On inauguration day, Washington DC was a dystopian urban desert. Black grill fences lined downtown streets in multiple directions, concrete barricades squatted around every corner, and helicopters droned endlessly overhead. There were few cars, the whole place overrun with an array of Trump supporters, including many men in suits, army personnel, and the very occasional protestor. The city was awash with all kinds of grey. The only colour was ominous red caps emblazoned with ‘Make America Great Again’ and several confusing, expensive-looking signs about Jesus.
The following day it was a different story. Sweeping through the detritus from the formalities that lay scattered throughout the National Mall in Washington DC, more than half a million people congregated, energetic and colourful. They carried a diverse range of messages, coming from all over the country, young and old, united by their rejection of President Trump.
This mobilization was a staggering national phenomenon, exceeding the expectations of organizers. Early reports suggest that hundreds of thousands marched in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Boston, Seattle and Denver. There were rallies numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands in many smaller cities: estimates of the total national turnout range between three and four million. It was also a global day of protest, with tens of thousands rallying in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and London and thousands more in places like Paris, Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland.
This is exciting. It is an important animation of a layer of activists and a section of civil society organizations that might otherwise have laid low for the next four years. This offers some great potential for the left, but how it responds to this mobilization may well be determinative.
All truly mass mobilisations are uneven in their politics and ideology. As impressive as the protests were, many of the slogans on display were less than promising. Predictably, there was a bulk of #ImWithHer sentiment, referencing Clinton’s victory in the popular vote. It is a fair point, but in the context of a mass mobilisation, it seems rather limited to direct energy towards a woman who was at the inauguration festivities and conspicuously absent from the protests. The limitations of her centrist, establishment politics surely had something to do with bringing us to this threatening nadir. There was a strong current of alt-centre-style hostility to, and scapegoating of, Russia. This trope, offered as a ready-made anti-Trump meme by an increasingly frantic media, has cast a long shadow over our collective capacity to come to terms with Trump’s political appeal.
But the anti-Russian animus also indicated a deeper problem. Shepard Fairey’s majestic portraits of women, commissioned for the march’s placards, notably included a woman in a hijab that was also an American flag. The ACLU’s placards proclaimed ‘Dissent is Patriotic.’ Signs demanded that ‘Make America Smart Again’ or ‘Make America Tolerant Again’ or ‘Make America Kind Again’ – which, like a similar Daily Show skit, begs the question: when exactly was America any of these things?
Liberal patriotism is a bad strategy for building a resistance movement. Although contesting Trump’s claim to nationalist themes, articulated in his belligerent speech the day before, it drew on the same hegemonic language that Trump was able to effectively exploit to get elected. In his speech, Trump projected an abrasive form of imperial nationalism, but he is far from the only one who is nostalgic for the brighter days of American empire. Trump is retreating into chauvinism, demanding ‘a total allegiance to the United States of America.’ But he also, like George W Bush before him, pledged a kind of abstentionism on the international terrain. ‘We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,’ he claimed, ‘but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.’ Some liberals are anxious to restore American ‘greatness’ by articulating a more hawkish position, in the style of Hillary Clinton. But is this, Trump’s putative isolationism, the biggest problem with his agenda? And is the answer to fall back on hopes in a mythically benevolent America of decades past? Shouldn’t a central purpose of globalised, mass protests such as these be to raise the possibility of awakening Americans to a ‘smarter’, ‘kinder’ politics that is internationalist in nature?
These protests, and the possibilities they contain, collectively represent a dilemma for those sympathetic to Clinton and the neoliberal technocrats she represents. They were electorally out-smarted by a buffoon. But, rather than acknowledge that there may be any deep, systemic problems with their politics, they chose to smugly write off large sections of the population. Clinton’s invocation of the “basket of deplorables” was a particularly poor mis-step in this respect. The anti-democratic backlash among some liberals derives, seemingly, from their need to argue that the system simply needs to be run better, by someone more qualified.
Their inability to concede any legitimacy to the widespread need for more radical change proved to be counterproductive. On the day of the inauguration, t-shirts were on sale with the slogan: ‘Hello, my name is: Deplorable.’ The following day, a placard proudly proclaimed: ‘America: 63 million bigots.’ Perhaps this can be ignored if we want to stick with the preferred strategy of liberals, which is to seek rotations of power within their preferred elites. But it is the job of anyone interested in democratic politics to persuade people, and to advocate for an equal distribution of power.
At the last election, millions more were fed up with the system and either didn’t vote at all; some voted for third parties; and maybe some of them even voted for Trump. But the millions of people who marched to resist Trump have shown they are willing to imagine an alternative. This President will not be able to deliver on the promise of change, not entirely unlike his predecessor. He will not be able to get Mexico to pay for his idiotic wall, and his promises to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and put millions of people to work with a stimulus program are clearly unworkable given his cabinet’s plans to slash trillions in public spending. His plan to replace the Affordable Care Act with something he claims will be even better is unlikely to find supporters in the Capitol if recent events are any guide; that is, indeed, if the plan is not entirely fictional. Trump’s regime will be defined by crisis, and it will touch everyone. The resistance, to exploit his crises, has to clearly reject the choices now put before them by an electoral system run by the two traditional parties of business: neither chauvinism nor imperialism; neither kakistocracy nor progressive neoliberalism.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.