How a New Generation of Progressive Activists Is Leading the Trump Resistance

Grassroots progressives are rising up and fighting Trump – with or without the Democratic Party

Protestors outside of a Wisconsin town-hall meeting. Credit: Kenny Yoo/Waukesha Freeman

During the Fourth of July congressional recess, grassroots activists in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, flooded a town-hall meeting hosted by Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner. The crowd had come to hold their barrel-bellied congressman accountable for his vote in favor of the House Trumpcare bill, legislation that would have led to 23 million Americans losing their health insurance.

Ninety minutes later, as Sensenbrenner fled the public library parking lot in a black sedan – under police escort, sirens bleating through chants of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" – these protesters had demonstrated the power of a new wave of local activism in the age of Trump.

Nationwide, this tide of progressive resistance has sent GOP members of Congress into hiding from their own constituents, and steeled Senate Democrats into a unified opposition. "When you see Charles Schumer out there calling for 'resistance,' you realize something's happening," says Theda Skocpol, the famed Harvard political scientist who studies American civic engagement. "That's not his natural state."

This explosion of political action has the Democratic Party's new leadership wagering that success in 2018 will hinge on its ability "to channel people's energies not only into town-hall meetings," says Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, "but also into the ballot box." But this mission-critical job stands as an uneasy work in progress. Despite calls from national leaders to make common cause with resistance activists, state and local Democrats are often missing in action. Perhaps more troubling: The unifying purpose of opposing Trump has not papered over the party's rawest policy divides.

Wauwatosa – "Tosa" for short – is a mixed bag, politically. The leafy Milwaukee suburb was the home of Scott Walker, and voters here backed the Republican governor in three elections. Yet Tosa gave Donald Trump just 35 percent support in 2016. And there's the rub: Sensenbrenner touts a maverick streak, but he has voted with Trump 93 percent of the time.

The congressman gets credit for showing up. Nearly 150 Republican members of Congress have yet to hold a single town-hall meeting, but this is Sensenbrenner's 83rd during the current congressional session. "You probably know some of these meetings have become very contentious," he tells the standing-room-only crowd. His crotchety, Midwest-inflected voice is a dead ringer for the late 60 Minutes complainer Andy Rooney's. "If, at any time, participants become rude or disruptive," he says, brandishing a wooden gavel, "I will immediately adjourn the meeting!"

The exchange that follows is heated but civil. Sensenbrenner responds to a no-holds-barred question about his Trumpcare vote with a disgusted bark: "No, I do not have 'blood on my hands!' " Resistance activists have distributed red disagree signs, and constituents flourish them with gusto. Outside the library's wide glass windows, a spillover crowd of more than 100 is marching. Three "handmaids" dressed in white bonnets and crimson robes – a visual nod to Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel about the collapse of democracy – walk in eerie silence. Other protesters hold aloft paper tombstones with inscriptions like DEATH BY TAX BREAK – SAD! and chant, "Sensenbrenner, Sensenbrenner, where's your soul?!"

The Wauwatosa uprising wasn't ginned up by the Democratic Party, which had zero presence at the rally. It was organized by friends and neighbors in a node of the Indivisible movement, calling itself Indivisible Tosa, which structures its activism according to the viral how-to civics manual "Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda."

The Indivisible movement – which now counts more than 6,000 chapters nationwide – is the centerpiece of a robust new grassroots machinery that has arisen to confront the crisis of the Trump presidency. Rivaling anything accomplished by the Tea Party, the passionate activism of hundreds of thousands of progressives has already achieved the impossible in Washington, D.C. – overwhelming Republican control of Congress and the presidency to stymie the repeal of Obamacare.

Looking ahead, Democratic Party leaders are determined to ride this political uprising to victory in the House in 2018. But neither the DNC nor the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have shown the technological savvy or comfort with grassroots engagement to create a platform for this activism within the party itself. Indeed, for many of the activists on the ground, the current Democratic Party appears less a vehicle for change than an obstacle to it. "The party is utterly irrelevant," says Markos Moulitsas, the 45-year-old founder of Daily Kos, a pioneer of the "netroots" that has become a hub for digital resistance in the Trump age. Noting that there are thousands of registered Democrats in every congressional district, even the reddest ones, Moulitsas adds, "If we get 10,000 people volunteering and create a culture where being a liberal citizen in America is normal – you will volunteer, you will be a part of that army every year – that changes the equation and empowers the dominant liberal majority that actually exists in this country. But the party has nothing to do with it."

What's indisputable is that the election of Donald Trump awoke a sleeping giant of progressive activism. "We're at a very rare political moment where there's an abundance of volunteer time and energy, rather than a scarcity," says Micah Sifry, executive director of Civic Hall, which fosters tech innovation in politics. And these new activist groups "make big asks of people's time and of their idealism."

The innovation and moxie of the new organizations have made an impression. "The energy is palpable," says DNC Chair Perez. "They push us – as they should!" he says, adding, with perhaps more hope than conviction, "They all want the Democratic Party to succeed."

For some groups, like Swing Left, Perez's assessment holds true. Dedicated to helping progressives flip their nearest contested House seat in 2018, Swing Left is in easy alliance: "We're here to support the Democratic Party and be a new take on things," says co-founder Ethan Todras-Whitehill. "We have the same goal of getting Democrats back into power."

But for other groups, the fact that the new machinery is rising outside the party is a feature – not a bug. "We don't view ourselves as an arm of the Democratic Party," says Ezra Levin, a founder of the Indivisible movement. "If we were, it would be difficult to apply pressure to make Democrats stand up for progressive values," he says. "This is not a switch that gets flipped," he insists. "This is pressure that ought to be applied regularly."

Marshall Ganz is a storied organizer who was active in the civil-rights and farmworker-union movements of the Sixties and Seventies – and more recently helped structure the 2008 movement that elected Barack Obama. "The fact that Indivisible is rooted outside of the Democratic Party is an enormous strength," he says. "They can develop their own agenda. They can be the ones exercising influence over Congress, the Senate or the presidency – which is something the Obama organization could not do because it was owned by Obama." Once inside the White House, Obama muzzled his activists in favor of an establishment brand of governing. "The approach he took," Ganz says, "there was no real role for people."

Moulitsas points to lessons of the Obama presidency to argue that movement politics can't thrive inside the Democratic Party. "What happened when Obama won? We all went home." But he is confident that progressives will reform the party most quickly by breaking ahead and letting officials play catch up. "That's actually ideal: Let the party piggyback off that popular wave rather than the other way around."

With resistance groups taking ownership of high-tech organizing, data and fundraising tools that previously lived inside parties or campaigns, the power has shifted, Moulitsas says. "We finally have the opportunity to build the infrastructure that we should have built a long time ago.

The Indivisible movement has emerged as the liberal answer to the Tea Party. But its creation was a viral accident. In the aftermath of Trump's election, husband and wife Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg – earnest thirtysomethings with experience on Capitol Hill – saw friends and family eager to resist the new administration but misfiring in their efforts to apply political pressure. They put too much faith in online petitions or one-off phone calls to House Speaker Paul Ryan's national office. "They didn't fully understand how Congress works or how you could have real impact," Levin tells Rolling Stone.

Levin is a former staffer to Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat who was one of the first members of Congress to feel the Tea Party's bite. Levin recalls watching how a "relatively small set of individuals spread throughout the country was able to stall – and in some cases defeat – a historically popular president's agenda." Tea Party tactics weren't revolutionary; they were Civics 101. Energized constituents tirelessly bird-dogged their own members of Congress. "Separate out the Tea Party's racism," Levin says, "and they were smart on strategy and tactics."

The couple began distilling do's and don'ts of congressional activism into a manual for citizens seeking to resist Republican rule in Washington. Levin – a freckled 32-year-old with close-cropped brown hair – wanted to "demystify the political and the policy process" and answer "nuts-and-bolts organizing questions like: How do you run a meeting? How do you create leadership? How do you structure action?" The Indivisible guide's ultimate purpose is to help constituents get inside the heads of their members of Congress, making them sweat at every vote: "How am I going to explain this to the angry constituents who keep showing up at my events and demanding answers?"

The Indivisible guide began, humbly, as a Google Doc, shared in mid-December via a tweetstorm from the couple's row house in Washington, D.C. With just a few hundred Twitter followers, Levin had little expectation the guide would go viral. But then the Google Doc crashed. And groups across the country began announcing themselves. "People started telling us, 'We got 20 people together, and we're Indivisible Roanoke' or 'We're Indivisible Auburn, Alabama,' " says Levin. Chapters proliferated in particular after the inauguration-weekend Women's March. Levin recalls that he and Greenberg faced an "unexpected choice" at the end of January. "We could say, 'Hey, we just put out a Google Doc – good luck to ya.' Or we could try to set up some kind of structure that supports that local leadership."

They launched a national Indivisible organization, offering guidance without micro-management. "These groups are fundamentally self-led," Levin insists. "We're not franchising out Indivisibles. You don't have to call yourself Subway and sell $5 foot-longs to be an Indivisible chain." Ganz sees the national Indivisible group providing crucial direction for its far-flung chapters. "Leadership is different than control," he says, adding that Indivisible is "equipping people with skills, and framing strategy – at the local level, the state level and the national level."

As a movement, Indivisible is every bit the Tea Party's equal, says Skocpol, author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Skocpol is now researching Indivisible groups as part of a study on eight counties won by Trump across swing states from North Carolina to Wisconsin. "The scale of the activity, the energy behind it is comparable to – if not more than – what was going on with the Tea Party back in 2009," she says.

Yet Indivisible is not a mirror image of the right-wing uprising of the Obama age. "Unlike the Tea Party, Indivisible has figured out how to be independent of the Democratic Party – without being the crazy wing of the Democratic Party," says Sifry. Where the Tea Party represented a "resurgence of a white, nativist, rural wing of the Republican right," he says, "Indivisible doesn't map the same way. You can't say this is just the hippies and those old New Lefties. The only thing that's analogous is the strategy: You have elected representatives who are supposed to listen to you, so go make their life a living hell."

Indivisible Tosa – the group that turned up the heat on Sensenbrenner in July – is a typical Indivisible success story. The group was launched over beers in the living room of Joseph Kraynick's modest Wauwatosa bungalow. Kraynick is a 46-year-old special-education paraprofessional; he's got a shaved head and a goofy, infectious smile. After Trump's election, he says, he found himself despairing: "What the hell am I going to do? I don't have any money. I don't know anyone who has any access or contacts to a politician. How can I get them to pay attention to me?"

Then his wife returned from the Women's March in D.C. – on a bus full of activists buzzing about the Indivisible guide. "I read this thing, and a whole world of ideas opened up to me: 'Oh, OK, I can do this!' " he says. "I can bring 20 people with me, and we can go to a local office and talk to the congressional staff. I can get 50 or 100 people to make phone calls and push for the same thing – and they're actually going to have to listen to that.

"I never considered myself an activist," Kraynick says. "And no way in hell I'd have ever considered being an organizer. I'm not an organized person." But Indivisible Tosa took off, and Kraynick soon found himself a co-leader of a thriving grassroots community that's grown to more than 300. Members, Kraynick says, have transformed their diffuse outrage into coordinated political muscle. "It feels like we're creating power for ourselves," he says, "and trying to put things right."

For the Indivisible movement, job one of "putting things right" was blocking the Republicans' campaign to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and hobble Medicaid. "The proof is in the pudding," says Levin, who underscores that Obamacare repeal was the chief legislative goal of a unified Republican Congress and the GOP's central campaign promise for seven years. "Through months of relentless local pressure," he says, "Indivisible groups and other volunteer advocates convinced Democrats to play political hardball – and peeled off enough Republicans to sink the bill."

Indivisible has focused on defense – grinding the Trump train to a halt. Other progressive groups are looking to play offense, tackling critical political work in advance of the 2018 midterms. If the Democratic Party were more technologically adept, one could imagine this being done under the auspices of a Democratic committee. But with the DNC and DCCC still rebuilding following the 2016 wipeout, it's being driven from outside the party.

Ethan Todras-Whitehill, a lanky 36-year-old travel writer, GMAT tutor and aspiring novelist with a mop of curly hair, awoke from the despondency of election night ready for battle. "I go through stages of grief fairly quickly," he says, laughing. "10 a.m., day after the election, I was like, 'OK, the House. 2018. What can we do?' "

A resident of the safe blue congressional district of Amherst, Massachusetts, where his wife is a university professor, Todras-Whitehill realized he would need to project his activism elsewhere. But after spending 20 minutes locating his nearest swing district, inspiration struck: "Why isn't there a tool to do this?" he asked. "That was the genesis of Swing Left."

With help from friends, he launched a website the day before inauguration with a tool that matched liberals to their closest 2018 swing district – seeking their commitment to volunteer and donate to help Democrats win the seat. "We thought we'd get to 20,000 sign-ups by March," Todras-Whitehill says. "Instead, we had 200,000 by the first weekend."

Swing Left's rookie activists quickly found themselves out over the tips of their skis. "We didn't have any political organizing experience," he admits. But Swing Left has benefited from seasoned political operatives who emerged from the woodwork to professionalize the experiment. That includes Matt Ewing, a former national field director for MoveOn, who became Swing Left's head of organizing and helped it make the leap from ragtag volunteer collective to flourishing nonprofit.

Swing Left is targeting 64 House seats and has activated local, self-organized teams across the country to begin canvassing their respective swing districts – including knocking on doors to survey constituents' concerns, registering new voters at farmers markets and recruiting locals to build up volunteer capacity inside the targeted districts.

"We're not trying to control what people do," Todras-Whitehill says, describing Swing Left as "an organization trying to keep up with our members." His priority is to create tools and platforms that structure the "organic momentum" of Swing Left volunteers. "We give them our best theory of what will make the biggest difference – but what's most important is that they are out there doing the hard work of voter contact 18 months before the election."

Swing Left is laying the groundwork for Democratic campaigns whose candidates haven't even been chosen yet. "Our goal is that, the day after the primary, we can hand each campaign an army of grassroots volunteers that have trained and organized and already been talking to voters in that district for over a year." Swing Left is also building campaign war chests for each of its swing districts. "We have about $260,000 waiting for Darrell Issa's opponent," Todras-Whitehill says, referring to the California congressman who is one of the most endangered GOP incumbents. On the night of the House Trumpcare vote, Swing Left also launched a fund to be split equally among the opponents of swing-district Republicans who voted for the bill. "We sent this thing out the door a half-hour after the votes," he says. "It did $1 million in 24 hours."

In the face of upcoming Democratic primaries, Swing Left is devoutly hands-off – letting voters decide. "We don't want to be relitigating the Bernie vs. Hillary thing," Todras-Whitehill says. "We need to get behind whoever emerges as nominees in swing districts. They are part of our best chance to put a check on Donald Trump by taking back a branch of Congress."

Not every organization in the new constellation of resistance groups is ready to pledge allegiance to any candidate who puts a (D) after his or her name.

Our Revolution is waging a fight for the heart of the Democratic Party's platform. "Resistance is good," says Nina Turner, the group's new president. "But we have to go further than that. We have to plan for when power is back in the hands of progressives." This means backing politicians "who will push progressive issues once they get the people's power," she says. "Otherwise, what difference does it make?"

Our Revolution was founded to continue the movement politics of the Bernie Sanders campaign, inheriting the grassroots infrastructure that raised more than $200 million to propel the democratic socialist senator in his unlikely contest with Hillary Clinton. Our Revolution is poised to be a power broker in 2018's contested Democratic primaries as progressive politicians seek the support of its activists and the power of its fundraising network.

Turner is a charismatic 49-year-old -African-American who served as minority whip in the Ohio State Senate. She took the reins of Our Revolution in June, replacing Sanders' former campaign manager. The Sanders movement has been criticized as a bastion of "Bernie bros" – younger white men with an alarming tendency toward misogyny. But with Turner at the helm, Our Revolution stands as a rare grassroots powerhouse led by a black woman.

Our Revolution distributes its decision-making among its local chapters – now numbering around 400 in 49 states. The idea is to empower the grassroots, Turner says, "instead of us running it from on high in D.C." Candidates seeking an endorsement must first convince their local Our Revolution affiliate. "They have to go talk to the citizens in their community – the very people they want to represent."

Turner says the guide star of the Democratic Party has to be brighter than putting "a check on Trump" – and calls the fight for Medicare for all "a foundational issue." She points bitterly to California, where Democratic leadership spiked single-payer legislation that could have passed without GOP support. "It wasn't the Russians. It wasn't the Republicans," Turner says. "The Democratic Assembly leader killed Medicare for all in California. How are we showing people that we're any different? That we're not controlled by the pharmaceutical and medical industry? That one example in California hasn't showed them that."

Our Revolution makes no apologies about taking its fight to the national party. Progressives cannot settle for "half measures," Turner says, and need to insist on "Democrats who really stand up for what it means to be a Democrat."

For Turner, the Democrats' new "Better Deal" platform is deficient. Unveiled in July, the Better Deal pledges a $15 minimum wage, a $1 trillion infrastructure plan (not unlike President Trump's), corporate tax credits for job training, and a wonky proposal to crack down on business monopolies. It offers no solutions on expanding health coverage, combating climate change or fostering racial justice.

In late July, Turner and Our Revolution activists marched on the DNC building south of the Capitol to present a 115,000-signature petition demanding a "people's platform" that includes universal healthcare, an end to private prisons, free public college and a tax on Wall Street. Far from rolling out the welcome mat for these reformers, the national Democrats' security team barricaded the building's front steps. The DNC insists this is standard security protocol. But Turner seized on the symbolism, calling the barrier "indicative of what is wrong with the Democratic Party." Through a megaphone that could surely be heard from Tom Perez's corner office, Turner shouted, "This ain't about fancy slogans on the way to 2018. We need a new New Deal!"

The Democratic Party is at its weakest in the state legislatures, where it lost hundreds of seats during Obama's two terms – at a stark human cost. Unified GOP state governments cut social services, rammed through tax cuts for the wealthy, defunded Planned Parenthood clinics, adopted restrictive voter-ID measures and passed discriminatory bathroom bills.

Rather than trust the party to right itself, a pair of grassroots groups are working to rebuild state power in advance of the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional boundaries known as redistricting, which will follow the 2020 census. At the leading edge of this effort is Sister District, founded by Rita Bosworth, a 38-year-old former federal public defender from San Jose, California, who is adamant that progressives need to focus on "races that are competitive, winnable and strategic."

Sister District's mission is similar to Swing Left's but applied to legislative districts. Bosworth was drawn to these races because they're cheap to win and can unlock a broader Democratic revival. "When you win back state legislatures," she says, "then redistricting happens and you get a more representative Congress at the national level."

Counting 25,000 volunteers, Sister District has more than 100 locally led teams in all 50 states. Bosworth is intense and dispassionate – a characteristic that puts her at odds with the grassroots zeitgeist. She was disheartened to watch Democrats pour a record $23 million into the Jon Ossoff special House election in Georgia, a "shiny object" of a race, she argues, with little lasting strategic value to the party. She points instead to state legislative contests coming up in Virginia this year. "If we put $23 million into Virginia, we would just win Virginia," she says. "And then we could redistrict." By undoing Republican gerrymandering, more Democrats would win as a matter of course. "We wouldn't have to spend $23 million on them!" Bosworth has a stern message for fellow progressives: "We're not thinking strategically, and we're not thinking long-term. And we're going to keep losing unless we start doing that."

Improving Democratic chances of winning down-ballot races means bolstering the quality of progressive candidates running for office. That's the mission of Run for Something, which has created a platform for younger Americans to jump into politics. Amanda Litman, the 27-year-old co-founder, ran Hillary Clinton's e-mail fundraising program in the 2016 election, helping to bring in nearly $400 million. In the aftermath of the November election, she kept falling into conversations with friends and acquaintances who said, "I want to run for political office. What do I do?"

Litman didn't have an easy answer. She knew underfunded state Democratic parties were poor incubators of political talent. So she launched Run for Something to connect novice politicians to resources and mentoring. Her ambition was modest: "In the first year, we figured we'd have to hustle to find 100 people to run, because this is hard." But Run for Something has already been contacted by 10,000 aspiring progressive politicians. The group is now vetting prospective candidates; those who pass muster join the group's Slack channel, where they can connect with fellow rookies and receive mentorship from more than 200 volunteer Democratic campaign veterans, including many top talents from the Obama and Clinton organizations, who work pro bono.

What excites Litman about the new recruits is that they "are real people – and the people our party is supposed to be representing," she says. "It's teachers, students, nurses, single moms, veterans, immigrants. They're not old, rich, white lawyers."

Fresh off its victory blocking Trumpcare, the Indivisible movement is plotting a shift from defense to offense. It's engaged in a listening tour of its chapters, seeking a common progressive political platform to fight for, even as it continues to fight against Trump. The group has hired a new political director – Maria Urbina, formerly of Voto Latino – who is clear that Indivisible will remain independent from the Democrats. "We don't coordinate with the party," she says. "The power lies with the people who have brought this movement to life."

But Levin sees the Indivisible movement as paying long-term dividends for progressive politicians. "If you have a healthy movement of thriving local groups, you win elections," he says.

Ganz, the veteran organizer who now lectures at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, hopes national Democrats embrace this opportunity for bottom-up renewal. "One can hope that they'll get it and not try to fight groups like Indivisible. And realize how valuable they are."

The early returns are mixed. The very existence of a group like Run for Something stands as an indictment of the party's capacity to foster fresh talent. But Litman believes that this is a productive tension. "We're frenemies," she says.

In a recent interview in Washington, D.C., deputy DNC chair Keith Ellison told Rolling Stone that the Democratic Party needs to show solidarity with new resistance groups – by showing up: "We can't just let these heroic, brave organizations get out there with us not being there," Ellison says. "We gotta be there, so we can offer ourselves as a party that's going to fight for people, and that they have some confidence in."

"The new national team at the DNC is trying to be responsive," says Skocpol. But the Democratic Party is a decentralized beast, and not all state parties are following through on the rhetoric from Washington. In her research across four swing states, Skocpol says, the relationship between party leaders and Indivisible activists runs hot and cold: "I see a range from complete non-contact to close cooperation."

The DNC has launched a Resistance Summer program, offering grants to state parties to engage with voters at protest events. But the lesson from Wisconsin is that the party still has a lot of work to do. The Sensenbrenner town hall was one of only a handful that GOP politicians dared to hold over the Fourth of July recess – anywhere in the nation. The Tosa protest drew hundreds of local activists, but no one representing the state or local Democratic Party.

Protester Mike Cummens – a 65-year- old family physician who looks a bit like Ed Begley Jr. – is a member of an Indivisible chapter calling itself Stop Jim Sensenbrenner Indivisible. To Cummens, the Democratic Party is "kind of a dirty word." When it comes to tapping into the energy of the resistance, he says, "There's been no support, no outreach from them. Nothing." The distrust runs both ways. "None of us really like them that much," he says. "They're not doing their job!"

With a grim smile, Cummens points to the Indivisible crowd that has packed the library to overflowing. "It's a telling picture," he says. "This is where the activism is. It's not the Democratic Party."