Berkeley is probably the furthest thing from Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s mind right now, what with the the stinging defeat of the Republican healthcare bill, but Ryan is very much on the mind of Berkeley activist Zack Kushner. Kushner — no relation to Jared — is the mastermind of the successful Ides of Trump postcard-writing campaign whose goal was to mail 1 million postcards to the Trump White House on March 15.
As an encore, Kushner wants to mail 1 million postcards to House Speaker Paul Ryan on April 17.
“Ryan is enabling Donald Trump,” Kushner said last week. “He has the power to stop him; he could have the House investigate the Russia connection; he could organize House Republicans to block some of the more odious nominees — but he’s not doing any of that.”
The Ides of Trump started more or less accidentally, as a result of Kushner’s experience with the Oakland Women’s March on Jan. 21. And it quickly took on a life of its own.
“It’s an understatement to assume that I had thought everything through as well as I should have,” Kushner said, looking back.
What happened was this: on the day of the march, like thousands of other Berkeleyans, Kushner took his family to a local BART station and found himself in a line that was an hour long. His wife had a migraine, his toddler was in a stroller, and quickly lost a boot. How could they survive this march? For a while, they persisted: they made it onto the train, got to Oakland, and then found themselves squeezed among thousands of marchers. It was not a good situation for their young family, and they soon turned around and went back home.
But Kushner began wondering how many other people might have wanted to go to the march, but couldn’t attend because they were elderly, or disabled, or lived too far from public transportation.
“I thought there had to be a way for those people to be heard,” he said. “One of the things that made the march so incredible were all those signs, where each person wrote what was most important to them. I thought there had to be a creative way for people who couldn’t attend the march to still be able to resist.”
That is where the idea of the postcards came from.
“I thought people might want to do something more than sign a petition,” Kushner said.
So, the morning after the march, he woke up, wrote a few sentences, and put them up on Facebook. The concept: everyone should send one or more postcards on the same day — March 15 — making clear their resistance to Trump, with the goal to create a deluge of 1 million postcards addressed to the White House.
Kushner sent the initial page to a few friends, asking for some help with graphics and a banner. But one of his friends did not realize that the page was still in beta, and started sending it to all his friends.
Kushner, a contract writer and digital strategist in his mid-40s, said that he has lived through presidential administrations that he has vehemently disagreed with in the past, but he has never been an activist before. Donald Trump’s election changed all that.
“My interest is to get one specific person out of government, and that person is Donald Trump. He has no business running this country: he is not safe, he is not sane, and I am going to do everything I can to get rid of him.”
A week after that initial Facebook post, there were 10,000 people following the page, Kushner said.
“It was huge, and it was growing. We built a Twitter page, signed up for Instagram, and starting moderating the Ides of Trump Facebook page,” he said. What started out as “a good idea among friends” became a “political campaign with legs” in a matter of days. “We were just doing everything we could to keep it going, to make the right decisions, and to learn. We did all of those things as quickly as possible, and we are now doing our best to pivot for a second round, which we hope will be successful in other ways.”
The Ides of Trump is now a three-person project consisting of Kushner; his friend Ted Sullivan, a television writer from Los Angeles; and a marketer from northern California called Jennifer Jones, who volunteered to build the website, but has yet to meet Kushner or Sullivan in person.
“We realized we had to do more than just ruin Donald Trump’s day”
When asked about his early expectations for the Ides of Trump, Kushner said it’s hard to remember, because so much has changed in his thinking in the past two months. “My original idea was just to keep the pressure on Donald Trump, to get under his skin, and to keep him from feeling comfortable for as long as possible,” he said. “But as the reality of his government set in, and the numbers of our followers started to really grow, we realized we had to do more than just ruin Donald Trump’s day.”
At some point, as enthusiasm for the Ides of Trump postcard campaign took off, Kushner began to think maybe his group really could generate a million postcards to Donald Trump. Postcards were sent from red states as well as blue states, and from countries as far flung as New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Spain and England. Kushner guesses that expats are largely responsible for the postcards that were written abroad, but he has no way of knowing who actually sent those cards.
In Berkeley, the Story Center held a postcard-writing event on March 15, and Berkeley residents contributed several hundred postcards to the national effort.
Kushner got most reports of postcard efforts through social media, but eventually discovered that most people who wrote postcards were older and did not have Facebook or Twitter accounts. He also found that most people wrote more than one postcard: the median was a dozen postcards a person, Kushner said.
“I think people wrote multiple postcards for a variety of reasons. They found it to be a really cathartic experience: it made them feel really good to get this anger and frustration on paper, and then to send it away,” he said. People also enjoyed the social aspect of postcard writing parties.
“One of the most beautiful things about this campaign is that it’s chaotic,” he said. “Everybody feels free to say what they want to say in their own way. We are by design not printing postcards with messages on them. People are creating their own amazingly creative, funny postcards.” Many of those postcards have been posted on Facebook, and on the Ides of March website.
But as momentum and expectations grew, Facebook followers began to demand some accountability and feedback: how many postcards were actually delivered to the White House in the days around March 15? Was it really a million, or more, or less? They wanted answers, but Kushner said the exact number may be impossible to know. For one thing, presidential mail is delivered to a warehouse to be sorted, and the press is not allowed access to this warehouse. So it was impossible to get photos or a count of the number of postcards that were delivered, and there was no media coverage of the final results.
Kushner did some calculations, which he posted on Facebook and on the website, but in the final analysis it was an educated guess more than an actual count. (See a more detailed analysis.)
A war-chest to take on the House Speaker
As for Paul Ryan, normally he could not be influenced by people outside his district (other than wealthy donors), because usually only his constituents could vote him in or out of office. But in a unique twist, Kushner is suggesting that everyone who sends a postcard to Ryan also contribute a few dollars to a fund that will be used to support a Ryan challenger in 2018. The fact that no-one has yet declared for this race does not concern Kushner: he believes that the creation of a significant war chest will encourage candidates to take on the House leader and one-time vice-presidential hopeful.
“We are encouraging each postcard writer to indicate how much money they gave to this fund right on the postcard: we will print and sell stickers that say ‘I donated $1, $5, or $20,’” Kushner said. “We want Ryan to see a mountain of postcards from people who are motivated financially to take him down.” Since Kushner’s group has not yet created this fund, for now he is urging people to send money to existing organizations such as Swing Left, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and EarthJustice.
And when it comes to tracking results, Kushner is hoping to get “better visuals” for the Ryan campaign, since Ryan’s mail is delivered to his congressional office in Wisconsin rather than an anonymous and well-guarded warehouse.
He is also asking those mailing postcards to use the hashtag #TheIdes, so the group can keep track of donations for this specific election.
Kushner said he is “trying to keep expectations reasonable” for this second campaign, “but what we don’t get done for this one we will do in the next one. We want to keep that resistance pressure up as much as possible.” People are already sending in suggestions for a May postcard recipient, but Kushner hasn’t made that decision yet. For now, his focus remains resolutely on Paul Ryan and a more visible mountain of postcards.