Politics & Policy

Progressive Activists’ Anti-Trump Campaign Gains Steam in D.C.

(Jake Parrish/Reuters)

It’s no secret that Donald Trump has riled up Washingtonians as few presidential candidates ever could. In this genteel political bubble, where progressives and conservatives often have more in common with one another than with their ideological brethren outside the Beltway, the sudden success of Trump’s vulgar and identity-driven campaign has shattered the peace with all the surprise and violence of a car bomb.

Now a group of young professionals, fresh from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, are hoping to harness D.C.’s righteous indignation into a grassroots anti-Trump movement. Calling themselves DC Unite Against Hate, they plan to undermine the presumptive Republican nominee through voter registration and outreach efforts in Maryland and Virginia. Though they claim they’re open to disaffected Republicans, their group’s decidedly progressive flair — and its explicitly stated goal of merging with the Clinton campaign — may turn off District conservatives in the #NeverTrump movement, which until now has been exclusive to those on the right. In a year when both parties’ nominees are hampered by historically low favorability ratings, efforts such as this — devoted more to stopping one candidate than to boosting the other — may become the norm, and they are bound to be polarizing. But judging by the turnout to the group’s inaugural meeting on Wednesday, similar liberal efforts to channel white-collar anti-Trump sentiment could prove quite successful.

Close to 200 people braved a dreary, unseasonably cold evening on Wednesday to attend the “DC Dumps Trump” event at Busboys and Poets, a bookstore-cum-bar that functions as a kind of mecca for the District’s liberal urbanites. They picked up stickers featuring Trump anthropomorphized into a pile of poop, tried on glossy-orange Trump wigs, and played Trump-themed trivia designed to highlight the real-estate mogul’s most controversial outbursts.

But many also signed up for voter-registration efforts starting the next day, or donated money to the group. “We want to do a lot more than just hand out poop stickers and play with Trump wigs,” Jen Rowland, one of the group’s founding members, told the assembled crowd. “And so starting this weekend, we are going to go out and we are going to register new voters — particularly in communities where Trump’s policies would hurt the most.”

“In Virginia, for example, convicted felons can now vote,” she continued. “We need to get out there and make sure they’ve all registered.” The line earned loud applause.

Rowland says she and four other Kennedy School alumni, most of whom graduated in 2015 and now work for the government or in foreign-policy think-tanks, conceived the group over drinks. “It was after a few Super Tuesdays in a row that Trump had won, and everyone had been saying, ‘He’s not gonna win, he’s a joke, he’s a joke candidate,’” she says. “But there was a different tenor to the conversation [that night], and we were kind of actually scared about some of the things that Trump had said — particularly a lot of discriminatory rhetoric around immigrants, around Muslims, women — and feeling like he would be an extremely irresponsible president and a damaging one.”

The five young Washingtonians reached out to several older Kennedy School alumni who’d organized other political movements in Washington over the past decade — most recently DC for Obama, a grassroots campaign put together during the 2008 election. “That was a helpful step in our development,” says Rowland, “because someone could say to us, ‘This has been done. If you want to do this, here’s some of the steps that you might need to take.’”

Within weeks, they had recruited 25 new members.

#share#Wednesday night’s meeting was the first step in what they hope will be a vast and meticulous voter-registration drive. “The plan at this point is to focus on northern Virginia and then work our way south in Virginia, and then southern Maryland and work our way north in Maryland,” says Chris Miller, a high-school teacher now leading the group’s nascent voter-registration operation. He says the region’s high proportion of transplant and immigrant voters makes it fertile territory for those hoping to stop Trump.

DC Unite Against Hate insists that that includes anti-Trump Republicans. “We sort of run the gamut in terms of our politics, personally,” says Annie, another founding member, who adds that some of those involved in the group “have never voted Democratic.” Miller says the group is “not pro-Bernie, not pro-Hillary. We’re just sort of anti-hate.”

Wednesday night’s meeting was the first step in what they hope will be a vast and meticulous voter-registration drive.

But it’s hard to deny the group’s unabashedly left-wing appeal. The event featured a slam poet from Chicago who channeled the Black Lives Matter movement throughout his performance. Though they haven’t yet reached out to the Clinton campaign, organizers openly admit that their end goal is to plug their group directly into the operation of the likely Democratic nominee if and when she finally vanquishes Sanders. And some hope to expand the group’s efforts beyond Trump, with an eye toward defeating Republicans in close Virginia state-senate races.

Still, the group’s progressive bona fides are unlikely to be a problem in liberal Washington. Several attendees said they’d already signed up to volunteer, or had donated money to the organization. “This is the first time I’ve been, like, politically active, in terms of campaigning,” says Phil Bednarzzyk, a left-leaning foreign-affairs professional. “So Trump at least woke that up in me, as well as his supporters.”

DC Unite Against Hate starts its registration efforts on Thursday and says they will continue every weekend between now and November. “I think this is the point where we say, ‘All right, we have 200, 300 people signed up” to volunteer, says Rowland. “‘What does the realistic target for registering voters look like now that we have this base to start from?’ And we haven’t had that conversation yet.”

#related#But after the success of Wednesday night’s meeting, she and her colleagues are convinced they can channel Washington’s Trump-driven angst into an effective grassroots movement capable of blunting his chances in competitive districts surrounding the nation’s capital.

“I think D.C. is unique,” Rowland says. “You have a lot of politically engaged people — particularly you have young people, but young and old — who really care deeply about the thought that goes into politics and policy, and who are concerned by the lack of thought that has particularly gone into Trump’s politics.”

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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