Malinda Frevert will forever remember the day after Hillary Clinton’s early morning speech conceding the presidential race to Donald Trump as “Surprise Thursday.”
It was then, 36 hours after Trump’s victory in November – a day filled with despair and disbelief for millions of Democrats – that groups like the liberal advocacy group Emily’s List, where Frevert works, experienced an unexpected tidal wave of support. By the end of November, Emily’s List had doubled its number of monthly donors.
“That’s when we realized that something was probably happening and we needed to get ready,” said Frevert, who handles online strategy at Emily’s List.
Dozens of other liberal groups experienced a spike in interest immediately after the election. By January, membership at the ACLU skyrocketed to 1.6 million from just 400,000 on Election Day. Planned Parenthood took in more than 300,0000 individual donations. United We Dream, an immigrant rights group, saw its membership spike to half a million people.
The rush of enthusiasm took many by surprise.
“It took us a couple of days to find our own footing,” said Heather Holdridge, Planned Parenthood’s director of digital advocacy.
Several months into Trump’s presidency, activists on the left are working to keep that post-election momentum going. That level of energy was on display recently at Netroots Nation, an annual gathering where progressives come to sharpen their skills, network and mobilize. The conference, which hosted speakers such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Al Gore, had some of the highest attendance in years, organizers said.
Instead of focusing on the past – particularly the messy details that came out of last year’s bruising Democratic primary between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Clinton – conference attendees said Trump has forced activists to look forward.
“Trump is a direct attack on some core American values of fairness, equality, of treating each other with kindness,” said Victoria Kaplan, organizing director at MoveOn.org. “It has really unified people.”
With the next mid-term elections looming in 2018, groups like MoveOn are already mobilizing around the country through local organizing, town hall meetings and door-to-door visits.
Indivisible, a new group founded in December after a congressional staffer posted a practical “how-to” guide for activists that went viral, has grown to about 6,000 local chapters nationwide.
“People are jazzed up,” said Indivisible founder Ezra Levin. “I think it’s evident that this administration’s priorities and this Congress’ priorities are so far outside the realm of what is normal for American politics that you see a ton of folks coming out.”
Despite the enthusiasm, their battle against Trump and Republicans will be an uphill one. In terms of partisan numbers, elected Democrats have found themselves completely outnumbered in the post-Obama era. Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House.
At the state level, it’s even worse for Democrats. Republicans have majorities in 32 state legislatures, and in 24 states, they control the legislature and the governors’ mansions. In the big special elections since Trump took office, Democrats have been able to raise massive amounts of money, but the donations have not resulted in victory. Contests in Georgia, South Carolina, Montana and Kansas – not progressive strongholds by any means – have all gone to Republicans. Democrats did win a special election in an Iowa state legislature special election in August in a district that voted heavily for Trump.
But, buoyed by opposition to Trump, optimism on the left remains high. Activists point to the President’s inability to pass his legislative priorities such as repealing the Affordable Care Act as a sign that he will continue to struggle in other areas that require passing bills into law.
“People are turning their anger into action and activism and looking ahead,” MoveOn’s Kaplan said. “Because we can’t look back. We have to look forward.”