Political activism inspired by Trump shows no signs of slowing down


After the 2016 election, Diane Redmond felt compelled to get involved in activism, but she wasn't sure how. 

"I felt frustrated because I have a limited income and I didn't think I could help financially," said Redmond, a graphic designer who lives in St. Louis. "What I did have was time I could sacrifice and energy I could spare, despite working two jobs." 

She eventually helped organize the Women's March on St. Louis in January and continues to encourage community advocacy through DefendHERS, a social justice organization in the city. 

Redmond isn't alone. In the Show-Me state and nationwide, the unexpected election of President Donald Trump has inspired a new wave of political activism that doesn't seem to be letting up. 

While most demonstrations have been held in opposition to Trump, his supporters in Missouri say they've also felt compelled to continue grass-roots organizing efforts, often led by people who don't have a history of being active in politics. 

The controversial commander in chief has political newcomers turning out in droves, and experts say they haven't seen anything like it. 

"Trump is just not a person you have moderate feelings about," said Ken Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University. "People are extremely for him or against him." 

Protests against Trump in Missouri have mirrored national efforts. More than 10,000 people descended on St. Louis for the women's march in January, and similar events occurred across the country and internationally. 

Thousands also protested Trump's executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, both outside of St. Louis Lambert International Airport and in downtown St. Louis. 

Across Missouri, people are showing up, said Stephen Webber, who chairs the Missouri Democratic Party. 

"I've been traveling the state speaking to groups almost every night. Everywhere, there's record turnout," Webber said. "There are people who say they've never come to a political meeting before." 

Most recently, a failed attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act sparked rallies throughout Missouri. 

Even in Missouri's deeply red rural areas, Webber said, he's met people fearful of losing coverage, which motivates them to get involved. 

But more broadly, "I think people have been appalled by Trump's behavior and now they're appalled by his policies," Webber said. 

Daniela Velazquez, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Missouri, said the organization continues to see record interest and donations, with more than 700 people inquired about volunteering after the election. 

"The election drove home that there's a lot of work to do here," Velazquez said. "We see continual interest as people realize they can do something, or their rights may be at stake." 

Typically, when your candidate wins, there's no need to continue holding rallies. But Trump supporters say they plan to keep on meeting and marching in support of the president, who they feel hasn't been given a fair shake in the media. 

"People who supported Trump have no form of buyer's remorse. They're very much behind him," said Diane Neff, a St. Louis resident who helped organize a march for Trump earlier this month in Jefferson City. 

Neff has worked on elections for more than a decade, both as a paid staffer and as a volunteer. But this year is different. 

"Once the candidate has been elected, people usually feel their job has been done and step aside," she said. "Now people still want to know what we're doing, and how they can help." 

Among those helpers are people in their 40s who have never before voted in a presidential election, and senior citizens willing to drive hours to get signs and literature to pass out, Neff said. 

"I think you can chalk that up to populism," said Clarissa Rile Hayward, an associate professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. "Trump has tapped into this group of people who have felt for a long time that neither party represents them." 

But Todd Graves, chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, sees the heightened interest as a return to normalcy: Americans may have been more politically apathetic in recent years, he said, but they have a long history of political involvement. 

"Activists on both sides are definitely rolling up their sleeves more," Graves said. "I think the fact that it's up close and personal, the internet is driving part of that." 

Next steps include funneling support to local Missouri candidates who have stayed loyal to Trump and looking ahead to his re-election campaign, Neff said. 

"People can be fickle, but as of now, I don't see this changing," Neff said. "People who said they weren't active this (election), they want to be active next time." 

Warren said he hasn't seen protests on such a large scale since Richard Nixon held the country's highest office, but those were largely centered around opposition to the Vietnam War, not the president. 

Now, he said, it's personal — people are reacting with either disgust or devotion to Trump himself. 

"And that's unique," Warren explained. "There have been some uncouth presidents ... but those were different times. Trump is very unorthodox for the modern world." 

Others compare the passionate reaction to the 2000 presidential election, when Al Gore, a Democrat who won the popular vote, eventually conceded to George W. Bush after a long recount battle in Florida. 

Now, as reports continue to emerge alleging collusion between Russia and members of Trump's campaign team, some are again arguing a Republican president might not deserve his place in the West Wing. 

"The parallel I would draw with 2000 is people questioning the legitimacy of the election process," Hayward said. 

Still, while there were some protests against Bush, there were few sincere challenges to his fitness for office, Warren said. 

"He was considered illegitimate in a sense also. He lost a popular vote," Warren said. "But George Bush is very polite. He's very presidential." 

Trump's most loyal backers say they don't need him to be polite or presidential, even now that he's assumed office — in fact, they feel like he's speaking directly to them in a way that isn't sanitized. 

"I think one of the things that's a phenomenon is that for the first time a lot of Middle America, the average people, felt that someone was actually listening to them," Neff said. "I know that sounds corny, but it's not corny to them." 

The fact that Trump supporters feel a need to respond to protests with their own events, Warren said, shows that the polarized electorate that defined the 2016 races isn't going anywhere. 

The tea party movement under Obama, he added, showed that activists can institute real change. 

"The tea party protests continued and resulted in a transformation of party politics," he said. 

Hayward said the success of those who oppose Trump depends on Democrats' ability to put political issues on the agenda, which groups like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter have done successfully, and not just react to Trump's actions. 

"They don't want to give up the power to control and shape the narrative," she said. 

In St. Louis, Redmond points out that there's already a well-established activist community. 

For Republican majorities in national and local politics, the pressure is on _ given how divided the country is, the other side won't be quick to give them a pass, Graves said. 

"You can demoralize your base," Graves said. "You've got to make sure as a party you deliver what people were promised." 

For Democrats, it's a waiting game. If this newfound political fervor opposing the Republican president doesn't translate into votes in elections, it's meaningless, experts say. 

"We'll see how it goes," Warren said. "But this is unusual. Trump seems to be setting new precedent with each passing day."


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