On Saturday night, for Donald Trump’s inauguration ball, police turned an entire grid square of Washington DC into a maze of fences, checkpoints and deserted roads, just to protect the partygoers. But even the cleverest maze has to have an entrance – and it took just a couple of hundred peaceful but courageous protesters to block it. As a result, thousands of rich people had to thread their way across a square mile of wire and concrete in their tuxedos and taffeta.
I know it annoyed them because I walked with them. In the absolute silence, I could hear they were angry and afraid. They looked, collectively, like a George Grosz painting of the Weimar elite come to life.
And then, to annoy them some more, one out of every 100 people in America marched to reject Trump’s project in its entirety. In the US, nearly 3.5 million people marched, the majority of them women, a huge proportion of them wearing pink, woolly “pussy hats” (There were marches against Trump in 20 countries around the world).
When a million people choke the transport system of a city, exchanging sudden and ephemeral chants, jokes and slogans with people they’ll never meet again, it is the collective memory they establish that truly records the event. For people who were not there, the media records such events according to an established formula: a soundbite from Madonna, a wide shot of the crowd, a vox pop with somebody’s grandma and finally a sceptic saying it’s all a waste of time. But events such as this alter people’s lives. They thrust big and complicated political questions into lives of routinely depoliticised people.
One woman, who flew from the west coast to attend, told me: “I can’t stand the colour pink, and that hat looks really shitty on me. But right now it’s my most precious material possession. I’m betting there are lots of people out there who will look at their hats and remember that they need to do something – not just today, but tomorrow and the next.”
As they left the march, women in the underground stations passed round a phone number created to sign people up for action. There’s a big focus on the swingleft.org campaign, which aims to retake the House of Representatives by focusing on swing states in 2018.
But you would miss the historic significance of the Women’s March if – as with Trump’s army of trolls – you viewed it only through the frame of something called “feminism” or “identity politics”.
To comprehend the power of Saturday’s demos, we have to understand the true nature of the threat Trump poses. The dominant trope in the US media is delusion. It says Trump is a charlatan, who will be restrained by the American constitution, tamed by office and gone in four years.
The importance of this delusion is that, for the liberal section of the US elite, it allowed them to justify continuity. They could go on ingesting the standardised prose of the New York Times, even though its editors were “timid” (according to its public editor) in the face of the emerging news story about Trump’s links with Russia. They could cling to the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote; that the Russians probably rigged the election. They could, above all, cling to the belief that US capitalism has turned a corner permanently, towards corporate social responsibility, equal opportunities and low-carbon energy.
But what Trump represents creates a split in the US business elite. And though he is not – as the chant goes – “fascist”, the dynamic between his white-supremacist misogynist mass base and the super-rich is playing out similarly to the way it did for Mussolini after 1922 and Hitler 10 years later.
The whiny old racist, in his hunting camouflage; the devoutly Christian housewife shouting obscenities at Hillary Clinton; the men in the tuxedoes yelping “sore losers”, “snowflake” and “cuck” at the protesters … they have all seen an illusion expire. The doctrine of manifest destiny tells them their nation was born to shape the world; the Presbyterian ideology of the founding fathers tells them that the individual is master of his fate. The crisis of neoliberal capitalism after 2008 has permanently cancelled both these dreams but the illusion lives, and must find an enemy to blame.
One of the many things that annoy authoritarian populists in the US, according to pollsters, are “human rights”. Human rights, to the rightwing middle classes, appear as privileges for other people: blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, gay people and women, welfare recipients and trade unionised workers.
Hitler and Mussolini created armies of enraged middle-class losers because the bourgeoisie of Germany and Italy were too weak, powerless and hidebound by constitutional beliefs to act decisively against the perceived enemy (in both cases, it was above all communism and organised labour).
But once the efficacy of rightwing populism was proven, a section of the rich elite became all too willing to abandon constitutional democracy and go with the flow. Lest we forget, in both France and the US in 1934, there were serious, elite-backed attempts to overthrow elected governments, using millionaires’ cash and fascist street protests. Though not the weapon of choice of the corporate lawyer or property developer in his tuxedo, if offered the combination of a reactionary mass movement and a liar with a DayGlo tan, history suggests they will take it.
So the challenge for the truly liberal section of the elite is – as in the 1930s – what to do. If you work for a bank, a law firm, an Ivy League university or a Silicon Valley giant, and your employer is systematically accommodating the new, post-factual reality, you are – even now, just weeks into the Trump era – living a double life.
What’s good for the employer is to double down on the advantages of the new kleptocracy: fewer taxes, fewer climate oblig ations, fewer regulations on business and an 11-million-strong undocumented migrant workforce cowering in fear every time the doorbell rings.
Saturday was, above all else, the sound of the progressive middle classes rejecting what’s good for the employers and embracing what’s good for the people. The DC hotel I stayed in turned, on the eve of the Women’s March, into an organising base for 200 low-paid cleaners and care workers. Spanish, Filipino and Caribbean-English words began to drown out the chatter of journalists and politicos.
Toni Johnson, who organises for the National Domestic Workers Association and originates from St Vincent and the Grenadines, told me: “We are apprehensive, we are scared, but we are resilient – we intend to fight back. He says he’s going to deport three million people – but it will only affect criminals. Our members know there are not three million criminals. I’m scared.” She is voicing the fears of many that the complex process they have gone through to gain residency and citizenship will be unpicked. These are the voices you just don’t hear much in the US media. Had they not block-booked the same hotel as a bunch of British journalists, I doubt either I or anybody else would have written about them. But by placing the story of these impoverished and downtrodden women of colour at the centre of the story, the organisers of the Women’s March have shaped history as it will now unfold.
As the physical embodiment of the radical intent, the speaker list on Saturday was drawn heavily from the labour movement, from the black, Muslim and migrant women, and starred – among others – the formerly jailed revolutionary Angela Davis.
While Madonna called for a revolution, Davis’s speech explained what that must mean: “1,459 days of resistance: resistance on the ground, resistance in the classrooms, resistance on the job, resistance in our art and in our music.” Resistance, in short, of the kind that disrupts the world the elite live in and drives the man in the hunting jacket apoplectic. But American rightwing populism, by aligning itself firmly with misogyny, rape culture and the attack on reproductive rights, has dug its own grave. You can declare war with the poor, the left, the minorities and win – as both Reagan and both Bushes proved. Trump will find that it is very hard win a war against half of humanity; especially when that half has experienced, since the 1960s, the sudden possibility of an end to 40,000 years of biologically determined oppression.
Winnie Wong, a key figure in organising the march told me: “The beauty of the Women’s March as a fledgling movement, which is now both decentralised and already global in scale, is that it will be very hard for any one institution to co-opt the messaging. This creates headaches for the bad actors in the influential spheres of the Democratic party who have helped to build the neoliberal institutions which are culpable for driving the slow erosion of our democracy.”
Even a rightwing ideologue such as Glenn Beck, who trailblazed the essentials of Trumpism in 2011, has understood what is happening and pulled back. But Trump cannot pull back. His rage is only getting greater – as the ridiculous White House briefing fiasco over the size of the inauguration shows.
The task in the US, inspired by the millions of women in pink hats, is to create a workable alliance of progressives. It can, with solid groundwork, remove at least the lower house from Republican control in 2018 and defeat Trump in 2020. But the horizons of resistance should be immediate.
That resistance will, of necessity, start out as fragmentary. The domestic workers will go back to Queens, Phoenix and Los Angeles to fight to defend migrant women from deportation, and fight for the $15 minimum wage. Black communities will face off-the-leash policing, its impact more random and brutal as the rule of law is eroded, egged on by white supremacists who publicly fantasise about genocide.
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, progressive employees will go to work this week more determined to resist the corporate rollover to Trump. But the Women’s March showed – in a gesture as inchoate as it was decisive – that these struggles can be united in the face of a common enemy. What’s more, there is network of millions of people who have now done one thing together they had never done before.
Trump, like all authoritarian kleptocrats, will rule by gesture. Herein lies the great weakness of liberal democracy, with its tendency towards rationality, restraint and proportionality. It is not only by obliterating truth that the authoritarian beguiles the masses, but by constant recourse to drama: the midnight speech, the military parade, the unexpected deal, the overnight invasion or the extrajudicial killing of an enemy.
But the Women’s March showed us the gestural power of mass action. Yes, it could end up as ineffectual as the anti-war demos of 2003 were at stopping war. But stopping social injustice should be easier than stopping war for one obvious reason.
In a war, the enemy is someone else. In the social war Trump is about to unleash the enemy in us. And – as the disappointed white petit-bourgeoisie who love him now will soon discover – you can’t eat racism; military parades do not raise your wages; owning eight guns and having 4chan bookmark does not matter if your home is repossessed.
The Women’s March has revived, recreated and strengthened the networked, cultural opposition of 2011 but on a bigger scale. It’s up to everybody to keep the energy flowing.