Anti-Trump protesters took to the streets the day after their target took the oath of office, creating the largest demonstration in American history. This Women’s March wasn’t limited to Washington, DC, where more than 700,000 people packed into the National Mall, nearly three times the number who showed up for the iconic March on Washington in 1963. In 2017, the demonstration was so crowded that there really wasn’t enough space for anyone to actually march. And, unlike the civil rights demonstration, the Women’s March wasn’t confined to the capital; hundreds of sister demonstrations marched across the United States and around the world, including more than 400,000 people in Los Angeles and between 18 and 22 protesters in Beaver Island, Michigan. More than 4 million people joined the Women’s March, with at least another 300,000 globally. (These figures come from an ambitious crowd sourcing effort led by political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman)
The showing was remarkable, and participants could return home and fold their pink pussy hats, knowing that they were not alone in their opposition to Trump, the policies he promised, nor in their willingness to do something about it. That sense of satisfaction might have been short-lived.
The next day, Donald Trump was still president. Not visibly embarrassed or chastened, Trump’s administration set about delivering on at least some of the policies marchers found offensive or dangerous, and in a manner that reinforced their misgivings. A year later, much of this is still the same: the demonstrators have little reason to reconsider their opposition as the Trump administration routinely lives up to its opponents’ harshest caricatures of it.
This doesn’t mean that the Women’s March was a failure or a wasted effort, only that the process of social change is more time-consuming, complicated, and difficult than people might think.
We edit our histories to emphasize dramatic events and consequences, but to understand the process of change we need to recall at least some of what comes in between. King George didn’t cede the colonies in direct response to the Boston Tea Party, but that protest animated and inspired the Independence movement. Rosa Parks spent more than a decade in the civil rights movement before refusing to move to the back of a bus, and it took more than a year of a bus boycott plus a court case before Montgomery bus drivers stopped enforcing racial segregation. And the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King delivered the “I have a dream speech,” was first proposed 22 years earlier. Focusing on the most dramatic events is like reading only the punctuation marks in far longer and more complicated stories.
The Women’s March is one of those critical and dramatic events, and its influence continued over the past year, and will extend beyond its anniversary commemoration. The marchers went home, but they didn’t stay there. Just one week later, alerted through social media, Women’s Marchers and others turned up at the major international airports to protest Trump’s travel ban, as lawyers offered free services to passengers stuck in the ban’s awkward debut. Opponents challenged the ban not only at the airports but also in the courts, a challenge that continues.
The airport protests were followed by marches and demonstrations for immigrants, science, the environment, health care, fair taxation, LGBT rights, and for Truth (about the Trump campaign’s Russia connections). This list is, of course, partial and covers only large national events. Activists also staged thousands of protests across the country, addressing many issues and employing a wide range of tactics. Activists staged silent vigils, rallies, town hall meetings, and civil disobedience in legislators’ offices, and preemptively threatened more—most recently, planned demonstrations should Trump fire Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. Each protest recruited some new activists, most of whom did not return home and give up on politics.
And it’s not just protest. Demonstrating is generally an addition rather than an alternative to more conventional politics. A single protest is usually one part of a larger political campaign, and just a piece of an activist’s life. Demonstrators are more likely to follow politics, talk with neighbors, vote, and more. Supporters who watch the protest online or read about it the next day, are also likely to be inspired and engaged to do something else. In the wake of the Women’s March, its key sponsors, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, received record donations. Alerted by the protests, many Americans spent more time on the news, tracking both provocative policies and activist efforts. Indivisible was the most visible of the new groups pushing activists to conventional politics, supporting calls to legislators’ offices and town hall meetings.
The Women’s March was only the largest early event in an emerging Trump Resistance movement that has already filtered into mainstream politics. The demonstrations stiffen the spines of allies in government, and weaken the resolve of some opponents. Civil servants and political appointees see support for holding onto their missions and the law when challenged by the administration. Supportive elected officials see support for staking out strong positions. Trump supporters in office reconsider their own positions. Witness, for example, the recent rash of Congressional retirements, as politicians don’t want to face the forces the Resistance movement has stirred. The protests force politicians to respond to questions on politics and policy, explaining, often poorly, the reasons behind unpopular policies. They help set the agenda for both politicians and media.
The Women's March also inspired individuals to work in campaigns to replace the politicians they could not convince, and not just the president. At least a half-dozen surprisingly successful first-time candidates for the Virginia House of Delegates cited the Women's March as inspiration. The new connections and organizations have built a growing infrastructure that will animate the electoral campaigns of the fall. This year’s Women’s March has explicitly set engaging the November elections as a major goal for the movement. Meanwhile, those who marched — or cheered the marchers — will also knock on doors, make phone calls, write letters, and vote. Their influence will be felt, but it takes time and a great deal of work.
Does protest matter? Not by itself, but in combination with a broad range of other purposeful actions. And victories are never all that activists demand; sometimes, stopping an opponent from doing something awful is a start at something bigger. Sometimes, an early loss leads to greater mobilization and longer term influence. Remember, the Tea Party’s prime objective in 2009 was to prevent Obama’s passage of the Affordable Care Act. That movement failed—in the short run — but its effects are still roiling American politics.
If the Women’s March were only one day in January, it would be unlikely to change much at all. But when it inspires and connects those who march, invigorating citizen action in the in-between times, it can help change the world. The less visible, less dramatic events in-between, including protest, politics, and conversation, aren’t always newsworthy, but they make democracy work. The arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice when engaged citizens pull it.