Friday was Ryan Shipley’s first-ever day in Washington. The 21-year-old had driven all night with two friends from Kingsport, Tennessee, to Richmond, Virginia, where they hopped on a 4:30 a.m. train to D.C.’s Union Station. From there, soldiers and barricades sent them trudging through this strange gray city until they wound up, at 9:30 in the morning, in a line in front of the awesome façade of the National Archives—and then into a giant field on the National Mall to watch the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump.
The first thing to understand about the inauguration is that it was not fun. It was cold. It rained, twice. There was no place to sit. There were long lines leading to security checks where attendees had to throw away their backpacks. Cellphone service was spotty. There was no coffee. And everyone had woken up at the crack of dawn—if anyone had slept at all.
Yet the morning was civil and optimistic. President Obama was cheered. Chants of “USA” and “Trump” never really took off. And although this may be a sign of how low the bar has fallen, I’ll report the encouraging sign that no one chanted “Lock her up.”
“However you feel about her, you have to respect that she served our country,” said Brandon Adamski, a 22-year-old from Arlington, Virginia, in a red Make America Great Again cap. (He wasn’t even talking to me, but to a friend in a MAGA hat. I asked if I could quote him.)
It felt like Washington had pressed some gravitas into the Trumpkins; the ghost of L’Enfant had stuck a feather of solemn pomp into their irreverent red hats. This city can be grand when it wants to be. Television and social media spent chunks of time mocking the sparse attendance at Thursday night’s concert, Friday morning’s inauguration, and a parade that at points seemed to be attended by no one at all. But on the ground, we had no way of knowing that this was a poor showing. Snatches of bombast, like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s rendition of “America the Beautiful,” seemed to elevate both the movement and its leader into the political establishment.
These weren’t the same people standing around government balls with a Champagne glass in one hand and a business card in another. They wore boots, jeans, North Face sweaters, and knit hats threaded through with pins: a smirking Donald Trump or “Deplorable Lives Matter.” Most had never been to an inauguration. Many had never been to Washington. “It doesn’t look like it does on TV,” said one man who had flown in from New Mexico for the occasion. “I could spend a whole summer walking around here,” said another. “The buildings are beautiful,” said a third, as we waited in the rain in front of the National Archives.
The theme on the Mall on Friday was sober ceremony. I heard this first from people who did not support Trump, like Rose Weinmann, a 20-year-old student at Boston University who was reading a book on Islamic historiography. “I had planned to come before I knew the outcome, and I believe in democracy, and this is who we elected, so I’m here. I don’t agree with anything he has said so far, but we’ll see,” she said.
I heard this from conservatives, too. “It’s the process. It’s the event itself,” said Shelly Reagan, a music teacher from Virginia who had come with a friend on their day off. “It’s not that I’m here because it’s Trump. It’s not the person. It’s the office.”
And I heard it from people like Anthony Allen and Bob Johnson, friends from a church in Northeast Tennessee wearing red MAGA hats. “We think it’s a great opportunity to show the world the peaceful transfer of power,” said Allen.
It sounds rich coming from supporters of Trump, who not long ago was the one imperiling that ritual with cries of “Rigged!” But the whiplash of the past nine weeks was on display. After a year of celebrating themselves and their candidate as the barbarians at the gates, Trump supporters were now defending the sorting system in the castle library. They wanted desperately for Trump, the dark-horse candidate, to absorb the dignity of the office.
Rick Lee, a retiree from Lexington Park, Maryland, had ridden his motorcycle into the city that morning. He wasn’t a Biker for Trump, just a biker for Trump. I asked what he wanted to see from the president-elect. “He needs to get rid of the off-the-cuff stuff, stop with Twitter, and start acting presidential. Or he’s going to make us all look stupid,” Lee said.
Lee was reprising an old piece of wishful thinking. After Trump won the Republican nomination, his peers predicted a more “presidential” candidate would emerge into the general election. After Nov. 8, pundits predicted that the impending duties of the office would tamper his boorishness.
Here was the final gauntlet, a ceremony where even the lumbering figure of Trump shrank to a speck in front of the ribbon-draped steps of the Capitol building. We’ve entrusted important national moments to the National Mall; in return, it bestows a sense of legitimacy built on public memory and the architecture of power. Traditions like this one, with its arcane customs, its calls and responses, are designed to fit men to their parts.
But even on America’s grandest set, the rough edges of Trump rubbed through. Because when the inauguration started, the whole crowd turned to the south and settled its eyes on the jumbotron. And there we saw that Trump’s tie was as always too long, and the way he rocked like a mystic during the prayers and left his mouth open during other speeches and performed those funny contortions of his hands when he delivered his angry inaugural address. And when the cameras panned across the Mall, we saw that what felt like a crowd was in fact a small gathering in a much vaster space. And it started to rain again, and we heard him sniff.
This was how it had been at the Lincoln Memorial the night before, too. Trump had never looked as “presidential” as he did then, a distant black stick figure against the glowing white marble. (Later, in the photographs, you could see something else: how wide the eyes of the great Lincoln seemed to open, as if in disbelief.) At the time, though, the place was flooded with noise and light and people. The fireworks exploded in a red, white, and blue “USA,” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” washed over the reflecting pool.
When the last firework had gone off, the crowd turned quickly toward the exit. The first family stood upside-down on the televisions reflected in the water, and a huge cloud of white smoke drifted over the treeline, like at the close of a magic trick.