Donald Trump’s election to the presidency has had many previously unthinkable effects, but perhaps most surprising is a wave of self-organized citizen activism.
For decades during the neoliberal era, during which unionization declined and globalist free-market ideology held sway, political engagement for most Americans meant voting once every four years for a reassuringly qualified technocratic president to operate our ever-more-complex government.
Now, previously disengaged citizens are showing up to protests in record numbers, regularly expressing their dissatisfaction to their elected representatives in person and by phone, email, postcards, and at least one pizza delivery; and organizing for sustained left-leaning political activism in a way not seen in America since the 1960s.
While many who consume right-wing media may believe deep-pocketed lefty George Soros paid millions of people to show up to women’s marches nationwide, for a growing number of Americans, protest is now simply what they do at night and on weekends, what they talk about at work on their lunch break, what they post about online. For better or worse, it’s the new brunch.
Cynthia McDonagh is a 67-year-old woman from Brockton who organizes under the name “Grandma’s Web of Resistance.” McDonagh has cared about social justice since her grade school friendship with a girl whose family fled the Holocaust. She has for years done intermittent local organizing and activism in Brockton, but Trump’s election was a galvanizing moment. McDonagh volunteered to run a bus trip from Mass to the Women’s March on Washington; after being listed on the official Women’s March site, the bus quickly filled with 55 people, mostly strangers, from all over New England.
McDonagh’s group, composed of the aforementioned marchers and some friends, is intentionally nonpartisan, which she says gives her more credibility in her somewhat conservative area of Southeast Massachusetts. But her avoidance of partisanship doesn’t mean a lack of passion: “The first thing I do in the morning is troll Mitch McConnell on Twitter,” she says.
Her group’s first meeting since the March is set for Sunday at the Great American Pub in Raynham, and will be focused on “actionable steps, no matter where you live.” McDonagh says she’s signed up for “all the mailing lists”—local elected officials, Our Revolution—and plans to use the contents thereof to focus on federal-level issues like immigration and Trump’s cabinet noms since those are the biggest fights at the moment. She’s optimistic that the energy of this moment will sustain itself: “I used to have to drag people to meetings,” she said. “Now people are calling me.”
Maddie Howard, 26, lives in Jamaica Plain and works at Boston-based online home goods store Wayfair. Every other Sunday, the Charlotte native gathers about a dozen friends in a Leather District office to discuss mostly local and state politics, and to encourage collaboration between members who work with formal organizations like the Democratic National Committee, Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ), Food Not Bombs, and Cosecha Allies. The self-described socialist was involved in labor politics as a Georgetown undergrad, but gradually disengaged during the Obama era. There was a feeling of despair, she said—a feeling that Obama was achieving some progress and doing all he could do, but that there were “no fights worth fighting.” Trump’s election was “a galvanizing moment,” says Howard, “an ember reignited into a fire.”
Howard says that she is further to the left than most of her fellow group members, but the only criteria for membership is “want(ing) Trump to be stopped.” What started as an email thread among a few friends has evolved into a Slack channel with 30-plus subscribers, a shared Google Calendar, and bi-weekly Sunday meetings. To keep members engaged and happy, the group has democratically created norms, like avoiding discriminatory language, keeping meetings under two hours, and adhering to a timed agenda. Howard knows that her group is nothing new, that people have been meeting informally like this forever. “I’m frustrated that I dropped out (of politics) in the first place and that I didn’t do this years ago,” she says. There appears to be an early deliverable, however minor: one participant is strongly considering a run for Boston City Council.
On the other side of the river, Matt Lavallee, 36, hosts a group each Sunday called Now What at his West Somerville apartment. Usually there’s pizza, but when I attended on Super Bowl Sunday, Lavallee made an excellent mac and cheese with crumbled oyster crackers on top for a usual-sized crowd of about 15 decidedly non-sporty folks. The discussion lasted well past kickoff, as a note-taker compiled contact information for Somerville Democratic Ward chairs in a Google Doc amidst football-related screaming from the downstairs apartment. Lavallee is from Newtown, Connecticut, but has lived in the Boston area for half his life. Many members have known each other for 10 years or more and have now “changed the premise of their socialization”—instead of hosting DJ nights together at bars, they’re coordinating political action.
Much of the Super Bowl Sunday discussion was about how to get involved in Somerville city politics, the Somerville Democratic City Committee, and the Massachusetts Democratic Party. Group member Kristina Nies, also 36, identifies the growing Boston housing crisis as a motivating factor; her rent was recently raised on a whim, she said, and she has seen friends and strangers evicted in favor of higher-income tenants. Lavallee has attended two City of Somerville Board of Aldermen meetings and says “they already know me by sight because nobody goes to those meetings.” Attending those meetings has demystified government for Lavallee, as he realized that he and his friends had as much wisdom and competence as anyone currently holding power. “There were no grownups,” he said. “Then I realized I’m a grownup.”
The group’s achievements so far include coordinated calls to elected officials, making collective statements at public meetings, and raising money for democratically chosen causes (most recently, $200 for the Disrupt J20 legal fund). Lavallee describes his own politics as “anarchist/socialist utopianism,” which led him to a frustration with the “failure of imagination in politics.” Nies describes herself as a Democrat who has grown cynical about the Democratic Party, which she has found unwelcoming to new participants.
So, why not do this earlier?
“The things I wanted were so far outside the mainstream that nobody would listen,” Lavallee said, “so why would I bother?” After the election, he felt, “no one was really in charge in a way that I respected, and doing nothing was producing nothing, so there was no longer any choice but to try.”
What these groups have in common is that they are small gatherings of like-minded friends and acquaintances, which preserves interest and accountability. It’s easy to become isolated and get lost in news and social media; “people crave human connection,” Howard says. All prize the very act of getting together as an important antidote to cynicism and hopelessness bred by isolation. And all are determined to engage in politics long-term. As Howard put it, “it’s still self-interest to want a better world for everyone.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.