Trump's State of the Union will be answered by a cacophony of resistance voices

Garance Franke-Ruta
Senior Politics Editor
President Trump will deliver a State of the Union address Tuesday, and the Democratic responses will come from a variety of sources. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Michael Dwyer/AP, Delegate Elizabeth Guzman via Facebook, Faye Sadou/MediaPunch/IPX/AP, Craig Ruttle/AP, AP)

WASHINGTON — Democrats announced last week that Rep. Joe Kennedy III, the fresh-faced 37-year-old grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, would give their party’s formal response to President Trump’s first State of the Union address Tuesday night.

But his speech, which will air on major networks such as CBS, ABC and NBC, will not be the only voice offering a Democratic response.

Resistance groups that formed in response to the 2016 elections, longtime Washington advocacy institutions, activist celebrities and at least two other members of Congress are all planning to talk back to the president before and after the State of the Union address. The Democrats’ Spanish-language response will be given by Elizabeth Guzman, who was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in November amid Democrats’ surprisingly strong showing in the off-year down-ballot elections in the state. These events have the potential not only to amplify and expand on whatever Kennedy has to say and raise the profiles of a diverse group of movement leaders, but also to potentially complicate or distract from the party’s central message.

The night before Trump’s speech to Congress and the nation, an array of celebrities —including Mark Ruffalo, Cynthia Nixon, and Michael Moore — appeared at an evening billed as the People’s State of the Union at the Town Hall theater in Manhattan. The event was streamed live on Facebook  and drew more than 500,000 views. Backed by the activist groups Political Action and Sean Eldridge’s Stand Up America, it was the launch event for a new group, We Stand United, that grew out of pre-inauguration protest against Trump in New York last year.

On Tuesday night in Washington, there will be a protest along Trump’s State of the Union motorcade route. The women’s group UltraViolet plans to project the message “Donald Trump harassed or assaulted TWENTY women. Congress: Investigate Trump. #SOTU” on the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

A grassroots social media effort launched in mid-January has been urging liberals to deprive the ratings-conscious president of high TV numbers by using the hashtag #SOTUblackout. “Watch SOTU online after it airs via YouTube, MSNBC, or CNN. Don’t DVR or watch it live,” tweeted one early proponent of the idea. It is unclear how this would work in practice, because audience estimates are compiled by Nielsen Media Research based on a small sample of households, numbering in the thousands. For the rest of the country, a decision to watch or not will not affect the ratings.

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Immigration activists hold a rally on Capitol Hill, Jan. 23, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

After the speech Tuesday night, Rep. Maxine Waters,  D-Calif., who has repeatedly called for the president to be impeached, will address the nation on a special report on BET. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the socialist 2016 presidential primary candidate and progressive leader, will deliver remarks that will be streamed on FacebookYouTube and Twitter. A coalition of women’s group is hosting a livestreamed State of Our Union from the National Press Club to run concurrently and after Trump’s remarks, featuring appearances by three Democratic women House members, one of whom plans to boycott the president’s remarks and won’t be attending his speech. And former representative Donna Edwards (D-Md.) will deliver a response for the Working Families Party at 11 p.m. (ET)  on Facebook.

Jimmy Kimmel — one of the most vigorous television critics of the president for Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — also will interview porn star and alleged former Trump mistress Stormy Daniels on his late-night show. Alyssa Milano, who helped popularize the #MeToo hashtag, is asking followers to share short videos and tweets “describing your dream for America” along with the hashtag #StateOfTheDream to show their support for the young immigrants covered by DACA and the advocacy group United We Dream.

A grassroots group of activists will live-stream a collection of responses to the president on NowThisNews, using the hashtag #PeoplesSOTUResponse. Activist Brittany Packnett will host the event, which will feature appearances by more than a dozen leaders of liberal groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, the abortion-rights group NARAL, the immigrants rights group United We Dream and Run for Something, an organization that enlists young progressives to run for office.

The live-streamed “People’s SOTU Response” Tuesday — not to be confused with the People’s State of the Union Monday in New York — grew out of a Twitter conversation between activists who launched a petition demanding that the anti-Trump resistance be given airtime on CNN for a State of the Union response. The petition was the brainchild of Shannon Watts, the founder of gun control group Moms Demand Action and board chair of Rise to Run, which trains young women to run for office.

The petition cited the precedent that CNN aired the first tea party response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2011, following the tea party-fueled wave in Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who would go on to run for the GOP presidential nomination the following year, delivered the response live from the National Press Club in Washington, in an event put together by the Tea Party Express and the Tea Party HD political action committees. Her performance was amateurish; critics noted she did not appear to be looking at the right camera during her remarks.

CNN was the only cable network to air Bachmann’s speech, which also streamed live online on the websites of the tea party groups.

As of Sunday morning, CNN had not responded to the petition requesting airtime. The network declined to comment to Yahoo News on how it would make its decision or on what basis it chose to air Bachmann’s speech in 2011. But at the time, its political director cited the tea party’s impact in America.

“The tea party has become a major force in American politics and within the Republican Party,” CNN’s Sam Feist said in 2011. “Hearing the tea party’s perspective on the State of the Union is something we believe CNN’s viewers will be interested in hearing and we are happy to include this perspective as one of many in tonight’s coverage.”

Activists shout slogans during the People’s March on Washington in front of the White House this month. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Watts argues that the resistance movement and women’s activism are similarly powerful within the Democratic Party and the United States.

“We call on CNN and other news networks to air a response from the Resistance after the State of the Union on January 30,” the petition read. “The Resistance is a [sic] bigger and more influential than the tea party ever was,” according to its background information. “Activists working to change America at the grassroots level should have an opportunity to respond to the President’s speech,” and their voices should be bolstered by the same mainstream media that lifted up the tea party’s position in 2011.

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By mid-Monday, the petition had gathered more than 25,000 signatures. That is not a high number compared to other petitions hosted on the same petition platform, which MoveOn makes available to all its members. The effort has likely been hampered by organizers’ last-minute planning and inability to coalesce around a single individual to represent them. But Watts believes it represents a nascent movement that will grow stronger if Democrats continue to do well in special elections and prevail in the midterms.

“If you look at recent elections, it shows we have significant traction. Millions and millions of women have marched since the election. Obviously, this is an energized movement. There’s no way you can argue that it’s not,” Watts told Yahoo News about the petition. “This is just a way of saying this voice needs to be recognized.”

“This is really coming up organically, which is at its best, what we can leverage social media for,” added Packnett. “We have never let traditional or mainstream outlets dictate our truth, and I don’t anticipate that this will be any different.”


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