We left for Washington DC on the evening of the 19th. Nicky and I stood by the side of a road in Durham, North Carolina awaiting the arrival of our bus. We were in the Bible Belt, a distinctly southern state, a state that had supported Donald Trump. Within a couple of minutes the familiar yellow and blue of the bus came round the corner, the plump Megabus man smiling at us from his site on the bus’s side. Our journey to DC would soon start.
We boarded the bus and quickly and unknowingly we were part of the most intense confrontation we would face over those next three days.
“Excuse me, I think you’re sat in our reserved seats.” I asked.
“Are y’all gunna try force me out of my seat? Because you wont have any luck.”
“I am sorry, it says seats 1 and 2 on the tickets.”
“Excuse me mam, these seats are for these gentlemen.” The woman sat behind us chimed in.
“Why don’t you mind your own business, you nosy bitch.”
Before long the woman moved and we eased ourselves into the journey as the bus made its way towards the interstate. To our right sat two woman in their thirties both working away on MacBooks. I overheard their conversation.
“What brings you to Washington then? Not tomorrow’s events I presume?”
“God no, I don’t want any part of that.”
They went on, laughing tentatively about Republicanism, their lives and their work. I got a sense that neither of them really knew what to say.
As I sat, and the bus drove on, now having reached the long, dark interstate highway, I thought to myself about how and in what capacity I would be able to write about tomorrow’s ceremony. I was British, I was a man, I was certainly not an authority on American political science in any intellectual sense. I was an outsider to the process. I was to witness something historic whilst not being a part of what was making it so. I wouldn’t have to endure any of the next four years, I was a tourist.
How anybody reacts to Trump has its roots, more than anything, in one’s own, distinct mix of adversity, circumstance and personal experience.
Maybe, I could add to the multitude of intellectualised pieces already written about Trump; deriding him for the unprecedented damage he was doing to the dignity of American democracy. I could analyse his potential for catastrophe; to what extent could he irrevocably change the state of global politics. I briefly considered writing emphatically of his blatant lying, trying to frame each of the lies he has told against each other to try and reach some sense of their number and seriousness.
Or maybe I would write a satire, it had certainly be done well before. The almost singular positive of Trump’s rise is of course his immense potential for parody.
But what struck me about Trump, and why the world had such a confused and fierce reaction to his electoral victory, was mostly how he managed to be so deeply insulting to personal experience.
Trump’s presidency is about so much more than what laws he repeals or what goals he pursues in foreign policy. How one sees Trump is most fundamentally about personal experience. For a woman who has suffered the immeasurable pain of sexual assault, what does an analysis of Trump’s ill-advised tax legislation do? For a Muslim who is shunned on public transport and told to leave the country they were born in, what does a satire of Trump’s mannerisms do? For a now unemployed father of three, a rust belt worker who was taken in by Trump’s promise of jobs and the rhetoric of corruption in the Washington Establishment, what does another academic piece of journalism do? How anybody reacts to Trump has its roots, more than anything, in one’s own, distinct mix of adversity, circumstance and personal experience.
So what follows is a summary of my own personal experience of the inauguration, nothing more. I have tried to do so without sneers, assumptions of superiority, or the dismissal of experience beyond my own.
Sat next to me was Nicky, who reading a latin textbook of his, was periodically suggesting Latin quotes with which I could title the article.
Now he had settled on something – “Alea iacta est,” he said.
Translated as “the die is cast” the phrase roughly equates to what is known as the point of no return. Attributed to Caesar as he crossed the Rubicon with his armies and defied the senate in an act of civil war. I pointed out to Nicky that the phrase seemed a bit sensationalist, but despite that it definitely retained some charm. In a lot of ways it seemed to fit; tomorrow Trump was going to be sworn in and the point of no return would be crossed. Trump was here for the next four years and that was now a simple fact.
As with any long journey the obligation of conversation continued for the first couple of hours, fuelled by a sense of excitement and motion. Then once these hours had passed, the inevitable happened; the bus descended into relative silence as people returned back to their iPods, their books or their work.
Where Obama always seemed reflective, acutely aware of the significance of his own racial identity and its relation to the power he wielded; Trump feels like the opposite, entitled and dangerously self assured.
We passed through into Virginia, through Richmond, a city that was relatively forgettable, and up towards DC. The combination of the poorly kept roads and the budget bus suspension left me feeling nauseous as we finally came towards the city.
The closer we got the more the gravity of tomorrow’s proceedings became clear. Road signs signalled closures of major highways, a noticeable police presence hinted at a city in preparation. Everything pointed towards a great sense of ceremony. It all felt of such a scale that even the most level-headed person could be drawn to the immensity of the moment and its singular focus on one man. To imagine someone with a tendency towards narcissism, someone like Trump, considering the scale of the inaugural preparation might provide a feeling that seems frighteningly close to vindication. One can imagine Trump seeing this as an assurance of sorts. An assurance of his special status, his place above the petty concerns of “public”. His place beyond convention or circumstance and their moderating forces. Indeed, it is hard to think of a greater assurance of Trump’s brand of delusional narcissism than the grandeur of an inauguration. Where Obama always seemed reflective, acutely aware of the significance of his own racial identity and its relation to the power he wielded; Trump feels like the opposite, entitled and dangerously self assured.
After 6 hours, with glimpses of the Capitol Building and the Washington monument, we had reached the centre of DC and our bus pulled into Union Station. The time was 1.30am.
We left the station and were met with even more signallers of what was to come tomorrow. Street salesman peddling Trump memorabilia of all varieties were already setting up their stools, eager to capture the spots with the most footfall.
We ordered a taxi and made our way out to suburbs, where we’d be staying.
“Trump’s a business man”, The taxi driver pointed out. I was not sure what he meant by the comment, given that is often spoken as a committed endorsement.
“But being President is not the same as running a business”, he clarified.
The next day we were up early, anticipating the city to be overwhelmingly busy. We made our way to the metro and things seemed to be normal, there was the odd red hat, announcing to the world that America would be made great again. There was the odd person donning the American flag, but it was certainly not crowded. The closer we got to the centre, the more things filled up, but it was never overwhelming, there were seats spare next to us the whole way. We started to consider: were we very early? Were we late? Where were the millions of visitors that Trump had promised and the city had expected?
“Get your ‘OBAMA YOU’RE FIRED’ shirts here!” shouted one such man.
By the time we got out of the metro the fanfare had presented itself. Crowds had emerged and they had a distinctly red flavour. The odd red hat had transformed into a sea of bobbing heads. The colours of the flag were draped over shoulders. The salesmen we had encountered the night before were beginning their work.
“Get your ‘OBAMA YOU’RE FIRED’ shirts here!” shouted one such man.
Trump’s face was everywhere, on T-shirts, on posters, on badges and on babies. There were no protestors to be seen and as we queued for entry into Capitol Hill it became increasingly clear that we were in and surrounded by Trump fanatics.
The weather was grey, not cold but fresh. The air had that feeling of heaviness that comes before it starts to rain. Looking up and around it was hard not to notice the snipers lining the roofs, the military had been recruited for crowd control but there was hardly an atmosphere of tension. There was a sense of celebration in the air. Trump’s supporters had made their pilgrimage and they were clearly excited to see their hero’s crowning moment of glory.
We quickly passed through security and entered the area in front of the podium. We were positioned near the front, less than 100 meters from where Trump would soon be speaking, and even in this area the density of people was noticeably lacking.
Before any of the speaking started, in the crowd we were treated to a selection of American orchestral music. “The music of patriots”, said a man to my left. He wore a Make America Great Again beanie pulled down low so that is was almost over his eyes, he was somewhere in his late 20s. He was speaking on the phone – “There are Swedish scientists that have conclusive proof that the weather in medieval times or was it Roman times? Well it was warmer than now, it’s a cycle.” I wanted so desperately to avoid stereotypes but here this man was, a proud member of the alt-right.
To my right was a family, three generations of Trump fanaticism. A Grandmother was directly next to me, she was very friendly and struck up conversation about the elegance of Trump’s daughters. Behind her was the mother, and to her right the granddaughter, somewhere around 15 years old.
As different figures in American politics were announced and walked up to the stage, the crowd reacted with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The Bush family was announced to thunderous applause which quickly transitioned into chants of “TRUMP. TRUMP. TRUMP.” After Bush the excitement continued, out came Paul Ryan and his wife to which the crowd reacted with a kind of Mexican wave.
“ahh you’ve got a crush on little Barron have you?”. All the family commented on his grace and handsomeness.
This atmosphere was quickly dashed when Hilary was announced. Boos came from all around, some started singing, “Goodbye”. The grandmother to my left was less fervent.
“She’s here, it’s not nice to boo her.”
Her daughter disagreed and shouted with her husband “GOODBYE”.
Then the Obamas. First Michelle, who was met by a smattering of applause.
“That’s as nice as it’s gonna get” said the alt-right poster boy.
Obama was booed, although not as viciously as Hilary. Next, out came Trump’s family – his wife, his daughters and his sons. There were claps and screams of adoration. The teenage grandaugter looked up eagerly. Her Grandad noticed – “ahh you’ve got a crush on little Barron have you?”. All the family commented on his grace and handsomeness.
Following a few more chants of U.S.A the announcements of attendees had finished and the real ceremonies started.
Democratic Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer took to the podium. He began – “Too many people in this country have been left behind by the economy”. The crowd became a chorus of boos. It was impossible to hear a word he said as the Trump chants started again. The Alt-right poster boy started laughing, as did the family to my right.
“The most dangerous place to be in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a camera.” shouted another man.
Behind me stood a couple, clearly two of the only Democrats in the area. They looked on and tutted at the proceedings – “This is ridiculous babe.”
Not long after Trump finally emerged, with two thumbs raised to the crowd, striding forward. He stood at the podium and without mincing his words quickly swore his oath of office. The crowd went from energetic cheers to an eerie silence of expectation and then Trump began speaking. I so wanted to avoid cliche, but as Trump started to speak the heaviness of the air settled and it began to rain.
“We are returning the power from DC to the people.” Trump started. “From now on it will be America first.” He went on.
The crowd hung on his words and cheered at every pause. The rhetoric continued – “I will never ever let you down, America will start winning again.”
The Democrats behind me were silent. The three biggest cheers of the day then followed.
“We will follow two simple rules – BUY AMERICAN AND HIRE AMERICAN.” With this sentence almost everyone cheered; the people in the crowd were united, it seemed, most strongly by a sense of being left behind. It is ironic then, that they booed so intensely Chuck Schumer after he pointed this out. The people around me were reacting, it was a reaction to a world that is becoming increasingly small, a world that is more connected. With globalisation, the order of things is being redefined. Any residual concept of an american dream is now vague and feels that much further from the reaches of the ‘ordinary’ man.
It struck me that we often find ourselves in an instinctive and unchanging state of just ‘carrying on’, a great tendency to forget and simply continue with the natural whims of our own narrow lives.
Trump went on and with it the sound of the crowd became louder. “We will unite the world against radical islamic terrorism.” The granddaughter near me screamed in delight, her mother joined with her.
Next came the lengthy preamble to the inevitable closing line.
“We will make America safe again. We will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud again. And yes, together..” The crowd joined for the final lines, summoning the message that had been sold to them, digested and recited time and time again. “WE WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.”
The sense of anti-climax was to be expected and quickly we left Capitol Hill to go and get food. We walked the streets and there was now no longer a real sense of anything in the air, be it excitement or be it division. We were still able to go and eat, I was lucky to have had a personal experience that was generally quite compatible with Trump’s rhetoric. My life would quite freely go on.
After five minutes we encountered one of the protests. It moved down the street in front of us. A teenager in camouflage trousers and a red hat ran past me towards the procession of people.
“YOU SUCK. GO HOME, YOU FUCKING LOST.” He shouted.
“NICE HAT YOU CUNT.” The protest responded.
We were able to very peacefully walk through the crowd of protestors back towards the metro, stopping briefly to admire the collection of signs. TRUMP IS PUTIN’S PISS BOY, read one.
By the time we reached the metro much of the crowd had dissipated. It had returned to how it was before, the odd red hat would peak over the height of people. The further we got out of the centre, it became less and less clear that anything was supposed to be happening today. By the time we reached Fairfax there were no Trump supporters or protestors to be seen.
It struck me that we often find ourselves in an instinctive and unchanging state of just ‘carrying on’, a great tendency to forget and simply continue with the natural whims of our own narrow lives. It was the act of stopping, of considering wider implications that took so much effort. It was something unnatural and active. So as I returned to North Carolina and was able to continue with my life I forced myself to do the unnatural, to actively think about the wider collective experience.
The injustice of personal experience is what dictates if you can move on from Trump or whether you are reminded of it daily. In carrying on one is complicit. Evil and suffering often don’t present themselves radically. They are found much more commonly in thoughtlessness, in the tendency to suck it up and go on. If Trump’s inauguration assured me of anything it was of the ‘banality of evil’ and of the necessity of greater reflection.
For those of us to which experience has been kind, we can continue with our lives, but in doing so we must make a commitment to remind ourselves of the enduring truth of personal experience. The truth that, in response to Trump or in response to anything some people don’t have the luxury of just moving on.
Words by Jamie Cameron