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The Left’s Divisions Will Be on Display at the Inauguration

As liberal opposition groups descend on Washington, D.C., they may struggle to strike a unified note.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

As Donald Trump readies to take the oath of office this week, liberal opposition groups are expected to turn out in record numbers—camping out in churches, hosting concerts and art shows, filling the streets of Washington, D.C., with cries of “Not my President.” But underneath the veneer of unity lies of a host of simmering disputes about what the left should be fighting for—disputes that will be evident in the raucous character of the protests themselves.

More than 50 Democratic lawmakers have vowed to boycott the inauguration. Some 31,000 demonstrators plan to participate in the #NotMyPresident and #InauguratetheResistance protests on Friday at the Capitol and on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. And on Trump’s first full day in office, more than 200,000 people are expected to gather on the National Mall for the Women’s March on Washington in solidarity with groups that have been targeted by the president-elect, including women, members of the LGBTQ community, African-Americans, and immigrants.

But the left’s show of a united front against Trump is, for now, still only a show. The same underlying ideological debates that splintered the left during the 2016 primary race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton continue to haunt the Democratic Party, as evidenced by the clash over the next Democratic National Committee chair, the tepid support for Nancy Pelosi’s reelection as House minority leader, and the ongoing debates over the party’s approach to class and identity politics.

Few of those showing up to protest on inauguration weekend can agree on what a liberal coalition looks like. An alliance of 29 progressive groups that rejects both major political parties as elitist was planning an “Occupy Inauguration” and #DisruptJ20 protest at McPherson Square regardless of whether Trump or Clinton won the election, an organizer told me. Meanwhile, the Pantsuit Nation-ites behind the Women’s March faced criticism both for not being inclusive enough and for accepting a pro-life group as a sponsor. One group even considered holding an event to “inaugurate” their choice of political leader: Sanders.

“Everyone has their own angle,” said Steve Grumbine, the director of Real Progressives, which is a co-sponsor of Occupy Inauguration. “I would like to see everyone lay down their flags and come together as a progressive left, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

The liberal opposition to Trump resembles the Occupy Wall Street protests that exploded worldwide in 2011—angry, ubiquitous, chaotic. Some argue that the appearance of disarray on the left is just necessary growing pains. “From Fight for $15 to Black Lives Matter, everyone marching will be there to push a different agenda, but I don’t see that as a strategic miscalculation,” said Lucy Flores, a party activist who was one of the first Hispanic women elected to the Nevada state legislature. “You’re seeing people that have never been involved in politics now asking, ‘What can I do?’”

The rise of liberal activism in the wake of Trump’s election could present an opportunity to reinvigorate the Democratic Party and litigate some of its policy priorities going forward, Flores said. To start, the left is coming together around some baseline values: to name a few, economic equality, improved access to health care, immigrant and refugee rights, and the fight against sexism and racism, said LeeAnn Hall, co-director of the populist group People’s Action, which applied for a permit to protest at the inauguration. “For people with progressive values,” she said, “it isn’t challenging to unite against such a flagrant assault on those values as the one we are witnessing from the incoming president and his administration.”

But some progressives worry that those values will be drowned out by the Democrats’ anti-Trump messaging on Inauguration Day. They believe the #NotMyPresident protests that emerged after the election are counterproductive to opposition movements. They say Clinton’s campaign may have been doomed for focusing too much on Trump’s failings and not enough on her own party’s strengths. “‘Not my President’ isn’t exactly a great message for a group wants to grow its footprint,” Grumbine said. Going full anti-Trump eliminates your ability to bring in these white working class voters that the left often mocks to its own peril. We’re not just against him, but for progressivism. ”

Furthermore, the Democrats may do well to shift to the left and court alienated Sanders supporters who distrust the party establishment for deriding their candidate, but also crave the leadership that once united them. Without Sanders as a uniting figure, these groups could recede into their own factions. “The Berniecrats have nowhere to go,” said Araquel Bloss, the founder of the Progressive Independent Party, which has also signed on to the Occupy Inauguration protests. Grumbine added that Sanders “united the tribes of Babylon” on the left.

For now, the idea of resistance may be what binds the left—which is perhaps more than it had before. The upset of Trump’s election has thrown the Democrats from complacency, requiring them to engage in a conversation about the party’s core identity.

“If Hillary Clinton won, it would have been hard for a big shake up,” said Laurie Cestnick, an co-organizer of Occupy Inauguration. “It took someone like Trump to shock America into the masses that we needed.”