WASHINGTON – It matters that the crowd for the Women’s March on Washington was far bigger than that for President Trump’s inauguration. The new president often boasts of having started a great movement. Let it be the one that was born with Saturday’s massive protests.
If size is important, and apparently to Trump it is, there was no contest. The Metro transit system recorded 1,001,613 trips on the day of the protest, the second-heaviest ridership in history – surpassed only by former president Obama’s inauguration in 2009. By contrast, just 570,557 trips were taken Friday, when Trump took the oath of office.
Those are the true facts, not the “alternative” ones the administration wants you to believe. A president obsessed with winning began his term by losing.
Among all the news of the past few days, I begin with crowd size because Saturday’s rallies and marches, in cities across the nation, were simply unprecedented. Perhaps half a million demonstrators, many wearing pink hats, filled the streets of Washington. Protests in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles also drew crowds measured in the hundreds of thousands, and there were big anti-Trump gatherings in Denver, Boston, Atlanta, Austin, San Antonio and other cities in the U.S. and around the world.
The White House predictably tried to blame the messenger. “There is an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we’re not going to sit around and let it happen,” Chief of Staff Reince Priebus complained to a skeptical Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.”
If Trump believes journalists can be so easily cowed, he’s in for a long four years.
The president is skilled at diversionary tactics. He has been known to pitch a fit in order to draw attention away from news he finds inconvenient or embarrassing. Indeed, while his spokespeople have been spewing nonsense about television ratings and such, the administration has taken significant steps. Trump signed an executive order beginning the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act; withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact; imposed hiring and pay freezes for federal workers; and reimposed a ban (lifted by the Obama administration) on U.S. aid to family planning groups that provide or “promote” abortions overseas.
But whether Trump’s ostentatious pique about the not-so-historic size of his inauguration crowd is real or feigned, the fact that so many more people came to town to protest Trump’s presidency than to celebrate it is important. The new administration ignores the passion we saw on Saturday at its own peril.
Remember that the tea party movement looked at first like nothing more than a rowdy, incoherent bunch of sore losers – until it swept Democrats out of power in the House in the 2010 midterm election.
I covered some of those early tea party rallies, and I saw similar levels of energy and engagement – and, yes, anger – at the women’s march. The millions who participated nationwide now constitute the kind of broad-based network that can be harnessed into effective political action. The Trump administration can haughtily dismiss the dissenters by saying, as the Obama administration once did, that elections have consequences. But the next election is right around the corner.
If progressives are going to recreate the tea party’s success, Saturday’s multitudes will have to begin organizing at the local level. They will have to field candidates not just for Congress but for governorships and state legislatures. They will have to develop policy positions that go beyond “stop Trump” – and that also go beyond traditional Democratic Party dogma.
The movement will look to lions such as Vermont’s independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., for guidance, but ultimately must find younger leadership with fresh ideas. The Democratic establishment now faces the same existential dilemma that the Republican establishment had to confront: adapt or step aside.
The administration will argue that, after a bitterly divisive campaign, it is time for the nation to come together behind the new president. No, it is not. We are in the midst of a political realignment that is nowhere near complete, and it is more important than ever that progressive voices make themselves heard.
We still need universal health care. We still need to reduce inequality. We still need to eliminate poverty. We still need to move toward a clean-energy economy. We still need immigration reform and criminal justice reform. And always remember: If Donald Trump can become president, nothing is impossible.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.