Polishing up his crystal ball one more time, J. BROOKS SPECTOR files a first-hand report from Washington, DC as businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was sworn into office on 20 January 2017.
Friday 20 January 2017 was unseasonably warm in Washington. Some people were attributing it to global warming; others were just prepared to see it as one of those off-season weather patterns that occasionally hit Washington by virtue of its location on a meteorological thermocline that could deliver a roaring blizzard on one day, and at other times soak the city in a driving rainstorm in the middle of the winter.
Regardless, this morning broke with temperatures already in the high teens Celsius and with the promise of near-shirtsleeve weather by the time the inauguration of the new president took place, precisely at noon. Such weather could virtually guarantee a huge crowd on the Mall for the president’s inauguration.
At 11:30 in the morning, at the White House, the new president and the soon to become former president, Barack Obama, along with their spouses, boarded the limousines of the presidential motorcade for the short but momentous ride to the West Face of the Capitol Building. There, at noon, the new president would take the short, constitutionally mandated oath of office from the Supreme Court’s chief justice. Almost immediately afterwards, the new president was scheduled to deliver his eagerly awaited inaugural address.
The outgoing president was sombre and grim-faced, but determined to be diplomatic in keeping with this long-standing official ritual. Nevertheless, it was hard to hide his deep sadness as well as the dissatisfaction over the circumstances of the day that had taken residence on the face of his usually cheerful First Lady. The Obamas had done the necessary in showing off the private quarters in the White House and some of the official rooms in the chief executive’s residence, but President-elect Trump was unable to restrain the smirk that rippled across his face, even as his wife, Melania, seemed more than a bit nervous and ill at ease at what this would mean for her new life.
The official seating for the inaugural event in front of the Capitol Building was filling up rapidly, but the vast crowd on the Mall was restless – waiting for events to unfold. The crowd had substantially segregated itself into largely competing groups, with one group in the centre, directly in front of the rostrum. Many were wearing red T-shirts and hats that read “Old & Deplorable & In Power”, “Making America Great – The Show, starts 12:00”, “Ted Nugent is God” or, more aggressively, “TWO MILLION – out today” Others were spread out along both sides of the body of Trump supporters, from the steps of the Capitol down along the Mall, past the various museums of the Smithsonian Institution.
As a precautionary measure, the Mayor of Washington, Muriel Bowser, had called up the DC National Guard for duty, and cancelled all leave by fire and police in the city as well as reaching out for temporary duty police borrowed from the Maryland and Virginia counties next to Washington itself. For his part, the outgoing president had ordered troops from the Old Guard ceremonial regiment, the full complement of the National Park Police, and several other specialised military units to be on stand-by, stationed in holding areas located on the various side streets fanning off from the Mall. In all, around 10,000 armed personnel were on duty. Just in case.
Things went calmly enough through the initial parts of the ceremony. However, there were loud disapproving sounds in the crowd and an obvious sense of tension when numerous people along the sides of the Mall elected to drop down on one knee rather than sing along at attention when the national anthem was played. This was seen as a gesture of solidarity with professional football’s Seattle Sea Hawks star quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s own protest over racial attitudes by many white Americans. Kaepernick’s gesture had been gaining traction with a number of other sports figures in recent weeks and it had become a much-discussed action.
The new president’s address was greeted with numerous cheers and attendees broke into repeated, ad hoc chants of “USA! USA! USA!” and “Build the Wall”, whenever President Trump repeated one of his familiar, stock phrases. But it wasn’t until he broke into ad hoc phrases that were not part of the written text released in advance to the media, when he told the crowd on the Mall, the national television audience – and the world – that the chanting became angrier, there were loud cat calls, and scattered stone throwing began as well.
Moving well beyond his text, and clearly energised by the vast gathering, Trump told the crowd:
“My administration will defend our nation against all those drug-dealing rapists and muggers moving north from ‘el Mexico’. You can bet your life savings I am going to build that wall and those stubborn Mexicans are going to pay for it. Promise. One hundred percent. The deportations will commence just as soon as I get into the Oval Office and can sign the papers.
“We will bring back our jobs from China. We will send all those illegal immigrants back to wherever they came from; and we will crush those violent Muslim terrorists who are hell-bent on destroying our nation – wherever those awful cowards are hiding. And I will use whatever weapons I need to use to do just that with that big, beautiful, strong, very strong, very powerful, army I am going to build. And that’s a promise.
“Now that I am in charge, I will hunt down anyone who sets off another bomb in New York City, ever again, and they will regret the day they first drew breath.”
As the cheering – and the jeers – steadily increased in volume, he added:
“And don’t you forget any of that – even for a second. And, if I don’t achieve all of this – all of this – I will be happy to stand for impeachment before the end of my first term of office. I know what I am doing. Better than anyone else. And while we are at it, we are going to make sure you can keep your guns, one hundred percent. The next Supreme Court judges will be the right kinds of people. Period.”
Suddenly, a shot rang out in the midst of the crowd, then another, and two people dropped to the ground, bleeding heavily and obviously seriously wounded. It was never clear who fired the shots – or why – but a fuse had been lit for the explosion about to come. Television cameras swivelled to the scenes of the shootings, people throughout the crowd began sending out video clips in real time of the incidents to their friends around the nation, and the crowd suddenly began moving towards the edges of the Mall – whereupon Trump supporters violently collided with those opposed to him – and then with the police and National Guard troops now on station to keep order.
The Secret Service suddenly had its hands full escorting international VIP guests, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Chinese President Xi Jinping and some two-dozen international leaders to the relative safety of the Capitol Rotunda, until their unplanned departure from the ceremony could be arranged. Getting all the assembled representatives, senators and other official guests safely away also took time and energy.
While those ragged struggles were breaking out all across the Mall, people opposing the new Trump administration who had gathered in many public spaces in large cities across the country similarly began to clash with the new president’s supporters. Still in Washington, one group managed to set the newly opened Trump hotel in Washington, just off the Mall, on fire, and an angry mob pelted the windows of a Trump building in New York City with stones. At least one incendiary device apparently was thrown into the lobby, although only modest damage was done before the fire was extinguished by the New York City Fire Department.
By nightfall, the bulk of the fighting in Washington had been quelled, although groups from the original crowd continued to roam the streets looking for fights as the day wore on. Transportation to disperse the crowd had become more difficult and everyone was on foot when the head of Washington’s combined subway and bus system shut down the entire network to avoid damage to buses, trains, stations and tracks. The new president never managed to deliver his full speech at the ceremony, and all of the usual lunches in the Capitol Building and the dozen inaugural balls in major Washington hotels were cancelled to avoid any further risks of violence. To prevent further outbreaks, for the first time since April 1968 (in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King), the city was declared to be under martial law, and anyone carrying anything that could be construed to be any kind of weapon was subject to immediate arrest.
A furious President Trump could barely contain his temper during a hastily convened, nationally televised news conference. He railed against “unknown, but almost certainly troublemakers who were bent on disrupting his presidency, had destroyed what should have been one of the nation’s proudest moments in its entire history. Ever. And we’ll find out who planned this, although I think I know, but I can’t say yet,” the new president added for emphasis. President Trump’s key adviser – and his almost certain attorney-general, Rudy Giuliani, added in a separate news conference, “Something like this had to have been planned ahead of time. There were already suspicions about groups of illegal immigrants working closely with young troublemakers from minority communities. And we will find them and deal with them.”
Meanwhile, Russia Today television intoned about the day’s events on its evening newscast:
“This astonishing shambles demonstrates yet again that America is a civilisation in crisis and decline. It was a very sad commentary on the American government that it could not guarantee the physical safety of world leaders such as Russian President Putin from crowds of rampaging demonstrators and equally violent police retaliation. Such a thing would never happen in Moscow.”
Meanwhile, the BBC, broadcasting live from Washington, spoke about “the astonishing spectacle of division in American society as exemplified by the disorder around the new president’s inauguration. Fortunately the British prime minister was safe, but such a day must surely mean America’s reputation globally will, going forward, need serious repair, not least due to the president’s own language.”
Not surprisingly, North Korean television and radio broadcasts spoke about how this day of shame and disorder was clear evidence of the near collapse of the imperialist forces. Pyongyang reminded the world:
“The defence forces of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea are now on high alert since these demonstrations inside the imperialists’ lair are certain to make their military cliques desperately eager to find a way to deflect away from their own shame over the breakdown of public order – and the near collapse of their nation.”
In the US itself, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, covering the disorders in Washington, was forced to fall back on:
“I’ve never really seen anything like this in America. Sure, in some parts of the world this kind of thing happens as part of the political system, but in America?… Whoever started this must cease it now, or the president will be forced to fall back on the uniforms to do it.”
And Fox News’ Chris Wallace, trying to put the best face on it as befitted a network firmly in Donald Trump’s corner for months, added:
“People who take advantage of one of the country’s most solemn, important public traditions don’t deserve free rein to cause this kind of chaos. I’m sorry if that sounds rather like the kind of thing the new president might say, but I believe it.”
By evening, television news broadcasts were searching out commentary to go with their continuing coverage – one can only show the same footage of a disrupted inaugural so many times before audiences abandon the broadcast. As a result, defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton provided an impassioned appeal for “all Americans – no matter who they supported, no matter what their issues of concern are – to co-operate with efforts to maintain public order and to conduct their disagreements with maturity and civility.”
Former President Obama made a joint appearance electronically with all other living former presidents, Bill Clinton, two Bushes and Jimmy Carter, on all national television networks, urging all citizens to adhere to the country’s hallowed political traditions. The violence began to subside but the political damage was impossible to fix.
A range of appalling comments were already showing up on various Alt.Right websites and via social media, firmly placing the blame for what had occurred on racial and ethnic minorities, most probably acting in cahoots with foreign elements who had entered the nation surreptitiously, expressly in order to cause this disaster. And David Duke, now, amazingly, the newly elected senator from Louisiana, called for a forcible purification of the country’s body politic – likening the disruptions to a loathsome disease that could only be cured with strong but effective medicine. GOP senatorial leaders did rebuke him, but several other politicians followed in Duke’s verbal displays, most notably the media savvy but controversial Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio. It was a bleak time.
The new Trump administration, meanwhile, was having its troubles getting off the ground. So many of the logical, usual candidates for cabinet appointments had already declined the candidate-turned-president’s offers to serve that more than a week later, the Trump White House was still heading a government that was being run by career officials who were serving as acting secretaries of everything, and with no final names of nominees being put forward publicly, save for Justice (Rudy Giuliani), State (John Bolton), and Defence (retired Lt-General Michael Flynn) as the president’s picks for those key positions. Trump’s national security adviser was still in play, as were every one of the key economic positions.
Columnist Paul Krugman noted acerbically:
“By now even a Trump administration should have been able to identify a group of experienced Republican ‘hoplites’ prepared to run over their aged grandmothers if necessary in order to gain a chance to serve at the highest levels of government. However, under Donald Trump, it has turned out that, at least up until now, the nation’s grannies have been spared their untimely slaughter.”
“The result, however, is the continuing drift has already spread to Wall Street and well beyond – and even to the country’s international relations.”
Looking to America’s international relations, David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, had added:
“Russia, sensing a nation now adrift, had already made tough statements directed at the three Baltic nations, Finland and even Poland”.
And London-based historian, Anne Applebaum, appearing on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show on CNN, warned:
“The texture of things unfolding now reminds me and my friends in Central and Eastern Europe of a time just before World War II had broken out.”
Even Boris Johnson, British foreign secretary, gave an off-the-cuff interview to the BBC, observing his “surprise and horror at how quickly a nation’s political process could be subverted by mob violence and loose language”.
On-air analysts were now digging for comments written as Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office, back on 4 March 1861, on the cusp of the outbreak of civil war, as possible referents for their views on these unprecedented times. One quote that came up repeatedly had been published in The Charleston Mercury, in Charleston, South Carolina, when that paper had quickly excoriated Lincoln’s inaugural address as manifesting “insolence” and “brutality”, and it had attacked his Union government as “a mobocratic empire”. Even so, by that date there had still been no real, actual violence in the national capital or elsewhere for a month after Lincoln’s inauguration.
And so the question on many stunned minds was: How had things reached this point? In a startlingly prescient article by the very conservative The National Review editor Rich Lowry, published in in mid-September, he had written:
“No major political party has ever nominated anyone like this. If Trump were to prevail, it would make Barack Obama’s unlikely rise from unknown state senator to first African-American president of the United States in about four years look like a boringly conventional political trajectory.
“Trump now has a legitimate shot at winning the general election because he got the lucky draw of at least the second-worst presidential nominee in recent memory and, pending how she fares over the next two months, perhaps the worst.
“All it took for Trump to wipe away most of Hillary’s lead was acting like a somewhat normal presidential candidate. Have a meeting with a foreign leader. Give some policy speeches. Read from a teleprompter at rallies. Use his NPR voice when appropriate. None of this required strategic genius, only a decision not to throw away the election with repeated episodes of self-indulgent stupidity. Democrats should be feeling a creeping sense of panic….
“A compelling Trump debate performance could change perceptions of his suitability to be commander-in-chief. Hillary is trouncing Trump on this attribute by a 2-to-1 margin. If Trump shows up and seems plausible during the biggest moment of the campaign, he could vastly improve his standing on this basic question of readiness.
“All this said, Hillary probably still has an advantage. Presumably, she won’t be as snake-bit the rest of the campaign as she has been the past two weeks. She has a campaign and Trump doesn’t, and that must count for something. Demographics favour her. But if Trump can hoist himself over the bar of acceptability, he might give the voting public enough permission to make this the change election it is naturally inclined to be. A Trump victory may not be likely, but it isn’t far-fetched. And, no, stranger things haven’t happened.”
As it turned out, the first, one-on-one debate between Clinton and Trump turned out to be a decisive moment for the brazen businessman. He didn’t rant or rave, he did not fling raw, red meat or send out dog whistles to his true believers. Instead he dialled back his usually overbearing personality and, realising this was the biggest stage he had ever appeared on, delivered a stunning imitation of an actual statesman concerned with the vicissitudes of normal people’s lives and as one determined to lead the nation to a secular Promised Land.
Clinton was, in truth, thoroughly conversant with every detail of her policies and proposals, and she could explain what was necessary with conviction and a deeply convincing manner. But she was not an entertaining person on that stage, and she seemed unable to find that inner Clinton who cared deeply, that all her friends had repeatedly testified to in the past.
As a result, while Clinton had the clear sense of economic policies that had to be brought together cogently – in contrast to the wildly contradictory ideas Trump had thrown out over the campaign (in addition to his rants over Muslims, Mexicans, women, Nato allies and Chinese) – she just didn’t, in the language of the car salesman and the “flim flam artist”, close the sale. And she never quite recovered from this debate.
In the end, while the election itself was extremely close, losing Ohio and Michigan, as well as real but losing squeakers in Florida and Pennsylvania, doomed Hillary Clinton’s final quest for the White House. It ultimately gave Trump a slim but decisive, 20-vote-margin in the Electoral College – 279 to 259 – and thus the prize of the presidency. Inevitably, Democratic Party strategists could plausibly put the losses of the latter two states on Jill Stein’s shoulders as the candidate for the Green Party who had actually gained more votes than the margin of victory by Trump in those two states, just as Ralph Nader’s candidacy had helped doom Albert Gore in Florida. But there was little further to be said about it after the former secretary of state conceded to Trump by mid-day, 9 November.
The stock markets around the globe trembled, but eventually steadied themselves, even though Donald Trump in his victory speech claimed that he was about to embark on “the best, the biggest, the most historic administration ever”. Amazingly, in this moment of euphoria, he managed to stay on message and avoid his usual charges about the Chinese, Muslims and Mexicans, the near-apocalyptic state of the nation, and he even skipped any references to the great southern wall he would make Mexico pay to build.
The stock markets did not fare so well after 20 January, of course.
On victory, he even added some gracious, complimentary words about his opponent in the election as well as about the man whom he was now poised to replace. But his more ardent followers and all those on the Alt.Right were much less restrained in their comments and mutterings in the days and weeks that followed the actual election.
By the time noon, 20 January had come around; the combustible materials were stockpiled nicely in place, just waiting for that spark. And it came only ten minutes into President Trump’s inaugural address. DM
Photo: US President Donald J Trump takes the oath of office from US Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts as First Lady Melania Trump Bush holds the Bible during his Inauguration for his first term on the steps of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC Friday 20 January 2017. (Time Machine photos)
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