Democrats once dreamed of Inauguration Day. Now they’re soul-searching instead

A President Trump supporter taunts protesters Friday in Washington.
(Peter Foley / EPA)

Miami is not where Jon Cowan expected to be on Inauguration Day.

He was certain he would be toasting the nation’s first female president at Elephant & Castle, a pub smack on the inaugural parade route. “It was this unbelievable space where we were going to have this large gathering of Democrats,” said Cowan, who runs the left-of-center think tank Third Way.

For the record:

6:26 p.m. Dec. 7, 2022An earlier version of this post spelled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first name as Rham.

But instead, he found himself at a South Florida resort, offering straight talk about the state of the Democratic Party to elite donors and strategists who were also driven by President Trump’s election win over Hillary Clinton to cancel long-held bookings in Washington. Instead of celebrating a new Clinton era, they were hundreds of miles away, picking apart where they went wrong and plotting a comeback.


Friday was a reality check for Democrats and progressives, still shell-shocked Trump is taking power. His failure to so much as shake Clinton’s hand as he strode to the stage riled them. The images of her stoically watching Trump assume the role that nearly 2.9 more million Americans voted to give Clinton were like a gut punch.

They took little comfort in the sparse attendance at the event compared with President Obama’s first inaugural.

Disgust over Trump’s actions through the transition drove many Democrats to deny him the usual grace period given a new president. They seized on the inauguration as a galvanizing moment, assembling in Washington and around the country to send a loud message of resistance and map their resurgence. The women’s march anti-Trump forces have planned for Saturday was preceded by pockets of protest on the streets Friday. Some windows were broken. Arrests were made.

“We must not despair,” Sen. Kamala Harris of California tweeted Friday morning. “We must not be overwhelmed or throw up our hands. It is time to roll up our sleeves and fight for who we are.”

Speaking up was more complicated for some than others. Dozens of other members of Congress struggled to find the appropriate form of protest. They anguished over the idea of boycotting, which threatened to undermine a pillar of democracy lawmakers hold sacred: the peaceful transfer of power. Harris joined all the other senators in attending the swearing in, though more than 60 Democrats in the House stayed away.

“I am sad not to be attending this ceremony,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who was among the first lawmakers to announce a boycott. “It takes an extraordinary set of circumstances for someone like me to say they can’t be part of this. If any other Republican who ran were being sworn in, I would be there.”

But, Huffman said, Trump’s pattern of “scorched earth, chaos and boorish behavior” persuaded him to spend the week volunteering with his Northern California constituents and presiding over a citizenship ceremony for hundreds of immigrants.

Democratic Rep. Tony Cardenas of Los Angeles spent the swearing-in hour elsewhere, meditating. Fellow Angeleno Rep. Ted Lieu decided to serve his Air Force Reserve duty in California.

Union leaders who went to both of Obama’s inaugurals instead mapped out their message for taking on Trump. At Service Employees International Union, an organization representing a large number of Latinos, leaders worked on redoubling their advocacy for undocumented workers, in defiance of a new president planning to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and restrict Muslims from entering the country.

“We are not going to allow extremists to divide us with their mythology that immigrants are taking away our jobs,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the union, who attended Obama’s second swearing-in. As with other progressive advocacy groups, the union has seen interest surge since election day. Earlier plans to increase the number of members contributing $10 monthly to half a million have been revised. SEIU officials are confident membership will reach the 1-million mark.

Others grabbed the moment in their own way. Estefania Garcia, wrapped in a Mexican flag, took advantage of the free marijuana passed out by pot legalization advocates as she protested Trump’s immigration policies. “Wanted to see history, have my voice heard and get some free pot,” said Garcia, who became a U.S. citizen two years ago.

Democratic mayors who had planned to hang around and hit the inaugural party circuit after this week’s U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington instead packed up and left. Many went back home to begin the work of countering the incoming Trump administration.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg says officials in his city will explore how to update their decades-old sanctuary city law to provide protection to immigrants in the U.S. illegally who could be targeted by the new administration. “We will stand with people who feel threatened,” Steinberg said in an interview as he prepared to fly home.

Another disappointed Northern Californian, business mogul Susie Tompkins Buell, hopped a flight heading in the other direction. Buell, a longtime friend of Clinton and one of her biggest donors, is still registering the shock of Trump’s win. “It’s so crazy,” she said. “It is hard to believe what is happening. I said to my husband this morning, ‘This is worse than it would have been to lose to a legitimate candidate.’”

Buell said she and other Clinton friends and donors had been “all making plans to find each other” at what they expected would be Clinton’s inauguration. She considered coming to Washington anyway, to join the march Saturday. But she headed to Miami, where her friend and fellow Clinton loyalist David Brock is convening the conference at which Cowan is a panelist.

The lineup also included Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman was to school the group on leveraging disruptive technology, and a panel that includes a Harvard lecturer and Russian journalist was planning a deep dive on “The Road to Fascism.”

“There will be a lot to learn looking back, and looking forward,” Buell said. “It will be good to be with like-minded people. We need to get shored up and reinvigorated and find our source of trust again.”

Times staff writers Joseph Tanfani and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.

Follow me: @evanhalper


How a liberal Santa Monica high school produced a top Trump advisor and speechwriter

As soon as he is inaugurated, Trump will move to clamp down on immigration

Trump’s approach might seem new, but Arnold Schwarzenegger tried it first. It was a disaster.


1:10 p.m.: This story was updated with comment from Trump opponents.

This story was originally published at 3 a.m.