Democrats and progressives shell-shocked by President Trump’s election are taking heart from the surge in popular opposition to him.
Rep. Sandy Levin, an 85-year-old Michigan Democrat, said he hasn’t seen a protest movement so animated in decades.
“It’s spontaneous, it’s unorganized, and the challenge is going to be to organize it,” he said.
“I’ve been around for a long time,” he added. “I haven’t seen anything like this since the Vietnam War.”
Trump’s deeply controversial executive order that halted travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugee resettlement sparked protests at major airports and the White House over the weekend.
The previous Saturday, the day after Trump’s inauguration, around 3 million people took to the streets nationwide for the Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches.
Meanwhile, organizations that are opposed to Trump’s agenda are reporting a massive spike in interest.
Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser and national spokeswoman at MoveOn.org, cited a recent conference call for activists that she said had 60,000 participants. Jean-Pierre recalled that a similar call during the presidency of George W. Bush would likely have attracted “a few thousand” activists.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it raised more than $24 million in online donations from more than 350,000 people this weekend alone. The organization’s entire online haul for 2015 was roughly $3.5 million, a spokesman told The New York Times.
The overall picture means that activists like Jean-Pierre are excited by the reaction to Trump’s early days in power, even as they are horrified by the actions he has taken.
“We think it is a phenomenon,” she said. “It is very heartening to see, especially this weekend, where people were very galvanized, on their own. They went to airports, lifted up their voices and were heard.”
Still, the challenges faced by the self-described “resistance” to Trump are considerable.
For a start, it is not certain that even the most contentious of his actions are broadly unpopular, even as they spark fury on the left. For example, a Reuters/IPSOS poll released on Tuesday afternoon found a plurality of the public, 49 percent, favoring Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigration, while 41 percent disagreed with it.
In terms of the political landscape, the GOP controls both houses of Congress. It will be an extremely steep climb to change that in the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans have a 47-seat advantage in the House, and the Senate includes several vulnerable Democrats who will be seeking reelection in states Trump won.
Trump was scheduled to announce a Supreme Court nominee Tuesday evening. If confirmed, his pick would give the high court a slight conservative lean, with Justice Anthony Kennedy often acting as a swing voter among the nine justices.
Then there is the larger question for the left: Can the current popularity and intensity of anti-Trump activism be maintained over time?
Street protests are a powerful demonstration of dissent, but they do not appear to stand much chance of forcing concrete changes to Trump’s agenda. Those battles may become longer and more prosaic as they are fought out with legal filings and in courtrooms.
At the grassroots level, progressives are seeking to keep the momentum going through regular organizing, in part through social media. Some of those efforts are coalescing around the Twitter hashtag #ResistTrumpTuesdays.
When it comes to more conventional politics, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Trump’s tumultuous start — and the uncomfortable spot he has put GOP leaders in — lends Democrats a real opportunity.
“The president has, quite frankly, become the Republicans’ biggest challenge,” Grijalva said. “The operation in the White House appears unhinged; the president appears unhinged.”
Grijalva said the challenge confronting the opposition Democrats is “not only to complement, but to fortify” the protesters’ message by coalescing behind it.
“Unity is the key. In order to have our voice heard we have to be unified, and that hasn’t always been the case,” Grijalva said. “This is an important test of discipline.”
Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, delivered a similar message, characterizing the refugee ban as “illegal,” “immoral” and a potentially enormous pitfall for GOP leaders on Capitol Hill — one he predicts will erode their political capital and make it tougher to pass their legislative priorities.
“Congressional Republicans now own the consequences of President Trump’s executive orders,” Crowley said in an email. “We’ve already seen their entire agenda overshadowed and moved rightward to focus instead on banning Muslims, shutting the door to refugees, and denying that the Holocaust chiefly targeted Jews.”
A number of other Democrats said they’re similarly encouraged by the public outcry.
“It’s certainly unifying for Democrats — energizing people,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). “I’ve rarely seen [an issue] where so many people are so angry, which says something nice about the American people.”
Meanwhile, activists contend that popular opposition to Trump is more likely to ramp up than taper off as his tenure in the White House continues. But their prediction is based in large part on the idea that a president they detest will indeed get to enact his agenda.
“Much of what has been done up to now has been words — hurtful words — and what is coming is direct pain in people’s lives,” said George Goehl, the co-director of People’s Action, a progressive group. “The broad cross-section of people who are going to feel that pain is huge.”