WASHINGTON — Left-leaning political activists around the country are taking their GOP representatives in Congress to task for aligning with President Donald Trump.
Members of local chapters of the national "Indivisible" movement are overloading Capitol switchboards, picketing district offices and forcing lawmakers to confront furious constituents at town hall meetings.
But in Charleston, something different seems to be happening. The local Indivisible activists and their congressman, Republican Mark Sanford, appear to be getting along.
Unlike Republican incumbents in other states, Sanford is not running from the opposition. Instead, he's engaging with his agitators, even agreeing to hold the town hall meeting Saturday morning at their request.
Indivisible as a movement is not about being anti-Republican, said the Charleston chapter's media coordinator, Blake Dahlstrom.
"Our concerns are not based on Republican values or Republican mindset. Our views are based on inclusion, respect and fairness for all people, and we’re seeing the Trump agenda is taking us in the opposite direction of that," she said.
"Our focus is the Republican Party because that’s where we’re seeing opposition to our ideals of inclusiveness, respect and fairness."
It also helps that Sanford is one of Trump's most vocal critics in Congress, more reluctant to defend him while other South Carolina Republicans are trying to locate common ground.
"We don't always agree, but we want to encourage him and tell him there are constituents who support him in his efforts," said Sara Stevenson, an Indivisible Charleston member who got a personal follow-up call from Sanford after attending a forum with him at Kelly's Barbeque in Summerville last week. "He wants Trump to release his tax returns. That's not something we're going to be upset over."
However, as the movement continues to grow and the 2018 midterm elections loom, it could be more difficult, if not impossible, to separate the partisan from the political.
A tale of two movements
Indivisible Charleston is one of more than 4,500 offshoots inspired by the Indivisible Guide, an online handbook written by former congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., for average citizens to "resist the Trump agenda."
In the wake of the handbook's success, the organizers are in the process of registering as a nonprofit with a tax status that prohibits them from advocating for any one candidate or political party.
Still, the Indivisible Guide is admittedly reverse-engineering tactics used successfully by the conservative tea party, a grassroots movement of political newcomers that harnessed constituents' anger with Washington to put Republicans back in control of the House in 2010.
Tea party activists used town halls as sites for fierce confrontation. In 2010, 5th District Democrat John Spratt's 28-year incumbency wasn't a match for voters' unbridled rage that he wasn't doing enough to thwart House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's liberal agenda.
Also in 2010, Republican Rep. Bob Inglis lost his 4th District primary to U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy after telling constituents at a forum they should, among other things, stop listening to the polarizing conservative pundit Glenn Beck.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sees the tea party era reinventing itself today with the Indivisible movement.
"(Democrats) are taking to the streets, they are taking to town halls," Graham said recently. "You see the emergence of a tea party on the left, people who are very disappointed in the outcome of the election. They don’t accept the fact that Trump won."
And just like the tea party movement was a reaction to "big government" and the perceived loss of individual liberty, the Indivisible Guide has gained traction among those who perceive the Trump administration as an existential threat to the country's future.
"If the election hadn’t happened the way it happened, I probably wouldn’t be speaking with you right now," Janene Smith, one of the organizers of Indivisible Charleston, told The Post and Courier. "As President Barack Obama says, 'We are the change that we’ve been waiting for,' and we can’t wait anymore."
Counting down the honeymoon
Indivisible Charleston might have a constructive relationship with Sanford now, but that won't stop Democrats from trying to capitalize on the current political atmosphere to drive him and other South Carolina Republicans out of office next year.
Efforts are already underway to recruit a formidable Democratic candidate to unseat Sanford, said Brady Quirk-Garvan, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party.
"I think the backlash against the Trump-Sanford agenda is going to be strong," he told The Post and Courier.
Quirk-Garvan said the local Democratic apparatus is already rapidly expanding with significant overlap from Indivisible Charleston participants.
"At our last county Democratic Party meeting, we had over 125 people. That was in January. In December, we had about 25 people," said Quirk-Garvan. "They're saying, 'I want to do something, can you help me figure out what's useful?'"
Indeed, Indivisible activists are not beyond employing more aggressive tactics when necessary, especially when they feel they are being dismissed and ignored by elected officials.
For instance, when U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., claimed South Carolinians were outnumbered by out-of-state advocates in calling his office to oppose confirmation for education secretary Betsy DeVos, the backlash was explosive.
Scott's office felt compelled to tweet photos of the senator taking phone calls from constituents to show he was engaging with voters.
There's no guarantee there won't be a moment when these activists won't also turn on Sanford. In fact, it might already be happening.
At the last minute Scott made arrangements to appear as a guest at Sanford's town hall on Saturday morning, giving activists two targets to challenge for their stances on health care policy, Cabinet nominations and immigration.
The early portion of the event was tense, with interruptions and exclamations from attendees not satisfied with either’s answers to their questions. Sanford and Scott struggled to make their case and diffuse the anger in the audience. Educators in the crowd especially were still simmering with rage over Scott’s support for DeVos.
After the allotted hour, Scott had to depart, but Sanford continued the town hall outside, where hundreds constituents were still lingering after being closed out of the room that had reached maximum capacity. For the next two-and-a-half hours, as the crowd began to thin, the questions started to sound a lot more like questions rather than accusations. Sanford and the attendees started moving closer together, having more of a conversation than a debate.
In advance of the upcoming appearance before his voters, Sanford —no stranger to conflict — was already preparing for turbulence.
"I think it's a cantankerous political environment, and much of what you see right now is a reaction to that," he said. "Was it Newton who said, 'for every reaction is an equal opposite reaction?' Trump is an in-your-face kind of guy. Guess what? People are gonna get in your face, too."
When the event on Saturday came to an official close, Indivisible Charleston tweeted their thanks to both lawmakers for participating.
Caitlin Byrd contributed to this story from Charleston.