Op-Ed

How to stop Trump: Lessons from the tea party

Donald Trump represents a grave threat to liberal democratic values. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are falling in line and some moderate Democrats have signaled a willingness to cut deals. But ordinary Americans have the power to resist. We know this is true because we have seen local, grassroots organizing take hold before.

Eight years ago, two of us worked as congressional staffers and the other in immigrant rights organizing. President Obama had taken office with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and seemed poised to enact many of our shared priorities. Another force was taking shape, however, that would eventually bring federal policymaking to a halt.

The tea party protests began early in 2009, as small groups of conservative activists organized against government intervention in the housing and financial markets. By summer, they had grown into a formidable opposition movement, flooding congressional offices with angry letters, emails and calls. Enabled by a media that thrives on conflict, these minority voices soon dominated the national discourse.

When members of Congress retreated to their districts for what should have been an uneventful summer of little league games and pancake breakfasts, tea party activists awaited them. Two of us worked for Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who was mobbed in an Austin parking lot by protesters carrying Revolutionary War battle flags and signs denouncing “socialized healthcare.” Their simple chant, which would soon become familiar, was, “just say no.” 

The tea party organized for the 2010 midterms, targeting both Republicans and moderate Democrats. By the time the dust had settled, Democrats had lost their large majorities in Congress and, with their lost seats, any hope of realizing a bold progressive agenda.

Although their policy ideas were destructive, the tea party demonstrated that a small group of activists can take on a newly elected president with a majority in Congress — and win. 

Now it’s our turn.

We learned two key lessons from the tea party’s success.

First, they organized locally, focusing on members of Congress in their home states and districts, pushing them to use every available tool — legislation, letters, public statements, media interviews — to oppose Obama’s every move.

Under Trump, similar efforts will be just as important in the “blue” districts of California as anywhere else. By keeping relentless, local pressure on progressive members of Congress, we can embolden them to stand firm. We can remind them that making nice with an administration built on racism, authoritarianism and corruption is not bipartisanship — it’s collusion.

The second lesson we learned from the tea party is that we need to play defense. The movement’s members understood that if they tried to choose among competing conservative priorities, their coalition would fracture. Rather than putting forward plans to stimulate the economy or to improve the healthcare system, they chose to “just say no.” The tea party kept its movement strong, broad and unified by concentrating relentlessly on opposition.

Loud, localized resistance is already proving effective against the new GOP regime.

On the first day of the new Congress, Republicans moved to hamstring the Office of Congressional Ethics. Within 24 hours, activists had taken the fight to the home district office of Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who had led the effort, demanding a meeting and posting video of their visit on social media. 

They took the “just say no” approach, and it worked.

Republicans’ swift retreat affirmed that every constituent’s voice — across every state, in every district, red or blue — will be vital to expose and block what we expect will be an aggressive attempt to remake government in Trump’s image.

To stand united in opposition is not about abandoning a positive vision for the future. Progressives should continue working to develop policy ideas. But for the next two years, at least, we can’t set the agenda, we can only respond to it.

If the tea party’s approach could stop President Obama, it can stop President Trump. Unlike his predecessor, Trump lost the popular vote, and has no mandate. He also has slimmer majorities in Congress than Democrats had eight years ago.

Americans against Trump are in the majority. If we want to resist his agenda, we have to do it together, and we have to start now. You can find like-minded people through a website we started, Indivisible, or start your own group. Meet in person. Tell your member of Congress to represent you, not Donald Trump. Together we can win.

Gonzalo Martínez de Vedia, Jeremy Haile and Sarah Dohl are contributors to "Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda."

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