The Inaugural arrived, and rumor has it, the stars are still coming out tonight. As far as the event itself was concerned, who among us hasn’t dreamed of going to prom on acid?
At roughly 11 A.M. or thereabouts, Trump stared at camera, silently asking the audience “Can you believe this? Neither can I? Who thought it would end up this way? Heh. Nothing personal, kid.” Watching him lumber awkwardly through the marble hollows of the Capitol was akin to staring at a wounded, decadent bear, gripped by odd appetites, stumbling through the protocol of a man whose body was aging while his power was growing. This was Trump ascendant, but he seemed to view the whole affair as an ongoing pain in the ass, distracting him from golf and circulating rumors about Muslims.
On the Inaugural Platform, close embraces all around. On the ground, on the National Mall, are the splendid beasts of the America Republic—good citizens like you or I, standing in hoodies and in various sports clothing. Up on the platform, in the dais, is the realm of the superbeasts, yes … clasped hands, black winter coats, various presidents and Secret Santas, experts in wishful thinking, captains of industry, second wives and jacket-holders, raving ministers of the Lord and the peak of New England inbreeding; thousands of years of law school time and millions of dollars in trust. Clearly a high-powered crowd of major players, needful of supervision.
The dais is jammed with bodies. Cloudy on this day at the Capitol, a building erected by Freemasons and slave labor. Earlier in the day, Kellyanne Conway arrived in an 18th-century opera costume, keeping the historical theme going strong. Later inspection will reveal the buttons on the coat she’s wearing are stylized cat heads. Cat heads.
In the days of Mad Men this fancy cluster of mega-citizens would have been rife with secret pocket flasks, particularly on the Democrat side—definite risk in getting too blotto before the Congressional luncheon. Nowadays, of course, we have stylish smart phones so everyone can shoot off messages about God knows what to their friends in Davos or Aspen. Rumors of the Lincoln Bible. In the program pamphlet, I read the following: “The Bible itself is bound in burgundy velvet with a gold-washed white metal rim around the three outside edges of both covers.” There is not nearly enough gold in it for today’s inauguree, but like the rest of us, it will do.
There will be plenty of this spectacle and mad frolic today. Another guest, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, looks like an East German spy-lord delivered by way of Kansas City. In tow, still in shock! Come Pelosi and the Democrats, air of doom. The former Speaker materializes out of a cloud of deflation; doubtless dreaming of garroting this crowd with a pearl necklace. Who are these people in plaid scarves, I wonder, before noticing it’s the assembled mass of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Donald lurches in view again, stalking after his oncoming destiny, rumbling freight car of a man. Looking at the crowd again, here among the ample complement of curious Americans—probably the biggest section at any Inaugural—are the rich suburban randos who form the spine of the Republican party, many of them women behind gigantic sunglasses. How many people in this audience have made wild, regrettable posts online about the onrushing imposition of Sharia law?
Approaching the dais, Trump leans over and kisses Michelle on the cheek. It’s an unusual and somewhat bashful move from a man who is a self-confessed sexual desperado, trying to greet America’s most popular woman. It’s unaffected, unscripted. In that small, shared moment of human interaction between two people who have absolutely every reason to dislike each other—for some reason, I start to believe it’ll be all right.
Master of Ceremonies Senator Roy Blunt arrives, a man with a name straight from a stoner comedy. He’s got a generic face for a Law and Order detective and will later pronounce the name of his home state as “Missourah.” Blunt thinks the orderly surrender of power didn’t happen before the United States existed—Barron is yawning. Blunt is monologuing about unity, a theme which we will return to again and again.
This is strange, because the oncoming President made his bones insisting that the man sitting nearby is a secret Muslim, Not Really One Of Us. And, sure enough, as the camera pans out, there’s a sizable contingent of people in red hats, suggesting unity is not, in fact, a goal of this administration. Soon after the transition is complete, a Department of Labor report about LGBT workers will vanish from the web. Starbucks doors were smashed earlier by protesters. Nobody is really sure what’s coming down the pike. It will be bizarre, whatever its nature.
Whenever I needed a reference point during the clamor, I look at Trump’s son, who is unimpressed by all of this: the hideous Deploraball, whatever is wrong with his Dad, Hillary Clinton’s white suit, the sexless air of every member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Barron is a rock in a stormy sea.
Various priests and reverends begin to intone significant and carefully-selected portions of the Gospel to this audience. Donald seems bored. Melania under tight self-control. Sphinxlike, or maybe just uncomfortable. Dem faces are searching in their mind’s eyes for cheerier thoughts: memories of cars being crushed under steam presses, perhaps, or wolves baying at the moon in Death Valley.
The Mall is emptier than I’d imagined, even for a President with approval ratings this low. Strange to see Christian ministers so close to Trump. Behind, the future First Family seems as if this could not be any duller. There’s a woman sitting there in pearls and furs, right out of Edith Wharton; next to her is a woman in a short black leather jacket and short skirt. Two centuries next to each other.
Absolutely everyone here on this platform seems shell-shocked. That’s the descriptive word most adjacent. What to make of this bipartisan crowd? The analogy that springs to mind is a row of Soviet generals sitting in a box, reviewing May Day, wondering how in the name of Lenin they will decamp from Afghanistan while maintaining face.
Shock after shock, a frenzy of surprises. Schumer ascends to dais under a thin gray blanket of tepid applause. He reads a passage with all the relevant keywords and required confidence, and I’m reminded of Eugene Levy playing the role of President of Harvard. He’s wearing a flag lapel the size of my pinky. Schumer mentions “gender identity” as something we need to be sensitive about, which is quite nice of him.
Speaker Ryan is not-quite-smiling, eyes focused on a distant prospect not yet revealed. Pence rigidly thoughtful. Melania still a statue. Only Trump seems vaguely human. The ordinary-people audience reminds me of a Black Friday crowd waiting for Best Buy to swing open its doors. Expectant. Terrible strain of desire. Processing this day. Who isn’t?
Pence is sworn in. Ryan, the man who could have been Veep in 2012, smirks. Some version of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” is played by the Marine Band; at least that’s what it sounds like. There is a repressed level of bedrock crazy that is strong. Trump rises up to take his place in the Hall of Presidents. Somewhere, above the clouds, mounted high in blue limbo, a sun is blazing on its regular schedule.
Does it occur to anyone else that under democracy, we live in a system where we hang on the good wishes of an incoming President as medieval people did on the mood of the king? Doesn’t that strike anybody else as atavistic and absurd?
Trump taking the oath of office is both surreal and utterly normal. To use the phrase uttered by Blunt before, it is both commonplace and miraculous. Miraculous is hardly the correct word to use, but a closer match — “unholy” — is not right either. My own reaction — “What loving God allows this? The Age of the Hunter’s Moon dawns!” — is too long and unwieldy for the poetry of governing, so “miraculous” will do. The oath itself is unremarkable, and Trump becomes the President of the United States.
Seated to President Trump’s right is the Prophet Sanders, lurking there like Banquo’s ghost. Trump begins his speech. The voice is breathy, right hand raised. It’s a different tone of voice than our Orange President usually employs. Behind him, in the camera frame, comes the sudden appearance of a brace of men in military uniform, who appear to be White House guards in fabulous braid.
Is this a Praetorian coup to topple the Executive? Does President Trump not see this coming? This quickly? Really? But the camera shifts, and they’re standing about twenty feet away from him; it’s a trick of the camera, like everything else about modern politics. Another sleight-of-hand played on the watching public.
Trump is still speaking:
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land …
Trump starts his usual sniffing game again: ”... rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation … This American Carnage stops right here and stops right now. ... We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”
It’s all another TV show, of course. That sounds sort of vapid and way cliché, and typical for a think-piece about Donald J. Trump, but it’s the honest truth. America First, Trump tells us, America First. “Bring Back” is the other Certifiably Important phrase to take away here. The effect of watching him read from a prepared speech is doubly unnerving: it’s as if the figure of Trump has been taken over by a monologuing bar guest standing in a chair, giving his thoughts to the rest of denizens in the corner pub. The new President uses the terms “solidarity” and “workers,” which, to my ears, seems new in a Republican inaugural address.
Later in the day, a fugue of mad events unfolded. Reports of protesters setting fire downtown. President Trump leads a standing ovation for the Clintons. Outside, in the District: bricks thrown, chunks of concrete, a hundred people arrested. Pepper spray, riot police out. Chaos on the streets. The Mayor asked protesters to not destroy the neighborhood, as if the biggest protest against the government wasn’t happening with the Orange President on Capitol Hill. Washington can survive anything but the American people.
Trump has been the President-in-waiting since November, but the fact is real today. Still, the news from the streets of D.C. is cheering: people marching in opposition, in defiance. When the government is considered without concern, then our democracy is broken. Being the oldest modern Republic means experience; and experience does not mean one is invulnerable, but that one has simply learned, and not been destroyed, by one’s mistakes. Enduring this inauguration was like being bailed out of jail by your parents: you’re glad the ordeal is over; it’s what comes next that worries you. And what does come next? Watching the government is our duty, but the waiting is the hardest part.