We’ve seen this movie before.
A new president blows into Washington, promising to forever change the status quo. He makes bold moves to fulfill those campaign promises. In response, large groups of citizens turn up in the streets and at congressional town halls to (loudly) voice their unhappiness and oppose the president’s proposed policies.
In the summer of 2009 it was the tea party, which pretty much declared war on President Barack Obama’s stimulus package and health care proposals.
In the winter of 2017 it’s Indivisible, a group that’s pretty much opposed to all things Trump.
Indivisible made its biggest splash just this week when some of its affiliated groups made their voices heard at GOP congressional town hall meetings.
It started out a couple of days after Thanksgiving, at a bar in Austin, Texas, as a conversation between a liberal husband and wife about what to do about Donald Trump. It’s morphed into a nationwide movement, comprising 7,000 affiliated groups in all 50 states and almost every congressional district.
That husband and wife, former congressional staffers Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg, were like a lot of Democrats after the 2016 presidential election – shellshocked. Liberals wanted to fight back effectively but had no idea how.
“There was this overwhelming cry from different groups of people about not knowing what steps to take in order to fight,” said Sarah Dohl, an Indivisible board member and former communications director for Democratic US Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas. “We thought we could help.”
Echoes of 2009
So Dohl, Greenberg, Levin and a few other people put together a guide of sorts for liberal activism in the age of Trump.
Dohl and Levin worked together in Doggett’s office during 2009’s tea party summer and witnessed firsthand how a loosely affiliated group of conservatives was able to band together to stymie Obama’s agenda. So tea party strategies have been incorporated into Indivisible’s guide.
“We believe that the way progressives can win is by emulating two of the tea party’s tactics: local activism and defensive politics,” said Dohl. “We can do what the tea party did in 2009. They effectively slowed federal policy making to a halt. That’s not obstruction for the sake of obstruction, but to save our own progressive ideals.”
The guide notes that the tea party activists took “on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress. We saw them organize locally and convince their own (members of Congress) to reject President Obama’s agenda.”
Indivisible (Dohl said they wanted a phrase or name with a historical connotation) says it can do the same to President Trump, with what it sees as one key advantage.
“Trump is not popular. He does not have a mandate. He does not have large congressional majorities,” the guide says. “If a small minority in the tea party could stop President Obama, then we the majority can stop a petty tyrant named Trump.”
‘Just here to help’
Indivisible’s guide – in a “poorly formatted, typo-filled Google Doc” – was on the Internet by December, but it really took off in liberal corners of the Internet when progressive policy heavyweights like Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor during the Clinton administration, tweeted it out on social media.
Now the group has a little more structure. A more sophisticated website, which Dohl says has gotten about 10 million page views, has replaced the Google Doc. Indivisible became a nonprofit about three weeks ago.
About 100 volunteers around the country – working remotely nights and weekends because Indivisible doesn’t have an office – do the grunt work of handling emails and social media, maintaining the website and providing congressional updates.
But Indivisible’s board members – Levin, Greenberg, Dohl, immigrant rights advocate Angel Padilla and union organizer Matt Traldi – stress they’re not trying to lead the anti-Trump movement.
“The last few weeks have made it abundantly clear that local groups are taking ownership of the resistance to Trump’s agenda themselves,” Indivisible says on its website. “You all are the leaders – we’re just here to help.”
Indivisible started taking online donations about two weeks ago, but Dohl stresses that none of its money is coming from billionaire George Soros, whose name is often mentioned in conservative circles as backing all kinds of liberal causes.
“We haven’t received any money from him,” she said. “Those checks must have been lost in the mail.”
Moving forward, Indivisible wants to do two things: make it easier for everyday citizens to advocate for the causes they believe in and help local groups implement Indivisible’s online guide for “resisting the Trump agenda.”
The guide goes on to list tactics the former congressional staffers say work when dealing with Congress: attending town halls, showing up at other public events where a member of Congress may appear (like a ribbon-cutting ceremony), visiting district offices and calling congressional offices.
That first tactic – showing up at town halls – was a popular one this week. Progressives and liberals, including some Indivisible-affiliated local groups, have been flooding GOP town halls and other meet-your-representative events, allowing them to publicly lambast the very people trying to roll back Obama’s agenda.
But Democrats aren’t safe from Indivisible’s wrath, either. Just like the tea party tormented GOP members it felt weren’t strong enough against Obama, Dohl says it’s important for progressives “to stiffen the spine” of congressional Democrats.
‘Do your job!’
Thursday night, two Republican members of Congress – Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Diane Black of Tennessee – were each confronted with impassioned constituents during simultaneous events. The shouted questions, emotional pleas and raucous protesters of the evening crystallized the GOP’s tough political road.
In suburban Salt Lake City, local police estimated that some 1,000 people packed into a high school auditorium to see Chaffetz as hundreds more waited outside. For 75 minutes, the congressman confronted a crowd that fumed with resentment of Trump and accused Chaffetz of coddling the President.
They jeered and chanted “Do your job!” when Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, was pressed on why his panel spent months investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails but has not yet launched inquiries into Trump’s taxes (Trump has declined to release his tax returns).
Remember, this is Utah. States don’t get any redder, and it’s amazing to see that much anger bubble up from the Democratic base in a district where Chaffetz was just re-elected by a margin of 47 percentage points.
Black faced the same kind of anger that night in her “Ask Your Reps” event in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
This is what success looks like to Indivisible.
“Success to us is every delay,” said Dohl. “Every time we can change the narrative. Success looks exactly like the Jason Chaffetz town hall (Thursday) night.”
CNN’s MJ Lee and Eric Bradner contributed to this report.