How Trump helped save the Democrats

A year of protests against Donald Trump
A year of protests against Donald Trump

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Story highlights

  • Democrats' rebuilding started quickly and unexpectedly after Trump took office
  • Many Democratic operatives had powerful ideas and anger to channel

(CNN)For Democrats, President Donald Trump's election was a curse they never saw coming. But his first year in office has delivered them small blessings -- and a newfound unity among progressives dedicated to his defeat.

The same man who left Democrats shocked, beleaguered and divided a year ago has over the past 12 months given them something more powerful than any policy argument: a common -- and ubiquitous -- enemy. The policy debates that dominated the 2016 primary between Hillary Clinton and liberal upstart Sen. Bernie Sanders still exist, but they have been largely supplanted by Democrats' desire to make Trump's time in office as short as possible.
The rebuilding started quickly and unexpectedly.
    Seven days after Trump spoke the 35 words that would make him the country's 45th president, he visited the Pentagon to make good on a campaign promise. At 4:43 p.m. Eastern, flanked by new Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis, Trump signed Executive Order 13769 -- the first travel ban.
    The order took effect immediately, even as the particulars remained a mystery to administration officials charged with enforcing it. By early the next morning, those closely held details, which slammed the door on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days and suspended all refugee admissions for 120 -- began to share headlines with reports of chaos, confusion and mass demonstrations at major airports around the country.
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    Rafael Shimunov, the Working Families Party's national creative director, was at home in Queens, minutes from JFK airport, when colleagues began to pass along word of the swelling crowds. He rushed to the terminal with just his phone and began to livestream the protests, connecting couch-bound gawkers to the remarkable scenes developing on the frigid concrete off Jamaica Bay -- a swirl of dread and panic leavened by the intoxicating sense of something new.
    Something like an uprising.
    "When people came out there, they weren't just coming out for immigrants, they were coming out for a lot more," Shimunov said. "Because of how messy and how un-strategic (Trump) did things, he exposed to people that all of these things -- health care and immigration, war and taxes -- are actually connected."
    The Trump administration was a week old. But it wouldn't be the last time, by his own clumsy hand, that Trump would whip into action an unlikely activist coalition of progressive and leftist organizers with years of experience mixed with rank-and-file Democratic voters, distressed bystanders and elected officials.
    A week after the Women's March choked off Washington on the new President's first full day in office, a new activist coalition was proving its mettle again - and sending a message to shell-shocked Democratic politicos: Join up or shut up.
    Shimunov, meanwhile, was focused on keeping his video feed alive at the airport.
    "I had to rush into the airport to buy one of those pre-charged external batteries and plug it into my phone, which was dying," he recalled. "I ran the wire through my jacket, which is kind of a scary thing to do at an airport -- having a beard and being brown-skinned."
    After nearly four hours -- and more than 16 million views on Facebook -- he would kill the livestream and head back home. He spent the next morning at a doctor's office, his hands numb and gnarled by exposure to the late January cold.

    'What do I tell my family?'

    There was an overarching sense of fear among Democrats when Trump won the White House in November 2016. But the feeling inside Clinton's pop-up campaign headquarters at her would-have-been victory party and the hotel where Clinton was staying was downright depression.
    "What do I tell my family?" Varun Anand, a stunned 22-year old Clinton staffer, told CNN that night, his eyes glazed over and his face ashen. Anand's family immigrated to the United States from India when he was 6, and he was worried about what this election, which he had dedicated his life to, meant for his country. "What do I tell them after the country elects Trump?"
    A few days after the loss, after Clinton had conceded and Trump had begun to settle into his new title, the former secretary of state invited her entire staff to a party at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge. There the group of sleep-deprived staffers who almost won Clinton the election drank and sang their sorrows away. Clinton gave each staffer a red rose at the end of the night, a physical manifestation that things were over.
    "You pick your negative emotions, and we were feeling them," said a former aide. "Frankly, we were pissed at what was a lack of possibility ahead."
    It wasn't only Clinton who came up short on Election Day, though. Democrats underperformed at nearly every level. They picked up two seats in the Senate, two shy of what they needed to break the Republican majority, and only six seats in the House, leaving Republican Speaker Paul Ryan with votes to spare.

    'My coping mechanism'

    But as Trump took office, and his administration mishandled a series of opening policy rollouts, despair gave way to resolve. Democratic operatives across the country, motivated partly by Clinton's concession speech call to action -- "there are more seasons to come and there is more work to do" -- decided to do something with their anti-Trump fervor.
    Amanda Litman, Clinton's email director, was on vacation after the grueling campaign when friends and colleagues began asking her, "If Trump is going to be president, I will run for office. What do I do? Who do I ask for help?"
    Litman realized that she didn't have an answer, so an idea was born: She was going to start an organization that helped young people and first-time candidates run for something. Her goal, initially, was to get the organization off the ground, help a few candidates in small races and get over her own despair.
    "It was my coping mechanism," Litman said of what became "Run for Something." "And a really effective one because it is hard to think about how devastated you are when you are working on a plan."
    But in the season of resistance, Litman's organization took off. Clinton gave it her stamp of approval, in the form of a sizable check from her new super PAC, and candidates began to line up to get advice on their first campaigns.
    Litman was shocked.
    "We expected 100 people to sign up in the first year -- not 15,000," she said.
    But she wasn't the only operative with a powerful idea and anger to channel.

    Salvation in a Google doc

    "Indivisible" founders: 'We're about inclusiveness'
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    Leah Greenberg and husband Ezra Levin had spent their young professional years working for Democrats on Capitol Hill. The election had left them, along with so many friends and former colleagues, gobsmacked and searching. But unlike so many others, the founders of Indivisible would, by the end of November, find their salvation. In a Google doc.
    "Our thinking in writing it originally was that we were seeing this wave of energy in people trying to figure out how to respond to the election of Donald Trump, but folks weren't really sure how to do that effectively," Greenberg said. "They were calling the GAO to demand investigations and they were sending postcards to the electors and they were calling Paul Ryan, and just felt like they were hitting the wall with activism."
    Within weeks, Greenberg and Levin's Indivisible guide -- a how-to manual for virgin activists desperate to influence or pressure members of Congress -- had gone viral.
    By early January, weeks before Trump's inauguration, liberal commentator Rachel Maddow was waving a printed and bound version on air, calling it "kind of a secret sauce." More than a year on, Indivisible has thousands of chapters nationwide, a sleek website and growing influence on Washington lawmakers and powerbrokers on both sides of the aisle.
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    "It was all just a bit of a blur for the first couple of months," Greenberg said. "We didn't sleep a lot. But what we realized pretty quickly was, we really wanted to communicate really directly with the groups and have them communicate with their elected officials, and build those relationships."
    Greenberg spent the beginning of 2017 as the policy director for old boss Tom Perriello's gubernatorial bid in Virginia. When he shouted her out at a campaign event on a rainy April night in Richmond, supporters rose to give her an ovation.
    "You don't expect your side project to suddenly become part of your regular job, when you're on a campaign," she said. "The organizing that was happening, as a volunteer, was also making itself felt almost immediately on the trail, as well."

    Ending the 'Charlie Brown football phase'

    Perriello would lose the Democratic primary to then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, then promptly hit the stump for his rival ahead of an Election Day wipeout that would see Northam rout Republican Ed Gillespie and successful down ballot Democrats -- including the state's first openly transgender lawmaker, Danica Roem, and Lee Carter, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America -- nearly flip the Virginia House of Delegates.
    After losing about 1,000 state legislative seats during the Obama era, Democrats scored a net gain of 30 in the year after Trump took office -- with 15 of them in Virginia alone. (It was a game of chance, after a literal tie, that ultimately preserved the narrow Republican majority.)
    Virginia was a movement affirming victory for Democrats. They had come close in special elections in Montana, Georgia and South Carolina, but Virginia was the moment, said a national Democratic operative, that the party moved past the "Charlie Brown football phase" of the resistance.
    "November 2017 was like the mountaintop where people started to feel the possibility meets the reality," the operative said.
    In order to reach that reality, though, most Democrats agree that responsibility falls on a tarnished Democratic National Committee, a body that was at rock bottom in 2017 after being the focus of liberal ire throughout the 2016 election.
    Tom Perez, President Barack Obama's labor secretary, won the DNC chair a few weeks after Trump took office.
    The DNC was in such a state of disrepair -- there were three finance staffers and a mostly skeleton staff after much of the place was let go after the 2016 election -- that it took Perez three days to get keys to his own office, according to two sources who witnessed the confusion over how the new party chair was locked out of his office on his first day at work.
    Perez has tried to right the ship, but fundraising has suffered as the organization works to dig out of a sizable hole. The former labor organizer has also moved to build trust among party factions.
    "There is no doubt that after we lost an election, and the division that happened during the election, that there were some trust issues in the building, and we needed to regain trust," said Xochitl Hinojosa, communications director for the DNC. She added that Perez's goal has been trying to show people the DNC's plan and show that they are investing in down ballot races.
    "They want to see the party is out there electing Democrats, like we are supposed to do," Hinojosa said, noting how Democratic donors flocked to the party after Democrat Doug Jones unexpectedly defeated Republican Roy Moore for a US Senate seat in ruby-red Alabama in 2017.
    The DNC raised over $60 million in 2017, but was outraised by the Republican National Committee in the same year. Hinojosa dismissed concerns about the fundraising but acknowledged that a number of other Democratic organizations that sprouted up after Trump's win have raised money that would have -- in past years -- gone to the DNC.
    "The fact that we have all of these groups to elect progressive leaders is a fantastic thing," she said.

    Holding Democrats accountable

    While the DNC was caught up in existential angst, leading movement progressives on Capitol Hill were doing their best to remake the party from the inside out. Sen. Sanders, for decades a back-bencher in the House and Senate until his unlikely and spirited challenge to Clinton in 2016, accepted a place on Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's leadership team, a nod to his post-primary status with the Democratic base -- and an early indication that the Vermont independent was prepared to work diligently within the party he so often criticized.
    Still, anxieties ran deep on the left, which feared Trump would seize on divisions in the Democratic ranks and cleave the party with an early push for infrastructure spending, a bipartisan priority that would invite at-risk lawmakers and cast Trump as a maverick deal-maker.
    "After the election, I had meetings on Capitol Hill with dazed Democrats who seemed ready to move right in order to appeal to an electorate that was far more Trumpy than they'd previously imagined," said Ben Wikler, MoveOn.org's Washington director. "But in January, everything changed."
    The travel ban, along with early indications that Obamacare repeal would be the Republicans' first priority and the unveiling of Trump's Cabinet nominees -- a cadre of billionaires and right wing ideologues -- all worked to speed up the grass-roots mobilization.
    New groups like Indivisible and Our Revolution, the political organization that grew out of the Sanders campaign, and the Women's March helped direct the brewing backlash. Older workhorses like the Working Families Party, which grew its national footprint in 2017, pressured liberal lawmakers seeking its endorsement. When Democratic senators broke ranks, they felt the pain.
    By the time 2017's long Obamacare fight began in earnest, the political calculations were resolved. If Democrats were taking heat, it was coming from the left -- a new reality that, while almost certain to roil the party again ahead of the 2020 presidential primary, helped to keep it unified during Trump's first year and raise expectations for the upcoming midterm season.
    "The Trump presidency has been so horrible that, for me -- maybe because my colleagues and I spend a lot of time thinking about how bad it can get, it has been significantly less horrible than we feared," Wikler said. "And the public has been more mobilized and united than we hoped."