Netroots Nation, the activist left's largest annual gathering, arrives in Atlanta this week with its clearest focus in years: how to resist President Donald Trump.
Former Vice President Al Gore will speak about the threats to the planet from a president who dismisses climate change as a hoax hatched in Beijing. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., will ring alarm bells about domestic policy. And 14 separate sessions will discuss the best ways to fight the White House and Republican Congress. Jon Ossoff, the Democratic star who narrowly lost Georgia's special House election in June, will also show.
"The last couple of years, much of the energy nationally was focused on social justice," said Netroots Nation spokeswoman Mary Rickles. This year, the focus for nearly 3,000 attendees was back on politics: "How do we channel the energy of resistance into helping progressives win elections?"
At more than 80 panels and training sessions Thursday through Sunday, activists will get updates from the "resistance" groups like Indivisible founded after the 2016 election, or those that have multiplied their membership since then, like the American Civil Liberties Union. One panel will go over ways to challenge Trump's "xenophobic NAFTA narrative," while another - more relevant given news from North Korea - will brainstorm ways to oppose Trump if a traumatic event causes people to rally around the flag.
"Hitler used the Reichstag Fire; Putin used the 1999 apartment bombings; and George W. Bush used 9/11," reads the online description of the panel, which will feature leaders of MoveOn.org and the ACLU. "With Trump, (Stephen K.) Bannon and their allies in Congress, progressives must be prepared to fight back in the first hours and days of a national security crisis."
The conference, which began in 2006 as a spinoff from the elections-focused Daily Kos blog, transformed in the Obama years into a showcase for labor and civil rights movements. In 2007, it hosted every major Democratic candidate for president for a traditional question-and-answer session, and more than a hundred reporters swarmed the halls to see where the Democratic base was directing its energy.
But as soon as Democrats took power, an invitation to Netroots meant a decent shot of being heckled by activists who demanded results on LGBT rights, on National Security Agency spying, or the failings of the Affordable Care Act. In 2015, when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) took questions, they were interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists — a scene that led to productive meetings between protesters and candidates, but unfolded awkwardly onstage. In 2016, Hillary Clinton's campaign checked off the Netroots box with a three-minute video message.
"There was a general concern that the conference would no longer be able to attract 'top names,' celebrity politicians that 'everyone' wants to see," said Chris Savage, founder of the Michigan-based Electablog. "I am someone who is glad for that. This conference is best for me when the focus is on organizing and training and sharing best practices, and not focused on which famous politician is there."
Warren, who was the focus of a brief presidential draft campaign when she appeared at the 2014 Netroots, is the only potential 2020 presidential candidate on the convention's schedule. But organizers expect a record crop of down-ballot candidates looking for ideas and support. Both of Georgia's leading Democratic candidates for governor, State Rep. Stacey Abrams and State Rep. Stacey Evans, will hit the convention with divergent theories of how the party can win in the South.
"The sheer number of activists already stepping up to run as first time candidates is breaking records," said Carolyn Fiddler, the political editor of Daily Kos. "I expect a lot of activists at the conference will be looking for ways to plug in not only to campaigns, but also to resources for potential candidates."
Randy Bryce, an iron worker running a buzzy long-shot campaign against Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., described a packed Friday schedule that would take him from meetings with the election-focused Progressive Change Campaign Committee, to an interview with Samantha Bee's show "Full Frontal," to a happy hour sponsored by the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America.
"It's about building up a network of people who have the same goals as you, and want to win some elections," said Bryce. "It's going to be a big help."
The troubles of the Trump administration will shape the conference, too, as activists discuss how to make Republicans' work even harder. The American Federation of Teachers will explain how a "dedicated effort from educators, parents and the community" made Education Secretary Betsy DeVos infamous, imperiling her nomination. Groups like Bend the Arc and Muslim Advocates will share how they actually defeated Trump nominees for other jobs, like Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder.
For longtime convention attendees, it's a bit of deja vu to the final years of a Bush administration that ground to a halt after a failed campaign to privatize Social Security.
"The convention played a key role in forming the prospective policy ideas that came from opposing the Bush agenda," said ACLU political director Faiz Shakir, who previously attended Netroots as the editor of the liberal news site ThinkProgress. "I think this year presents the same opportunity and challenge. I'm anticipating a pretty thoughtful and engaged audience deliberating over what ideas could convert resistance into meaningful success."
Gina Cooper, the founder of the conference, said that she couldn't make it to Atlanta but saw plenty of parallels to the first Netroots gatherings.
"Once again, the conference is a platform for the next generation of digital savvy progressive activists," said Cooper. "The party apparatus and other operatives will have to decide if they want to harness this energy or just hope that it goes away. But it is not going away."