Here’s what Tea Party training looks like in Washington state
Donald Trump’s election galvanized a wave of activism on the left, including the women’s march that some political scientists say was the largest in American history.
Campaigners on the right say they’ve been energized by the election as well, even here in deep-blue Puget Sound.
On a Friday evening in February, activists gather in the windowless meeting room of a public library near the shores of Puget Sound. They’re not happy with the direction the government has taken, and they’re here for training on how to turn frustration into progress.
“Activists often times squander a vast percentage of their resources doing things that actually will produce no significant benefit or change,” Glen Morgan, the trainer they’ve brought in for the evening to help them be more effective in creating change, tells them.
“So many people like us, we want to be involved in politics, and we say, ‘By God, I don't like what's going on in the federal government, so I’m going to go run for Congress,’” Morgan tells them. “That is a great path to lose and then go home and be disgruntled, right, because, ‘Boy, it just didn't work. I didn't change the world suddenly.’”
Much of Morgan’s advice echoes that of many liberals who grappled to understand their losses in November: Get to know the other side beyond your social and digital bubbles.
“We are foolish and ignorant if we do not go and attend the events of the people who we think disagree with us,” Morgan says. “They do good training there. There you can learn a lot and find out who in your community is just frustrated with government.”
But Morgan is no liberal. He’s a longtime property-rights activist, now the head of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights. He travels around the state from his home in Thurston County, training conservative activists. On this evening, he’s speaking to a couple dozen members of the Tacoma Narrows Tea Party in Gig Harbor.
“I'm more optimistic now than I have been ever before about the possibility of at least dismantling some of the most hostile elements of government that are actually actively taking away our freedom,” Morgan says.
Most of the night is a Civics 101 lesson: how to get involved in your government. Peggy Hutt with the Tacoma Narrows Tea Party chimes in with a website, leg.wa.gov.
“Leg means legislature,” Hutt explains. “Type that in and you can comment on any bill, and you can write all your legislators. It’s a wonderful tool.”
Outside the meeting, Hutt says she sees more conservatives getting involved in recent months.
“The engaged citizen, there’s a lot more,” she says, “and the people are engaging further.”
Hutt worries that energy might not last, with interest in politics tending to spike briefly every four years.
“That’s true in every presidential election, because people have been removed from the knowledge that government is bottom up,” Hutt says. “If you are ‘We the People,’ then you are important.”
Hutt aims to keep that initial excitement alive. She starts people on basics and tells them she needs 10 minutes a week, because that’s less daunting. Before long, she says, they’re attending three-hour meetings.
Like Frank and Christine Tower of Port Orchard. The Towers are focused on local concerns mostly, like county zoning they say has hurt the value of their horse farm, the sale of which they hope will pay for their retirement. But Trump’s election makes them optimistic, even about local issues.
“I think it’s the best thing since peanut butter,” Frank Tower says. “He’s a doer. He’s not a hedger. He’s done more in a month than some guys do in four years as the president.”
The Towers say they’re reluctant to be too public about their activism in a region where Republicans are outnumbered.
“We don’t even dare put a sign up in front of our house, or a bumper sticker on our car during election time,” Christine Tower says. “I’m afraid to come out and my car would be all scratched and dented.”
As some Tea Partiers are trying to up their games, many people on the left have been following the “Indivisible” playbook. It’s a how-to guide for influencing Congress and “resisting the Trump agenda.” It went viral after a group of former Congressional staffers posted it as a Google document online in December.
At Seattle Town Hall in March, Indivisible cofounder Ezra Levin spoke to several hundred like-minded activists.
“Implementing it is not rocket science, you know?” Levin says. “This is civics 101. This is going to local Congressional offices, this is going to town halls and public events. This is making calls. Anybody can do this.”
“This administration has lived up to its promises, and it is assaulting not just progressive values, but basic tenets of American democracy, just about every week, if not every day,” he says.
More than 6,000 Indivisible-inspired groups have popped up nationwide, with at least 250 in Washington.
A Tea Party Patriots website lists 19 local Tea Party groups in Washington.
Hutt says she cannot estimate how many people have joined the Tacoma Narrows or other Tea Party groups in the state.
“It’s pretty fluid,” she says.
While firm numbers of people taking part in grassroots politics are elusive, a recent Elway Poll suggests Washington is seeing more activism on the left than on the right: 49 percent of Democrats polled in Washington state said they have donated money or attended a political event since the November election, nearly twice the 24 percent of Republicans.
While new activists are learning similar lessons on how government works, the Indivisible movement is focused primarily on Congress. The Tacoma Narrows Tea Party, meanwhile, is learning how to make change locally and in Olympia.
“People ask me, ‘How can we help Trump?’” Hutt says. “I’m like, you know what? The best thing you can do is trust him, turn your back on him, and get [off] your butt and help me here in the state of Washington.”
And be civil with people who disagree with you.
Back at the Tea Party training, trainer Glen Morgan urges the audience to be nice when attending their counterparts’ events.
“They're your neighbors, your friends,” he says. “You're going to see them. Why would you be a jerk to them? Treat them the way you would want to be treated.”
But with polarized viewpoints, that can be easier said than done. At the pro-Trump Spirit of America rally in Olympia on March 4, organized by Hutt, hundreds of Tea Partiers sang patriotic songs against a backdrop of counter-protesters chanting antifascist slogans. Police in riot gear kept the two groups apart. Four of the counter-protesters were arrested in connection with an alleged assault on a police officer.
When Hutt and the Tea Party hosted anti-Islamic speaker Heidi Mund of Germany in Gig Harbor on March 31, Indivisible Gig Harbor members arrived to protest outside the Gig Harbor library, with signs including “Stop Islamophobia” and “Love, not hate, makes Gig Harbor great.”
Anticipating the protests, organizers had quietly relocated Mund’s talk to an undisclosed location, leaving the counter-demonstrators to wave their signs at commuters driving by.