Those of us who see the election of Donald Trump as a calamity for American democracy could take heart, the day after his poorly attended inauguration, in some of the biggest demonstrations in recent years. More than a million people, largely women, filled the streets and squares of Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and many other cities around the world in a stunning explosion of political energy.
It would be easy to dismiss this extraordinary mass spurning of Trump as, “Too late!” However low his approval ratings, an ego-driven unilateralist is now ensconced as president for four years — proverbially a very long time in politics and certainly long enough to ruin a country, perhaps even the world at large. It is easier still to mock Madonna, the original Material Girl, who called for “sacrifice” and “revolution” at the march in Washington.
But even the most cynical view of this weekend’s protests would acknowledge the necessity of citizens actively participating in the political process and putting their elected officials on notice. Trump’s menacing inaugural speech was a reminder of how much is at stake in the next four years and how imperative political resistance will be.
Back in 2008, Barack Obama seemed, briefly, to be politicizing and mobilizing a broad cross-section of the American public. But Obama seemed unable to deploy effectively the mass base of passionate activists his insurgent candidacy had created. His former supporters also failed to organize pressure on either Obama or his Republican adversaries to reform an increasingly dysfunctional and unresponsive politics in Washington. This is why the charismatic figure that had energized many with the slogan “Yes We Can” mutated so quickly into “no-drama Obama,” a coolly professional technocrat rather than inspiring leader.
Of course, the inequality and feelings of powerlessness that had made even many white American workers vote for a black candidate didn’t disappear. The potential for grass-roots politics explored and then abandoned by Obama was exploited by the fringe right, starting with the tea party. And conspiracy theorists and fake-news vendors began to surf the social media wave on which Obama had ridden to power.
Meanwhile, the mere presence of a black family in the White House created the complacent expectation among many that progress was inevitable and irreversible. As Madonna confessed this weekend, “It seems as though we had all slipped into a false sense of comfort. That justice would prevail and that good would win in the end.”
Few people outside the West can afford such illusions. I write from Myanmar, whose long postponed transition to democracy is stalked by the dangers of authoritarian or mob rule, and may not succeed at all. The abrupt empowerment of demagogues in the very heart of the modern West reminds us that no one anywhere should assume that the landmarks of progress are secure. The beasts of racism and misogyny constantly lurk in their shadow, waiting for an opportune moment to pull them down.
It’s also important to remember that the landmarks themselves were erected only after much arduous struggle with the mighty forces of the status quo. It took many sacrifices to end segregation, and much remains to be done to heal its deep, lingering wounds. After fighting for the right to vote, women’s battle for equality at home and work is far from over.
It is true that politics, overcome by economic imperatives and captured by special interests, has become too disconnected from ordinary citizens, even as social media has made it seem deceptively informal and accessible. Citizens remain marginal, reduced to consuming opinion and information, and venting their fury on Twitter and Facebook while their lives continue to be dictated by opaque forces.
If this weekend’s political energies are sustained — and that’s a big “if” for now — many people will at least feel empowered enough to challenge the most ideologically truculent administration in modern American history. I have previously thanked Trump for inadvertently highlighting, during his campaign, such neglected evils as Islamophobia. I would be infinitely more grateful if as president, he now manages to incite a broad awakening to the ethical responsibilities of democratic citizenship.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”