Indivisible: The new left-wing movement modelled on the right

The Indivisible movement is working at the local level to disrupt the White House by taking a page from the Tea Party playbook.

Progressives are consciously emulating Tea Party tactics, saying Trump has awoken 'the sleeping giant'

A member of Salt Lake Indivisible accidentally misspells Trump on his sign. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Outside the Salt Lake City offices of Utah's two senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, about a dozen people are gathered around picnic tables with markers and cardboard, preparing their signs for "Resist Trump Tuesday." It's a weekly protest, and it's a decidedly do-it-yourself affair.

One protester misspells "Trump." He's drawn a circle with an X through "TRUMR." He laughs, flips the sign over, and starts again.

Even here in one of the most conservative Republican states, a national movement is mobilizing the political left. And it's based on the tactics of their opposition on the right. 

Deeda Seed, a volunteer with Salt Lake Indivisible, one of the thousands of Indivisible-affiliated groups that have sprung up across the U.S. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The "Indivisible" movement started in December as a 26-page online guide for resisting U.S. President Trump. It was written by a handful of former Democratic congressional staffers, and is billed as a set of "best practices for making Congress listen." It offers advice on how to organize and even gives members tips on where to sit during town hall meetings to maximize the impact of their booing.

Since then, Indivisible has led to the creation of thousands of affiliated groups across the country. Their tactics: bombard U.S. congressional offices with petitions and phone calls to demand town hall meetings with members of Congress. Then, more often than not, disrupt them.

Deeda Seed, a member of Indivisible in Salt Lake City, says the relentless pressure is aimed not at the president, but at local congressional representatives and senators.

The protesters say they plan to use local activism and defensive politics to stymie anything Trump proposes. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"These are the people who can make a difference," Seed says. "President Trump is not going to listen to us."

If their tactics sound familiar, they should.

They're explicitly modelled after those of the Tea Party, a conservative movement which sprang up in 2009 to aggressively pressure congressional Republicans into opposing every plank of then president Barack Obama's platform. Much like the Tea Party, members say they may eventually run their own slate of Indivisible-affiliated candidates.

Taking over town hall 

"We're seeing people emerge as stating that they're going to run against our elected officials in more significant numbers than we've ever seen before," Seed says. "Everyone's looking at [the mid-term elections in ] 2018 and there are candidates emerging from this organic grassroots movement who are organizing right now and raising money." 

One of the most boisterous town halls was held in Salt Lake City in March. A crowd of approximately 1,000 people packed a high school auditorium for a meeting with Utah congressman and House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz. He was repeatedly shouted down and booed, with many demonstrators chanting "Do your job!"

Madalena McNeil, an organizer with Utahns Speak Out, says because it's easy to participate in Indivisible, the movement is built to last. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Many Republicans have condemned the activists as disaffected Liberals who can't accept they lost the election. President Trump has gone so far as to call them "professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters." 

Critics dismiss Indivisible expecting it to go the way of the Occupy movement. But Madalena McNeil, founder of Utahns Speak Out, says because Indivisible makes for easy participation, the movement is built to last.

"Not everyone can go to a rally but a lot of people can make phone calls, a lot of people can write letters," McNeil says. "So we really try to create that community and make it accessible to everybody."

At a recent Utahns Speak Out meeting, McNeil gave the small group an update on their ongoing phone blitz. The plan: to swamp their Congressman Chris Stewart with calls opposing changes to the Affordable Care Act.

The group plans a phone blitz targeting Utah congressman Chris Stewart. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"When (group members) met with Chris Stewart's staffers they told them that they don't enjoy getting all the phone calls and emails," McNeil says. "Keeping those phone calls going is a signal that it doesn't end here. We don't actually even really focus on President Trump. We need to start from the ground up if we're going to make a change instead of just attacking the head. For a movement to be sustainable it can't just be about the current president."

These methods worked for conservatives during the Obama presidency, who were able to block the administration at almost every turn, they say. So why reinvent the wheel?

Jill Merritt says she's a lifelong Republican who joined Indivisible because her local representatives are enabling Trump's 'dangerous' agenda.

"We have to use disruptive tactics in a similar way as the Tea Party but the goals are different because this is a movement that's being built not to go away — it's being built to actually create sustainable change," McNeil says.

Like the Tea Party, Indivisible goes after legislators on both sides of the aisle‚ threatening to replace any Democrats they feel aren't tough enough on Trump. While the movement is clearly led by progressives, activists say they're attracting independent voters, Libertarians, even some Republicans.

'He is too dangerous'

At the recent Utahns Speak Out meeting, Amber Jacobson tells the group she's planning to canvass her Republican neighbours, hoping to find some common ground among those who may have changed their minds about the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. 

"I've got several of my neighbours who are Republicans who have disabled children or who have other issues and are very very concerned," Jacobson says. "I say reach out to those people who you might not see eye-to-eye with politically and get them there."

The 'Resist Trump Tuesday' protests were meant to end after Trump's first 100 days, but many now say they'll carry on. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

'They'd better wake up'

Jill Merritt has been a lifelong Republican, but after Trump was elected, the 70-year-old grandmother decided to join Salt Lake Indivisible because she says her local representatives are enabling the president's authoritarian agenda.

"Trump wasn't a Republican. He never was," says Merritt. "So why they're hanging themselves out to dry for him I do not understand. They can't just let this guy do what he pleases. He is too dangerous."

Merritt says her votes helped put those local Republicans in office. And when they're up for re-election next year, she can help take them out.

"We have a history in Utah of primarying out people who don't support and conform to what the citizens want, and we'll be looking for that possibility if they don't behave," Merritt says. "They'd better wake up!"

Merritt lifts a sign that reads "Lee Hatch Stewart Do Your Jobs!!" and joins the line of protesters. These "Resist Trump Tuesdays" were only supposed to last during the president's first 100 days in office. But now that milestone has come and gone, and many have decided to simply carry on.

"That's how serious this is," Seed says. "And that's why there's been this groundswell of outrage and action." 

If they've learned anything from their counterparts on the right, they say, it's this: eventually persistence pays off.

"This election has awoken the sleeping giant," says Ellie Brownstein of Utahns Speak Out. "And I hope it's never the same again."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.