Can a left-wing Tea Party derail Trump's agenda?

Like little blue dots in a sea of red. That's how Susan Griffin says Democrats like herself have felt living in Alabama, a Republican stronghold in America's Deep South. "Progressive people here often feel intimidated about speaking up," says Griffin, 63, who lives in Huntsville, a city near the Tennessee border. "If you're in a group of 10 people you assume nine will be conservative and Republican."

So it wasn't a surprise that Alabamans voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump last November. The fact he became President, though: that was a shock. "Even living in a red state in the South, we didn't believe Trump could win," Cindy Allen, Griffin's friend and fellow Democrat, says. "We were horrified."

After the election, like millions of distraught Clinton voters, the friends sought solace in left-wing cable channel MSNBC, especially The Rachel Maddow Show. Described by TheNew Yorker as "Trump's TV nemesis", Maddow's ratings have soared this year thanks to her nightly Trump takedowns, which brim with wonky outrage.

In early January, Griffin was watching as Maddow held up a booklet titled Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. Written by a small group of former Democratic congressional staffers, the 26-page manual offered step-by-step instructions for opposing the incoming administration. The guide advised progressives to form small neighbourhood groups and focus on "local advocacy tactics that actually work" such as asking questions at town hall meetings and bombarding their congressional representatives with phone calls ahead of important votes. The explicit aim was to replicate the success of the Tea Party, which injected adrenaline into the Republican Party base after Barack Obama's first victory, pushed the party right and helped seize control of the House of Representatives in 2010.

"I started texting my friends asking, 'Are you watching Rachel Maddow? I think we could do this'," Griffin recalls.

The next night seven friends - most aged about 60 - got together and discussed the guide over wine and pizza. Most had not been politically active beyond voting or sticking a Hillary Clinton sign in their front yard. But they decided to form a Huntsville Indivisible chapter. "We felt hopeless about where our country was heading," says Griffin, who works in the pharmaceutical industry. "This gave us something to do."

To see who else in town might be interested in joining, they booked a meeting room in a local hotel. They expected maybe 50 people to come; 500 people showed up. "People were flowing out into the parking lot," says Allen, a professional wedding planner. "We realised other people felt the same way we did."

It's a story playing out across America, where an estimated 6000 Indivisible groups have sprung up following Trump's victory, dwarfing the scale of the Tea Party at the same period of Obama's presidency. Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton adviser Jesse Ferguson says: "The difference is the Tea Party was representing a loud, angry minority. Groups like Indivisible are speaking for the majority of the country who voted against Trump and like him even less now. They have created an infrastructure to harness the energy of the progressive grassroots, and you can't overstate what a big deal that is."

Local tactics lead to a big win

Alabama presented a unique opportunity for the resistance: in December the state would vote to fill the Senate seat left vacant when Jeff Sessions became Trump's attorney-general. As their candidate the Democrats chose Doug Jones, a former attorney who had prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members for killing four African-American girls in a church bombing. The Republicans chose former chief justice Roy Moore, an evangelical hardliner who famously refused a federal judge's order to remove a 2500-kilogram stone monument of the Ten Commandments from the lobby of the state's Supreme Court. In November The Washington Post published explosive allegations that Moore had sexually assaulted a string of women, the youngest aged 14.

Still, the prospect of Alabama sending anyone without an R next to their name to Washington seemed remote. The state hadn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992 and the local Democratic machine was hollowed out. This would make the work of grassroots groups even more important. Most Indivisible volunteers were women, including many who embraced activism after joining the Women's March in Washington DC in January.

The Huntsville chapter decided to focus their energies to the city's north-west, an area with high Democratic support but traditionally low voter turnout. The only problem: the area was largely African-American and all the group's members, except one who is Hispanic, were white. To overcome this they teamed up with the local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "It was really important that we were working side to side with those African-American associations," Griffin says.

Indivisible members set up a voter registration table outside the local black Baptist church; they helped students fill out absentee ballots at Oakwood University, a historically black college. They showed up at high school football and basketball games, homecoming parades - anywhere they could engage with potential voters. They knocked on thousands of doors and drove people without cars to vote on election day.

It was old-school, hyper-local campaigning - and it worked. Jones won the Senate election by 20,000 votes, a margin of 1.5 per cent. In Madison County, the voting district that includes Huntsville, Hillary Clinton won 38 per cent of the vote; at the special election Doug Jones scored 57 per cent. "The areas we worked on had huge voter turnout - it's really exciting," Cindy Allen says.

Within days, however, delight had turned to dismay when Congress approved an overhaul of the US tax code that would blow out the deficit, repeal a key plank of Obamacare and overwhelmingly benefit wealthy Americans and corporations.

The question facing the resistance now, as the first year of Trump's presidency draws to a close, is whether they can convert the explosion of enthusiasm that followed the 2016 election into success in next year's midterm elections. Or will they run out of puff, exhausted by the stream of controversies emanating from the White House?

'It's a Hanukkah miracle'

Two nights after Jones' victory, about 50 members of Indivisible Upper East Side are meeting in the basement of the Unitarian Church of All Souls, a few blocks away from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. This neighbourhood has the country's highest concentration of people earning more than $1 million a year, making this, it's safe to assume, the most affluent Indivisible group in America. We could be on another planet compared to Alabama but the same demographics hold true: the crowd is older, mostly female, well-educated and overwhelmingly white.

This is the last gathering before Christmas, the streets outside are smothered in snow and the sound of woodwind instruments fills the air. The New York Recorder Guild is playing Christmas songs in a room next door. The Indivisible members, sipping Prosecco from plastic cups, are enthused about the result in Alabama. "It's a Hanukkah miracle!" one woman exclaims, even as others in this crowd of liberal New Yorkers wonder how the result could be so close.

One member notes it's a year to the day since the Indivisible guide, in the form of a Google document, was uploaded to Twitter, where it immediately went viral. The movement now has a headquarters in Washington DC and 40 staff, paid for by the $US6 million it has raised, mostly through small one-off donations. The group's leaders have stressed the importance of remaining independent from the party so that, when necessary, they can apply pressure to the Democrats in Congress.

Indivisible's national office provides training and resources to local groups but each chapter is an autonomous unit with its own rules and structure. Some downplay any hierarchy; at Indivisible Upper East Side, newcomers are informed straight away that the group is run largely by a five-person executive committee.

On the agenda at the year's final meeting is the looming expiry of the Children's Health Insurance Program, the repeal of net neutrality, new conceal-and-carry gun laws and what to do if Trump fires special counsel Robert Mueller. It's a lot to take in, and it's unclear what anyone here can realistically do about it given New York's two senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, are progressive Democrats already opposed to Trump's agenda.

City University of New York professor Jasper James, author of The Art of Moral Protest, warns that burnout is a risk for groups like Indivisible if they spread themselves too thinly. "There's a new outrage from the White House every day and that has drained the focus of the resistance," he says.

At Empire State Indivisible, a group that meets each month on Manhattan's upper west side, the focus is on state rather than federal politics. The group's overriding goal is to remove from office a group of eight breakaway Democrats who have formed a power-sharing alliance with the Republicans in the state Senate. Ricky Silvers, 32, one of the group's members, says: "We realised the best way to resist much of what the GOP is doing in Washington is at a state level."

This is the same principle behind Flippable, an organisation that emerged after Trump's victory and is focused on turning state legislatures Democratic. Other new groups, like Swing Left and the Sister District Project, aim to win back control of the federal House of Representatives by recruiting Democrats in safe districts to campaign for candidates in nearby marginal electorates. How effectively these groups co-ordinate their efforts - including with the Democratic Party - will help determine whether they can win the 24 seats needed to take back the House.

The way forward

A weekly event in which citizens walk to their Congressman's town office to voice their issues with the Trump administration, in Morristown, New Jersey.

A weekly event in which citizens walk to their congressman's town office to voice their issues with the Trump administration, in Morristown, New Jersey. Photo: New York Times

What you're unlikely to hear at any Indivisible meeting is a lively debate on where the Democrats should head on, say, healthcare or the environment. One of the movement's key tenets is that participants focus on opposing Republican legislation rather than developing alternative policies.

"Tea Party members may not have agreed on the policy reforms, but they could agree that Obama, Democrats and moderate Republicans had to be stopped," the guide says. "This focus on defence rather than policy development allowed the movement to avoid fracturing."

Jeff Goodwin, an expert in social movements at New York University, appreciates the need for unity. But he thinks there's danger in delaying the hard thinking about the kind of country these groups want - besides one without a President named Trump. "Uniting a coalition of voters against Trump was essentially Hillary Clinton's strategy and that didn't work," he says.

The fundamental premise of the Indivisible guide is that politicians are sensitive to public opinion and can be swayed by lobbying by their constituents. It's a notion that has been tested his year. No Republicans voted against the final tax overhaul despite a fierce campaign by Indivisible activists and polls showing it is deeply unpopular with voters. Other factors - such as the need to please the party's tax-loathing base - won out.

"In passing this tax plan it's as if Republicans put the voice of their constituents on one side of the scale and it was outweighed by the voice of their donors on the other side," Ferguson says. "But the constituents will ultimately get their say at the ballot box."

In Alabama, fresh from their special election victory, the anti-Trump resistance is already looking to next year's midterms. "We celebrated for 24 hours then we got back to work," says Griffin. "Progressives here had stopped speaking out, stopped showing up to vote. Now we know we aren't as isolated as we thought. We're just getting started."

Matthew Knott, a Fairfax Media political reporter, is studying US politics at Columbia University in New York.

This story Can a left-wing Tea Party derail Trump's agenda? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.