In the two years since the 2016 election, Donald Trump has generated some of the most demagogic, xenophobic, and cruel policies and practices to come out of Washington in decades. At the same time we have also seen some of the most engaged social activism in decades. The Women’s March, the airport demonstrations against the Muslim ban, the overflowing town halls in defense of the Affordable Care Act, the protests against the separation of immigrant families and Trump’s threats to deport undocumented minors who were granted legal status by the Obama administration, the #MeToo moment-turned-movement, the student-led March for Our Lives in support of stricter gun control, and the widespread protests against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court are just the most public manifestations of citizens’ determination to stand up against Trump’s assaults on civil rights, civil liberties, and constitutional norms.
Less obvious signs of this engagement include the record number of subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post, which are important checks on an administration that cavalierly disregards truth, and the quadrupling of membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, of which I am legal director. We were already the largest civil liberties and civil rights organization in the country before Trump’s election, and our membership has risen from 400,000 to 1.8 million since November 2016. Other nonprofits defending constitutional and environmental values under attack by Trump have also seen dramatically increased support.
This sense of urgency was reflected in the 2018 midterm elections, in which turnout was high and Democrats performed very well, despite the fact that Trump had inherited the strongest economy in decades. Democrats gained forty seats in the House of Representatives, the largest net gain for the party in a single election since 1947. Democrats also picked up seven governorships and won hundreds of state legislative seats previously held by Republicans.
Civil society groups made enormous efforts to ensure that the low Democratic turnout that allowed Trump to eke out a victory in 2016 would not be repeated in 2018.1 From its inception, for example, the March for Our Lives stressed the need to “vote them out” and promoted that theme with a nationwide get-out-the-vote effort. Women responded to the election of a self-avowed sexual assaulter by running for office—and winning—in record numbers. The ACLU launched a grassroots mobilization campaign, People Power, designed to inspire and support a loose network of citizens coming together in their neighborhoods and towns to work with local government to advance civil liberties and civil rights. It also devoted millions of dollars to supporting civil rights ballot initiatives, including a Florida referendum that ended the disenfranchisement of 1.4 million Floridians who have completed their prison sentences and returned to society.
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