Decadent and depraved in D.C.: The Round Table goes to the 58th Presidential Inauguration
I had not even made it on my flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C. before the disagreements began.
Seated next to me at my gate were two middle-aged women. The straight-haired blonde asked the curly-haired brunette if she was attending the inauguration.
“I sure am,” replied the brunette woman, who wore a red sweater littered with pins of American iconography.
“In support or in protest of?” quizzed the blonde woman, looking with anticipated judgment through her black cat eye frames.
“In support of,” answered the brunette, smirking with her own anticipation.
“Well nevermind then,” said the blonde, repositioning herself and turning back toward her book. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
The brunette, despite having telegraphed her anticipation of this scolding through her face, still was rather miffed. “Alright, bitch,” she said as she gathered up her things and moved elsewhere in the terminal.
This was merely the first of a weekend’s worth of intense frustrations that would come to simmer and boil as I delved further and further into my trip to the 58th Presidential Inauguration, where Donald Trump was ultimately sworn into office as the new head of state.
My entire flight was packed with people attending the festivities, with seemingly no one getting onboard without a well displayed political stance. Even children on the plane were decked out in paraphernalia, whether it be Trump scarves or the now well known “pink pussy hats” that protesters were donning in opposition to Trump’s perceived misogyny.
Few adults on the flight found themselves without alcohol in their hands, plying themselves with booze to facilitate heated political debate for most of the 90 minute flight time.
The inundation of political division would only accelerate from here on in. Upon arriving at Reagan National Airport — “Republicans just wanted it named after Reagan so they could say they were cumming into Reagan,” explained a particularly vocal anti-Trump supporter several rows behind me — nearly every store was packed with pro- and anti-Trump apparel.
As I unpacked my camera, I watched a middle-aged Asian woman, a Hispanic family of four and then two young black men gather up for selfies with a cardboard cut-out of Trump. Apparently some people were still eager to have some fun.
After finding my way into town, I briefly went by the “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration,” which was taking place at the Lincoln Memorial. I couldn’t see who was playing, but after a few moments I could certainly recognize the song that was blasting out over the loudspeakers: “If I go crazy, then will you still call me Superman?”
After settling into my accommodations, I got wind of a protest several blocks away at the National Press Club. The club was hosting the #DeploraBall, a pre-inauguration celebration that was to be attended by a number of controversial Trump supporters including Martin Shkreli.
When I arrived, the scene was a bit bizarre. Many protesters were just standing around and some were smoking weed — “This is the start of the resistance,” announced one woman with a joint raised to the sky. Along the buildings, projections shined phrases like “Impeach the Predatory President.”
But before long, a fire erupted in the streets a ways away from me. When I got over to it, the fire was out but Fox News was interviewing a boy who looked to be about 12. When asked why he started the fire, the boy replied, “Because I felt like it.”
Closer to the entrance of the National Press Club, which was protected by a row of riot police, Trump supporters were occasionally filing into the building. When a black man decked out in Make America Great Again gear shuffled by, several protesters hurled insults and accused him of being a traitor to the race. Then came a bottle.
Trash and other debris were thrown the whole time I was down there, but the shattering of a bottle changed the mood. A few more bottles were lobbed in and the riot police began to take action. Several aggressive protesters were promptly pepper sprayed and arrested. This action caused even more unrest and more fires were lit, more bottles were thrown and the police began lobbing canisters into the crowd.
Having never been in a situation quite like this before, I was unsure of what was being thrown until my eyes began to water as I stood at the fringes of this scene. “Tear gas!” shouted someone running by me. Without any good materials to protect my face, I snapped a few photos and ran away alongside other media personnel and protesters.
My first night in D.C. had been a doozy.
The next morning, as I began my trek to the National Mall, the scene was only a little less vicious. To get closer and closer to the U.S. Capitol, one had to go through several rings of security checkpoints. I arrived at the outermost ring of security at the intersection of 10th Street NW and E Street NW. It was here that protesters had made a human barricade to prevent anyone from passing through the security checkpoint into the inauguration.
Legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild monitored the situation closely as chants filled the air and police hovered closely nearby, often trying to help those who requested assistance past the barricade. “Shame! Shame!” the protesters would shout at those heading for the checkpoints, even when some of their own were trying to get by to protest within the security gates.
Members of the crowd offered protesters in the human barricade advice on how to properly deploy peaceful resistance. However, before long, several protesters in the barricade began verbally accosting a nearby Trump supporter, who returned the insults.
Shoves were exchanged and the police swarmed, forcing the entire human barricade to their knees and threatening to spray the crowd with pepper spray if the aggression continued. At my feet, one protester howled as he poured a water bottle into his eyes. “Were you sprayed? Were you sprayed?” asked other protesters. He had not been.
This aggression from all parties eventually split up the human barricade. Media cameras, Trump supporters and myself pushed onward. The lines moved fairly quickly but security was stringent. Signs could only be a certain size and could not have sticks on them. Cameras had to be on, and all phones had to be on and unlocked. Jackets had to be opened up. People passed through metal detectors. The rings of checkpoints were formed, according to one military police officer I spoke with, as a response to the truck attacks in Europe.
Within the gates, I was shocked at how empty everything seemed. I lived in D.C. over the summer, and an average day had more people on the streets than I saw at 10 a.m. on Inauguration Day. For a long while, the majority of people seemed to be protesters of all stripes. Anti-abortion activists, 9/11 Truthers, Satanists, the Westboro Baptist Church. They, plus many more, were all present and accounted for.
It was only once I was across Pennsylvania Avenue and in the final security checkpoint line into the National Mall that I met a sea of Trump supporters. This was my first inauguration so I was unsure of what to expect. Research has shown that the crowd was remarkably light for an inauguration, but I was still a bit overwhelmed with the numbers.
In spite of having to wade through rows and rows of protesters, the Trump supporters were in remarkably high spirits. Their numbers were also more diverse than I expected. While the majority were certainly white men, there were an abundance of people of all races, genders, religions, sexual orientations there in unashamed support of a man that many believe is out to get those minority populations. I was interested in knowing why they had chosen to come out and support a man who has, in many of their cases, insulted their social identity.
For one 47-year-old black man, who declined to be named, the decision to support Trump was a calculated one that forced him to weigh the pros and cons. The man, who was selling Trump gear along the line into the security checkpoint, told me that Trump was “clearly flawed” but that “the country has fallen into a revolving door of establishment politicians. Trump may not be perfect — hell, he might even be terrible — but he’s something we’ve never tried before.”
Inside the gates and upon the gigantic white floorboards set out for the gathering, I was hit by the surreal nature of the moment. There I was, between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, and I was about to watch Donald Trump replace Barack Obama as president. The reality of the moment hit me hard.
I watched as former presidents and other incredibly famous political dignitaries took the stage, as well as those who entered the public consciousness much more recently. Somewhere up there was Steve Bannon, now an advisor to the Trump administration. Elsewhere, supposedly, was Diane Hendricks, a trustee at Beloit College and a member of Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee. I was among a crowd of people with so much bizarre history and complexity that I was more than a little overwhelmed.
I gathered myself by speaking to several people around me. Most refused to give their names, but a 63-year-old white father of four from Maryland at least gave me his first name: Ron. Ron told me that he was a former Navy intelligence and he deeply resented what former President Barack Obama had done to the country.
“Divisions among the electorate are at an all-time high,” Ron explained to me. “Trump will bring us together by returning dignity to the office. He will respect the job correctly.”
Ron interrupted himself, however, when one of the video monitors along the National Mall showed a shot of Hillary Clinton, in the audience as a former first lady. The entire crowd got about as loud as they would all day, booing with extreme anger. Ron joined in the “Lock her up!” chants before noting to me that Clinton “looks ill. She might pass out up there.” She looked fine.
Ron seemingly had a comment for every member of the Democratic Party that appeared. When Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) was shown: “Fascist! Communist! He really is, you know.” For House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): “How many facelifts has Pelosi had?” He also referred to Chief Justice John Roberts, a known conservative, as a “treacherous son of a bitch.” I presume this was because of Roberts role in preserving the Affordable Care Act through the Supreme Court, but it was hard to get a bead on Ron’s train of thought.
When first lady Michelle Obama appeared and someone standing near us mentioned she might run for president: “I think Michelle would be 10 times worse than Hillary. She doesn’t have class. It’ll be nice to have a real lady back in the White House.”
Ron also joined in a conversation about U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who is accused of deserting the military and being captured by the Taliban which caused several soldiers to die in attempts to rescue him. “Bergdahl should be shot,” Ron emphatically stated before pointing to me. “You can write that down.”
Before long however, Trump emerged to thunderous applause and the ceremony was underway. Dreary skies and a steady drizzle punctuated a speech that was filled with doom, gloom and dystopic descriptions of America. But this grim vision of the country, and the calls for “America first,” earned a great deal of excitement from those around.
Perhaps the most excited was a man to my left, a 38-year-old Pakistani-born man named Sanjay. He had a bunch of Trump gear he had purchased stuffed into his backpack — he excitedly showed me a fleece pullover he had snagged — and he cheered on some of the speech’s more inflammatory moments. References to eradicating “radical Islamic terrorism” and Trump’s insistence on border protection earned vigorous applause from Sanjay.
About 200 feet behind us, however, an elderly black man collapsed to the ground clutching his chest not long after Trump had declared that the American people are “protected by God.” The man seemed to be in good shape as he was loaded into an ambulance after being carried off the side of the National Mall.
Trump’s speech was shorter than average for an inaugural address and so the crowd began to part relatively quickly, in no small part due to the rain and the sharp chill in the air. By this time, aggressive and violent protests had exploded in other parts of the city. Broken windows, fires and arrests were all happening somewhere, but you couldn’t have convinced anyone among the Trump loving crowd that anything was wrong. The jubilation was such that the urge for confrontation was numbed and protesters were easily shrugged off. A group with signs were chanting “Not my president!” to which one young man in salmon chinos and a Trump cap loudly replied, “Well actually, he is. Didn’t you see that little ceremony?” The crowd roared with laughter.
The parade was a cold, rainy affair that dissipated the already light crowds. Bleachers were bare, and the new administration took a lengthy jaunt down Pennsylvania Avenue, waving to a crowd of almost nobody.
Getting out of the security checkpoints proved harder than getting in thanks to the intense security that made it impossible to negotiate the city. To get north to meet a family member for dinner took nearly four hours as I wandered about the National Mall area looking for an exit point.
The rest of the night was filled with food and alcohol, and talk of anything beside the inauguration. The sea of anger and animosity, from all parties, had been all-consuming for the past day and it seemed that everyone just needed a reprieve before starting it all over again the next day.
As I wandered home later that night, self-medicated to the point of mild disorientation, I found myself several blocks away from the National Building Museum where Trump was attending one of the three inaugural balls he visited that night. I couldn’t be sure but, past the sirens and shouts and winding around the block, I could have sworn I heard music. Curling up through the tufts of smoke and around the neon lights of the D.C. streets, the fateful words of the song that Donald and Melania Trump shared for their first dance as president and first lady seemed to echo.
“And now, the end is near…”