Perhaps the largest protest in U.S. history was brought to you by President Donald Trump
We could talk all day about numbers. Were 250,000 people on hand to see Donald Trump take the oath, or more like the 1.5 million he says he saw? The women, men and children (but mostly women) who a day later filled the streets of cities across the nation–did they total a million? Two million? More than three? Does it matter? The numbers that count were tallied on Nov. 8, the votes that lifted Trump onto that majestic semicircle on the Capitol’s west terrace and into the rarified air sniffed by fewer than four dozen men since the dawn of the Republic. But the job of President of the United States arrives with aching expectations, a collective yearning for wise leadership that, fortunately for the novice, can be managed only through the rituals that have governed the postelection behavior of every winning candidate in living memory. The protocol is not written down. It exists in behaviors–humility, respect, a high-minded posture of restraint that reminds us that civic life is service in pursuit not just of office but of something larger than ourselves. The 10 weeks that run through November, across the Christmas holidays and into the new year is literally a grace period, designed to reliably deliver on Jan. 20 a sense of equilibrium. Instead of where we find ourselves now.
There is no precedent in U.S. history for the show of collective outrage that answered Trump’s Inauguration. But then, there is no precedent for Trump, either: impetuous, thin-skinned and, for his trouble, entering office facing a grassroots opposition that heated up faster than a cup of ramen.
The face of that Democratic opposition–some call it the resistance–is female, which is to say it’s a face that as a private citizen Trump liked to judge on a scale of 1 to 10, and as a candidate measured by worthiness of his sexual attention. The billionaire made the 2016 presidential campaign about women even before Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination, sliming the Republican primary field by insulting the looks of its only female candidate (“Look at that face!”) and then moving on to Ted Cruz’s wife. So it was that the Women’s March–marches, really, as demonstrations were logged in more than 600 U.S. locations–became the occasion for recovering, in the space of just a few hours, spirits that since election night had spiraled into deep troughs of despair, dread and worse.
Terror is the word that came to Margo Kelly, on a National Mall so crowded with kindred souls, it was difficult to move. “It’s a matter of remaining plugged in and acting on that terror, getting off the couch,” says Kelly, a physician, of what brought her all the way from Portland, Ore., with her ninth-grade daughter, Beatrice. “If there’s any silver lining, it’s that this is a call to action.”
In a time of unexpected loss, there’s an instinct to keep busy. How many dishes are washed and lawns mowed after a death in the family? Who isn’t happy for the distraction? But if the grave is eternal, a presidential term lasts just four years. There are midterm elections in 2018. The entire House of Representatives will have to stand–and a third of the Senate. There’s work to be done–the collective Republican majority hovers near a seven-decade high–and the question hanging over the Mall after the buses headed back home was: Where do we go from here?
Isaac Newton got there first. For every action, there is an equal and opposition reaction, “directed,” the physicist noted, “to contrary parts.” Parts don’t come much more contrary than Trump and feminists, and the battle now joined was surely coming sooner or later. That it happened in the first 24 hours of his term says something about the urgency.
Protest organizers actually calculated that framing the march as pro-women rather than anti-Trump would work wonders. Feminism remains an epithet in parts of society, evoking the scolding tone of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who answered the indifference of many young women toward Clinton by recalling that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” That didn’t help. Beyond Clinton’s own limitations, there was the millennials’ preference for ad hoc individual action over membership in any organization.
But the embrace of the term by the likes of Beyoncé and Emma Watson in recent years has eroded much of the stigma. After the election, as interest in the Women’s March swelled online, it became clear that a pro-women’s-rights event that also convened an array of marginalized populations was getting far more traction than protests billed as just anti-Trump. By the look of the demonstrations, the Access Hollywood tape also became a uniquely unifying factor. What Trump dismissed as “locker-room banter”–“I moved on her like a bitch … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything”–gave Jan. 21 its palette (pink), its signature attire (the pussy hat) and its rules of engagement.
“Keep your tiny hands off my rights.” “Can’t build wall, hands too small.” “We want a leader, not a creepy tweeter.” “We shall overcomb.” The signs were as bawdily exuberant as the crowds, which inevitably skewed activist but included many who had never demonstrated before, and who experienced in the gatherings both a stirring well of fellow feeling and sudden momentum. People who were at Woodstock said, Yeah, it was great, but the real thrill was stopping for gas three states away and finding that everyone else at the pump was going to the same place. There was some of that on the New Jersey Turnpike on Friday night, where almost everyone in the Walt Whitman service plaza was female (a cashier said it had been like that all day). On the Mall, the Smithsonian’s men’s room was commandeered, but there were enough men present for a call and response: “Our bodies, our choice”/”Your bodies, your choice.” Many said it was the best they’ve felt since Election Day.
Across the country, the low estimate for turnout on Jan. 21 was 3.2 million, according to researchers at the University of Connecticut and University of Denver–leaving aside the demonstrations on every other continent, including, thanks to an expedition tour, Antarctica. Even if its locus was the urban centers where Democratic activism operates most comfortably, the tally raised the question of whether this was a protest or a movement. There were a couple of those in 2016. Bernie Sanders’ surprise following exploded from the young and the left. Trump’s filled auditoriums in states both blue and red, and carried him to the most powerful position on earth.
The problem, of course, is how to sustain an insurgency from the highest office in the land. Barack Obama faced the same dilemma upon entering the office in 2009, trying without success to permanently mobilize supporters through something called Organizing for America. No luck. They’d done their work getting him there. It was his turn. It’s much easier to storm the gates from outside, which is why Jan. 21 looms large.
The day produced physical evidence of a grassroots opposition with every bit as much potential as the Tea Party, the diffuse, small-government uprising that started small but soon bedeviled both Obama and the GOP establishment, and ultimately cleared the way for Trump. On the surface, the two insurrections share similarities. Like the Women’s March, the Tea Party movement was deliberately leaderless. But that didn’t stop its members from quickly arriving at a clear understanding of the movement’s goals. By April 2009, it had coalesced around a set of simple policies: limited government, lower taxes, upholding the Constitution. By that summer, it had seized upon another bogeyman: Obama’s health care bill. The anger that boiled over at congressional town halls during the August recess were a vivid illustration of the movement’s budding power.
The Women’s March, even in its striking success, offered more in the way of catharsis than clarity. Its full statement of principles runs more than 1,000 words and includes issues ranging from reproductive rights to gender justice, from the minimum wage to immigration reform, from clean water to criminal profiling to arming police with military-grade weaponry. It’s hard to distill a complicated platform into concrete change when your organizing principle–“intersectional feminism,” a jargony mouthful–opposes elevating any one person’s goals over another’s.
Even so, there was no shortage of intramural dissent. Some female black activists noted that 53% of white women voted for Trump (versus the 94% of black women for Hillary). Transgender activists complained that the vagina is not an apt symbol for those who identify as women but might not have one. In San Diego, the protest organization was so ad hoc that two marches surprised each other on the street. Neither group could agree whether they had come out to transform, upset about the election, into connective tissue among disparate progressive sects or just be angry out in public.
But these are good problems to have. Populations once not only marginalized but in some cases barely identified are fighting to hold ground gained only over the past few years. Millennials are paying attention. Clinton’s nomination, despite how it ended, had much the same empowering effect on women that President Obama’s had on African Americans. The two San Diego marches ended up merging and taking turns at the mike.
“It’s messy, and that’s the beauty of it,” says Erika Andiola, political director of Our Revolution, the successor organization to Sanders’ presidential campaign, which boasts hundreds of affiliated chapters. “Part of organizing is that we’re not all going to be marching in the same rhythm.” Our Revolution boosted turnout to the marches by targeted emails on the list compiled during the Sanders campaign, which through the primaries was as vibrant a movement as Trump’s. Andiola claims that local groups that had been seeing 15 or 20 people have been seeing 100 and 200 since Nov. 8. Such are the advantages, to activists, of defeat.
“If people come out of an election and everyone’s despairing, everyone’s in a collective civic funk, we don’t get anything done,” says Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP. “Simply reminding people of how bad things are and what you lost, nobody’s moved by that. People are moved by the sense of possibility, a sense of hope that can be realized with small efforts. Small and sustained efforts.”
That was the incongruous message that came out of a huge turnout–possibly the largest in U.S. history: go home and think small. While holding the White House for the past eight years, Democrats lost big at the state level. With control of only 14 state legislatures (to the GOP’s 32), and 16 governors, the consensus preached at every rally is that the party needs to rebuild from the ground up. “I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking, Maybe I could run for political office,” said Gari Ann Dunn, who traveled to D.C. from Cincinnati, where she will look into local leadership positions when she returns home.
The marchers were way out in front of the Democratic Party in other ways. Though several Senators addressed the Washington crowd, six of the seven candidates vying to become the party’s next chair skipped the rallies to attend a high-dollar donor event in Florida organized by Clinton ally David Brock. That reflects the continuing tension between the centrist elite and the populist leftist wings of the party, played out in the primary battle between Sanders and Clinton. The contest will produce more bloodletting and infighting, but at this point, it’s a healthy competition in an opposition that takes many forms. The ACLU, which greeted Trump’s election with the promise, “We’ll see you in court,” saw a record $38 million spike in contributions since Nov. 9, and is hiring some 100 new staffers, mostly litigators. At Yale Law School, a seminar convened to prepare legal challenges to the Trump Administration.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown vows to do the same, while former attorney general Eric Holder leads an effort to address the structural advantages enjoyed by Republicans, who by holding state legislatures get to draw safer and safer congressional districts after each census. Meanwhile, former Hill aides who saw the rise of the Tea Party firsthand now volunteer for the Indivisible team, which has assembled an online primer on how to lobby Congress, much of it gleaned from the Tea Party’s success. It’s been downloaded more than 500,000 times. The Sunday morning after the Washington march, Emily’s List held a training workshop for 500 women on how to support female candidates, and had requests from 400 more. Four in 10 were under age 35, says executive director Jessica O’Connell. “The election has been a tipping point,” she says.
March organizers, a diverse group of women operating by consensus, prepared a discrete plan of 10 follow-on actions, starting with a mail-in postcard to Congress. Meanwhile, on Facebook, a link circulating a few days later read: “It starts with the House.” Winning back control is a very heavy lift; the Democrats are down 47 seats, and young people and minorities are notorious for their low turnouts in midterm elections.
But in January, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raises funds for House races, added 500,000 addresses to its master email list of 3 million. As for the Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate, after witnessing eight years of GOP obstruction, they were already inclined to use whatever available procedural levers could impede Trump’s agenda–threatening, for instance, to hold up indefinitely any Supreme Court nomination deemed insufficiently “mainstream.” After Jan. 21, they understand the mantra of their activist, fundraising, networking base comes down to one word: resist.
And don’t discount Trump as a motivator. The billionaire entered the White House with the lowest Gallup approval rating–45%–since such things were measured, and in his first hours in office appeared determined to take the number lower still. The day after the Inauguration found him in the lobby of the CIA, where he’d come to patch up the rift over his hostile tweets toward the intelligence community (“Are we living in Nazi Germany?”) over its finding that Russia worked to help elect him. He stood in front of the memorial to the agency’s fallen but mentioned their sacrifice only fleetingly, going on instead about his own intelligence, his vigor, an error by a TIME reporter and, most of all, a network’s disappointing crowd estimates for his Inauguration.
That evening he sent his press secretary to bark out a series of falsehoods on the same sore point–later termed “alternative facts” by adviser Kellyanne Conway, a turn of phrase that may cling to Trump’s White House as “this is the operative statement” did to Richard Nixon’s. Team Trump seemed to right the ship on their first full business day, Monday, signing a flurry of Executive Orders and corralling union leaders in a display of unity. But by day’s end, it was thrown into shadow when the President again claimed that 3 million to 5 million votes were fraudulently cast–another false statement, and an exceedingly strange one to make from the West Wing.
“He could have put out this fire since the campaign ended, and instead he’s poured gasoline on it,” says activist Van Jones, with a note of appreciation. “Everything he’s done has only served to grow this movement.” Turns out it’s easier without a candidate. Jones estimates the energy arrayed against Trump at five times what existed for Hillary. But then it’s a truism of politics that it’s easier to attack than to build up, and easier still in the era of social media. “Trump will keep the momentum up,” Jones says. “We are going to lose every major battle over the next six to 18 months. We’re going to get beat. But now the beatings are going to be galvanizing instead of demoralizing.” It is the gift of Trump, and it keeps on giving.
–With reporting by JOSH SANBURN/NEW YORK CITY; CHARLOTTE ALTER, ALEX ALTMAN, ELIZABETH DIAS, SAM FRIZELL, MAYA RHODAN and SUSANNA SCHROBSDORFF/WASHINGTON; and KATY STEINMETZ/SAN DIEGO
This appears in the February 06, 2017 issue of TIME.