Pro-Trump supporters, left, argue with demonstrators after a Feb. 18 march in Los Angeles to protest the president’s immigration policies. Sociologists say President Trump’s actions and rhetoric are politically energizing both conservatives and liberals. Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump frequently boasts about starting a movement, and sociologists say they are seeing unprecedented grass-roots activism across the country. They credit Trump for inspiring people to become politically engaged on the right — and even more so on the left. And many of those activists are brand new to the scene.
Campbell, a suburb just outside of San Jose, Calif., is known as a place where people dream about driverless cars and the next social app. But on a rainy Tuesday night, some 150 people sat for an hour and a half at Campbell United Church of Christ on rather uncomfortable folding chairs to hear from Native American activists who were fighting the development of the Dakota Access oil pipeline at Standing Rock.
There were a few seasoned activists in the audience, and some who said they’d been politically active at varying points in their lives. But for many, all of this was new.
Event organizer Celeste Walker, a mother of two who owns a chocolate shop in Campbell, watched the election results with a friend in November. When Trump won, she says they “felt kind of the devastating crush that came after that, and kind of struggled for a couple months deciding the best way we could begin to not feel so helpless.”
Her friend Michael Clark says he’s also new to activism.
“I’m a director at a high-tech company,” Clark says. “It’s not really like the classic protester. When I see news articles about the paid protester it just makes me laugh. It’s like, ‘No, no, I’m on my lunch break.’ ”
Clark and Walker started the progressive activist group that hosted the Standing Rock protesters; they say that in just two months it grew from 12 members to 800. They meet weekly to discuss issues and ways to protest.
The election of Donald Trump ignited progressive activism at a rate never seen before in American politics says Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland sociologist who has studied large-scale protests. Fisher surveyed more than 500 participants in the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration. A third never had protested before.
She says progressives are driven by a lot of different issues: immigration, social justice, women’s rights, the environment.
“Everybody’s pissed off, and they’re pissed off for different reasons,” she says. “Trump is helping everybody to find common ground.”
Trump and his administration have dismissed the protests, as well as the packed town halls members of Congress are seeing in their home districts as driven in part by professional liberal activists.
The president tweeted last week that if his voters had their own rally, “it would be the biggest of them all.”
Trump supporters are in fact planning rallies across the country on Saturday. They’re being organized by Main Street Patriots, a conservative group started by members of the Tea Party.
Debbie Dooley, one of the organizers, says that a lot of conservative political newcomers are energized by Trump. She tells NPR that the president is like characters played by the star of old American Westerns — John Wayne.
“I know many of your listeners are too young to remember John Wayne’s style,” she says. “But he rode into town and the bad guys ran away because he had a take-no-prisoners attitude.”
Ironically, Trump’s blustery style and politically incorrect language are what’s driving both anti-Trump activists and pro-Trump activists, says Sarah Sobieraj, a sociology professor at Tufts University who has studied activism for nearly two decades on both the left and right.
“Saying those things and acting that way brought people out because they felt validated by someone who sees the world the way they see it, feeling at last as though someone was really telling the truth without apology,” she says. “And on the left, that way of speaking was absolutely objectionable and mobilizing, because they were viewed as abhorrent.”
That was the case at the gathering in Campbell. Among the activists was 23-year-old Renata Vidovic, the daughter of a Muslim father and Catholic mother who fled violence and ethnic strife in Bosnia. Her mother was worried about a backlash against Muslims when Trump won.
“The day that the election happened, I’ve never seen my mom look that terrified,” says Vidovic. “She’s just like, ‘We ran here hoping that something like this would never happen again.’ ”
Vidovic says her family never got involved in politics because of their experience overseas. Now, she says she can’t imagine sitting on the sidelines.
“I think it’s now become a part of me,” she says. “It’s almost one of those things where something wakes up inside you.”
And the speed with which Trump is pushing his agenda keeps reigniting activists like Vidovic to keep fighting.