How the Tea Party Taught Texas Progressives to Troll Their Government

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In Texas, it began in the parking lot of a South Austin grocery store.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett had set up the casual neighborhood meeting outside a Randalls supermarket on August 1, 2009 to answer questions about the new president’s sweeping health care plan, recently dubbed “Obamacare.” Doggett wasn’t expecting a crowd — it was the middle of a sweltering Texas summer, not the most appealing time to gather in an open parking lot. 

But shortly after the Democrat began to speak, dozens of people flooded the lot, hoisting homemade signs reading “No Socialized Health Care” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” One man carried a blown-up photo of Doggett with scribbled-on devil horns. Another waved a cardboard tombstone with Doggett’s name on it. 

At first, the flustered congressman tried to address the group’s obvious concerns by explaining why he supported President Barack Obama’s plan. Obamacare, he argued, would protect millions of uninsured and low-income Texans, but it wasn’t an answer they wanted to hear. Soon, the crowd’s chants of “Just say no!” drowned out Doggett’s voice. His staff began to usher him away from the unexpected rally, but the crowd followed, swarming him as he tried to get to a staffer’s car, the chants morphing into “Don’t vote for Doggett!” Even the pixelated cell phone video of the event can’t mask the look of thinly-veiled alarm on Doggett’s face as he finally steps into a black sedan and drives off. 

This was Doggett’s abrupt introduction to the Texas Tea Party. 

It was a scene that became commonplace across the country in the following months, as the Tea Party, a conservative movement whose crusade against government spending grew out of the economic recession, began its energized push to reconfigure national politics. But for a few Doggett staffers, that particular moment in the grocery store parking lot was the textbook example of a strategy they’d need to remember: How to troll your government. 

Fast-forward seven years and five miles north, to East Austin’s Scoot Inn, and it appears little has changed. Hundreds of Texans fill into the venue’s outdoor patio, carrying handmade signs with health care demands and waving poster-size photos of Congressman Lamar Smith, a Republian, with the caption: “Chicken.” As the February afternoon fades, the group chants in unison, “Do your job!” 

What’s different about this boisterous crowd is that they’re mostly anti-Trump Democrats. Their likeness to their radical right-wing counterpart, however, isn’t an accident. In fact, the group of chanting liberals are using a playbook penned by former Doggett staffers, explicitly based off the Tea Party’s success at influencing members of Congress to echo their concerns.

Perhaps it’s ironic that a progressive group is using Tea Party tactics to oppose the very administration the Tea Party helped take to Washington. Or maybe just refreshingly clever.

*****

Sarah Dohl, Doggett’s former communications director, remembers the deluge of postcards, calls, and emails that flooded her boss’ office immediately after the Randalls protest. She’d pick up the office phone to hear someone shouting “Just say no!” before hanging up.

The supermarket dustup had actually made national news, meaning Dohl and her fellow staffers were fielding messages of Tea Party support everywhere from Alaska to North Carolina. 

“It was hard to get anything done because of the constant ringing [in the office]. I’d wake up in the middle of the night because I thought a phone was ringing somewhere,” she told the Current. Some of the calls took on a dark tone. “I was told I should be ashamed of myself. That I wasn’t an American. That I should kill myself,” she said.

She said that from the start, “it was very clear” that this movement was going to have a lasting impact. 

“It was striking how much energy there was in the opposition. You could feel the momentum growing,” said Jeremy Haile, Doggett’s former legal counsel. “It became this wave, and we watched it crash.”

What made it different than past protests was the Tea Party’s direct approach. They weren’t just writing angry letters or berating liberal lawmakers. They showed up to town halls, congressional offices, and city centers with their three-cornered-hats and “NObamacare” signs. Democrat lawmakers like Doggett weren’t even their primary target. The Tea Party was mostly pissed off at Republicans in Congress who cheered them on — but stayed quiet when it came to fighting Obama.

“The most interesting part is that Tea Partiers were hyper-focused on Republican members of Congress,” Dohl said. “They knew they had sway over moderate Republicans and could push them further to the right.” 

And it worked. As the movement whipped across Texas, moderate Republicans in the state legislature dropped their support of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. Tea Party organizers from Dallas, Corpus Christi, and Houston began running for office — and winning. In 2011, the movement put a record number of GOP representatives in the Texas House (99) and by 2012, Tea Party darling Ted Cruz had secured a spot in the U.S. Senate, blowing past GOP establishment candidate David Dewhurst. 

The slowly simmering Tea Party takeover came to a boil in 2014, when the top three offices in the state were filled by far-right conservatives with the Tea Party's blessing: Gov. Greg Abbott (who used Ted Nugent, the Tea Party’s favorite minstrel, to open a campaign rally), Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick. And after Cruz's presidential campaign fizzled, Texas Tea Partiers went on to play a big part in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Patrick eagerly served as Trump’s Texas campaign chair, and Dallas Tea Party activist Katrina Pierson became the candidate’s national spokesperson until Kellyanne Conway took over in August. 

The movement that began as a handful of Texas parking lot protests undoubtedly shifted federal and state politics further to the radical right. 

Doggett readily admits this, telling the Current, “There’s no doubt that the Texas Tea Party, in its determination, had some impact.”

But it’s not like Texas’ GOP was wavering before 2009. Republicans ruled Texas long before the Tea Party made its raucous entrance, carrying every statewide election since 1994. 

The creeping conservative takeover, however, didn’t truly take off until 2003, when the GOP took control of the Texas House for the first time in 130 years. Their first mission? Redraw state election districts to push Republican members of the U.S. House into the majority. That meant clumping groups of liberal Latinos in the same district to ultimately weaken their votes. This so outraged House Democrats that eleven of them fled to New Mexico for 46 days to deny their GOP counterparts the quorum needed to pass the redistricting law. Regardless, the Texas Legislature managed to pass the redrawn district map, and by 2004, Texas’ U.S. House delegation also had a Republican majority. Despite a slap on the wrist from the Supreme Court, who, in 2006 ruled that one of the new districts blatantly oppressed minority votes, Texas Republicans did it all over again in 2011. This time, they passed even more ridiculously-shaped districts to mute the votes of a growing minority population, a plan that has only recently been ruled illegal (and racist) by a federal judge. These new district lines made it possible for far-right Tea Partiers to set up shop in traditionally moderate corners of the state.

Meanwhile, Texas Democrats, once the state's comfortable leaders, grew increasingly agitated as more and more blue districts turned red. This sea change wasn’t restricted to Texas – thousands of liberals in states where redistricting had shifted power into Republican hands, like Wisconsin, Georgia, and North Carolina, were equally concerned. Trump's election to the White House appeared to be their tipping point. 

Luckily for them, a group of battle-worn congressional staffers from Texas had a plan.

*****

Texas Indivisible groups use snarky Valentines to send a message. - PHOTO BY ALEX ZIELINSKI
  • Photo by Alex Zielinski
  • Texas Indivisible groups use snarky Valentines to send a message.

Like most liberals, Ezra Levin began his 2016 Thanksgiving holiday in a post-election stupor. Trump’s unexpected presidential win had been a gut-punch to Democrats across the country, but it felt even gloomier in Levin’s hometown of Austin, a blue dot in a sea of red on the state map of election results.

Levin, another former Doggett staffer, saw his fellow Texas Dems scrambling to regain some sense of control after the election. Liberals across the country, many of whom had taken Obama’s progressive command for granted, had been shaken out of complacency and wanted to do something. But they needed guidance. 

Levin recalled watching the Tea Party’s rise to power during his time in Doggett’s office, a movement sparked by a controversial presidential election. A couple days after Thanksgiving, Levin found himself sitting beside his wife and longtime congressional policy director Leah Greenberg at an Austin bar, outlining a rough playbook on how to resist the Trump administration — inspired by the Texas Tea Party. Greenberg picked a name with nonpartisan and historic connotations, pulled straight from the Pledge of Allegiance: The Indivisible Guide.

What happened next was unexpected. Levin dumped their ideas into a Google document that he shared with fellow ex-Doggett staffers Haile and Dohl, along with other friends who worked in Congress during the rise of the Tea Party. They added their own tips on how the public can put pressure on their members of Congress from outside the D.C. beltway — what to say at town halls, who to call before big votes, how to run a local campaign. 

“Together, we have the power to resist — and we have the power to win,” the guide’s introduction reads. “We know this because we’ve seen it before.”

On Wednesday, December 14, Levin shared the document on Twitter. The next morning, Haile got a call from a friend saying, “You broke Google.”

So many people were sharing and viewing the guide that Google Docs actually stopped working for a few minutes. To remedy the situation, the Indivisible team made the guide a downloadable PDF. By late January, 1 million people had already downloaded the guide. Groups began to pop up on Facebook with “Indivisible” in their name, representing districts across the country. People began meeting in coffee shops, living rooms, and school basements to create action plans based off the guide. 

By March, 2 million people had downloaded the guide, sparking some 5,800 “verified” Indivisible groups, at least two for every congressional district in the country. 

“All we did was pull back the curtain to let people see how Congress runs, see what makes their representatives tick,” Levin said. “We just provide the tools demystify Congress, everyone else does the rest.”

While wildly polarized fights, the parallels between the Tea Party and Indivisible groups are hard to miss. Like the 2009 movement, Indivisible groups are zeroed in on their member of Congress — not necessarily Trump or his cabinet or what’s happening the next district over. 

“It’s key to understand that Trump’s agenda doesn’t rest on Trump alone,” Haile told the Current. “Congress holds significant power.” Haile assures people that every member of Congress wakes up every morning thinking about how to get reelected. “If they hear their constituents are unhappy, they’re going to listen,” he says.

And, like the Tea Party, the Indivisible groups in Texas are particularly loud. On February 14, a small crowd of District 21 constituents decorated Congressman Lamar Smith’s San Antonio office with a long string of snarky, heart-shaped Valentines (one read: “Roses are red, Violets are blue, I love science, Wish you did, too”). Later in the month, hundreds of Dripping Springs voters held a town hall for Congressman Roger Williams, who declined to show up. In his place, a local actor read quotes Williams had said in the past, pulled from his website or news stories. Behind him, a cardboard cutout of the beaming, absent congressman leaned on the wall.

“Doing things like this makes people stop and think about how silly Congress really is,” said Jeanie Valenzuela, an original member of Texas District 21’s Indivisible group — the group known for scattering lawn signs with a black and white photo of Congressman Smith stamped “MISSING” across San Antonio. Like the majority of Texas Indivisible groups, this is Valenzuela’s first encounter with political organizing. 

Texas Indivisible groups use office visits to send a message
  • Texas Indivisible groups use office visits to send a message

“When I fell asleep on election night, I was just a housewife,” she says. “When I woke the next day, I was an activist.” Valenzuela said the majority of her District 21 Indivisible group is also new to activism — something they share with the Tea Partiers. Donna Starnes, a founder of the Far North Dallas Tea Party, said she “maybe protested once in college,” but never thought she’d get into politics. But then Barack Obama entered the White House, sending ripples of alarm and despair across the conservative party — not unlike the shock felt by liberals in November. Starnes, a CPA, was worried that big government spending and tax hikes would further crush the country’s fragile economy.

“Some people were scared, and hid. Others of us decided to do something,” Starnes recalled. So she began hosting meetings in her Dallas living room. Shortly after igniting the local Tea Party movement, Starnes challenged a longtime favorite in Dallas public sector for a city council seat — and lost by a mere six percentage points. 

“The movement was an awakening for people like me,” she said. 

But don’t tell either woman they have anything in common. 

Valenzuela said she remembers the Tea Party holding “violent” rallies with an attitude that made her feel “like they wanted to burn the whole world down.” According to Starnes, however, these new groups of anti-Trump protesters are “violent,” nothing like the “peaceful” Tea Party rallies she attended.

These groups have both been painted as violent mobs of “paid protesters” by their political opponents since their inception. There’s little evidence to substantiate any of these claims, save for a few viral moments where fringe members turned violent — like when black-bloc protesters smashed windows and set fires during a UC Berkeley anti-Trump rally, or when Tea Partiers threw punches at a Florida anti-immigration rally. 

These conspiracy theories paraded by political pundits (and quickly regurgitated in online forums) include claims that billionaires, like the Koch brothers or George Soros, bankrolled the movements, making them more “astroturf” than grassroots.

And members of Congress (who have reportedly renamed the group “Indigestible”) are eager to echo these conspiracy theories. 

“You can imagine the volume of phone calls and mail and social media contacts that we get on a daily basis,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn told Houston Public Media in a February interview, shortly after Indivisible members began flooding his office with requests to oppose Trump’s cabinet nominees.  “There’s no doubt that there was a concerted campaign by the establishment.”

His response, however, sounds a lot like Doggett’s comments after the Randalls protest in 2009. “This mob, sent by the local Republican and Libertarian parties, did not come just to be heard, but to deny others the right to be heard,” Doggett told the Austin American-Statesman at the time. “And this appears to be part of a coordinated, nationwide effort.”

To both lawmakers, these Texas rabble-rousers were party pawns, not part of the localized movements to which they swore allegiance – which might actually serve as proof this kind of trolling works.

“The worst thing you can do to constituents is tell them their concerns are not real,” Levin said. “If you tell them they’re full of it, you’re just going to rile them up more.” 

Especially if they’re Texans.

*****

Congressman Doggett first met Levin when he was in high school. The Austin teenager had organized a campus fundraiser for John Kerry’s presidential run, and had somehow caught the attention of the already seasoned senator. “I was so impressed with him,” Doggett recalled. “He showed grit, determination.” As soon as Levin graduated from Princeton, Doggett offered him a job in his D.C. office.

“In Texas, we’re used to knowing a lot of people we don’t always agree with. They’re neighbors and family, and you learn how to interact with them,” Levin said. “It’s not like growing up in Berkeley or New York City — where you’re generally surrounded by like-minded people.”

Which could explain why this resistance began in Texas.

“Texans are uniquely equipped in the fight,” said Dohl. “It’s certainly not a new fight for liberals in this state. These are fights that have had to be fought before, and they’ll have to be fought again. Texans, along with other red state Democrats — they’re prepared for that.”

It only makes sense, Starnes said, if you look at the state’s turbulent history. “The people who originally moved to Texas were brave pioneers...this place was a real hellhole back then,” she said. “We’re still pioneering, it’s just the challenges that have changed. You don’t mess with Texas.” 

But can this new wave of pioneers be as successful as its predecessors? 

When Jeff Rogers first met with Arlington Tea Partiers in 2011, he felt a shared sense of anger and urgency. But he could tell there was something was missing in the conversation. “I remember thinking: ‘We’re all preaching to the choir...but what are we going to do about it?’”

Rogers said. After drafting strategy plans that were drawn out over months, and years — and seeing progress — the group found solace in playing the long game. 

“You work with what you got,” Rogers said, pointing to the January reelection of moderate Republican Joe Straus to speaker of the Texas House. “We didn’t want Straus. But we aren’t always going to get what we want. Instead of complaining, we just continue working toward the next election cycle. We’re in it for the long haul.”

And, as Trump’s election proves, there’s no telling what political interchange is on the horizon.

“When Obama came into the White House in 2009, we thought Democrats would have government control for a long time. We thought we were set,” Haile said. “But these things are unpredictable.”

That unpredictability is still felt by Tea Partiers, even after their 8-year-long movement helped flip both chambers of Congress to Republican control and place a Tea Party ally in the White House. On Friday, March 24, the party watched as their very first goal, the repeal of Obamacare, got even further out of reach. House Speaker Paul Ryan, another politician boosted by the Tea Party, was forced to withdraw his “American Health Care Act” before it even reached Congress. Ironically, this bill was largely killed by what appears to be a rebranded version of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress, the Freedom Caucus. Friday evening, Ryan somberly informed reporters that “we’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”

A day after arguing against Ryan’s bill on the House floor, Congressman Doggett stood at the pulpit of a San Antonio church answering questions about the debate around health care. To his left, a new crop of congressional office staffers looked on. An energized crowd filled the chapel’s pews, some wearing nurse’s scrubs, others in pink knitted hats left over from January’s Women’s March. A few handmade posters leaned against a front wall, reading “Don’t Mess with Obamacare” and “Impeach TrumPutin Now!” The audience had welcomed Doggett with an explosion of applause and cheers — one woman even rattled a tambourine in appreciation.

“A key part of democracy is holding every elected official accountable,” Doggett began. “Unfortunately, with all the gerrymandering that’s occurred that’s become increasingly difficult.”

“You find some officials that don’t feel like they have to worry about accountability... so all you have is a cardboard cutout,” he joked, and the crowd chuckled in response. 

But they weren’t there to praise Doggett. Like the Tea Partiers before them, this liberal-leaning crowd had come to press their Democrat congressman to go further. A medical student asked what Doggett was doing to advocate for single-payer health care. When Doggett said he favored the health care model, but doubted it would pass in this Congress, the audience jeered. Someone shouted “Do your job!” One woman wanted to know where the congressman stood on abortion access for minorities. Another wanted answers on Medicare expansion. The line for asking questions went out the chapel door. 

Even with the pushback, Doggett did seem genuinely delighted to engage with constituents, thanking each speaker for their piece of mind. Instead of being chased across the parking lot by an angry group of protesters, Doggett left this neighborhood meeting with handshakes and pats on the back. And a reminder.

“It’s a troubling time in our history...people are loosing faith in our democracy,” Doggett said, before leaving the podium. “It is not enough just to tweet or just to protest. It’s time to get involved in politics.” 


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