The morning after an election result which thundered around the world, many in America woke up to silence.

“Quietest subway ride I’ve ever had, in all my days living in New York City,” the writer Jamil Smith said on radio later that morning. “You can tell people are frightened.”Donald Trump, a celebrity billionaire who said climate change was a hoax, that Muslims should be banned from the United States, that famous men like himself could do anything they wanted to a woman, and who had surrounded himself with coterie of alt-right sympathisers, had been elected President of the United States only hours before.

His character, his campaign and whatever convictions he held seemed entirely antithetical to those of the current President Barack Obama – someone Trump had taunted with a racist lie for years about being a secret Muslim from Kenya – and yet it was Trump who would succeed him, who would hold the future of not only Obama’s legacy but of the country and the world in his hands.

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Come January, the Democrats would hold no major levers of power, and so many of the reforms they worked on, including the Affordable Care Act, action on climate change, reproductive rights and immigration reform are in the crosshairs.

In New York, in San Francisco, in Denver and many other places across America, people took trains and buses to work in silence. Many cried in the street, in workplaces and in coffee shops. A chunk of the country was struck dumb.But something inaudible rang out on Wednesday morning too. A silent but piercing alarm, rousing some people to action.

“I spent yesterday morning feeling despondent and hopeless,” a friend, Kate Williams, told me the next day.So she did two things that morning. She joined the National Organisation for Women (NOW), a grassroots feminist organisation dating back to the 1960s, and she signed up for training to become a “clinic escort” – someone who accompanies patients to women’s health clinics, which provide reproductive healthcare and other services, and which are often surrounded by obstructive protesters.

“Thinking about what the result of the election meant made me realise we haven’t come as far as we thought in terms of acceptance, race relations, and women’s rights,” she said. Given the misogynist rhetoric of the incoming president, and that vice-president-elect Mike Pence had promised to overturn the decision that made access to abortion in the US possible, this seemed one small way to channel despair into action.The question, though, of where to go from here for liberals and progressives, for “the Obama coalition” of African-Americans, progressive whites, minorities and millennials who helped elect him, and for the Democratic Party itself, is unclear in the face of a new president so profoundly unlike any other before him, and whose next moves are so difficult to predict.

But not everyone is standing still and waiting. Williams wasn’t alone in immediately reaching out to the kinds of community and civil organisations that have long plugged some of the gaps in the country’s porous social safety net, or worked to advance equality or uphold constitutional rights, often in opposition to US governments of the day.

The website of the American Civil Liberties Union – which last year recently brought the case to the Supreme Court which saw marriage equality legalised across the country – crashed on Wednesday morning as donations poured in.The organisation itself issued a simple message to Trump – “see you in court” – promising to challenge him on his raft of unconstitutional policies, from the Muslim ban to any curtailing of a free press.

Planned Parenthood, the premier women’s health provider which Pence has pledged to defund, was hit by a flurry of frantic calls from women worried about losing their health insurance, making appointments for long-term birth control like IUDs, but also with a wave of donations and offers to volunteer.”Planned Parenthood’s been around for 100 years, we’ve been fighting for the right to reproductive healthcare for that long,” the organisation’s president Cecile Richards said. “Our doors stay open.”

Volunteering and engaging with community and civic groups was imperative at this time, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Thursday, as was her party preparing to fight back on any curtailing of rights and freedoms.

“This is painful, this really and truly hurts,” she said on MSNBC. “What happens next is partly about Donald Trump … But it is more about the rest of us, what the rest of us say and what the rest of permit.”

In the few days since the election, Warren, a firebrand progressive from Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist and formerly Independent senator who was the party’s alternative nominee during the primary, have emerged as two of the few senior voices stepping into the post-election vacuum to rally their supporters in public and begin the Trump opposition.

Many accepted as a truism that the shifting demographics of America – a much larger non-white population, the wider embrace of progressive ideas – would naturally secure the Democratic party in the White House, and that the prospect of a Trump presidency would propel people to the polls in opposition. That thinking was clearly wrong: while African-Americans, minority voters, women and millennials chose Clinton, they were not excited enough to turn out for her in sufficient numbers. Trump’s nativist and sexist rhetoric proved far less repellent than they had counted on to others. The “blue wall” of rust belt states that were supposed to be a lock for the Democrats crumbled in the face of Trump’s anti-globalisation message and promise of change from an outsider.

That Sanders’ own anti-establishment, anti-income inequality message of change had resonated far more strongly with young voters and those in that same region has been front of mind for many in the wake of this defeat.

Michael Moore, the left-wing filmmaker who correctly predicted a rust belt victory for Trump and had supported Sanders from the beginning, urged a takeover of the party that had failed to understand voters in so many key states.

That was No.1 on his morning after to-do list. There was also this: “Any Democratic member of Congress who didn’t wake up this morning ready to fight, resist and obstruct in the way Republicans did against President Obama every day for eight full years must step out of the way and let those of us who know the score lead the way in stopping the meanness and the madness that’s about to begin.”

Many in the party will no doubt lay the blame with outside forces like WikiLeaks and FBI director James Comey, and defend the message of a campaign which did win the popular vote by a thin margin (and indeed this is precisely what the campaign leaders are reported to be doing in the aftermath). Sanders delivered a frank assessment of why he believes they got trumped and a blueprint for how he and others would deal with the new administration.

“Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media,” said Sanders in a statement. “To the degree that Mr Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”

At the ages of 67 and 75 respectively, neither Warren nor Sanders is likely to be regarded as a future 2020 candidate, but both have the profiles and, it would seem from this week, the willingness, to lead that opposition. A fight over the direction of the party lies ahead, but there are other signs of a shift to the left too: the current frontrunner to become the new chair of the DNC, is Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman from the party’s progressive wing who is also black, Muslim and regarded as having a knack for grassroots organising. By Friday he had already been endorsed by both Sanders and the Democrats leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer.

“The Democratic Party has to be focused on grassroots America and not wealthy people attending cocktail parties,” Sanders told The Washington Post.

The challenge for the party, whichever direction it goes in, is profound. Despite the charismatic two-term leadership of Barack Obama, Democrats’ power has been weakened over several years, with Republicans taking back both houses of Congress and a growing majority of state legislatures. Reproductive rights, voting rights and protections for the environment were already being challenged and rolled back in many of these states. Not only is Trump the president, but the party he commandeered now controls both houses of Congress until at least the mid-term elections in 2018. What opposition voices, community organising and activism can do is extremely limited.

Despite the crushing loss there are some inherent contradictions that liberals and progressives will consider in the coming months, that may strengthen resolve. The Democrats have won the popular vote in every presidential election since 1992 – with the sole exception of George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. Polling – as much as it can be trusted now – shows Americans have drifted to the left on most major social issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage and increasing the minimum wage. The majority believe in climate change. Barack Obama will leave office with a high approval rating – 56 per cent.

In two months Americans will watch the first black president hand over the keys to a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, and the only minuscule comfort they may draw it is that two of the most popular progressive figures in the country – Barack and Michelle Obama – will no doubt continue to fight for their legacy, for the kind of future they want to see, on the outside.