Opinion writer

With Capitol Hill in the background, a crowd fills the streets of Washington during the Women’s March on Saturday. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

In a stunning rebuke to a president inaugurated 24 hours earlier, hundreds of thousands of women (and some men) in Washington and as many as 3 million in other cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, etc.) gathered to protest President Trump. Trump has made virtually no effort to unify the country, preferring campaign-style attacks and peevish complaints about the media. On Saturday, millions of Americans vividly displayed the consequences of his approach. We have never seen a president like Trump — or an instantaneous, visceral backlash break out even before the parade stands (which remained largely empty during the parade) could all be packed away.

No one could be confused as to what the marchers were against. “When I learned that Trump had won the presidency, I felt almost defeated realizing that a majority of the citizens of this country voted for a man that popularizes ignorance, embraces hate, disrespects women, and personally to me, mocks those with disabilities,” a Northern Virginia high school senior who attended the D.C. rally told me.

“I decided I needed to participate in this historic event because I was confused and disappointed in my fellow citizens that voted for this man,” Peggy, an independent voter from Northern Virginia, told me. Another Northern Virginia woman, Debra, a longtime Democrat, said she simply “wanted to be with others feeling the same way.” None of the three had ever been to a political rally.

At 10:15 a.m. Saturday, heading east on Interstate 66, a main artery into Washington from Virginia, one could see a series of highway overpasses packed with people, standing in lines for over an hour in some cases just to reach the Metro to take them into the city. The lines spilled out of the stations, through the parking areas and down the block in some cases. Metro trains left packed with march participants. Crowds of this size were nowhere to be seen Friday. Unlike the small contingent of destructive protesters who broke windows and destroyed cars in Washington on Friday, these protests were peaceful, and in some cases joyous.

Perfectly timed the day after Trump’s widely panned speech — and before emotion dissipated — the march afforded an outlet for anti-Trump Americans who have felt the full gamut of emotions (anger, anxiety, disappointment, shock) since the election. Shaking off their despondency, many participants seemed determined, defiant and ready to regain their sense of agency. “I felt empowered and excited to go fight for what I believe in one step at a time, with my fellow high school friends beside me,” said the high school senior. In a similar vein, Peggy told me: “I decided I needed to participate in this historic event because I was confused and disappointed in my fellow citizens that voted for this man. It was disappointing that people were able to turn a blind eye to all the hateful rhetoric, essentially condoning  his behavior and hate-filled platform.”

The masses of people who assembled in numbers far greater than anyone had imagined were a sliver of the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump, and remain unbowed, not in the least mollified by his transition. Peggy told me that “all of Trump’s speeches validated that I needed to join this protest and take a stand. His continuous denigration of the media and false claims in effect trying to censor the news is especially troubling.”

What the protesters were for was less important than what they were against — the nasty, nativist populism Trump has used to galvanize his followers and sharpen their resentments against other Americans. (In this regard, the protest mirrored Hillary Clinton’s campaign — clear in its opposition to Trump but fuzzy in its own affirmative vision.) This was not a day about a single agenda or even any agenda; it was a retort to Trump’s “primal scream” campaign and inaugural address; it was an act of defiance that rejected his claim to represent “the people” against the government. They got a boost from an unhinged White House that already seems bent on self-destruction.

After most marches had concluded, White House press secretary Sean Spicer threw a temper tantrum in the press room, falsely insisting Trump’s was the largest inaugural crowd ever. (Photographs and analysis demonstrated it was about one-third the size of the 2009 inauguration). Spicer railed at the press, threatened to “hold the press accountable,” took no questions and left a room of reporters who had never seen such bald-faced, easily disproved, nonsensical lies. Aside from sycophantic Fox Non-News hosts, Americans could plainly see the new president’s employee had been sent out to lie, to tell Americans to reject what they saw because reality was unacceptable to the new president.

Trump put on his own stunning performance. Resembling Captain Queeg more than he resembled any predecessor, Trump ranted about the press and the size of his inaugural crowd as he stood in front of the memorial wall to slain CIA officers at its Langley, Va., headquarters. He lied in telling the assembled staff that the media had invented his feud with the intelligence community. Surely CIA employees and other intelligence personnel know that he has openly disparaged them. Trump provided fodder for Americans who have begun to question his mental and emotional stability. By providing another set of visuals for the cameras, against which to compare the puny inauguration crowd, the marchers defied the White House propaganda, reaffirmed the size of the opposition to Trump and underscored that Americans should trust their own eyes and their own experiences. They might even take credit for pushing Trump and Spicer over the edge.

Now that we know the Trump opposition has a heartbeat and the Trump team is wounded, discombobulated and unable so far to assume a presidential bearing, two issues remain.

First, can the Trump opposition avoid fracturing? Pro-life groups were disinvited by event organizers, sending a message to a large segment of Americans who fervently oppose abortion and also fervently oppose Trump. If the opposition divides into antiabortion vs. abortion rights, white vs. black, immigrant vs. non-immigrant and  left-wing vs. moderate, it will have a hard time matching the Trumpkins, who march lockstep behind their leader.

A second issue vexes the Democratic Party and #NeverTrump Republicans: Can this energy be sustained? If all the people who marched turn out to vote in 2018, 2020 and beyond, they can squash Trump and Trumpism. After eight years of President Obama, however, they must mobilize and sustain their enthusiasm, defend their policy positions, pressure their lawmakers and vote in overwhelming numbers without a single, dynamic leader. Republicans did this with the tea party movement; Democrats will likewise need to keep fueling their response to Trump without a unifying national figure and without control of the White House, House and Senate.

“I plan to continue.  I donate, volunteer and will be calling representatives,” Peggy told me. The other Northern Virginia women I spoke with said the same. The success of the anti-Trump coalition will depend on millions more doing the same. The march provided an unexpected boost to Trump opponents, but without follow-up it will amount to brief spasm and a missed opportunity.