By Kevin Coughlin
The Tea Party was mean-spirited, regressive…and highly effective.
Those conclusions, by a few former congressional staffers “going through the stages of grief” after Donald Trump’s election, have seeded an ad hoc opposition movement that can win using battle-tested Tea Party tactics, one of those Capitol Hill veterans told grassroots groups in Morris Township on Sunday.
“Things are dark now…but we do have constituent power. And that power is really real. And it changes minds,” said Ezra Levin, who co-authored Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda in the days after Trump won the presidency.
Speaking via an internet video link, Levin gave a pep talk to hundreds who jammed the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship.
They came to discuss a campaign by NJ 11th for Change to press concerns about President Trump’s agenda to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th Dist.), who so far has declined to meet with the group.
Indivisible has become the playbook for NJ 11th for Change and similar organizations nationwide, with 1.5 million downloads so far, according to Levin, a 31-year-old former aide to Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat in central Texas.
The guide got a boost when former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Star Trek actors George Takei and Wil Wheaton shared it with their large online followings.
But this struggle is not about Tweets, Facebook posts or email lists, Levin said.
“We care about action, about people actually doing stuff. What’s really exciting in the last few weeks is what you all are doing, and it’s not just you. It’s in every single congressional district in the country,” Levin told the overflow crowd, which cheered him and asked for organizing tips.
Slideshow photos by Bill Lescohier
Levin and colleagues in Washington saw first-hand how the conservative Tea Party swayed officials with aggressive opposition to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act during the August 2009 congressional recess.
Opponents of the act, also known as Obamacare, phoned elected officials and thronged congressional offices, town hall meetings and events.
“We didn’t like the really nasty…sometimes violent tactics they engaged in. We didn’t like their 19th-century policy agenda. But we did respect their strategy,” said Levin, a Washington DC resident with a graduate degree from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Congress has a recess this month, and NJ 11th for Change plans a series of town halls–with or without Frelinghuysen. Online registration is requested:
Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 at 3 PM
Sussex County Community Forum
66 Main St., Sparta
Tuesday, Feb. 21, 7 PM
Morris County Community Forum
Jam-E-Masjid Islamic Center
110 Harrison St., Boonton
Wednesday, Feb. 22, 7 PM
Passaic County Community Forum
United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 464A Hall
245 Paterson Ave., Little Falls
Thursday, Feb. 23, 7 PM
Essex County Community Forum
Liberty Middle School
1 Kelly Drive, West Orange
“Fridays with Frelinghuysen,” lunchtime demonstrations that began last month at the Congressman’s Morristown office on Schuyler Place, will continue on Feb. 10, said Lauren DeVito Caiella of NJ 11th for Change, which has collected nearly 2,500 petition signatures requesting a town hall meeting.
Organizers claim members include Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
Levin said their goals are best served by remaining courteous to the Congressman and his staff — and by scrupulously avoiding violence, and infiltration by groups like the anarchists who trashed the University of California Berkeley campus last week to prevent a speech by a right-wing commentator.
Grass roots efforts already have made an impact during these early days of the Trump administration, Levin said. Public outrage caused House Republicans to shelve their plans to scrap the Congressional Ethics Office, and has prompted pushback on the President’s controversial cabinet nominations, he said.
With the GOP controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, Levin said, opponents must remind the minority party to stand up.
“For us to succeed, Democrats need to find their spines,” he said.
“We don’t want Democrats voting for any of Trump’s priorities that undermine our basic values or represent threats to American democracy… In the last week or so, all these Democrats are coming around to that idea, realizing there is power in standing up to this wannabe tyrant.”
There is a circular quality to the evolving rules of engagement.
The Tea Party actually drew its inspiration from the left, from Rules for Radicals by pioneering community organizer Saul Alinsky, reported the New York Times.
On Sunday in Morris Township, an audience member asked Levin whether it was better to work to defeat Frelinghuysen, who handily won a 12th term last fall, than to nudge him towards the center.
“If the results of your efforts are that Rodney becomes a moderate,” Levin replied, “I think that’s a victory.”