The mood swings from rage to revulsion. There are grimaces and scowls. Hands go to foreheads, one middle finger is extended in protest. The pathway from the couch to the counter makes sure the wine glasses didn’t stay dry for too long.
“This doesn’t feel real,” says 30-year-old Jamie Tijerina.
“This seems like a bad joke,” says 62-year-old Mark Verrillo. Sarah Eggers, 38, pipes up. “He’s America’s id embodied in one person,” she says. When Trump repeats his demand to end a family-unification immigration, 51-year-old host Tessie Borden fires back that immigrant children won’t get to “bring your daddy or mommy.” Adds 63-year-old Susan Kromka: “They talk about gang members but they’re our nannies. We don’t fear the undocumented.”
Welcome to the Resistance. Some 2,500 miles away, Trump stood in well of the U.S. House and railed about gang violence and tied it to immigrants in the country illegally. But here in California, where voters rejected him by an almost-2-to-1 margin in 2016, Trump has a 34% approval rating and drew nothing but scorn from the five friends from the local Indivisible chapter who decided to watch the President’s first State of the Union address together. TIME joined the group at Borden’s home in Northeast Los Angeles.
This response is not limited to this home, in a neighborhood where roughly 3-in-4 residents is Hispanic. It’s not limited to the city, which is fighting Trump at every opportunity. It’s not even limited to the state, although California has been on the vanguard of the resistance.
There is something afoot among these activists, many of whom are new to the political process. Trump has inspired millions of women and men to take to the streets in protest and to flock to airports to criticize travel bans that swept up immigrants from countries that hewed toward Islam. These individuals packed the halls of Congress when Republicans tried to slay Obamacare and they were led out of the Capitol in plastic handcuffs when lawmakers, to their minds, weren’t doing to enough to help young immigrants. They even watched the most scripted speech Trump may ever give.
This is, if it holds, a golden age of activism on the Left. But that question of durability has been the one on everyone’s mind since the Women’s March rattled across the country on Jan. 21, 2017. In one variation or another, the question has come down to this: They marched, but will they vote? The energy could reshape the electorate this fall if its members don’t get bored first. As TIME’s Charlotte Alter documented in a recent cover story, a Pink Wave of female candidates is poised to have significant successes and activism will play key in that. If that happens, it will be in part because of rooms like this.
That’s not to say this is an exclusively emotional response, although Tijerina does call the President “the Orange One.” It isn’t enough to know you dislike everything the President stands for. You have to understand the policies behind it. When Trump lamented the storms that battered American cities, Kromka had a rejoinder ready for the television: “Because FEMA didn’t respond.” When the President addressed the deadly shooting on the Las Vegas Strip, Borden shot back, “you enabled the shooter.” Verrillo told his friends he was getting a headache and some more wine.
So organized are the activists that even the most liberal politicians have a tough time keeping up. After years of calibrating a pace for change, many progressives seem to be done with such worries.
“We can’t keep up with them,” says one former top aide in California state government. “It’s a good problem to have, but they are coming to us every day with new ideas and new solutions. And here’s the rub: they’re actually coming up with ideas that folks who have spent 20 years on the problems haven’t thought of.”
This level of engagement has earned notice from the other side. And they are worried.
“The Left is energized. There’s no question about that. It’s prudent for folks to understand that and acknowledge that,” said Tim Phillips, who leads the grassroots piece of the conservative groups backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch. “It’s not just marches and such.” They are turning their rage into results. The Democrats’ wins in Virginia and, more recently, in Wisconsin have shaken the confidence of GOP donors and they’re now bracing for a seriously brutal 2018 cycle.
Before you dismiss California as an unyielding liberal island disconnected from the American Heartland, consider the money. Trump’s 2016 campaign collected almost $12 million from California donors — or roughly 11 cents of every dollar raised through individual contributions (although it’s worth noting that merchandise totaling $200 or more counted as an itemized contribution). The Republican National Committee has collected $5.1 million more since his inauguration. And the network of organizations backed by libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch were meeting over the weekend near Palm Springs for a twice-a-year confab where tickets started at $100,000 a couple and 550 guests planned how to spend as much as $400 million on policy and politics this cycle.
Something is clearly happening with the activists in the Democratic Party — even if the biggest voices don’t count themselves as members. When Democrats insisted any government funding measures include protections for young people who came to the country as children illegally, the activists cheered-on their lawmakers. When the Senate Democrats caved three days into a shutdown, many tore up their membership cards and cast a pox on its members.
“We’re much further to the Left than they realize,” Kromka says of the Democrats. Adds Borden, who says she feels betrayed by Chuck Schumer’s handling of the brief government shutdown: “I don’t think the Establishment Democrats are aware of what we are feeling.”
Even in the first days of the Trump era, these activists were ready to fight their own.
When Sen. Dianne Feinstein voted to confirm about 30% of Trump’s nominees, activists protested her office, often drawing hundreds of people to the sidewalks demanding she answer for her decisions. Outside one fundraiser, protesters vowed to chase her to every event in coming years if she didn’t participate in a town hall-style meeting. “Any time we compromise, we are allowing the Administration to trick us, victimize the community and hurt immigrants,” says Tudor Propescu, a 38-year-old software engineer from Los Angeles who helped organize the campaign that eventually led to Feinstein holding a community meeting with these activists. “We need to make sure this administration doesn’t completely ruin our country. Let’s take the House, and Senate later, and the White House after that. A long-term win means we have a very empowered community that gets progress.”
While they watched the speech, interrupting with asides (“He has no credibility because he lies so much”) and demands (“show us some beautiful clean coal”) and snark (“Paul Ryan is such a pissant”), they didn’t clamor to watch the Democratic response, either. In fact, they muted Rep. Joe Kennedy III. When Sen. Kamala Harris (simply “Kamala” to these activists, given how much time they spend lobbing calls and emails to her staff) shows up on the television for an interview, they listened for just a minute.
All of this casts California as a potential Ground Zero in the fight for the House this year. (And a costly one at that. Even modest TV ad buys here can run deep seven-figures, which is part of the reasons the Kochs don’t have political operations here.) Democrats need to net 24 seats this fall to take control of the House and, with it, an ability to run an anti-Trump agenda. Already, 40 House Republicans who have said they were stepping down to seek other offices or just packing their bags and going home. Two of them are from California and, privately, House Republican leaders expect more in the coming weeks.
Of the 14 Republicans representing California in the House, exactly half represent districts Clinton won. (The state has 53 House seats.) The President has a 65% disapproval rating among voters who identify as members of neither Republicans nor Democrats. Among voters ages 35 and under, that figure rockets to 84% and among Latinos it is 82%. It’s almost impossible to win in California if independents, who make up roughly a quarter of the electorate, are mad at you, not to mention the young and the Hispanic. It gets almost impossible if liberals are seething, too.
That’s what lawmakers are watching the grassroots groups like the one TIME joined on Tuesday night. The hyper-local approach takes into account parochial issues. For instance, here in the Los Angeles area, the priority is to protest the President’s crackdown on immigrants. A little further south, in San Diego, the activists fretted about the President’s effort to ban immigrants from countries with Muslim majorities. So strong was that Indivisible group that Rep. Darrell Issa, one of the richest members of Congress who spent most of Obama’s time in office directing investigations and leaking the partial findings, decided not to seek re-election. In the adjoining district, Rep. Duncan Hunter faces almost daily protests, too.
(So effective and aggressive are these groups’ tactics that members of Congress are often unable to finish events. “The women are in my grill no matter where I go,” Rep. Dave Brat of Virginia said in a remark that went viral.)
But many of the #resist leaders aren’t ready for a victory lap just yet. Consider Milena Jankovic, a 37-year-old woman who became a U.S. citizen through the diversity visa lottery Trump is hellbent on ending. Right after the 2016 elections, many of her neighbors — highly educated, well paid, she says — organized a group to ask the local police to protect immigrants from anything Trump might try to do. “We’ll grab the mic and we’ll pass it to you,” she says of her approach through a group she leads called People Power. Yet, she’s not confident it will work. “I’m a pessimist and can be a cynic,” says Jankovic, who fled Serbia after the civil war there in the 1990s. She worries that as many as 80% of the folks who took the streets in 2017 are back in their bubbles now. “They’ve gotten used to our new normal,” she says with disbelief.
Normal? Maybe not. As Trump’s motorcade rolled up to the Capitol, Tijerina made her way down the street carrying two pizzas. She darkly noted this was the same shop she ordered from on Election Night 2016, when she thought she would be toasting President-elect Hillary Clinton. Now? The pizza marks disappointment and rage.
“It was like drowning your sorrows in pizza,” she says.
But even with the President set to deliver his first speech of this election year, Rob Quan decided to skip it. Instead, he spoke at a Police Commission meeting the need for officers to do more to protect immigrants. “It is so unstable and I think that kind of general widespread fear and how it’s iterated is something most Americans don’t fully appreciate,” Quan told TIME after the meeting ended. “There are some horror stories but the average story of an undocumented person in this country is hard to appreciate.”
Quan, who worked on the Obama campaign in Nevada, and city and federal races, had grown disillusioned with politics. Then, November 2016 happened and he re-calibrated his view. In addition to the Indivisible Group, he works with two other activist groups: March and Rally LA, and ICE Out of LA. “Election Day matters but the other 364 days of the year matter just as much, if not more,” the 32-year-old says. “We need to keep a close eye on the political landscape, how we can maximize turnout, organizing visits to council offices and learn the system.”
With as much energy as these activists are mustering, it’s clear public officials need to listen. And, if they’re smart, fear. As Quan puts it: “It’s a battle of the many versus the moneyed.”
(Disclosure: Time Inc., TIME’s parent company, has agreed to be acquired by Meredith Corp. in a deal partially financed by Koch Equity Development, a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc.)