It was unseasonably warm and seasonably wet in North Carolina over the weekend, and the 17,000 people in Raleigh who had not made the five-hour drive to Washington stood tightly packed in muddy grass for almost three hours of marching and speeches.
No one was arrested in Raleigh on Saturday. That is saying something in this divided state. Many of the people in attendance have been more or less permanently mobilized against the state’s Tea Party legislature since spring of 2013, when more than 1,000 were arrested in peaceful disobedience at the state capitol. Just this December, nearly sixty people were arrested at the capitol, protesting a series of laws that a special session of the legislature used to weaken the power of the North Carolina governor—not coincidentally, just before Democrat Roy Cooper replaced Republican Pat McCrory, whom he defeated by about 10,000 votes in a fiercely fought campaign. When commentators tell us that Trump’s victory means we need consistent mobilization, constant vigilance, and fresh willingness to take risks and disobey, we Carolinians nod knowingly. We’ve been here for years.
The march represented just one moment in weeks of organizing. The weekend before the inauguration was packed with dinners, teach-ins, and other meetings where people pledged to call their representatives every day, keep one another alert, and otherwise be even more committed than they already are. Many buses left Durham and other liberal cities for the Washington march early on Saturday morning, and we in Raleigh were the left behind, including a number of fathers with children whose mothers were on the Mall. The crowd was, like the state’s NAACP-led progressive movement, mixed in every respect, but more female than male, more white than otherwise, and largely middle-class in appearance. The signs were the same as everywhere else, the mark of protest in the social-media age, and lots of energy went into photos of our anti-Trump puns and vivid renditions of the vulva and the uterus, which were rapidly shared to universal celebration in our like-minded networks. The point, for better and worse, was not to convey slogans to readers, but to reassure others that we were there with them. I found my favorite posters were those that toddlers drew themselves, then held aloft, vivid smudges and squiggles that did the same work with undeniable originality.
There is an eerie echo between these protests and the ubiquity of the man that meme-led posters are calling the Dorito Voldemort. He is still obsessed with the numbers in attendance at his rallies and inauguration. So are we. We were delighted as estimates rolled in: three to four million nationwide! London! Antarctica! More substantively, ours was a solidaristic event, about standing together and deepening a movement. A day earlier, Trump used the word “solidarity,” long the touchstone of the labor left, for the first time in an inaugural address. He had promised to end “this American carnage” of lost jobs and declining middle-class incomes. Talking about “structural violence,” the slow, often invisible harm that inequality, racism, and pollution work on bodies and lives, is normally a left thing. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief political strategist and reportedly the author of much of the speech, is plainly following through on his goal of aligning Trumpism with the nationalist populism of Europe, where Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and the Brexit campaign in the UK are sweeping in the traditional working-class constituency of the left. Curiously, that can mean talking like a socialist is a mark of the New New Right.
Unsettling as this is, it is also excellent. Much of political argument is about redefining principles that everyone nominally holds, but which mean very different things to different people. Franklin Roosevelt presented the New Deal as securing freedom in a complex society, insisting that social provision and collective bargaining preserved the individualism of the frontier in an industrial economy. Ronald Reagan reasserted an older, libertarian idea of freedom in attacking unions, “welfare,” and everything else Roosevelt’s administration had helped to build and sustain.
If we are going to spend the next four years—or much more—arguing about the meaning of solidarity, well, that is a fight the left should welcome. It takes place on ground where we can ask openly what we owe one another, and what people should get just for being people, without having to “earn” it. We can fight over who “the people” are and make the case that everyone who lives and works here deserves a political voice and the preconditions of a dignified, secure life. If we are also going to talk about the structural violence that economies can do, then good: let us make sure we talk about the violence to everybody.
Both the Raleigh, North Carolina march and the national one were full of promise in this regard. In Washington, California Senator Kamala Harris made a strong case that “women’s issues” are a way of talking about universal issues: security, justice, and democracy. In Raleigh, a speaker from the Carolina Abortion Fund laid out a vision of “reproductive justice” that starts from the right to choose whether to have a child, but includes raising a chosen child in safe and nurturing conditions. It amounted to a parental path to social democracy. It was a reminder of the triviality of facile oppositions between “identity politics” and “universal” claims. Starting from a specific perspective, such as a parental (in this case maternal) standpoint, can be the way to a universal vision, just as starting from general terms like “solidarity” can be as exclusionary as the word was in Trump’s mouth.
Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a contributing editor at Dissent.