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Credit Donald Trump for one achievement in his first days in office: he's created a grassroots movement faster than we’ve ever seen. Of course, its central goal is to oppose him and his agenda.
Trump can’t take full credit for the Women's March and the airport protests prompted by his executive order on immigration, though. This time around, organizers didn't have to bake from scratch: they could build on technology, experience and personal networks built through the Sanders campaign, Black Lives Matter, pipeline protests, Occupy Wall Street, President Obama's two presidential campaigns and more.
Protesters also have the example of successful mass movements to inspire them. Am I the only one to hear echoes of Tahrir Square, the famous focal point of the 2011 Egyptian revolution? Like the revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries convulsed by the Arab Spring, liberal activists have turned to the digital technologies they use in their everyday lives to organize themselves politically.
The Women's March began on Facebook, for example, and the marchers used social media to take their message far beyond the streets they filled. Opponents of Trump’s immigration order used social media, text messages and (I suspect) a few emails here and there to mobilize thousands of people literally overnight. They weren’t just protesting, either: volunteers organized cadres of lawyers at airports to represent people caught on the wrong side of what many characterized as a “Muslim ban”.
Meanwhile, “rogue” government agency-related Twitter accounts quickly became an alternate source of information about science policy and global warming. Most new presidential administrations review agency communications practices, of course, but the Trump team’s orders that some agencies cease tweeting for the moment didn’t go over well. In response, dozens of “alt” Twitter accounts – some apparently staffed by anonymous agency employees, others by activists – popped up to take their place.
Back on the ground, Republican members are hearing from their constituents in person, and they’re finding that many people in their districts aren’t pleased at the thought of an Obamacare repeal. Hoping to avoid the social media-amplified blowback that dogged their Democratic colleagues in the summer of 2009, members are steering away from the public “town halls” and other forums that can yield “YouTube moments”.
In at least one case, a Republican member is planning to hold “Facebook town halls” instead of in-person events. But avoiding your constituents may not be a sustainable strategy for the long term: a recent poll showed that Democratic women in particular plan to be far more politically active in 2017 than the public at large.
How should mainstream political organizations – and politicians themselves – respond to this new wave of tech-enabled citizen activism? Many Democrats will try to ride the tiger, appearing at protests and putting out supportive messages online. But what about traditional nonprofits and groups that support Trump’s agenda?
Leverage your own people power. Organizations with a large following should put them to work, using emails and social media to amplify their voices and inject ideas into the public fray (example: emailing your supporters “Share” links to important Facebook posts). If you’re an organization like the ACLU, you won’t have to work at it: you’ll just need to be ready for people to give you $24 million over a weekend. Make sure your website’s “donate” button is easy to find.
Recruit. I’m now seeing International Rescue Committee fundraising ads on news stories about refugees, and the DCCC is using Twitter ads (sponsored tweets) to reach people following protest-related Twitter feeds. Times like these give organizations a chance to reach newly inspired activists who are looking for things to do with their enthusiasm. Conservative organizations shouldn’t feel left out, since plenty of people on the right will be incensed about the protest messages and tactics they see online and on TV.
Provide ammunition. Not every organization focuses on the grassroots. In fact, many are policy-heavy and wonky in classic D.C.-style. They can stay in the fight, however, by putting out raw material for activists and other organizations to use. From healthcare numbers to pithy Twitter-borne infographics, small groups can punch above their weight if they can get good information (and good spin) into hands that can thrust it into the public sphere.
What’s the future for the grassroots anti-Trump activists? Trump certainly won’t listen to them, though they may get under his skin and prompt an overreaction when he sees their work on TV. One key opportunity: to keep Democratic officials from compromising on upcoming votes such as for his new Supreme Court nominee.
Their real target, though, should be their own neighbors: digital tools make each of us an information hub within our social and family circles. The battle between those who want to stop Trump’s agenda and those who want to see it enacted will come down to who can win the hearts and minds of voters across the country. We are all communicators now.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org