REUTERS, WASHINGTON ― In what may wind up being the biggest single-day demonstration in American history, millions of women and men took to the streets around the country Saturday to call for gender equality and express opposition to the Trump administration. How many millions is an open question.
This weekend has seen a huge number of demonstrations across America and around the world, following the inauguration of President Donald Trump. The demonstrators, who are mainly women, are demonstrating to preserve the advances in gender equality won over the last 50 years. The election of a self-confessed sexual predator to the most powerful elected office in the world has shaken people everywhere. His talk of taking America back to an earlier, imagined world with more traditional values and his railing again 'Political Correctness' makes people concerned that all the advances in equality over this period are under threat. They worry that he wants to take America back to a time when there were few opportunities for women in the workplace, to a time when abortion was illegal and a time when women could not apply for a credit card. The direction of social progress was taken for granted but there is widespread concern that this may be reversed.
For his entire campaign, the conventional wisdom was that a Trump victory was impossible. At the start of the campaign, The Huffington Post covered him in the Entertainment section. For him to win, he would have to break every rule of modern politics. He didn't have a conventional organisation on the ground, he was at war with his party leadership, he insulted large sections of the population, he criticised a celebrated war hero, he was wildly inconsistent, he lied, he was the first Presidential candidate in recent memory to refuse to release his tax returns, he admired brutal dictators more than elected leaders and he was recorded discussing his history of sexual assault, or as he described it, "locker room talk". In the first Republican Debate, Trump was challenged by the moderator, Megyn Kelly on his history of offensive and sexist comments about women. He could have responded by apologising for his past mistakes, admitted that this behaviour has no place in modern society and committed to being a better person in the future. What did he do? He doubled down and made a joke out of it by suggesting he was only referring to Rosie O'Donnell, a Trump critic he had previously described as "a disgusting slob".
Trump winning the election should have been impossible but despite losing the popular vote by 3 million votes, he won enough votes in the right places to comfortably win the Electoral College. Just saying 'President Trump' reduces people to head-shaking disbelief.
This is the background to this weekend's demonstrations. His election has galvanised people to take action and millions of women around the world have taken to the streets in the company of an army of celebrities ranging from Madonna to Amy Schumer to Emma Thompson. Having said we have just witnessed an impossible election, are the demonstrations we have seen this weekend the start of a fight back? Will this be the start of a movement that will restore sanity and resume the march of social progress? As inspiring as the demonstrations have been, I am troubled by a number of things. Not for the first time, Donald seems to understand something about the country that the 'experts' have missed. He reached for his trusty Samsung phone and took to Twitter:
"Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly."
As much as it pains me to say it, he's not wrong.
Discussion of the Woman's March started online the night of the election as the result became clear. As people were feeling shocked and despondent, the idea of coming together to protest in what feels like a virtuous cause is uplifting and intoxicating. But despite what is a remarkable show of force, the details of voting data tell a different story about women and Trump.
Many women not only voted for him but were key in getting him over the top.
Overall, Clinton picked up 54 percent of women voters compared with Trump’s mere 42 percent, but Trump outperformed Clinton among white women, winning 53 percent of voters in that demographic. Drilling down further, he beat Clinton among white women without college degrees by 27 points. In the three states that decided the election — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — that margin was enough to send Trump to the White House.
So what is going on here? If every criticism of Trump is true, and it is, how did this happen? How could a majority of white women vote for such a man? Whatever the answer to these questions, are the shows of female solidarity around the world going to do anything to address the situation? To answer these questions we need to return to the 'Wisdom of The Donald'. There was an election last November and white women voted clearly for Trump. A part of Trump's appeal is the fact that he stands against an out-of-touch Establishment, so a campaign fronted by worthy, concerned celebrities probably isn't going to convince many of these female Trump voters that they made a mistake. There is one bit of data that might explain the contrast between the election result and the turnout over the weekend. The turnout in the election was 53%. How many of the demonstrators actually voted? I have a sinking feeling that many of them were in the 47% that didn't vote. If my hunch is right, I think we have come across one of the major problems with modern hashtag activism. Social media makes it easy to build momentum around issues like this but usually it becomes a discussion between believers in an echo chamber rather than bringing converts to the cause. Using Facebook and Twitter to express your anger makes you feel good but I question what else it achieves. Remember the Occupy movement? What lasting changes did it achieve? I can't think of any.
Something similar happened in last year's EU Referendum. Young people were strongly in favour of remaining in the EU but if the turnout of under-30s had been the same as the turnout of over 60s, the UK would still be in the EU. There is absolutely no substitute for the act of voting if you want to either change society or stop it from going in the wrong direction.
Sadly, Progressives in the US need to learn from their fellow citizens on the Right. After the financial crisis, people on the Right angry at the bailout and the stimulus bill came together under the Tea Party banner. Yes, they too had their demonstrations with funny hats, but that wasn't an end in itself. They organised. They went to meetings. The took over the grassroots of the Republican Party. Most vitally, got their candidates elected to the point that they now pretty much control the House of Representatives. While there are differences between Trump's policies and the core concerns of the Tea Party, it is clear there is a huge overlap between Tea Party activists and the hordes who turned up at Trump's rallies.
So here is my appeal to the women at these demonstrations once the post-demo glow subsides...don't retreat back into your Twitter timeline or your Facebook group. Speak to people who don't agree with you and try to understand why they feel the way they do. Work out how to get your message across in a way that convinces these non-believers. Don't lose sight of what kinds of action will help to change society in your direction. Progress on social issues is not inevitable and can't be taken for granted. Organise, stand for election and most important.......VOTE.