for statewide legislation or city-wide legislation that would resist some of the worst attacks that we expect from the Trump administration,” says Joe Dinkin, national communications director at the Working Families Party. Inspired by North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, his organization is asking citizens to badger their representatives every Tuesday, asking them to block Trump’s cabinet nominations.
Citizens aren’t just organizing in liberal urban hubs. Smaller towns and rural areas are also playing host, as this map shows: in Anchorage, Alaska, a 46-year-old attorney named Alyson Pytte; in Gunbarrel, Colorado, a 37-year-old mom and former librarian, Katie Farnan; in Durham, North Carolina, a 29-year-old “environmental junkie” named Kelly Garvey; in Syracuse, New York, Ph.D. student Maria Carson. All these women have all either hosted or attended events for the first time, resolving to carve out time for activism.
Clicking on the blue markers will pull up their stories. The red ones contain photos (courtesy of MoveOn.org and Indivisible) and tweets from some other meetings around the country:
Jonathan Smucker wasn’t surprised to see Trump get elected. For years, the long-term organizer had watched a tide of right-wing populism cresting in the U.S. and overseas. “I felt like I was watching a slow-motion train wreck,” he says.
Smucker leads the grassroots social-justice organization Beyond the Choir, which is based in the largely rural and mostly conservative county of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He notes how relatively few voters now care about local elections, and how other forms of civic engagement have been fading for years—people aren’t attending as many town halls or serving on local committees. The Democratic Party, in particular, has been doing a bad job of mobilizing its constituents, Smucker says, growing disconnected from its once-loyal working class base and allowing right-wing groups to sweep in and take advantage of the organizational vacuum.
Still, Smucker organized heartily for Democratic candidates in the 2016 presidential election. In his mind, Trump’s presidency poses a “unique threat to democracy.” But since Trump’s victory, Smucker has seen something shift—if not yet in the Democratic Party, at least in parts of the citizenry. An emergency meeting Smucker organized in collaboration with the Working Families Party after the election attracted 300 people—in Lancaster, of all places. “I think that the silver lining, if there is one, is that I’ve never in my lifetime seen more people want to get involved in social change,” he says.
The activists have some math on their side, too. Trump lost the popular vote by 2.8 million—a greater margin than any other winning candidate in history. His approval ratings as his administration begins are extremely low. “Donald Trump is incredibly unpopular, historically unpopular, has very, very small margins in both the House and the Senate,” says Levin. ”Just our sheer size will help us compared to what the Tea Party faced.”
Cities and counties may be where the fights for immigrants’ rights, fair policing, and sustainable development will be staged, but creating the organizational infrastructure to sustain a such movement could be a challenge going forward, according to Smucker. “We’re like a couple of drops in an empty bucket, and there’s a faucet waiting to be turned on,” he says. “There will be peaks and lulls to this, but fundamentally, what we’re doing is building the capacity to throw down—to mitigate the damage.”
The changes to policy, many warn, will come fast in the Trump era. On one hand, a barrage of new policies and legislation has the potential to keep the outrage flowing, pushing citizens to the doors of their local legislators. But it can also become overwhelming and demoralizing. “You feel like you're facing the Death Star,” Fuentes says.
But, she adds, it’s helpful to remember that there’s space for different kinds of activism. Not everyone needs to protest on the street or proselytize someone from the opposing side. Less dramatic actions—like making a phone call or sending a letter—matter. Incremental progress, especially towards a greater goal of a more political engaged society, has critical value.
“Yes, [our goal] is defending against policies that will do great harm to our communities,” she says. “But it's also rebuilding this culture of active democracy. We’re realizing that politics is a daily verb.”