January 23, 2017, by Charlotte Anscombe

American Disruption

Professor Todd Landman reviews the inauguration of Donald Trump and the days that followed.

Friday 20 January  and Saturday 21 January 2017 will go down in American history as some of the most dramatic and starkly contrasting days in US politics for some time. The inauguration of Donald Trump on 20 January 2017 as the 45th President saw the usual pomp and circumstance, pace and cadence, monumental setting and platitudes typical of past events, but underlying Friday’s ceremony was a darker set of messages. Saturday saw a hugely successful set of women’s marches across the United States and the rest of the world that carried with them strong messages that challenged the politics of Trump.

In his inaugural speech Trump strayed little from his campaign discourse. It sounded much like his acceptance speech during the Republican National Convention in the summer. He painted a bleak and negative picture of America and pledged to end the ‘carnage’ immediately.

His speech was relatively short and devoid of any grand vision, rather, he borrowed a powerful populist phrase from The Dark Knight Rises. He pledged to give power back to the people, while reiterating a strong economic nationalism and new found American isolationism that celebrates national self-interest over global collective problem solving.

America First

His plans for ‘America First’ are in many ways logically inconsistent and require the very domestic and international partnerships for which he has uttered so much disdain.  His economic policies of cutting taxes for the very wealthy in American society, while committing to new investments in infrastructure could lead to ballooning deficits that will need to be addressed after any short term boost to the economy.

His roll back of the Affordable Care Act will cut costs in the short run, but in the absence of a plan to replace the act and as millions of Americans return to using emergency rooms for basic healthcare, costs will again climb at a rate faster than under Obama. In the face of increased precariousness for the very worse-off in society, Trump will have to work hard for those same people he inspired during the campaign. Equally, any trade protection measures, such as tariffs and quotas, will produce short term gain and more American jobs, but can be unsustainable in the long run without careful attenuation.

Internationally, his desire to eradicate Islamic terrorism requires transatlantic cooperation, since many terrorists are deeply embedded in the UK and across the Continent. He will need to work with the UK, Germany and France, as well as EU security agencies. He made a reference in his inauguration speech to old alliances and building new ones, which many fear involve an enhanced role for Russia at a time when the West is deeply worried about Putin’s own imperial advances.

Attendance was markedly lower for this inauguration than for Obama in 2009, an observation that brought an angry response from Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

The day’s schedule of events was punctuated by protests, collective boos along the parade route, and unfortunately, incidents of violence and vandalism. The new president and the first lady did a short walk about on the parade, while commentary over the weekend included the observation on the striking similarity between Melania Trump’s outfit and that which was worn by Jackie Kennedy.

The Power of Women

The day after the inauguration saw a huge set of women’s marches across the US and other cities in the world. Initially planned as a women’s march on Washington to articulate gender concerns over the personal behaviours of the president that came to light during the campaign as well as his proposed policies for healthcare and reproductive rights, the aims of the group expanded to include other rights concerns such as racism, gay rights, and other forms of social and political marginalisation envisaged in Trump’s world view.

The turnout for these marches was much higher than anticipated with social media awash with videos and pictures of cities across the world heaving with crowds often too big to follow planned routes.

These events saw feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem (now 82), who pleaded for all groups to come together, to be ‘linked and not ranked’; Alicia Keys who sang an impassioned rendition of ‘Girl on Fire’; Ashley Judd who offered a powerful rap and recited a poem ‘Nasty Woman’; and Scarlett Johansson who challenged the persistence of the gender pay gap.

Critics and dissenters of the march watched in bemused confusion and asked, ‘what are they marching for?’ and ‘what do they hope to achieve?’

In my Rights Track podcast released on the day of the inauguration, Professor Monica Casper, a sociologist and Managing Editor of The Feminist Wire explained that the marches, (and her own planned teach-in at the University of Arizona), were capturing a diverse set of concerns across a diverse set of groups. But beyond any academic analysis, I found that this explanation from a small business woman based in Las Vegas truly captures the essence of the marches:

‘I marched, so I can tell you why I marched, but first I will start by saying, I am not ignorant, I have not been manipulated, I’m very open-minded, & truly hope our new president does a great job. I marched to express what I expect from my representatives & to let them know they will be held accountable. I marched for equal rights and fair representation. I marched to say that as a woman, I expect to be treated with respect. I marched for religious freedom, I marched for women’s rights, I marched for racial equality. I marched for LGBT rights. I marched for all Americans.’

Achieving Impact

The larger question about the impact of these marches remains open. Turnout registers dissent and discontent. But today Donald Trump is still the President of the United States and today we expect a range of new Executive Orders that seek to unravel much of the Obama legacy.

Movements come and go, as we have seen with the Occupy movement, where initial enthusiasm can turn out large numbers, but sustained collective action can prove very challenging indeed.

Historian Anne Applebaum argues that protest itself is simply insufficient for bringing about change or challenging the plans of the new Trump Administration.

Real change comes from commitment, hard work, and mobilised networks and epistemic communities dedicated to working on specific issues in specific places. The call to action from this weekend’s marches was not simply to turn up, but to get involved, to run for office, to donate time, energy and money, and to remind Mr Trump that ‘the people’ is a large and diverse group that extends far beyond those who voted for him.

Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science and Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences. His book Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics (with Edzia Carvalho) is now out in its Fourth Edition with Routledge. He has appeared on BBC Breakfast, CNN, Channel 4 News, Al Jazeera, TRT and Sky News.


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