‘Carnage’ & resistance

Print edition : February 17, 2017

On January 20, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath to President Donald Trump as his wife, Melania, holds the Bible and his children, Barron, Ivanka, Eric and Tiffany, watch. Photo: JIM BOURG/AFP

At a demonstration in Washington, D.C., before the inauguration. Photo: MARIO TAMA/AFP

Screams of protest at the National Mall in Washington as Trump finishes his inaugural address. Photo: JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN/REUTERS

The Women's March on Washington on January 21. Photo: MARIO TAMA/AFP

Protesters running through the streets of Washington ahead of the inauguration. Photo: ZACH GIBSON/AFP

President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech was bleak and dominated by descriptions of “American carnage” and many of the stands remained empty. But the protests that followed the day after were animated by the spirit of resistance.

“Washington flourished,” President Donald Trump said in his inaugural address, “but the people did not share the wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed.” His was a bleak speech, with descriptions of “American carnage” at the forefront. “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities,” Trump said, “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”

Trump was crafty. He laid the blame for this carnage on politicians—not his breed, the financial barons. It was politicians who were to blame. The rich can be satisfied that they will not be held to account. Trump shielded the wealthy from criticism. His enemy is the political class. He puts himself forward as the people’s champion against politics. “Believe me,” is his favourite expression. He is the only one who speaks the truth, he claims, and the only person who can fix it. Blame the poor for their poverty. It is an old axiom.

Despair filled his inauguration. The crowds did not come to anoint him President. The stands sat empty, the streets lined with a smattering of people. This was also a kind of carnage. The mood was sombre. Trump supporters did come onto the streets, but they were less enthused than they had been during his campaign rallies. Something is wrong in the Trump coalition. Perhaps his supporters have begun to digest that he will do little for them. Trump’s turn to the world of private equity and the military speaks softly to the populism he evoked. His bankers and his generals have a tin ear for the people’s anger.

Desolation in Washington, D.C., was only for inauguration day. The next day, hundreds of thousands of people came here—as well as across the country—on a “Women’s March” against the Trump ascension. They did not come to praise him. They came to say that he is “Not My President”.

Many of these people—from the anarchist Black Bloc to the Code Pink activists in pink knitted hats—would not disagree with the description of “American carnage”. It is certainly true that in large parts of the United States the social landscape is dreary. Jobs are hard to find and empty factories define the horizon. Both the Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movements as well as all the other less well-known segments of dissent in America agree with the idea of American carnage. It is what they have been fighting against. But they know that Trump is not their champion. His is a much narrower politics, to speak like a populist but to govern like a plutocrat. That is why they fear him.

Evidence came immediately of Trump’s sensibility. Within hours of taking the oath of office, the Trump White House scrubbed its web pages. Important pages on climate change, health care and LGBTQ rights vanished. The climate change page was replaced with the “An American First Energy Plan”, which called for an end to “burdensome regulations on our energy industry”. A new page appeared with the title “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community”. This was a jeremiad against “the dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America”. This page appeared during the same hour when protesters in Washington, D.C., burned a limousine and punched the neo-Nazi leader Richard Seymour. It says, “Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.”

This is a declaration of war against the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been dogged in pursuing justice for people killed by the police. Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be shot and killed by the police than white Americans. Protests led by Black Lives Matter against this epidemic will now find no mercy from either local police departments or the Department of Justice.

Reaction to the over a million people who marched against Trump the day after the inauguration was not so severe. It is difficult to beat such a large number of people. It is not as if the police in the Obama years felt any constraint in acting against protesters. The harsh use of military methods from Ferguson to Standing Rock is testimony to the free hand given to the police. But there was some sympathy in sections of the Justice Department to the idea of police brutality. That sympathy is no longer going to be in evidence. Now the police will have a freer hand and even when the cameras are rolling there will likely be no embarrassment in the violence. This will be a major characteristic of Trumpland.

Large crowds

Massive crowds filled the cities and towns of the U.S. Chicago’s organisers of the anti-Trump protests expected 50,000 people, but upwards of 1,50,000 came out on the streets on January 21, the day after the inauguration. The police said that they could not guarantee the safety of the march, so it had to be officially cancelled. But the people remained—eager to show with their bodies that they would not accept the Trump presidency.

The largest crowds came to Washington, D.C. The police expected 2,00,000 people, but the estimates now range from half a million to a million people. They were refused permission to march at the Mall. This meant that the marchers were boxed into narrower spaces, navigating the blocked streets with their great enthusiasm. The mood was not desolation. It was resistance. “We are women—hear us roar,” said one sign.

The web pages that disappeared—on climate change and LGBT rights—defined the mood of the marchers, many of whom came in dismay at Trump’s agenda on women’s rights, minority rights and climate change. Creative signs were in evidence, but so too was the mood of defiance. Trump, they said, did not speak for them, and they would fight his agenda. The radical activist and philosopher Angela Davis said at the march: “History cannot be deleted like web pages.” It was the long and difficult history within the U.S. to make society less harsh that defined the march and its various components. But Angela Davis, with her wide imagination, could not stay within the U.S. alone. She pointed her finger at the width of the struggle—to “save our flora and fauna, to save the air”, to resist attacks on Muslims and on the disabled, on women’s bodies and black bodies, to fight to protect water from Standing Rock to Flint, Michigan, to Palestine.

Many people who had not been to a protest before were out on the streets. Most of them had not voted for Trump, but some had. It was impossible to find people who would not agree with Angela Davis that this was not a single event but the opening up of a long process. “The next 1,459 days of the Trump administration,” Angela Davis said as she closed her remarks, “will be 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.”

One of the co-chairs of the Washington march, Tamika Mallory, asked marchers to take their spirit back home. “When you go back home, remember how you felt, what made you—that instinct, that gut that said, ‘I’m gonna get on a bus, a plane, a train, no matter what, to protect my children.’ That feeling, take it back with you to wherever it is that you came from today. You have awoken a new and renewed spirit.” Her speech echoed the chant to President Trump: “Welcome to your first day, we will not go away.”

Pay a Big Price

Trump avoided the march. He left the White House and zipped off to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Langley, Virginia. There he gave a sharp speech against the press. He accused the press of downplaying the numbers at his inauguration and said reporters were “among the most dishonest human beings on earth”. For their reporting, he warned chillingly, “they’re going to pay a big price”.

On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, five States in the U.S. that have seen protests against police brutality and environmental degradation decided to move to criminalise dissent. Each of these Bills suggests a great hatred of protesters. In North Dakota, where water protectors continue to block an oil pipeline at Standing Rock, Republicans put forward a Bill in the legislature that would allow drivers to run over and kill any protester who tried to block a road. Minnesota and Iowa followed suit with Bills to stop highway protests, while Michigan’s Republicans sought to stop any picketing outside businesses. Washington State’s Republicans, meanwhile, want to reclassify any civil disobedience protests as “economic terrorism”. They are angry that environmentalists have been blocking the movement of trains that carry oil. If any of these Bills succeeds in becoming law, there is a possibility that other States will try to mimic them. Protests, even of the most peaceful kind, will be reclassified as terrorism.

Trump’s pen would itch to sign some sort of federal law that criminalises dissent. He will have before him, in quick succession, laws to repeal his predecessor Barack Obama’s health insurance scheme and protections for LGBTQ people, laws to restrict abortion rights, and laws to open up energy exploration. During the confirmation hearings, his nominees for important Cabinet positions refused to offer specific policies that would reveal their political stance. They stuck to generalities, hiding their social bigotry and class bias behind bureaucratic pabulum. The Democrats, weakened by their defeat and conscripted by their own allegiances to the wealthy, went through the charade but could not expose the nominees. Much of what Trump proposes to do had been part of the Democratic Party’s agenda—including breaking teachers’ unions and extending the War on Terror.

Even if the Trump nominees had been revealed as being ghastly, little could be done. During the presidential campaign in Sioux Centre (Iowa), Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” He meant that his voters were diehard loyalists. He was right. They admire him like a leech admires a bloody wound.