Memo To The Trump Resistance: You're Doing It All Wrong

Every couple of days, I get four emails that closely resemble each other. They are all from Democrats who were elected to Congress for the first time in November. Three defeated Republican incumbents, the fourth (who is the only one I actually know) won an open seat in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.

Each email is from a “team”— two are “Team (first name)” and two are “Team (last name)” of the member of Congress. Each resemble the kind of emails I was used to getting in the final weeks of the election, talking of fundraising deadlines of midnight tomorrow night, somber meetings with campaign teams, and, of course, urgent requests for money.

“That’s why it’s so important that you chip in $10 or whatever you can today,” says “Team Stephanie,” “Will you chip in $10 or whatever you can today?” echoes “Team Josh.”

Now, I’m not opposed to candidate fundraising, in fact, I have written many such appeals myself as a consultant to Democrats and party committees. But if I were advising a newly elected member of Congress I might suggest they wait just a bit before opening the fundraising floodgates so strong. The first fundraiser I got from Team Josh was three weeks after the election, and they’ve averaged twice a week ever since. If I were in his District, I might want a little more time to feel good—make that great—about his victory in the annus horribulus of 2016 before I was made to feel like just another sucker with a credit card.

Also, I might ask if they had considered the down side of farming out their digital fundraising to a firm that was doing the same thing for a bunch of other clients—delivering the same messages at the same time to different “teams” that were each told they were the most important people in the world.

As I wrote this last sentence, two more emails arrived in my box. My good friends “Team Stephanie” and “Team Josh” each want me to know that my help is needed to meet their latest goal, and each need me to “pitch in” to hit the target. As always, each email had identical small print language at the bottom of the page:

“We believe that emails are a crucial way for our campaign to stay in touch with supporters like you. However, if you'd just like to receive fewer emails, you can click here. Your grassroots support is critical to helping (Stephanie/Josh) become a strong voice for all of (Florida/New Jersey). If you’d still like to unsubscribe from our emails, click here. If you'd like to donate to our campaign, please click here. Thanks for helping (Stephanie!/Josh!).

I’m sure that the company behind all these emails has made a very good case for aggressive, early fundraising to prepare for what will surely be a hellish campaign in 2018. And campaigns love to look at the bottom line—when they get spreadsheets showing how much they’re raising from week to week, they can feel they’re doing everything they can to get ready for the next election.

But I’m afraid, as the country song goes, they’re looking for love in all the wrong places. Or if you prefer rap, it’s not all about the Benjamins.

As Democrats look for ways to mount an effective opposition to Donald Trump and his team of oligarchs, it’s become an axiom that the answer will come not from Washington, but from the grassroots. That sounds good, but too many progressives are taking one step forward and two steps back.

Here’s what I mean. Along with a colleague, I’ve been developing a training program for grassroots activists that includes, among other elements, teaching local supporters of advocacy groups how to write and place effective letters to the editor. We had a proposal into one organization that has resolved to make publishing such letters a priority. But the other day they got back to us and said that instead of our training workshops and mentoring in the field, they had hired four freelance writers in DC to generate letters they could blast out to their members for them to sign.

At the risk of being accused of sour grapes, friends, you’re doing it all wrong. You don’t have to hire me to train your volunteers, but you really ought to get into the habit of seeing them as partners in the resistance, not just bodies to line up at the barricades.

From the women on Facebook who kickstarted the Women’s March on Washington to the former congressional staffers who wrote the “Indivisible” guide to resisting the Trump agenda in congressional town hall meetings, it’s clear that the downfall of Donald Trump will not come as the result of buttons being pushed in Washington, but rather, as Robert Kennedy foretold, from “numberless, diverse acts of courage and belief” emanating from the states.

Kennedy went on to say, in his historic speech in apartheid-era South Africa, that each of those actions send forth “a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Political committees and advocacy organizations will still have to raise money—lots of it—to spend on elections and lobbying campaigns. I’m not telling my new best friends at Team Tom, Dick and Harriet to go dark. But after the most disruptive election in American history, we need to shake up the top-down, “call and response” model of organizing grassroots. Calls to action will still emanate from Washington, but the responses from elsewhere will be frequently unpredictable, often surprising and probably far more effective in sweeping down those mighty walls of oppression and resistance, and scoring some points against Donald Trump.