When Donald Trump takes the presidential oath of office on Friday, thousands of protesters will be marching his way from an “Occupy the Inauguration” rally at Malcolm X Park. They’ll be joined by members and supporters of Democratic Socialists of America who will start their march near the White House. And 1,000 miles away, Democratic donors and strategists will be listening to a panel discussion on “the actions that Trump may take in his first 100 days in office” and the “moral responsibility” to resist.
Democrats and the broader left, recuperating from an election few of them thought they could lose, are organizing one of the broadest — and earliest — opposition campaigns ever to greet a new president. It began with protests in the hours after Trump’s victory, but it become bolder since, marked most dramatically by nearly 70 Democratic members of Congress boycotting the inauguration itself.
“To borrow the words of Joe Hill: Don’t mourn. Organize,” said New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who’s embracing a vocal role in the Democrats’ anti-Trump resistance. “We should be humble about the fact that Trump found a way to address real concerns that people had, while never forgetting that he got 3 million votes less” than Hillary Clinton.
Part of the response, so far, has been a steady run of public protests, many of them endorsed by Democrats. It’s a marked change from 2001, when protests of the incoming administration of George W. Bush were dominated by the political fringe, and a contrast even with 2009, when Tea Party protests were egged on by conservative organizations but only slowly joined by elected Republicans. In his farewell speech, President Obama departed from the usual homilies and urged activists to find their causes.
“If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing,” said Obama. “If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.”
This year, in his enhanced role as a messenger for congressional Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) successfully encouraged 70-odd rallies on Jan. 14 in support of the Affordable Care Act, organized on the ground by Democrats and labor groups. Local branches of the Working Families Party, which endorsed Sanders (and De Blasio) in 2016, have organized “Resist Trump Tuesdays,” in which activists have protested inside the offices of Republican legislators or filled the galleries of state legislatures. According to WFP spokesman Joe Dinkin, 450 community planning meetings took place the week before the inauguration.
“We’re making the Trump nominations the first big fight of the new year,” said Dinkin. “Thousands of people are coming out to encourage Democrats not just to vote against them, but to use every procedural tool to slow them down.”
Those tools are more limited than the ones used by previous out-of-power parties, thanks to a Democratic-backed 2013 reform of the filibuster that Republicans opposed but have not undone. But Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told the Washington Post last week that the reform was the right thing to do, and that Democrats who opposed nominees had to be ready to stand and debate them.
Across the left, activists have tried to anticipate and adapt to the tactics of the right. They’ve highlighted legislation in at least five states that would increase the penalties for public protest, including a North Dakota bill that would legally protect a driver “who negligently causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic.” Earlier this month, the progressive group American Family Voices identified and exposed a conservative video sting artist who was trying to offer cash for violent protests. This weekend’s “Democracy Matters” donor conference in Miami, organized by David Brock, will include several discussions on how to reverse-engineer the right, such as one on “how the Trump administration presents opportunities for impact litigation to hold the President accountable to the law.”
In December, a group of former congressional staffers released an easily-updated guide to effective protest and lobbying tactics, titled “Indivisible.” Over 26 pages, available for free online, they delineated what had gotten their attention in Congress, spelled out simple steps like subscribing to a member of Congress’s schedule, and recapped how the Tea Party had beaten Democrats in 2009 and 2010.
“We saw these activists take on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress,” they wrote in the guide’s introduction. “We saw them organize locally and convince their own [members of Congress] to reject President Obama’s agenda. Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism — and they won.”
Ezra Levin, one of the drafters of the guide, acknowledged that the protests had not stopped the entire Obama agenda. But they shifted the national conversation and turned lesser-known Democratic goals into controversies.
“They were extraordinarily effective at causing members of Congress who were with them to be even more with them, and causing members who supported the Obama administration to be less vocal in their support,” said Levin. “You can run down the progressive goals that those protests helped stop. Cap-and-trade. Card check. Immigration reform. Obamacare would have been very different; it was watered down as a result of that opposition.”
After winning power in 2010, Republicans took several steps to limit the effectiveness of the tactics that had beaten Democrats. They hold fewer public town halls, and more telephone or online forums that cannot easily get out of hand. In key states, they also drew maps that packed most reliable Democrats into safe, urban districts. Most of the Jan. 14 health care rallies took place in safe blue territority, far from the rural areas where Trump cracked the Electoral College.
But at home in New York, and at work in Washington, Trump will be in close proximity to hundreds of thousands of active Democrats. De Blasio, whose constituents will soon include the family of the 45th president, will address a rally at New York’s Trump hotel on Thursday night. Resistance, he said, started with Democratic confidence that their progressive politics had won the popular vote, and confidence that Republicans would not act on the pro-infrastructure, anti-elite economic policies Trump had used to win the election. Republicans had won on theory, and Democrats would confront them with reality.
“Of course we’re about to do to them what they did to us, with those ridiculous town hall meetings,” said De Blasio. “Yes, that was a classic progressive technique, and yes, shame on anybody who’s too thrown off by people screaming at a town hall meeting to begin with. But if that’s what it takes, let’s scream at the town hall meetings. Let’s put the people who could die right in front of them.”