22 Jan

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While women marched around the world, press secretary Sean Spicer berated the media for ‘minimising the enormous support’ at Trump’s inauguration

Unofficial estimates say the Women’s March on Washington drew more than 1 million people to the capital. Hear the stories of four participants who decided to take to the streets and fight back against Donald Trump’s agenda

Hundreds of thousands of women turned Washington’s National Mall into a sea of pink on Saturday, sending the first concerted message of grassroots opposition to Donald Trump since he moved into the White House.

“Minority president”, “Women roar” and “I’m afraid” were among the signs waved by a crowd which was made up mostly of women but also comprised some men and which far exceeded turnout for Friday’s inauguration. Many wore pink handknit “pussy hats” – a rebuke to the billionaire businessman once caught on tape bragging about his ability to “grab” women “by the pussy”. Organisers estimated that more than a million people attended.

Later, in a blistering press room debut, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer accused the press of “minimising the enormous support” that had turned out for Trump the day before.

He first accused some media of “deliberately false reporting”, citing a “particularly egregious example” of a reporter tweeting that a bust of Martin Luther King Jr had been removed from the Oval Office. “This was irresponsible and reckless,” he said. The night before, he had tweeted “apology accepted” to the reporter, who had apologised for the mistake.

On Saturday Spicer went on to say that photographs of the inauguration “were intentionally framed in a way in one particular tweet to minimise the enormous support that gathered on the National Mall.”

Almost shouting, Spicer continued: “Inaccurate numbers involving crowd size were also tweeted. No one had numbers because the National Park Service, which controls the National Mall, does not put any out. By the way, this applies to any attempt to count the number of protesters today in the same fashion.”

Then, although he had just said that no one had numbers, Spicer claimed: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period … These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm for the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”

Spicer took no questions, and vaguely said the administration would “hold the press accountable”. Only a few hours earlier, President Trump had addressed CIA employees at the agency’s Virginia headquarters, where he mused at length on what he claimed to be the record crowd that witnessed it.

The Washington protest march was not the only one held in the US, however. From Atlanta to Phoenix, from Boston to Sacramento, “sister marches” staged a show of defiance by ordinary citizens determined to rebuke Trump’s values. An estimated 175,000 took to the streets of Chicago, the adopted home of former president Barack Obama.

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People pack the National Mall for the March in Washington

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Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.

Donald Trump is now the most powerful man on Earth. You would expect the American left to be despondent; it’s not. The left is stronger than it has been for decades. They are up against a president who lost the popular vote, who assumes office with the lowest approval rating on record, and whose party is riven by divisions. In November, Clintonian-centrism – whose compelling selling point was the ability to win – was defeated, plunging the American republic into its gravest crisis since the war.

Waleed Shahid is 25 years old, from Arlington, Virginia. At the inauguration I met him in a Washington fast-food restaurant with his fellow activist, Max Berger, a 31-year-old Jewish American from “a town of 15,000 people and four Dunkin’ Donuts” in central Massachusetts. Both are involved in All Of Us, one of the many new progressive organisations committed to taking on the Trump ascendancy.

Shahid’s father moved to the US from Pakistan four decades ago. “He’s literally been working in the same parking garage since 1973.” There were four books in his home growing up: the Qur’an, a collection of Punjabi poetry and two biographies: one of ex-Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the other of Hillary Clinton.

Obama had politically inspired both his parents for the first time, but their lives have not got any better. “My father had his wages and hours cut since 2008,” Shahid tells me, “and my mother’s healthcare has gone up even though Obama campaigned on this stuff.”

Both were part of the Bernie Sanders surge – and both are preparing to mobilise and fight. “We have to oppose normalisation,” says Shahid. “That won’t happen by the Democratic party alone. They need a countervailing political force to hold the Democratic party accountable to their voters, who are largely working-class people, and immigrants and people of colour.” For Shahid and Berger that means taking on the Democratic establishment.

“It includes change through elections if the Democratic party leadership aren’t going to stand for us and bring new leadership in.” For Berger, Trump’s victory cannot only be explained by a racial backlash on the part of a significant chunk of white working-class Americans. “Look at Trump’s last ad and what he articulates: there’s a global power structure, a global elite that has trillions of dollars at stake in this election.”

Yes, the antisemitic undertones of a political advertisement that focused on the likes of George Soros were clear, but it tapped into a powerful anti-establishment mood. “If we’re going to articulate a real alternative, we have to be as angry as the American people are, and we have to name the class, the individuals, who have screwed us over.”

A battle for the soul of the Democratic party now beckons. There are siren voices who claim that the Democrats were too radical, too vociferous in their support of women and minorities. But a powerful new movement is determined to transform the Democrats into a party that unapologetically challenges vested interests. Ben Wikler – Washington director of MoveOn, a key progressive network – was among those who desperately wanted Senator Elizabeth Warren to run for president. “I think if Elizabeth Warren had run she would have won the nomination and won the presidency,” he says without even flinching. But despite Sanders’ failure to win the nomination, he showed it was possible to run for president “as a progressive populist not beholden to the donor class, who challenges a Wall Street-dominated economy that is unbalanced, broken and corrupt”.

Wikler is determined that the Democrats learn from their past mistakes, but also from the Republicans’ success. Under George W Bush, he notes, Democrats attempted to cooperate with him: when tax cuts for the rich were proposed, they would attempt to weave in a tax cut for middle-income Americans then vote for the package. When Obama became president, on the other hand, even with record popularity, the Republicans were uncompromising in their opposition.

“The Democrats don’t need that level of political bravery to oppose Trump, and they will hear that from their constituents when they do anything that seems vaguely like cooperation,” he says.

The Republicans believed they would repeal Obama’s healthcare legislation instantly – “like a band-aid” – and that the legislation would unify their own party and divide the Democrats. The opposite has happened. The Republicans cannot agree on what to repeal and what to keep, what to replace the existing coverage with – and thousands of Americans are protesting, not just to keep their healthcare provision, but because they could inflict Trump’s first defeat.

As trade union leader David Rolf tells me, the only hope for the Democrats is “progressive economic populism – they have to stand up for what’s good for the majority of Americans even if it’s not good for the donor class of the Democrats”.

There is no path to victory for the Democrats in reverting to pro-establishment centrism. That doesn’t mean abandoning attempts to build broad coalitions. Greisa Martinez – advocacy director at United We Dream, which fights for undocumented workers – tells me: “I need to connect my experience to that of the white working-class person in the rust belt.” But she is very clear: she will not allow the Democrats “to throw us under the bus”.

The US left has learned the lessons from a centrist project that disastrously failed and a Republican party that never accepted the legitimacy of a president who – in stark contrast to Trump – twice won the popular vote.

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