This report contains updates.
The United States is undergoing a political and cultural revolution that is being led by Americans who are disgusted by the politics and policies of President Donald Trump and are turning that disgust into progressive organizing.
They oppose the image of America that President Trump promoted during his campaign and the policies his administration is enacting. They are marching in towns and cities across America. They are calling, tweeting, and Facebooking their members of Congress. They’re demanding that lawmakers truly engage with their constituents, through town halls or other means, but they won’t stand for phoning it in. They are not satisfied with the political status quo and are raising their hands to run for office at every level. They are the Resistance and they are showing the world how a thoughtful and committed group of citizens can serve as a check against an undemocratic administration and vision of America.
The election of Donald Trump has pushed millions of Americans who had not previously engaged in the political process to subscribe to political newsletters, hold political meetings in their living rooms, and march in the streets for equality and justice. Traditional advocacy organizations spend a lot of energy moving members up the ladder of engagement, but in this new era, people are moving themselves up from a basic petition signing, all the way to running for office and actively partnering with more established political advocacy organizations to fight the Trump agenda. And, they’re winning.
This column analyzes the advocacy tools and tactics of the new groups and individuals that partially make up the anti-Trump Resistance movement. Although by no means an exhaustive account, we look under the movement’s hood and offer a snapshot into how these new organizations are tapping into the grassroots political energy, channeling it to score impressive political victories, and building a bench for victories to come.
Resistance: An overview
Donald Trump’s election transformed American political advocacy and organizing. It fundamentally altered how Americans relate and interact with public policy, their elected leaders, and even each other. For the first time in generations, large numbers of Americans feel empowered by the belief that micro political advocacy—calling, tweeting, Facebooking, marching—can affect the outcome of the political process.
Since these emerging advocates had a lot of passion, but limited connection to the broader establishment, they began to create new organizations to accomplish their goals. Some of the most inspired helped form the more than 140 new groups that are part of a loose advocacy network called the Action Alliance, which collectively reaches millions of new advocates. There are breakout-star organizations—such as Indivisible, Flippable, Daily Action, and Together We Will—as well as one-person operations that send out daily calls to action to thousands of subscribers. Other groups that are not formally affiliated with the Action Alliance—including the Women’s March and #GrabYourWallet—also have followings that number in the hundreds of thousands.
Unlike more established advocacy organizations, these emerging organizations are not organized by issue area or geography. Instead, they identify by theory of change: ideas for how to bring about a political re-alignment. Indivisible believes that pressuring congressional members through town halls, phone calls, and digital actions will help stop the Trump agenda. Other emerging groups invest in specific tactics to bring about that change, including educating, calling, and texting. A group will tell you that they are a “daily text” or a “town hall attending” organization and that they rely on the power of social media to deliver advocacy tools to their members.
Generally, the leaders of these new organizations have varying degrees of experience working on political campaigns or in congressional offices, but they are not professional advocates or campaign organizers. Often, they simply happened to be the most knowledgeable person in their friend group on politics and current events. In the aftermath of the election, their friends peppered them with questions about what should be done to resist Trump. In response, they founded advocacy organizations.
As a result, the membership of the emerging advocacy groups consists largely of Americans who have not previously been deeply engaged in the political process but are now driven by an organic disgust at the rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration. Early surveys show that many of these engaged citizens are women. A poll commissioned by the text-alert group Daily Action found that 86 percent of their members are women and 60 percent are older than age 46. Many attended the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration and say they are “very likely” to protest the Trump administration and its policies.
Women are also particularly well represented in the highly successful #GrabYourWallet campaign—an effort to boycott retailers that carry the Trump family brand in response to Trump’s infamous hot-mic remark about groping women on Access Hollywood. The women who joined the campaign have “just now found their political voice” and “represent a quiet but powerful contingent that drives a huge segment of the economy,” says Shannon Coulter, the founder of the campaign in a phone interview with the authors. Many women who take part in the #GrabYourWallet campaign are Millennials “who are at the beginning of their career and don’t want to rock the boat. Boycotting becomes a really effective tool for them,” explains Coulter.
Coulter’s remark highlights one key to the early successes of these emerging organizations: the accessibility of their campaigns and actions. Emerging organizations are relying on familiar tools—such as GoogleDocs, email newsletters, Twitter, Facebook, and Slack—to drive individuals up the ladder of engagement. As a result, millions of people are now moving from tweeting a shareable graphic and posting a message on Facebook to calling congressional offices, visiting district headquarters, and confronting their lawmakers at town halls.
CAP Action and the Resistance
After the election, CAP Action started working with emerging organizations to create content that could fuel engagement and assist them in developing, deploying, coordinating, and supporting new grassroots advocates. CAP Action accomplished this by changing its structure and, to some degree, its focus.
CAP Action continues to create actionable online policy content in partnership with national and in-state partners in order to drive and shape policy debates. But with public engagement at an all-time high, CAP Action has also dedicated itself to providing tools and information directly to users who are interested in resisting Trump’s policies. The organization began this work using Medium and Google Docs to track the Trump transition and evolved toward designing actions for the public to take on specific nominees and appointments, resisting the Muslim Ban, crowd sourcing information about Russia’s connection to Trump campaign officials, and defeating Trumpcare.
Other tools include:
- Resistance Near Me: A one stop shop to identify local Resistance actions, including rallies and town halls by ZIP code
- Resistance in Your Pocket: A mobile online platform that gives resistors a guide to taking action from their couch or at a town hall with digital sample questions and talking points on key issues
- ACA Works: A site that collected more than 7,000 stories from real people on the effect a repeal would have;
- The Moscow Project: An ongoing public research effort that uses the Genius tool to allow to uncover the truth about Trump and Russia.
These direct-to-user action tools allow users and coalition partners to submit on-the-ground intelligence and feedback that has been critical to sharpening the message of the Resistance, arming grassroots advocates with the most impactful content in specific states or congressional districts. In other words, the effectiveness of the tools is determined by the Resistance itself.
Resistance by the numbers
More than 140 organizations have launched since the election, reaching millions of new activists through daily or weekly calls to action, apps, bots, Facebook groups, book clubs, local community meetings, and smaller working groups. These groups focus on empowering and educating Americans who were not previously engaged in politics, holding members of Congress accountable, developing new tools for people to become engaged, and recruiting and supporting progressive candidates for political office.
Below are statistical highlights that underscore the breadth and reach of the Resistance:
- Indivisible: An organization that sprung from a Google Doc focusing on how best to organize locally and conduct effective congressional advocacy. Readers organized themselves into chapters; there are now at least two chapters and an average of 13 chapters per congressional district.
- Resistance School: An online training program providing activists with the tools they need to organize and make sustained change. It had nearly 90,000 viewers over the two training sessions from all 50 states and more than 20 countries.
- Stand Up America: A grassroots organization committed to resisting Trump’s vision for America with more than 1 million members in all 50 states.
- TrumpcareToolkit.com: An online toolkit designed by the Center for American Progress Action Fund to help defeat the American Health Care Act. The toolkit was delivered into the Twitter streams of 8 million views and its content dominated the conversation on social media.
- Daily Action: A group that sends daily text messages urging people to take action. It reaches more than 300,000 people by text each day.
The Center for American Progress Action Fund surveyed some of the leaders in the Resistance to better understand what’s driving these new advocates and their view of their contribution to the broader resistance movement. Below are highlights from their responses:
- The biggest success of the Resistance: Most respondents identified Trump’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, in the first 100 days as the top success, with the Women’s March protests, and the anti-Muslim ban demonstrations a close second. Advocates also expressed great value in building a sense of community with like-minded advocates.
- The most effective tactic of the Resistance: Respondents reported that calling congressional members, social media outreach, and daily emails with action steps were the most impactful resistance tools.
- Making an impact on the local level: Asked how they were organizing individuals in their own communities, respondents noted the following activities: hosting community meetings and book clubs; directly supporting local elected officials; connecting with local organizing groups; participating in marches; and attending town halls and congressional coffee hours.
On October 14, 2016, Shannon Coulter, a public relations professional, published a Google Doc that listed retailers that carried Trump branded products and introduced the #GrabYourWallet hashtag on Twitter. Coulter was motivated by Trump’s misogynistic remarks on a hot mic to Access Hollywood and sought to demonstrate women’s economic power by asking individuals to contact the listed companies and ask them to stop carrying Trump products or to boycott them entirely. The effort took off, forcing some of the country’s biggest retailers to entirely dump Trump-branded products. To date:
- Twenty-three companies have stopped selling Trump’s merchandise, including Nordstrom, Kawasaki and Sears
- Seven major retailers have taken significant steps to obscure or minimize their relationship with Trump
- The hashtag #GrabYourWallet has been seen more than 956,000 times on Twitter
- The #GrabYourWallet GoogleSheet has received 2 million unique sessions per month
- For every one person who contacts the companies on the #GrabYourWallet list, three consumers are boycotting companies carrying Trump products, Coulter said in an interview.
“One of the things people say most often is that it’s given them back some sense of control,” Coulter says, noting that the campaign has given women in the U.S. “a tangible sense of their own economic power.” Estimates show that women in the United States drive 85 percent of all consumer purchases and 76 percent of purchases globally.
The success of the campaign can also be attributed to its focus on meeting people where they are, rather than pushing them to become involved in the political process. It offers individuals who may otherwise be disinclined to speak up with an easy way to take action—and have an impact. “Older women may feel disinclined to rock the boat too much in their communities whereas younger women early in their careers may not be able to speak up too much for fear of professional ramifications. So #GrabYourWallet has provided an easy, concrete, way of acting without anyone necessarily having to about it.”
Coulter adds: “Often in cultural explorations of women and power, the focus tends to be on the power women have yet to attain. #GrabYourWallet has made me realize that we don’t talk enough about the power we already have and how we can effectively flex it.”
Why the Resistance is succeeding
In his first 100 days in office, President Trump failed to pass a single piece of major legislation, has seen his Muslim ban stayed in the courts, suffered an embarrassing defeat in failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and continues to operate under a cloud of controversy surrounding ongoing Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, and congressional investigations into his connections to Russian operatives determined to sway the 2016 presidential election. Any political capital Trump had going into office has severely diminished. This was clearly demonstrated at the town halls held over the April recess by congressional Republicans, during which multiple lawmakers distanced themselves from President Trump.
In Trump’s first full day in office, the Resistance pulled off the largest march in American history—the Women’s March—pulling in millions of first-time advocates across nation and the world to stand up against Trump’s divisive policies. The new faces of the Resistance and the daily effort by Americans of all stripes to resist Trump and hold members of Congress accountable are having a very real and significant impact. The success of the Resistance in organizing millions of people and spreading their message in a smart and impactful manner follows the nine keys of successful advocacy:
- Lower the barrier of entry to meet people where they are. While seasoned advocates or those who are comfortable playing in the political arena can call their members of Congress, show up at town halls, and attend rallies, apolitical individuals or people who don’t feel comfortable expressing their support for the resistance must be able to participate in the movement on their own terms. The tools of the resistance have succeeded because they’ve allowed individuals to re-tweet, post a message on Facebook, or sign up for daily action alerts. Members of the #GrabYourWallet community have even shifted their corporate behavior by boycotting retailers carrying Trump brands.
- Timing is everything. New activists are concerned with doing the most effective thing at the right moment, so advocates must design dynamic calls to action that respond to news events as they unfold. After Trump issued the Muslim ban, for instance, hundreds of thousands of Americans flooded to airports to show their support for refugees as well as to protest the ban.
- Let the grassroots drive your message and tactics. Successful advocacy isn’t driven by polls, paid ads, or professional consultants. The Resistance is succeeding because it allows genuine grassroots anger and frustration to shape its campaigns and actions. Since passage of the ACA in 2010, Democrats viewed the law as a political liability and believed that politicians who enthusiastically supported the law would open themselves to criticism. But when Trump and congressional Republicans attempted to make good on their promise to repeal ACA, grassroots advocates defied conventional wisdom and overwhelmingly supported the law and pressured lawmakers to stand against any repeal effort. This energy changed the political dynamic around repeal and dissuaded more moderate Democrats from caving to any kind of compromise repeal effort.
- Small successes can lead to big victories. Organizing by local chapters of Indivisible and others lead to a series of disastrous town halls for members who were then leading the ACA repeal charge, starting with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). Scenes of a large crowd—in a solidly conservative area of the country—booing a member of Congress for threatening to take away their health care coverage reverberated throughout Washington, energized the grassroots across the country, and created momentum for defeating the GOP repeal measure.
- Design actions that make people feel that they’re making a difference and doing the most important thing at that moment. The Resistance successfully defeated Trumpcare by developing tools that allowed individuals to plug into digital and on-the-ground actions at their own comfort levels and convinced them that they were part of a larger advocacy community. Individuals saw tweets calling on House members to vote against repeal on their Twitter and Facebook feeds and heard from reporters about floods of phone calls to members of Congress. Those lawmakers then publicly came out against the repeal measure, citing the high volume of calls they had received as the reason.
- Remember the traditional tactics of influencing Congress. Ask any congressional staffer and they’ll tell you that calls matter. The Resistance is succeeding because emerging advocates are employing modern technology—SMS, emails, Facebook Messenger—to drive calls to Congress or turn out people at town halls. The Indivisible Guide, one of the most popular documents of the Resistance, for instance, is rooted in the traditional tactics of bringing about change through direct pressure on Congress.
- Lean into your strengths. Organizations should focus on their core strengths and work together to outsource areas where they are less strong maximizes success. While many of the new activists are engaged with up-and-coming organizations, traditional advocacy groups have an important role to play in helping emerging organizations amplify content, develop policy analysis, navigate legal structures, and secure relationships with lawmakers.
- Build community. Communities are no longer defined by geography, but are instead united by a common sense of purpose. Emerging organizations cite community-building and relationship development as a key metric of success and some of the largest new resistance groups.
- You don’t need much money to have a big impact. Compelling visual content is king and can spread through social media like wildfire. If you have a good idea, it will get traction with minimal, if any, monetary investment. The Town Hall Project compiled information on congressional town halls with a group of volunteers and a Google doc. Using free software and volunteers, the project contributed to the huge turn out to hold members of Congress accountable in person.
In December 2016, Laura Moser, an author of many nonfiction books and young adult novels, took her first foray into politics by founding Daily Action. The service texts people and urges them to call their member of Congress and resist the Trump administration and its initiatives. Nearly 300,000 subscribers later, Daily Action members have played a key role in pressuring lawmakers to reverse the GOP leadership’s decision to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, opposed nominees to lead departments and defeat efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Building on that initial success, Daily Action has begun sending local actions to subscribers in key states.
Data on Daily Action’s campaigns:
- More than 60,581 calls to House members asking them to vote against the American Health Care Act
- 57,580 calls asking senators to vote against the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court
- A high number of calls urging companies to remove ads from the right-wing conspiracy website Breitbart; banning Stephen Bannon from the National Security Council; and calling for an independent investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election
Resistance: Defeating the American Health Care Act
Despite seven long years of campaigning on a pledge to eliminate the ACA, congressional Republicans were unable to bring their repeal bill to a vote in the first 100 days due to a successful working partnership between more established and already-existing organizations and new post-election advocacy groups. Both sides joined forces and used each other’s strengths on the national and local level to bury the GOP repeal effort.
Before the inauguration of President Trump, a coalition of established advocacy and health-oriented organizations, called the Protect Our Care coalition, came together to fight the coming repeal effort. These groups were able to quantify the consequences of stripping people of coverage, as well as activate their strong relationships with health care stakeholders in an effort pressure on members of Congress. Several organizations also engaged their impressive state networks and partners in the repeal fight.
The GOP leadership’s decision to introduce a bill that stripped 24 million people of coverage unleashed an entirely new energy into the fight and focused the emerging advocates on defeating the measure. Sensing an opportunity, the Protect Our Care coalition began educating new activists about congressional procedures, whip counts, and target lists. It created member-specific graphics and toolkits, which advocates could use to drive their members into action.
But the effort was never a one-way street. The Protect Our Care coalition also took reciprocal direction from emerging organizations on tactics, appetite for various actions, and advice on which messages would resonate with the grassroots advocates.
Ultimately, every group—newly formed and long established—played a unique and critical role. For example:
- Protect Our Care coordinated traditional national and state stakeholders, updated talking points in real time, and provided guidance on congressional targets
- Through ACA Works, CAPAF collected and shared thousands of personal stories with partners and quantified the effects of repeal by congressional district and built a toolkit that turned those numbers into member-specific graphics and allowed advocates to easily tweet them out and call key members.
- The Town Hall Project identified town halls where constituents could confront their members about repeal
- Indivisible, Together We Will, Planned Parenthood, SEIU, MoveOn, Working Families Party, ACLU, People’s Action, and other organizations mobilized people to maximize turnout to town halls and local demonstrations nationwide
In the final days and hours of the campaign to stop ACA repeal in the first 100 days, activists craved effective actions. Emerging and established advocates circulated a unified and ever-evolving target list of moderate Republican House members who needed to hear from their constituents. The strategy worked.
In the words of Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL): “there are a significant number of congressmen who are being impacted by these kinds of protests, and their spine is a little weak.” Clearly, members of Congress heard the Resistance to stop Trumpcare loud and some changed their votes as a result.
The Resistance Manual
Following the election, Aditi Juneja, a 26-year-old New York University law student, realized that staying informed on how the country was changing would be challenging but critical. Juneja began to track the new administration’s proposed agenda and studying how its actions would affect everyday Americans.
In a March 2017 interview, Juneja said, “Policy can seem like a thing in DC that has nothing to do with your life. What I wanted to draw attention to is that regardless of who you are, policy does impact your life in some meaningful way.” Juneja’s efforts produced the Resistance Manual, an open-source guide where the public can participate and contribute information about elections, proposed legislation, policy resources, and events. The manual is focused on presenting truthful and actionable information, providing reference text for advocacy efforts and for individuals finding their way into organizing
- As co-creator of the manual, Juneja oversees a group of 250 volunteers who monitor and update issue-specific pages
- The Resistance Manual is already home to thousands of pieces of content from people all over the country
- The manual features a comprehensive reading list for 20 issue areas and pages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia that highlight issues affecting local communities
In the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s administration, the Resistance successfully mobilized many Americans who had previously stayed out of the political process and created opportunities for them to engage in advocacy in many different ways—from flooding airports, to attending town halls and rallies, to boycotting stores that carry Trump family products.
People in the Resistance are taking risks by organizing in ways they never have before, but more importantly, they are using their specific skill sets to contribute to the Resistance in unique ways. Accountants and financial experts are assisting new groups with business management, technology leaders are coding new web tools and applications, individuals with connections to celebrities are offering access to their networks. The list of people across industries offering their help is endless.
These new activists aren’t asking permission; they are diving in where they see a void and filling it themselves. New organizers tell their story of starting their organizations as a way to respond to serious needs in their own communities. Instead of waiting for an existing organization to reach them, they have taken their own expertise and networks and started something in their communities, from the ground up. This has resulted in huge volunteer bases, rapidly growing at a pace well beyond their expectations, because they tailored their products to people like them.
In late April 2017, the Center for American Progress Action Fund brought together 46 of the brightest new minds in Resistance organizing to discuss how to sustain and grow their burgeoning organizations. Identifying the challenges associated with growth of bottom-up organizing, the activists spent the day focused on the nuts and bolts of sustainability. These new organizers spent the day learning how to sustain the momentum of their new advocacy work, fundraising for their organizations, sharing best practices, and collaborating with each other to maximize strategic impact.
They left the convening more secure in their ability to sustain the tools supporting the momentum, determined to continue expanding the movement and developing new ways to continue engaging Americans in the Resistance throughout the duration of Trump’s presidency.
Igor Volsky is the Deputy Director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Emily Tisch Sussman is the Campaign Director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
**** Update, May 4, 2017: This report has been updated with small clarifications throughout.
Appendix B: Successes of the First 100 days of the Resistance
- After being overwhelmed with calls from constituents, House Republicans abandoned an effort to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics
- An estimated 5 million people in 81 countries took part in the Women’s March as a response to Trump’s inauguration and to send a message that women’s rights are human rights
- Thousands protest in airports nationwide in response to Trump’s immigration order banning entry for individuals in seven (?) Muslim-majority countries
- Following the injunction against Trump’s Muslim ban, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, receives $24 million in online donations – six times its yearly average.
- Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote to win Senate confirmation for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the first time in history a vice president had been called on to break a confirmation deadlock. This followed a record number of constituent calls and an all-night talk-a-thon by Senate Democrats
- Three judges on the ninth circuit court of appeals upheld the temporary restraining order of Trump’s Muslim ban
- National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn resigns after it’s revealed that he lied to Vice President Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador
- Trump Labor Secretary designee Andrew Puzder withdraws after facing opposition about his positions on labor issues and for employing an undocumented housekeeper
- Lawmakers face a wave of angry constituents at town halls across the country urging them not to rubber stamp Trump’s agenda
- Following revelations that he met with the Russian ambassador during the election, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuses himself from any investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election
- A federal judge in Hawaii extends the stay against Trump’s travel ban.
- After months of calls for public hearings, FBI Director James Comey testimony confirmed there was an ongoing FBI investigation into Trump’s contacts with the Russians
- House Speaker Paul Ryan cancels the vote on legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act following millions of calls to House members from constituents. Ryan admits that the ACA is the law of the land for the indefinite future
- Stephen Bannon is stripped of his role on the national security council
- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has to invoke the nuclear option for first time in history to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
- Following a public outcry, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) recuses himself from the House investigation into Russian election interference.
- Trump backs away from demand that border wall funding must be included in funding to keep the government open.
- The Trump administration announced that it will continue to fund the Affordable Care Act’s cost sharing subsidies.