Hardball from the Left

Anti-Trump guide co-created by Fletcher alum rips pages from the Tea Party playbook
illustration of people carrying the White House
“We want to build the kind of organization that’s in it for the long haul,” Leah Greenberg said. “Resisting is the only ethical option.” Illustration: Doug Chayka
May 8, 2017

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Like so many revolutions, this one started over drinks in a bar. Leah Greenberg, F12, and her husband, Ezra Levin, were chatting with one of his college friends this past Thanksgiving weekend. The friend had been so appalled by Donald Trump’s recent election that she had begun to help lead a support group on Facebook. But what else could she do? Make phone calls? Sign petitions?

The conversation turned to the Tea Party, the conservative movement that sprang up after President Obama’s election in 2008. Obama had seemed poised to enact much of his progressive agenda, but the Tea Party managed to thwart him at many turns, largely by organizing effectively and presenting unified, unyielding opposition to just about everything he proposed.

As the friends sat in that bar in Austin, Texas, a thought began to work its way through the minds of Greenberg and Levin: Why not deploy the Tea Party’s battle-tested tactics against Trump? Greenberg and Levin had been congressional staffers, and the rise of the Tea Party had been painful to them. Now they could put the experience to good use.

The couple enlisted the help of more than two dozen friends and quickly wrote an online guide that explained how coordinated efforts, like asking tough questions at town hall meetings, could derail the new president’s agenda. The idea was to help people across the country who were looking to do something, but weren’t sure what their individual action would amount to. “We linked the tactics to a larger strategy,” Greenberg said.

The 26-page handbook, called “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda,” went online in mid-December. Within days, liberal stalwarts like former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and the Star Trek actor-turned-activist George Takei were promoting the guide on social media. It took off. The guide has now been downloaded more than a million times, and 5,800 or so local groups across the country, in all 50 states, have registered on the Indivisible site, making it easier for anti-Trump activists in their communities to find and join them.

Indivisible has already played a part in at least one high-profile Trump setback—the stunning failure in March of Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Part of what doomed that effort was the loss of support of moderate Republicans who were pressured by groups using the online guide. For instance, the Virginia Representative Barbara Comstock eventually came out against the measure after facing opposition from Indivisible Virginia District 10-East, a group based in the district Comstock represents.

Although the House approved a revised plan by a slim margin in early May, Comstock voted against the new bill, and its fate in the Senate is uncertain. Greenberg said the March setback proved the power of citizen action.

“Three months ago, the political consensus was that Obamacare would be repealed,” she said. “But constituent advocacy shapes what members of Congress think is politically possible, and repealing the protections of the Affordable Care Act was deeply unpopular [at the time of the March debates]. Members of Congress saw political danger for themselves.”

Indivisible planned to keep the heat on those legislators as the health-care deliberations continued.

Organize Locally and Play Defense

As Indivisible picked up steam, Greenberg and Levin recruited more volunteers to create a website and video, translate the guide into Spanish, and even make an audiobook. Indivisible became a nonprofit in January and since has received more than $500,000 in small online donations, Greenberg said.

The guide takes its name from the Pledge of Allegiance, as in “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” and reads like a pep talk to liberal activists. (“Together we have the power to resist—and we have the power to win.”) In four chapters, it explains how the Tea Party succeeded, and how those opposed to the current president’s agenda can, too. “We obviously disagree with the Tea Party’s ideology, and their tactics that were violent and racist,” Greenberg said. But there was clearly something to be learned from that group’s methods.

The strategy is simple. “There are two prongs,” Greenberg said. “Organize locally and play defense.” That means opposing the agenda of the party in power at every step by pressuring individual senators and representatives concerned about re-election.

As local groups have sought guidance to focus their efforts, Greenberg and the Indivisible team have scrambled to respond. The website now includes a calendar that recommends actions for each day, toolkits for campus and community group leaders, tips on managing crowds and giving media interviews, and scripts for phone calls on issues such as immigration policy, Russia’s alleged ties to the Trump administration, and the president’s refusal to release his tax returns.

Even with about 150 volunteers, it has been hard to sustain the project, Greenberg said. So Levin, who had been president of the nonprofit’s board, left his job in February and became Indivisible’s executive director. Then, in late March, Greenberg quit her position as policy director for the progressive Democrat Tom Perriello’s campaign for Virginia governor to become the chief strategy officer at Indivisible. Soon after, Casey Hogle, F13, another early volunteer, joined the team as senior manager for development, and the group started looking to fill several other positions.

“We want to build the kind of organization that’s in it for the long haul,” Greenberg said. That may not be a problem, given that the new president’s term has only just begun. “Trump’s agenda is an assault on our fundamental values and the basic tenets of American democracy,” she said. “Resisting is the only ethical option.”

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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