Can a Facebook Group of 120,000 Lawyers Save America from Trump?
Lawyers for Good Government became an overnight Facebook sensation, but its founder wants it to be much, much more than that.
Photo by Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
After Donald Trump's narrative-shattering, world-upending election victory in November, Traci Feit Love, like a lot of people upset or unmoored at the results, spent some time scrolling through Facebook, reading personal narratives of dread and notes about how to oppose the next president. Love, a Harvard Law grad who was then vice president of 180 Legal, a company that helps smaller law firms with marketing, noticed that a lot of lawyers were saying important things that were being ignored in the flood of rage and fear.
"They had concrete suggestions, they had immediate steps they believed people should take, but their thoughts, suggestions, and feedback was getting lost," she told me.
Her solution was to create a private Facebook group where these anti-Trump lawyers could trade advice, inviting a few friends and posting about the group, christened Lawyers of the Left, in public Facebook forums. She figured she'd get maybe 150 or 200 members. Instead, she said, the group attracted 60,000 in its first 72 hours of existence and had 100,000 after a week before leveling off at around 120,000 members.
"It was immediately clear it was going to be more than a Facebook group," Love told me. "This was, basically, a legal army in the making." Since then, Love has thrown herself in into trying to marshall that army, scaling back her duties at 180 Legal so she could focus on bringing her Facebook group into the real world. She surveyed 15,000 of the group's members to see what their skills and interests were, started the process of becoming an official nonprofit, and recruited a three-person board. She also divided the group into geographically-based chapters and committees to address individual subjects like immigration, civil rights, and conflicts of interest. Finally, she changed the name to Lawyers for Good Government in order to be a bit less nakedly partisan and to clarify the group's mission as targeting corruption in particular. (She told me that this tweak angered some members who wanted the organization to self-identify as progressive.)
The flurry of online activism in the immediate post-election aftermath makes it easy to be skeptical of brand-new groups making vows of resistance. But Lawyers for Good Government seems serious—for instance, it has partnered with another fledgling opposition organization, RISE When We Fall, to put on a conference in Washington, DC during inauguration weekend. Love also emphasized that she didn't want to duplicate the work of other legal groups, and that Lawyers for Good Government wanted to cooperate and coordinate with all the other nonprofits preparing to deal with the right-wing policies of the Trump administration.
In advance of the conference and Trump's official ascension to power, I talked to Love about the challenges of building an organization from scratch, what lawyers are good at, and the rising threat of government corruption.
VICE: What do you think that the broader anti-Trump movement could gain from having more lawyers involved?
Traci Feit Love: I think it's the same kind of thing any movement or individual can gain by working with a lawyer. Lawyers are educated in a very specific area; they tend to be good at focusing on key issues, understanding what the key issues are in a given instance, and figuring out what kind of things have remedies in court and what kind of things don't.
But I should also say I don't think it goes one way. It's also important for lawyers to work with people who are not lawyers. For that reason it's important to us to establish partnerships—we're partnered with a watchdog group called RISE When We Fall to put on our conference in DC, and their group is not for lawyers, though there are many lawyers who are part of it. There are meaningful perspectives to be brought to the table from a number of different areas, and lawyers are just one of those.
Which topics do you plan to tackle immediately, either in court or just in general?
We're not on the verge of filing a lawsuits on anything right now. But we are in very serious conversations, particularly around the issue of conflicts of interest. That's one of the things that I think is very important not just to us but to the American people as a whole—and it doesn't just cut down party lines, it's a bipartisan issue. The government should be run by people who have the best interest of the country at heart, not the best interest of themselves, or a private corporation, or other kinds of special interests. It's bad enough when elected officials are being influenced by special interests, but it's an entirely different level when you've got officials whose personal interests are directly affected by the decisions they make as elected officials. That's a very serious problem that has be fought in as many ways and on as many fronts as possible.
I assume you're mainly talking about Trump himself here. Is there anything that your group can do to push back against any conflicts he has? From what I've read, it seems very difficult to hold the president accountable since many conflict of interest rules don't apply to that office.
That is part of the challenge, and part of what we're trying to figure out right now. Unfortunately, a public awareness campaign, or letter-writing, has as of yet not proved sufficient. For now, I think the most important thing for all of us to do is to proactively educate ourselves about what these conflicts actually are. There's new information coming out every day, and it can be overwhelming to try to keep on top of it, but it's something we all have to keep an eye on, just as citizens. Just keeping up the pressure on the president and also on those in Congress who may have the ability to at least voice this issues, not to let this slip through the cracks—we should make sure that when we view the decisions being made, that we're asking ourselves, What was the personal interest of the individual who made that decision or cast that vote?
I don't know if you heard about Pantsuit Nation, a large pro-Hillary Clinton Facebook group that has become famous for splintering in the weeks after the election. It's easy to imagine your Facebook group's 120,000 members becoming divided over time—is that a concern for you going forward? Do you have plans to combat that kind of division?
I don't know enough about the inner workings of Pantsuit Nation to comment on their group. With our group, we've taken a number of steps to create a coalition that is strong and can withstand pressure both from the inside and the outside. That includes things like having members in different regions select chapter leaders that they believe are suited to work with them locally. It also involves getting feedback from members on as many issues as we can.
It would be naive to suggest that all 120,000 of us are going to be able to remain united around all things for any significant period of time. There will be disagreements and divisions. The question is, can we put those things aside when it comes to the issues on which we do agree? Can we learn to fight for things on which we disagree in other forums, so that this group can be a place where we look for points of commonality? I certainly hope that's the case and will do everything in my power to make that a reality—but I think a certain amount of disagreement and divisiveness is to be expected with a group of this size.
Do you see this group continuing on after Trump leaves office?
I do. I don't see us as purely an anti-Trump group. Of course, Trump's election was the catalyst for us coming together. But it's not because of him individually—many of the things he stands for, it's not just him; there are elected officials in Congress who support many of the things he proposed. It's not really about any one person, it's about knowing that fundamentally, we have a system and structure and checks and balances in place that are real and can ensure us that we have a free, democratic society, and a government run by people who have the best interests of Americans at heart.
Does that mean you're concerned that the norms around corruption and democratic government in the US are being eroded?
We are absolutely concerned about the potential for corruption. Just the other week, House Republicans put it to a vote to gut the independent office responsible for oversight of ethics issues in Congress. Thankfully, the following day they realized it was a terrible idea after millions of people made phone calls and protested—and of course there was the tweet from Trump. But if no one had said anything, that would have gone forward. It's troubling that the first thing members of Congress want to do when they start of the year is get rid of or limit the ability of an independent office to oversee what's going on from an ethics standpoint.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.