Those tempted to despair after Trump’s inauguration should follow the example of demonstrators across the globe, writes Dani Garavelli
In the darkest of times, you take your comfort where you find it. Waking up on Friday morning to see images of #bridgesnotwalls banners draped on river crossings from London to Nepal provided the tiniest glimmer of light; enough to help me overcome the urge to courie under the duvet and pretend that, on the other side of the Atlantic, the worst was not happening. Enough to help me face the Trump inauguration head-on.
Because that’s the temptation, isn’t it? To withdraw from the bleakness of it all. To blank out what you can’t control. Over the past year, the alt-right has ridden the crest of an almighty populist wave that neither righteous passion nor hard-headed reason could prevent from crashing on to the shore. Now, Trump – a man not fit to shine Obama’s shoes – is taking his place in the White House, and shows no sign of moderating his views. Why not just pull the shutters down on the outside world until his four years are up? In various cartoons, even the presidential heads at Mount Rushmore shield their eyes from a future they cannot bear to witness, while the marble Lincoln buries his head in his hands in despair.
Yet – as David Remnick wrote in his brilliant post-election essay, An American Tragedy – “despair is no answer. To combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honourably and fiercely in the name of American ideals – that is what is left to do.” To give up that struggle – to slink off to a corner and lick our wounds – is to hand Trump control not only of a global superpower, but of our very souls.
Hillary Clinton understands that. How much easier would it have been for her to join the Democrats’ boycott and rail about the injustice of it all: the hacked emails, the health smears, the fact she won the popular vote by almost three million? How tough must it have been to sit and listen to Trump deliver a speech every bit as combative as he gave on the campaign trail? But she turned out, in suffragette white and with her head held high, proving that all the hatred he could muster hadn’t crushed her. Ditto Michelle Obama, who managed to do all that was required as a outgoing First Lady without, for one second, concealing her seditious heart.
This is why yesterday’s women’s marches – and particularly the march on Washington – were so very important. Yes, they were a rallying cry to protect racial, gender and LGBT equality, affordable healthcare, abortion rights, voting rights. But they were also simply a display of strength and solidarity; a defiant refusal to be swept out of our depth on the rip tide of history.
Not everybody got it; some commentators complained that, with no defined aims, the protests were evidence of the “pointlessness of modern feminism”. For a while too it looked as if though they might be sabotaged by internal wrangling. There was the perennial problem of white activists dominating the event – particularly contentious given that Trump attracted 53% of the white female vote. But there were other faultlines too – divisions over sex worker and transgender rights, for example – which were seized on by anti-feminists as proof they couldn’t organise themselves without a cat fight.
But then the 1963 March on Washington – from which this event took its inspiration – was beset by similar controversies. Malcolm X called it the Farce on Washington; Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee said it was “a sanitised, middle-class version of the real black movement”. There were disagreements over its purpose and the extent to which it should criticise the Kennedy administration.
Like their forebears, the organisers of the women’s marches worked together to keep competing factions on board: they made sure white women weren’t taking over, took care to welcome anyone who supported their cause and drew up policy agendas.
In the US, the context for the marches was clear: Trump’s contemptuous attitude towards women – the leaked “grab them by the pussy” videotape, the allegations of sexual assault, the suggestion women should be punished for having abortions – have all raised fears about the impact of his presidency.
But there are also battles to be fought elsewhere; in Kenya, they are preoccupied by women’s land and inheritance rights, FGM and the trafficking of women and children; in France, by the threat the rise of their own right-wing poses to women’s reproductive rights. Even in Scotland, there are issues to be addressed; just last week, the inadequacy of the criminal justice system was laid bare when a judge ruled a woman had indeed been raped by two footballers back in 2011. A victory for sure, but why was the victim forced to pursue her case through the civil courts after the Crown dropped the criminal charges?
More pressing than the specific priorities of individual countries, however, is the desire to come together to show that we will not be swayed by dangerous demagoguery; that we will keep on opposing an ideology we abhor.
The original March on Washington brought a direct political dividend in the shape of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. It is unlikely the women’s marches will have as tangible a legacy. But the thought of hundreds of thousands descending on the National Mall, where hours earlier Trump pledged to put “America First”, is nevertheless empowering. Protest keeps progressive values visible. It says: “We are still here and we are still fighting.”
In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton urged her followers not to surrender to despondency. “Let us not grow weary, let us not lose heart, for there are more seasons to come. And there is more work to do,” she said. We need to nurse our wrath, now, not allow it to ebb away because we have lost faith in our power to change the world. Continuing to call out Trump’s lies and proto-facism may make a difference; it may not. But fighting back is the only way to keep our own identity intact. It’s how we save ourselves.