When the history of grass-roots resistance to President Donald Trump is written, it might be recorded that the movement was born in Austin – prefigured at the Randalls supermarket on Brodie Lane in the summer of 2009, conceived at a North Loop neighborhood bar over Thanksgiving weekend 2016, and crafted in great part by battle-tested veterans of the office of U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett.
It was at Randalls in the first summer of the Obama administration that Doggett, the longtime Austin Democrat, was besieged by tea party protesters chanting “Just Say No” to the health care reform that would come to be known as Obamacare. It was a jarring scene that set the tone for what would be a dreadful August recess for Democratic members of Congress at bitterly contentious town hall meetings across the country and presaged an Obama presidency to which the tea party and Republican Party just said “no.”
Seven years later, in the aftermath of Trump’s election, Ezra Levin, who grew up in Austin and Buda and worked for Doggett in Washington from 2008 to 2011, was back in Austin for the Thanksgiving holiday with his wife, Leah Greenberg, another Capitol Hill veteran. They got together at Drink.Well. on East 53rd Street with an old friend who was leading a new progressive group in Austin, to talk about how to channel their mutual despair and knowledge of congressional politics into effectively doing to the Trump presidency what the tea party did to the Obama presidency.
“We knew how Congress works and we knew how a pretty darn small group relative to the total population came together and implemented a very thoughtful strategy with very specific concrete tactics to resist an administration and a Congress that they didn’t agree with, and that was the tea party,” Levin said. They left Drink.Well. with a plan to draft a manual to replicate the tea party strategy — stripped, of course, of what they considered its noxious ideology and mean streak.
Three weeks later, on the evening of Dec. 15, Levin, 31, tweeted out a link to a Google Doc: “Indivisible: A practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda. Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen.”
“The tea party implemented a two-pronged strategy, and that was very locally focused, focused on their members of the Senate and their one member of Congress, and then they consciously chose to be defensive and almost exclusively defensive,” said Levin, who now lives in Washington.
“And they also understood that they weren’t setting the agenda, that at that time Democrats controlled the House and the Senate and the presidency, so what they could do is simply respond to it,” he said. “And they did that in a few concrete, not rocket science kinds of way. They showed up in person at public events, at town halls, at district offices and then called in response to whatever new thing President Obama or the Congress was trying to do.”
“We started out writing a practical guide for progressives who find themselves in kind of the same situation now, with a president we believe is illegitimate and is looking to destroy some key tenets of American democracy, and who controls the Senate and the House,” he said.
The response from across the country was swift and overwhelming: high-profile coverage in mainstream and progressive magazines, two segments on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” an op-ed in The New York Times, and a tsunami of grass-roots interest.
“When we started out we didn’t think that we would have 126,000 people reach out to us with their ZIP codes and their emails, we didn’t think there would be 3,300 groups registering with us within a couple of weeks, and so this has all been a surprise to us,” Levin said.
In its first 10 days, Indivisible Austin has attracted more than 3,000 members, according to Lisa Benjamin Goodgame, chairwoman of its Austin steering committee.
Greenberg came up with the name.
“She said ‘Hey, ‘what do you think of Indivisible?’ and immediately it felt right. We have to treat an attack on one as an attack on all,” Levin said. “And it also hits notes of some kind of sense of American patriotism, coming from the Pledge of Allegiance – `indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’ – that felt really appropriate on a couple of fronts.”
While some local organizations use the name Indivisible, others don’t.
“One of my favorites is in Alaska, it’s called 49 Moons, because that’s the length of time Trump would be in office,” Levin said.
Sarah Dohl, Doggett’s former communications director, signed on to oversee Indivisible’s communication, social media, design and brand.
Dohl had just started working for Doggett when video of the protest scene at Randalls went viral.
“I don’t think any Democrats anticipated how tough that summer would be,” Dohl said. “Those health care protests were really game changers, and that’s when everything shifted.”
Jeremy Haile, who grew up in Dallas and worked with Levin and Dohl in Doggett’s office, where he served as legislative counsel, said the tea party response was based on misapprehensions about Barack Obama. But, he said, fear of Trump is well-founded.
“I think that what we see with Donald Trump is that he did not win with a majority, his popularity and approval ratings are at an all-time low for an incoming president, and, I guess most importantly, we feel that he ran a campaign based on racism and intolerance that we see as unacceptable,” said Haile, who helped with Indivisible. “That’s why I feel the lessons of the tea party, that progressives should apply them, because Trump must be stopped.”
“Donald Trump is a unique, historic threat, and this unique, historic threat calls for unique historic action, on the part of constituents who have power with their own members of Congress,” Levin said. Every constituent must communicate with his or her member of Congress, he said, to erode support for Trump among Republicans and press Democrats to be as aggressive in their opposition as possible.
“The tea party gave the sense – and it was a true sense – that no matter where you are, no matter which district you are in, that, `we are here and we are asking you to, in this case, stand against President Obama,’ that this was a national movement,” Levin said. “And you are seeing the identical thing right now; the only difference is that it is happening a lot faster and that it’s a lot better organized at the ground level.”
Doggett, who first met Levin when he was a high school student from Buda organizing an Austin fundraiser for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, said he is proud of his former staffers.
“What they are doing is really important, and it does help to keep hope alive and to remind people that we have individual responsibility to make a difference, and it’s not just every two or four years,” said Doggett, who is joining the ranks of Democratic members of Congress who will be boycotting Trump’s inauguration.
But he said, in addition to replicating the tea party’s success in pressuring members of Congress, he thinks the resistance to Trump depends on doing something else that he believes the tea party did all too well — “changing public perceptions.”