Big protests after elections are usually the hallmarks of countries with weak democratic systems. The United States can take justifiable pride in its robust electoral institutions and its centuries of continuous democratic practice. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, however, demonstrators have flocked to the streets of cities and university campuses across the country. An imminent Trump presidency has so alarmed many Americans that rallies against the president-elect may become a fixture of civic life in places like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
These protests are not meant to challenge the legitimacy of the election (even though he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly two million, Trump won the “electoral college” fairly). Rather, the protests send a clear message of disapproval. Huge swathes of the country see his presidency as abominable and as posing an unprecedented threat to the nation and the world.
My wife and I joined over 25,000 people on November 12 in a march up New York’s Fifth Avenue to Trump Tower, the skyscraper which, if reports are to be believed, Trump would like to use as the headquarters of his presidency rather than the White House. Protestors had assembled at Trump Tower every day since his victory. An astonishingly thin-skinned man, Trump initially bristled at these demonstrations, dismissing marchers as “professional protestors” stirred by the media. Later, possibly coaxed by his staff into a more magnanimous mood, he tweeted that he respected the expression of free speech. Trump’s attempts at presidential grace so far are stiff and unnatural, their veneer of decorum not masking the churning bile beneath.
As happens in most public gatherings in New York City, the crowds that mobilised against Trump were remarkably diverse. The caricature of the “liberal” in American politics — and the one deployed by Trump and his surrogates during the campaign — is of an effete urbanite, typically white, well-off and out-of-touch. A city like New York helplessly belies such stereotypes. We marched alongside people of many ages, races, classes, and religions, from Spanish-chanting Puerto Ricans to black families pushing strollers to white men demanding shelter for refugees to students yelling about women’s rights. It may be that manifestations of this kind become more pointed in the coming months, voicing concrete demands or pushing for specific legislation. But the protests in this first week since Trump’s victory are still inchoate, swelling out of shock and surprise, a mustering of the varied, multicultural citizenry his campaign traduced. We were united by our horror at the election’s outcome and by the resolve that in the absence of many traditional checks and balances, Trump’s presidency must be challenged by an engaged public.
When he becomes president on January 20, Trump will have considerably more power than Barack Obama had for much of his presidency. Both houses of Congress are in Republican hands. Trump’s agenda can be forced through the legislature that his party controls. After appointing a new Supreme Court justice, Trump will have a conservative-leaning judiciary as well.
The many atrocious policy ideas floated through his campaign include the forceful deportation of over 10 million migrants; the use of torture; withdrawal from a gamut of international treaties and the shirking of America’s responsibilities to its allies; engaging in trade wars; reintroducing “stop and frisk” police practices that unconstitutionally target black and Latino males; abandoning efforts to curb climate change; banning Muslim immigration and creating a registry to track Muslim Americans; attacking organs of the press he deems antagonistic; and encouraging other nations to develop nuclear weapons. This mooted platform is the stuff of nightmares, altogether authoritarian, racist, xenophobic, and likely to spawn chaos at home and abroad. Even if just dimly reflected in the actions of his presidency, it promises barbarity and disaster.
Trump is not just another president. He is a man who, by all accounts, has never read a book, has proven singularly incapable of basic human empathy, has exploited his employees, built his political career on racist smears of Obama, and stands accused by numerous women of sexual violence. The Ku Klux Klan is organising rallies across the country to celebrate his win. Of all the many ascendant Right-wing forces in western politics, Trump is the most extreme, the least disciplined, and the most empowered.
And yet the democratic process is allowing Trump to be normalised. Obama graciously accepted him into the White House. In defeat, Clinton urged the country to unite under his stewardship. The broadcast media is beginning to place Trump within the benign frame of elected office. This isn’t surprising. No matter how abhorrent, Trump is wholly the product of the democratic process. That is why I suspect there will continue to be protests across the country, to wake the public not only against the policies of this improbable president, but against the system that enthroned him.