The author was one of many hundreds of thousands who joined the anti-Trump Women’s March in New York City on the weekend. In this ‘Letter from America’ he writes that it was exhausting, claustrophobic but, ultimately, liberating.
At noon on January 20, Inauguration Day, Donald Trump placed his grubby little hand on the nationally treasured, leather-bound Bible that had belonged to Abraham Lincoln – a holy Bible, if ever there was one – took the oath of office, and became the 45th president of these United States.
And thus it came to pass – the sardonic prediction published in the Baltimore Sun on July 20, 1920, by H.L. Mencken, perhaps America’s most enduringly famous journalist:
“As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Well, he’s here. And where does that leave me? I have felt, since the die was cast on election day, like a stranger in a strange land, no longer at home in my country. How could millions of people vote for this guy?
Reactionary tribalism, I can understand – not sympathise with, but understand. Anti-immigrant hysteria, ditto. Misogyny and cruel mockery of the disabled, not so much. But what completely defied comprehension, what I could never get my head around, was how so many of my erstwhile compatriots could fall under the spell of such an obvious, indeed notorious, court-certified, Grade-A-Number-One con artist.
Lincoln’s famous dictum came to mind, but failed to comfort me: “You can fool some of the people all of the time. You can fool all of the people some of the time. But you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”
But finally, after this weekend, I do feel comforted. I am no longer a stranger. I once again feel at home, because on Saturday, the very first day that Trump climbed out of bed as president, we who oppose him, we who want to resist him – we stood up, we came out, we marched together. There is a We! And we are legion.
Let’s pause to consider that word, legion. In the army of ancient Rome, it meant 3000 to 6000 soldiers. Today, it means a very great number. How great a number? The answer to that question is very important to me, because I know it’s vitally important to Donald Trump.
I was hoping that Trump’s inauguration would draw far fewer people than Barack Obama’s did, because I knew falling short would drive Trump crazy. It did, and it did.
And I knew that if the Women’s March on Washington the day after his coronation, err, inaugural, drew far more people than the inauguration itself, that would drive him even crazier – and it did, and it did!
The sister march I joined in New York City also dwarfed Trump’s get-together – not to mention the 670 other anti-Trump events nationwide and overseas, from Antarctica (really) to Anchorage, from London to Sydney.
Size matters. Let’s look at some numbers: The “crowd” (to deploy the word liberally) on and around the Washington Mall for Trump’s inauguration totalled about 160,000, according to Marcel Altenburg and Keith Still, crowd scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University in Britain, who studied photos and video.
On the same basis, they estimate that Obama’s 2009 inauguration drew some 1.8 million people, and that 470,000 people came together at the Mall for Saturday’s anti-Trump Women’s March on Washington.
— Binyamin Appelbaum (@BCAppelbaum) January 20, 2017
In New York City, the mayor’s office estimated that 400,000 marched through midtown Manhattan toward Trump Tower. If you’ve seen aerial shots of endless marchers on Fifth Avenue, you need to triple that image. It was a U-shaped route, and Fifth Avenue was just the final leg. I walked in a packed crowd for two-and-a-half hours before bailing out without ever reaching Fifth Avenue.
It was tiring, it was claustrophobic, and it was so, so fun! Going back to the anti-Vietnam War marches of the 1960s, I have never seen nor felt such a good-natured crowd. Even the cops were all smiles.
Notably, I saw not one instance of ego-tripping. No one wanted to stand out as more important than anyone else. Maybe it was the delightfully ridiculous pink pussycat hats so many of us were wearing.
I’m smiling just thinking about it: the wonderful feeling of being together. We were big. Trump was small. Even the chants diminished him, in a good-natured, amusing way: “Hands too small/to build a wall!” and “We want a leader! Not a creepy Tweeter!”
As I’d expected, Trump went nuts.
On Saturday, visiting the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, he spent about two minutes falsely denying that he’d ever spoken ill of the agency (he compared the American intelligence community to Nazis about a week ago), then slid into a rambling disquisition about his epic inaugural.
He claimed there’d been a million, maybe a million-and-a-half people there, and that the news media had used photos of “an empty field” to try to fool the public into thinking the turnout was small.
“We caught them in a beauty,” he said of the media, “and I think they’re going to pay a big price.”
Then Trump sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer, to the White House briefing room for the very first time, to tell an incredulous press corps: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”
On Sunday morning, the new President tweeted, somewhat incoherently:
Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2017
The same morning, on the influential national news program, Meet The Press, host Chuck Todd asked Trump’s senior advisor Kellyanne Conway why Spicer had clearly lied – as anyone could see by comparing pictures. Conway insisted that Trump’s press secretary didn’t lie, he “gave alternative facts”.
Where have we encountered this sort of thing before? Oh, yeah, Orwell’s 1984: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Is that the plan? To destroy the very idea of truth? To drive us mad?
Or is Trump crazy? Does he know that he and his minions are lying? Is Trump delusional, believing every word that he says? If he is crazy, is it really a good idea to march, confront, and provoke him to be even crazier?
It’s a gamble. Inflaming Trump’s insecurities has a downside risk: He could impulsively start a war with, say, China, to display his magnificent strength and divert attention from the inadequacy he desperately needs to hide.
But the upside – my hope – is that if we can goad him, with massive public rejections of his presidency, into lashing out and acting even more erratically, the establishment of both parties will quickly move to rein him in and wall him off from the levers of power (not to mention the nuclear codes), before he destroys us all.
James S. Kunen is the author of several books, including The Strawberry Statement. He lives in Brooklyn.