image via PRI
by Connie Lee
It’s an intense time to be an intern in D.C. I’ve worked under four Attorneys General already, and I’ve only been at the Department of Justice for a month. But I appreciate being in D.C. this term to watch things unfold in the wake of Trump’s election; it was especially interesting to attend both the presidential inauguration and the Women’s March in the same weekend. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on my experiences at these two contrasting events.
The morning of Inauguration Day, a friend and I went to watch the inauguration from the National Mall. We waited in line at a security checkpoint, surrounded by people sporting Trump merchandise and excited smiles. They matched the demographics I’d read about in the news – older people, families with children, a few people of color. As someone who voted for Hillary, I’ve read a lot of articles to try to understand why Trump won the election, but abstract theories about populism and anti-professionalism didn’t prepare me to see real families expressing excitement for Trump’s presidency. Several times, chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” started up in the crowd.
Others were less enthusiastic that day. Protestors lined the outskirts of the security checkpoint, holding up signs like “Nyet my President” and “Russia grabs U.S. by the President.” They started their own chants – “Black lives matter” and “No KKK, No fascist USA, No Trump.” People around me murmured that they wished the protestors would shut up. A few counter-chants started up, including “Get a job,” “Trump will put you back to work,” and another round of “U-S-A!”
I appreciated the protests for the reminder that there was a resistance out there, as we stood in an enclave of Trump support. But I was discouraged that the protests didn’t feel meaningful beyond signaling opposition. Protest can be a powerful tool for expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo, but the inauguration protests were weakened by their focus on antagonizing the “other side” instead of presenting true advocacy. In the end, any ideological message was lost; media reports on the protests focused on extreme factions that turned violent, with protestors smashing windows, throwing crowbars at police, and battering cars.
I knew going in that the inauguration would attract extremists from both sides – “Nobody really feels lukewarm about Trump,” as my friend had joked. The two of us kept a low profile and tried to stick to apolitical topics when we made small talk with the people around us. But it was hard to muster a convincing fake laugh when a man wearing a Georgia Pride button turned to us and chuckled, “What’s the deal with Black Lives Matter, eh? Do they want more food stamps?”
I could have argued back by citing statistics on discriminatory policing (which aren’t even the full picture, because it’s effectively optional for police departments to report instances of violence). But standing in the shadow of a White House that brands unfavorable reports “media lies” and has barred the EPA and other bodies from releasing information on climate change, I sensed that traditional forms of evidence were the wrong tool for the moment. Trump supporters and dissident protestors alike believe themselves to be in the moral right. How do you elevate discourse and find common ground when each side has staked an exclusive claim on morality – and, increasingly, on the facts that contextualize that morality?
The inauguration consisted of the typical formalities – invocations, speeches, and the National Anthem. In his inaugural address, Trump called the status quo “carnage” and repeated campaign promises about making America “win” again, bringing back factories, and defeating terrorism. Supporters cheered at each vague slogan Trump recited. Their trust in him reminded me of a study at the University of Nebraska, which found that 25-40% of Americans believe that there are commonsense solutions to policy issues and politicians are simply too corrupt or burdened by the political system to implement them. This conviction results in deep skepticism that legitimate political disagreements exist and leads people to place their trust in Trump’s confident assertions that he’ll get things done. Trump’s lack of political experience and his appointment of political outsiders like Rex Tillerson and Betsy DeVos to his Cabinet become assets in this paradigm.
Given the unusually abrasive and populist rhetoric of his campaign, Trump’s victory felt like more than a simple transition from Democratic to Republican leadership. Electing someone who has bragged about “grabbing women by the pussy” undermines the legitimacy of movements against sexual assault and gender-based violence. Trump’s calls to restrict immigration from certain majority-Muslim countries and build a wall on the Mexican border imply that people from other countries should be feared and rejected. I’m sympathetic to a number of conservative economic positions, but Trump once advocated for a return to the gold standard, which would fix the money supply and limit economic growth, something that has been roundly rejected on both sides of the political aisle.
That Trump found success despite his outrageous outbursts highlights the jarring political divisions in the US today. Many of my friends at Dartmouth and my co-workers in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice – groups more liberal than the general public – admit that they don’t know anyone who voted for Trump, or that they have cut off contact with anyone who did. It’s fair to prioritize creating a safe space if pro-Trump messaging is disturbing to you. But there’s a tradeoff to be recognized, in that America cannot sustainably exist as two factions that refuse to engage with each other. Calling Trump supporters racist and fascist, while accurate in some cases, alienates those who voted with the intention of improving this country, while delegitimizing the grievances that generated support for Trump, like the loss of jobs due to globalization.
The morning after the inauguration, I went to the Women’s March on Washington, a feminist and anti-Trump protest circling the Capitol. I’d made plans to meet up with friends from Dartmouth, but we never found each other. My metro ride to the area was so crowded with protestors wearing pink cat-ear hats that it took me 45 minutes to exit the station, and the protest was so crowded that cell networks broke down and nobody had phone service.
I befriended three women from south Florida – a bartender who hoped to attend nursing school, her mother, and an event planner. They offered to adopt me for the day when I told them that I couldn’t find my friends, and we exchanged stories as we marched together. The mother had been a Cuban refugee who was flown to Florida in the 1960s at age 11, during Operation Peter Pan; she grew up with other refugee children at a local church. She said that she was marching for the rights of immigrants and refugees.
Spending the day with these women was eye-opening. Many of the commonplace things we talked about – financial security, for example – aren’t topics that I tend to discuss with my friends at Dartmouth, where more students are from the top 1% than the bottom 60%. We met and talked to other protestors, including an elderly couple who had marched in support of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. They said that the ERA protest had felt large at the time, but they were blown away at the size of the Women’s March. Around us, women, men, and children held signs with slogans like “The pussy grabs back” and “Girls just wanna have fun-damental human rights.” We marched across Independence Avenue, chanting mantras like “We are the popular vote” and “Love trumps hate.”
A few counter-protestors showed up, holding signs with messages reading, “Homosexuality is a sin,” “Abortion is murder,” and “GAY: Got Aids Yet?” We walked by one of the picketers, a man wearing a shirt that read, “Women belong in the kitchen.” It was disheartening to remember that while I talk to my friends about intersectional feminism and hermeneutical injustice, there are still people who don’t believe that women should have jobs outside the home.
These signs bothered me, as did the people holding them. So did the stranger who had yelled at me and a friend just days before, for being a “white guy with an Asian girl” as we walked down the street. I worry that the social and political divisions that led to Trump’s election embolden intolerant views and extremism, especially given that hate crimes have already increased since the election.
But I came away from that weekend feeling hopeful. I was heartened to see that half of a million people marched in D.C. that day, and that nearly 5 million people marched in 673 cities worldwide, outnumbering inauguration attendees. I’ve read criticisms of the march for not being fully intersectional, for appropriating black activism, and for being too commoditized. Perhaps it’s true that many of the women waving “Nasty Woman” signs were more interested in performing their progressive bona fides than they were in learning about others’ needs and experiences. Watching white women rally for their rights – which are far safer under Trump than those of women of color, trans women, and disabled women – can evoke the racist and exclusionary history of the feminist movement. Many white women are feeling their rights threatened for the first time, while women at the intersections of race and sexuality have felt that urgency for a lifetime.
But being late to the party can still be helpful when it means amplifying a message that represents a plurality of voices and lived experiences. The marches showed that there is an active resistance against Trump, that Hillary’s three million vote margin is not a passive majority, and that civic engagement and democracy are alive. It united a mass of women around diverse issues. What’s more, the widespread criticisms of the march have provoked important discussions on inclusivity and intersectionality within the feminist movement. Even if some people are only engaging in political activism because it’s trendy, at least they’re taking action, and taking action can motivate people to reorient their beliefs, as well.
I hope the momentum behind this political engagement and activism holds – that we keep calling our Senators, demonstrating peacefully for important issues, and focusing not on antagonizing the opposition but on making America a better country for everyone. The story of the next four years will be told in the history books that our children and grandchildren read. I hope it’s a story of resistance.