The Gathering Storm of Protest Against Trump
The stagecraft of Donald Trump’s Inauguration, on the west front terrace of the Capitol, on January 20th, will reflect a nation divided not only between parties but also within them. The oath of office is to be administered by Chief Justice John Roberts, a fellow-Republican whom Trump has described as a “disaster” and a “nightmare” because of the Supreme Court’s rulings to uphold the Affordable Care Act.
The ceremony is usually attended by former Presidents. The only two living Republican Presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, whom Trump has called “probably the worst President in the history of the United States,” did not attend his nominating Convention. It’s not yet clear if anyone from the Bush family will attend Trump’s swearing-in.
Trump can count on the support of friends and donors. His inaugural committee includes the billionaire casino moguls Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson. A fuller list, published in USA Today, includes “gambling titan Phil Ruffin, Wisconsin roofing magnate Diane Hendricks, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, Florida real-estate developer Mel Sembler and Gail Icahn, wife of billionaire investor Carl Icahn.” In a call with reporters on Thursday, a Trump campaign spokesman described recent visitors and potential Cabinet appointees as “top-shelf” people.
Those details may get lost in a more public feature of the event. Anna Galland, the executive director of MoveOn.org, told me this week, “I expect mass peaceful protests with hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, around the Inauguration and in other moments.” She said, “I cut my teeth as an organizer in the movement opposing the Iraq war. I feel that that was a smaller trial run for what we’re going to be seeing right now.”
Already, protests from Portland, Oregon, to Washington, D.C., have gathered more momentum than progressive organizations had expected. “MoveOn and our allies are sprinting to catch up to the mass movement that’s emerging,” Galland said. “We did three hundred and fifty peaceful gatherings less than twenty-four hours after the election results were announced. Then over the weekend you saw tens of thousands of people marching in the streets.”
Marisa Franco, who helped organize demonstrations against Trump’s campaign, expects that much of the participation in protests around January 20th will be motivated by questions of immigration and deportation. “Inauguration Day marks the beginning of the nightmare for millions of people across the country,” she said. “For many of us, we simply cannot afford to hold onto a hollow hope that Trump will change course on the disasters he pledged in his campaign. We understand that we have to use everything in our power to resist and force a detour from taking us all backwards.”
Jim Bendat, author of “Democracy’s Big Day,” a history of Inaugurations, told me, “In other elections, the protesters would largely wait until Inauguration Day. To me, this is unprecedented in terms of what’s happening already.” The closest precedents, he said, were protests against Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. “At Nixon’s Inauguration, in 1973, there were protests not only in Washington, not only along the parade route and at the Lincoln Memorial and around the Washington Monument but also in Paris and in Los Angeles, there were big protests.” In 2001, protesters expressed their frustration at the Supreme Court’s decision to award the Presidency to Bush. “I was in Washington for that Inauguration,” Bendat said. “I was at Freedom Plaza that day. There were signs that said ‘Hail to the thief’ and ‘Selected, not elected,’ ‘Gore by 500,000, Bush by 1.’ ”
Estimates of the size of protests against Nixon’s reëlection are about sixty thousand; for Bush, organizers estimated their numbers at twenty thousand. On Facebook, more than eighty thousand people have listed themselves as “attending” an initiative called the Women’s March on Washington, on January 21st. Al Sharpton has announced plans to lead a protest on the grounds of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial on January 14th, six days before the Inauguration.
The shape and scale of the protests may depend on how President-elect Trump reacts to the prospect. In his first tweet after the election, last Thursday, he condemned the people who had rallied against him, claiming that “professional protesters” were “incited by the media.” (The Washington Post examined Internet rumors about paid protesters and found “no credible evidence.”) The next morning, Trump adopted a more Presidential tone: “Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud!”
Despite those words of welcome, Galland and other progressive activists are concerned that, during a Trump Presidency, they could be subject to surveillance or state scrutiny. “There are discussions happening among grass-roots organizers about the channels by which we communicate. Do we use e-mail? Do we use Slack?” she said. “The National Security Agency and the whole security apparatus of the United States is soon to be under the direction of Donald Trump. People who have been organizing peaceful resistance to right-wing policies in this country are not going to stop, but we’re also not going to be complacent about protecting ourselves.”
If anti-Trump protests continue to gain steam, it’s likely that pro-Trump groups will begin to demonstrate as well, raising the prospect of duelling public actions. Trump’s surrogates have likened his elevation not to that of Bush or Nixon but to that of another precedent: “This is like Andrew Jackson’s victory,” Rudy Giuliani said on MSNBC after Election Day. “This is the people beating the establishment. And that’s how he [Donald Trump] posited right from the beginning, the people are rising up against a government they find to be dysfunctional.”
In some ways, Trump may welcome the comparison to America’s seventh President, elected in 1828. Like Trump, Jackson was a man of great wealth who cast himself as the voice of “the little man” against “the aristocracy of the few.” He was denounced as a thief, a liar, and an adulterer, which did not injure his status as the most popular man in America. But Trump may prefer not to repeat the experience of Jackson’s Inauguration. After taking his oath, Jackson attracted a boisterous crowd, which followed him into the White House. “They crowded into every room and nearly wrecked the place,” the White House historian William Seale later recalled. “They had to be lured outside with tubs of whiskey punch set out on the lawn. The Jacksonians hated what happened.”
Evan Osnos joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008, and covers politics and foreign affairs.