The White House can’t get over the disparity between Donald Trump’s modest inaugural crowd on Friday and the massive protests that took place the next day.
But what matters most is not how the numbers of marchers across America surpassed the numbers celebrating the inaugural. What matters, now and over the long term, is how those protesting bodies challenged the words of Trump’s inaugural address, and neutered them.
Millions of Americans took to the streets for a “Women’s March” that, in the end, had less to do with sexual politics than with a broad defiance of Trump’s new order. They turned out in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Washington D.C., but also in places like Boise, Idaho, and Anchorage, Alaska.
Trump being Trump, he probably would’ve been unnerved by the size of the protests regardless: Size is a simple handle for an unsubtle mind. But White House strategist Steve Bannon and the shrewder members of the Trump team surely grasped that the protests had just obliterated an inaugural address that was less than 24 hours old.
In his broken beer bottle of a speech, Trump jabbed at the “establishment” he had defeated. “For too long,” he said, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”
The “rewards of government” is a curious phrase for an American inaugural address, with “rewards” sounding much like the spoils that go to the victor. To make this language less jarring, especially as fabulously wealthy Trump appointees assume power enmeshed in doubts about their ethics and public spirit, Trump insisted in his address that it’s really “the people” who have triumphed.
“What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.
“January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”
Like countless populists before him, Trump has set himself up as the representative, voice and will of “the people.” As Jan-Werner Mueller wrote in “What Is Populism?”:
“The claim to exclusive representation is not an empirical one; it is always distinctly moral. When running for office, populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite; when ruling, they refuse to recognize opposition as legitimate.”
Team Trump relishes the condemnation of elites. When bow-tied George Will called Trump’s address the worst in history, it was a victory for Bannonism, the guiding force of Trumpism. A president elected with 46 percent of the popular vote, who entered office with historically low approval ratings, needs the scorn of elites to prop himself up and to buff his populist street cred.
Yet the number of people marching against Trump on Saturday appears to have been north of 2 million. If Trump embodies the people, who were those millions of bodies insisting that he doesn’t represent them? Bow ties were not much visible in the crowds.
Neither Trump nor the organizers of the Women’s March could’ve known how the populist words of his inaugural would be so devastatingly refuted by Saturday’s tide of humanity. True, it’s a short-term victory. The Trump administration will be the arena for a long and fierce battle. We are at the opening bell.
But it mattered. Everyone in Washington — from a determined Speaker Paul Ryan to a shellshocked White House, from tentative Democrats climbing out from the rubble to liberal interest groups searching for an ideological anchor — just got a look at a very different people from the one described by Trump.