It’s always sunny in nostalgia. When my mind summons up sepia-toned Kodak memories of the big protest marches I witnessed as a kid in the 1960s and ’70s, it sees big throngs under a bright powder-blue sky, on a crisp autumn day.
Protesting in the Trump era has felt absolutely nothing like this. It is always dark, under steel-gray winter afternoons or early nightfall, marching into a stiff wind or icy pellets of drizzle. The so-called Resistance that was born in the 3 a.m. despair of a November night and soon flooded urban boulevards or airport lobbies amid January flurries has always felt like a struggle to stay warm, to keep democracy from dying in the darkness of winter’s dusk.
The low February sun was already sinking fast when the U.S. Senate gathered at 4 p.m. Wednesday on Capitol Hill to do what had been inevitable for months — to vote on (mostly) party lines to acquit President Donald Trump after a short, make-believe impeachment trial, and to codify the notion that when a president does it, that means it is not illegal. The last echo of “not guilty!” had barely faded before nearly 200 hearty souls streamed onto Dilworth Plaza at City Hall — about a mile from where the yellowing Constitution was drafted — to chant that, no, actually, “Trump is guilty!,” denounce a sham trial, and show whoever is still watching that they are still here.
Travis Hegasi and Meredith Hegg grabbed their 5-year-old twins, Harper and Jackson, along with Hegasi’s 11-year-old nephew, Lucas, and hopped a train up from Clifton Heights. As they stood on the edge of the Reject the Coverup rally — one of several hundred that occurred from coast to coast — Hegasi said they wanted “to teach the kids right from wrong” — and that the wrongdoers should be held accountable.
Temple math professor Hegg, carrying Jackson in her thick wool cap atop her shoulders, said the only way to remove Trump is to knock on voters’ doors, “but we do this" — protest — "because I want to be able to look back and say that when things went wrong, at least I was there to say that it’s wrong. I didn’t just sit at home and twiddle my thumbs and complain. Sometimes, you have to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘I want to be counted.’ ”
Feb. 5, 2020, was not a great day in the annals of American justice, but it will indeed be long remembered as a day of counting — of who surrendered to fear and the crude schoolyard bullying of a man who would be king, and who dug deep into their pockets and discovered that their rusty moral compass still worked. The handful of endangered “red state” Democrats and the one sturdy Republican who refused to ratify the wrongdoing of an imperial president could not alter fate, but they did ensure their place in American history.
In a new decade of greatly diminished expectations, a handful of senators exceeded the dimming hopes of the Trump resistance. Over the last three years, those hopes devolved from the notion that undisputed proof of abuses of power — exactly what Democratic impeachment managers provided during Trump’s truncated trial — would end his presidency, to a belief that a handful of moderate, moral GOP senators might stand up for the truth, to the cold comfort that one Republican did write an epilogue to Profiles in Courage.
“I will only be one name among many, no more, no less, to future generations of Americans who look at the record of this trial,” Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, his party’s 2012 presidential candidate, declared on the Senate floor just before Wednesday’s acquittal. “They will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the president did was wrong, grievously wrong.”
Romney’s vote to convict Trump on one of two impeachment counts — abuse of power — was met with the predictable ugly threats and playground taunts from the likes of Donald Trump Jr., but it was a courageous display of his faith in a Higher Power than Donald Trump. For 52 other Republicans, cowardice trumped faith. In a New York Times op-ed, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown wrote of what he sees across the aisle, that “[f]or the stay-in-office-at-all-cost representatives and senators, fear is the motivator.”
But on a day when fear hit a home run, it was the small moments of moral clarity — not just Romney but Democrats like Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, fighting for his political life in a blood-red state, who summoned the same courage to oppose Trump as he’d once showed in going after the racists who’d bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church — that got a couple hundred Philadelphians to venture out in the cold one more time.
“I think the ray of sun coming through the clouds was heading that Mitt Romney, Doug Jones” — and other centrist Democrats — “were going to vote to convict,” said Ruthanne Tickel-Logan, a 57-year-old activist who’d taken the train down from Yardley. But she conceded that recent days “have been hard on all of us ... torture.”
The protesters came despite blow after blow — not just the end of impeachment but Trump’s rising approval ratings and the increasing confidence of his base, in a week when the Democrats’ Iowa caucus brought mainly confusion and anger — that have increased worries among the Resistance, not just over whether Trump will win but whether the election results can even be trusted.
“Fascism can be voted in, but it must be driven out!” a speaker from the leftist group Refuse Fascism that helped organize the rally boomed, as cars on 15th Street honked and protesters waved signs with slogans like “Fight hate! America is better than this!” Many in the crowd told me their only hope for November’s election is that Trump’s Democratic rival wins by a huge margin, because POTUS 45 might not leave the White House if the tally is close.
“We’re not going to just accept it — we have to voice our opinions and what we know is right,” Joanne Jordan, a 67-year-old retired teacher from West Deptford and one of a group of activists from Action Together New Jersey, told me of the impeachment verdict. She captured the mood of a day when so many searched for moral victories because the slim majority of Americans who strongly disapprove of Trump’s presidency struggles to find political ones. They were hanging on for dear life to the words of the lead House impeachment manager, Rep. Adam Schiff, that “truth matters, and right matters, because without it we are lost.”