Reflections on DC: Promises and Pitfalls in the Anti-Trump Uprising

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The first mass protests of President Donald Trump represent a historic moment – one worth reflecting on so we can understand where we are and where we’re going as a nation. I traveled to Washington D.C. this weekend to take part in the Women’s March on Washington. The inauguration protests across the country provide an opportunity to analyze what is positive about the emerging anti-Trump movement, while also identifying weaknesses that must be addressed in the future. Speaking in general terms, the largest strength of this mass movement is its diversity, as related to gender, race and ethnicity, age, and economics. Such diversity is necessary for any meaningful bottom-up push for social change. If there is one glaring weakness coming out of these protests, it is the underdeveloped sense of economic grievance, in terms of the failure to spotlight the neoliberal, bi-partisan injustices that have emerged in recent decades.

First, the basic details.  In terms of turnout, the DC metro service estimates that approximately 600,000 people attended the protest events on Saturday, January 21 on the national mall. This number likely under-estimates the turnout, since it doesn’t include the more than 1,200 buses that made it to DC, in addition to DC residents near the downtown who participated, and those already in the downtown, housed in hotels and other accommodations, who did not use of the train. A more realistic estimate would perhaps be between 700,000 to 800,000 protesters. When accounting for demonstrations in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and other cities, estimates suggest the number of protesters surpasses 3 million. These figures appear to be unprecedented in American history

I bring up these numbers to emphasize the sheer magnitude of these protests. I’ve been traveling to DC for mass protests for the last decade and a half. I’ve taken part in many demonstrations and marches, against the IMF, the World Bank, the Iraq war, nuclear power, the “War on Drugs,” sexism, and climate change. I’ve seen many protests during my time as an activist, some with hundreds of thousands turning out, but nothing equaling the size of this demonstration. The size and scope was unprecedented. Heading into the city from Arlington, Virginia, it was a struggle simply to get on the metro, with rail cars filled to maximum capacity and protesters packed in like sardines. Upon arrival at the mall, I struggled to even get out of the metro stop, and it was no better once I stepped out onto the streets above. The demonstrations took place near the Washington monument, but the streets were so incredibly crowded that it was difficult to move at all. March organizers predicted at least a few hundred thousand would turn out, but the numbers were far larger.

Organizationally, the march was marked by, and ended in chaos. But that was only because of the unprecedented turnout. By noon, although the march wasn’t slated to start for another hour, it was near impossible to get anywhere near the event speakers, let alone move around with any freedom. Once the march began, protesters were quickly blocked because of the feeder marches, which created choke points in main intersections. The spill over into neighboring streets outside the march route was massive. Between a half hour to hour into the rally, the planned march route was largely abandoned. The critical mass of people had grown so large that movement in any systematic, planned way was no longer possible. I sat in one intersection, waiting for nearly an hour, just to move a few feet.

I’ve heard some left dissidents criticize anti-Trump protesters for refusing to engage in radical disobedience via shutting down major traffic arteries in cities, and preferring instead to simply demonstrate and march along pre-planned routes. I completely understand the sentiment that civil disobedience is preferred to pre-planned “safe” marches, but this criticism largely misunderstands just how massive the DC protest was. Even if most demonstrators traveled to DC without the intent to block traffic and shut the city down, these outcomes were achieved nonetheless, simply due to the massive number of people saturating the downtown and the spillover outside the planned march route into adjacent streets.

In the end, radical activists couldn’t have asked for much more on this day than a pacified DC police force and a city that was shut down via the size of the march alone. The police presence in the national mall and surrounding areas could be described as minimal. Any hope of “containing” the protest to the pre-designated march route was futile, and the police knew it. Reflecting on the quiescence of local police, there is a radical message to be learned: how quickly authority structures dissipate when the masses of people use their bodies as weapons against repression. If I drew any major lesson from this protest, it is just how precarious systems of authority are when the masses of people choose to disobey them. Any talk about enforcing “permitted protest routes” was ultimately moot when demonstrators flooded the streets of our nation’s capital in historic numbers and greatly outnumbered the police forces brought in to “contain” their presence.

The politics of the protesters could be best described as mixed and eclectic. Contrary to silly outside caricatures of the demonstrators as pawns of MoveOn.org and George Soros, the ideologies of protesters were wide ranging, and could not be boiled down to one or two main issues, or simply to individuals being dupes of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Based on discussions with protesters, placard messages, and various chants, it was clear just how varied individuals’ grievances are. They include anger over the Trump administration’s sexism, racism, and xenophobia, opposition to repeal of the Affordable Care Act and support for universal health care, protests of the mounting climate change crisis, condemnations of Trump’s proto-fascistic politics, support for Planned Parenthood, opposition to Islamophobia, support for Black Lives Matter, and distrust of Trump and his appointees due to their plutocratic backgrounds. If I had to pinpoint a single message that emerged from this protest, it was the need for Americans to develop a much deeper sense of empathy with all types of socially and economically disadvantaged groups, including people of color, women, the disabled, immigrants, and the poor. This is as positive a message for progressive change as I can think of, and it’s badly needed in a country with tens of millions of people who support or tolerate a reactionary political culture of narcissism, bigotry, extreme-individualism, discrimination, and class prejudice against the working class and poor.

The demographics in DC were quite diverse. Although there were clearly more women than men, the male presence was large, demonstrating that feminism is hardly just a “woman’s issue.” Protesters were a healthy mix of young and old, racially and ethnically diverse, and ideologically pluralistic. In a positive sign of the mainstreaming of protest in America, many parents brought their children, aged from infants through teens.  Clearly, the battle against Trump is fundamentally linked to the prospects for democracy and with the link to future generations in mind.

The above points are not meant to romanticize the DC protest. There were a few major shortcomings that should be identified, if we’re to understand how this movement must change as the Trump administration seeks to implement its reactionary, pro-business agenda. First, the anti-imperialist contingent of the protest was noticeably absent. Very few protesters openly identified as a primary concern any sort of opposition to U.S. militarism. To put it bluntly, without a clearly articulated anti-imperialist message, it will be difficult to impossible to build toward any real progressive future for this country that challenges the bi-partisan support for the military war machine. Secondly, the sense of economic grievance, as reflected in opposition to the mounting plutocracy and record inequality in America, was noticeably lacking and underdeveloped. Condemnation of corporate kleptocracy and the dominance of politics and society by a bi-partisan establishment of political-economic elites needs to be central to future protest messages, and it simply wasn’t a very strong part of this demonstration. Without developing a coherent message that rejects empire and neoliberal plutocracy, this movement will likely fall into the old trap of being co-opted by Democratic Party elites with little interest in addressing these grievances. This has already happened to a significant extent, in that I think any honest leftist would admit that the mass pre-inaugural protests would have been extremely unlikely had Hillary Clinton been the one sworn in.

Still, to dismiss the protesters as unwitting pawns of the Democratic-Wall Street establishment is silly. The messages sent to the incoming Trump administration and Congressional Republicans are substantive, and need to be taken seriously by the American people. Sexism, racism, xenophobia, fascism, climate catastrophe, and the assault on the social welfare safety net are real problems, and those protesting them are voicing legitimate grievances. They cannot be simply swept under the rug in favor of an exclusive focus on anti-imperialism and opposition to neoliberal economics. Rather, all these issues need to be brought together in future rallies and demonstrations. It is certainly fair to criticize many protesters for a naïve romanticization of the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s politics. There were, after all, a significant contingent of protesters who visibly articulated a pro-Democratic establishment message that is increasingly tone deaf to recognizing the ways in which the party contributes to economic inequality and corporate power, and resists dismantling the American plutocracy.

Fortunately, the effort to further radicalize many protesters on the liberal-progressive left may not be as difficult as some think. My conversations with many progressives who voted for Hillary Clinton over the last six months reveals a group of people who are actually far to the left of the Democratic establishment on issues such as strengthening the welfare state, universal health care, government regulation on Wall Street, climate change, and mounting inequality. The politics of this liberal-left contingent fit well within a Sanderist vision of political change. What is missing is a realization from many people that the Democratic Party, as currently constituted, is not up to the task of fighting for progressive or radical deviation from the status quo. Simply put, this is a “good” problem to have, in that it’s much easier to influence vote choices and future political behavior when engaging with people who share a pre-existing agreement with the leftist policy positions.

Contrary to many of the efforts from Democratic officials, much of the country is refusing to normalize a kleptocratic administration that openly flirts with fascist politics and gives little indication of any commitment to helping the masses of middle, working class, and poor Americans.  Ultimately, however, the anti-Trump movement must morph into something much grander if we are to reverse the march toward plutocratic politics. The protests of tomorrow cannot simply be about how bad Trump is. To limit protests to this issue means handicapping any movement toward positive, progressive change. Rather, the goal must be to oppose Trump by building an overarching message that prioritizes bottom-up democracy, inequality reduction, anti-imperialism, environmental sustainability, poverty reduction, and a roll back of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and protecting citizens’ basic rights.

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Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He earned his PhD from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is the author of 9 books, including most recently: Political Power in America (SUNY Press, 2019) and Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com

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