Women’s March on Washington DC, January 21 © Raymond Meeks

Much of America is still in the grip of winter but, each and every weekend, the streets of its cities have seen a spectacular flowering of protest. Rightwing politicians and talk-radio hosts have become so accustomed to casting themselves as the Voice of the People that witnessing another lot of people — counted in their millions — from one end of the country to another refusing to go quietly into the night of Trumpian government has taken them by surprise.

So they have resorted to the “Usual Suspects” theory to explain the phenomenon. Taking a page from the Nixon playbook, press spokesman Sean Spicer has said that the demonstrators must have been paid and that unlike the Tea Party, the anti-Trump movement lacks “organic” character.

But if those affronted by mass dissent believe that it represents nothing more than a passing shower of student snowflakes, they are in for a big spring surprise.

Militant hostility to the Trump programme is not going away any time soon, any more than the fact that he lost the popular vote by nearly three million is going to fade from the historical record. This opposition is not the whine of a fringe minority, it’s the roar of the crowd.

Women’s March on Washington DC, January 21 © Raymond Meeks

During the first month of Trump’s presidency not a weekend has passed without a mass march of some sort. When the Women’s March on Washington was announced for the day after the inauguration, there was a tremor of apprehension along with the spontaneous surge of activism.

Suppose the numbers didn’t materialise? A damp squib would have put out the fire before it had a chance to blaze. In the event, the organisers and everyone else were dumbfounded by the scale of the protests. In cities such as Boston and Los Angeles the crowds were so thick on the ground that actual marching became impossible.

Normally, popular protests have a hard time sustaining themselves. But the unrelenting cascade of executive orders coming from the White House has been a gift that keeps on giving to the outraged.

The executive order banning admission from the seven majority-Muslim countries identified (on the basis of no evidence) as the most terrorist-infested, triggered protests at airports and the improbable appearance of massed immigration lawyers offering help to the barred.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington sped to Sea-Tac Airport to denounce the action and vow defiance, a promise made good by his attorney-general’s successful suit for a stay. During the Obama years, local resistance to federal fiats was the monopoly of the right. Now the shoe is on the other foot as protest roots itself in states and cities hostile to presidential overreach.

***

Women’s March on New York, January 21 © Christopher Anderson

All this can, of course, be written off as so much kumbaya sentimentality, no match for the reality of hard power. What remains of the Tahrir Square springtime, of the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong?

But stamping on opposition is trickier in a democracy protected by a written constitution. Orders by the likes of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon for the press to “shut up and listen” are met with hoots of derision. Trump is not yet Turkey’s President Erdogan, dealing as he wants with the inconvenience of a free press. Every time he denounces the “failing” New York Times, its subscriptions go up.

Though Trumpians like to berate the opposition as an out-of-touch elite, much of it is rooted in the daily lives of the middle and working class. As it sinks in that the repeal of “Obamacare”, long the rallying cry of the Tea Party right, will leave millions without insurance except at punitive cost, the Republican party has suddenly begun to duck and dive away from making it happen.

Town hall meetings in rock-ribbed Republican districts like Congressman Jason Chaffetz’s constituency in Utah have been overrun by infuriated crowds. This is happening in Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina: politicians used to preening self-congratulation have been forced to cancel their events, close them early or beat a hasty retreat through the back door. Something unexpected is going on.

Trump’s aides are given to boasting that he has already accomplished the impossible. In one respect this is true: he has given the kiss of life to the Democratic party. Campaigning, Trump posed as the enemy of Wall Street; he now has a cabinet stuffed with billionaires, about to gift the ultra-rich with a stupendous tax cut, even as he refuses to disconnect fully from his businesses or make his tax returns public.

The next mass march has been cannily planned for April 15, the day on which Americans file their tax returns. Expect uproar.

Women’s March on New York, January 21 © Christopher Anderson

About one thing, the president has been right: his rallies, with their shouted choruses of hatred, were a better index of his appeal than any opinion poll. But they have met their match in the other kind of phenomenon more deeply embedded in American history: the secular church of citizen-fellowship on the march.

In the 19th century it mobilised millions for abolition; in the 20th it changed hearts and minds about civil rights and the Vietnam war. It has now reappeared in the name of constitutional decencies and the cause of truth over the welter of lies: non-existent “rampant” voting fraud, the myth parroted by the attorney-general of violent crime as “a dangerous permanent trend”; the demonising of immigrants by their religion.

Beyond the festival of signs, beyond the pink pussy hats, beyond the millions of marching feet a great trial awaits for the future of the United States and, by extension, the fate of the world. 

Women’s March on New York, January 21 © Thomas Prior
Women’s March on New York, January 21 © Thomas Prior
Protests against Trump’s executive order banning admission from seven majority-Muslim countries, New York, January 29 © Graham Macindoe
Protests against Trump’s executive order banning admission from seven majority-Muslim countries, New York, January 29 © Graham Macindoe
Women’s March on New York, January 21 © Samantha Casolari
Women’s March on New York, January 21 © Samantha Casolari

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

This selection of images taken by five photographers across America has been curated by Emma Bowkett, director of photography at FT Weekend Magazine

Photographs: Webber Represents; Magnum Photos

Letters in response to this article:

List of seven countries had been defined by Obama / From Stephen Jennions, London E20, UK

Pure theatre, and without any follow-on commitment / From Margaret McGirr

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article