By Cameron Rasmusson
Editor’s Note: Cameron Rasmusson has been in Washington, D.C. the past ten days and is reporting based on first hand observations of Inauguration Day and the subsequent Women’s March.
Donald Trump is president of the United States. Millions of Americans are terrified at what that means for them or their loved ones.
Those two facts inevitably characterized inauguration weekend, which saw the New York billionaire assume control of the world’s most powerful office. It also saw, according to the best projections by crowd experts, nearly 500,000 people take to the streets to protest that assumption, demanding that religious, racial, sexual identity and gender expression protections and women’s health and reproduction rights not be curtailed.
Polarized Trump supporters and Women’s March attendees mixed with predictable volatility in Washington, D.C., including a series of protests that turned violent on Inauguration Day. It was also a weekend of unexpected grace, at least for those who looked for it.
“I really don’t think the divide [between conservatives and liberals] is as bad as the media makes it out to be,” said Travis Thompson, a Sandpoint-based Trump supporter who helped organize the D.C.-bound motorcycle group 2 Million Bikers for Trump.
Thompson arrived at that conclusion after spending time at the Women’s March, where he said he spent the day talking with marchers and hearing their stories. He said that for the most part, he was able to maintain calm and constructive conversations despite profound ideological differences.
“They were conversations where both people could discuss different ideas and still leave feeling [like they were] better off,” he said.
Thompson had an unexpected ally in Van Jones, a liberal political commentator and Women’s March speaker. He cautioned the overwhelmingly left-wing masses about the dangers of despising one’s ideological opponents.
“Liberals and progressives, we’ve got to be better liberals and progressives,” he said. “I’m tired of hearing us say ‘love trumps hate’ but sometimes sound more hateful than Trump. I’m tired of us—and I’ve been guilty of it—putting down red state voters and saying that they’re all stupid and they’re all uneducated. We have to stop that.”
Nevertheless, Jones didn’t let Republicans off the hook for their support of Trump, a figure he finds antithetical to the spirit of conservatism.
“We love the conservatives enough to tell them they have to be better conservatives than this,” he said “… Real conservatives love the Constitution, and we have a president who seems to be an authoritarian. Real conservatives stand up for and believe in clean government, and we have a president who seems to be committed to a kleptocracy.”
Other speakers struck less harmonious notes. Madonna mentioned that she “had thought a lot about blowing up the White House,” a comment she later walked back and claimed was taken out of context.
Jones and Madonna were just a fraction of the Women’s March speakers, which included everyone from feminist luminaries like Gloria Steinem to Hollywood and music superstars like Scarlett Johansson and Alicia Keys. For liberals, it was an abundance of riches, and perhaps too much of a good thing. The crowd grew impatient as the rally ballooned an hour past the scheduled 1:15 p.m. march time and event organizers continued to introduce speaker after speaker. Cold, weary of standing and in many cases unable to access bathrooms, the crowd began chanting, “March! March! March!”
When at last the marching began, the crowd movement turned out to be more of a shuffle. The sheer numbers slowed movement to a snail’s pace. Indeed, the Women’s March achieved its goal even before the walking began. According to organizers, the crowd sprawl extended to its Washington Monument end point through size alone. Crowds eventually gathered on the Ellipse near the White House’s southernmost gate, where many chose to leave their signs demanding equal rights and protections under the law.
In the balance, it was a peaceful day despite the massive turnout. According to NBC News, D.C. police had no reports of arrests by 6 p.m. on the day of the march.
It’s a stark contrast to the previous day, when groups of masked anarchists turned some Trump protests into scenes of chaos. They lit a limo on fire, broke shop windows and injured several police. In turn, law enforcement used harsh enforcement measures like batons, pepper spray and concussion grenades, ultimately arresting 230 people.
The rioting followed an inaugural ceremony and address the likes of which historians struggled to find parallels. Trump built upon the narrative established during the presidential campaign, characterizing America as a nation of forgotten everymen trapped under the thumb of a corrupt elite.
“This American carnage stops right here, and it stops right now,” he said.
The crowd of inauguration attendees, dotted by the now-iconic “Make America great again” hats, responded enthusiastically to Trump’s message. They were less receptive to remarks by Chuck Schumer, booing so loudly that in the blue standing section near the U.S. Capitol, the New York senator could no longer be heard. After the ceremonies ended, the crowd dispersed without incident.
It was an exhilarating day for Thompson, a chance to enjoy a moment he believes represents a positive cultural shift. Having secured tickets for the event, he and his companions met an elderly woman who had been separated from her group. After the inauguration, he escorted her back to her hotel room.
“She basically became our adopted friend for the day,” he said.
As an organizer for a large, pro-Trump biker group, he also received attention from major media outlets, including NBC News, ABC News, People Magazine and Agence France-Presse, a French international news organization. Initially hesitant about the reporters’ intentions, he followed through on interviews with several.
On the other hand, he faced an initial suspicion when he attempted to engage the leaders of other pro-Trump biker groups. Thompson said he’s no stranger to overcoming a sense of tribalism.
“I’m just going to try and help everyone out, because for me, it’s all about the big picture,” he said.
It’s anyone’s guess whether America will achieve the renewed sense of unity that people like Thompson or Jones seek. With a historically unpopular president at the nation’s helm—Time places Trump at a 40-percent approval rating, the lowest of any recent incoming president— it’s easy to side with the pessimists. Jones, in his Women’s March speech, urged Americans to resist that impulse.
“This movement has an opportunity to stand up for the underdogs in the red states and the blue states, to stand up for the Muslims and the dreamers and the black folks but also to stand up for coal miners who are going to be thrown under the bus by Donald Trump,” he said. “… When it gets harder to love, let’s love harder.”