On inauguration day in DC, the souvenir business was slow. I asked a vendor wearing a huge Bob Marley hoodie while hawking Trump hats and scarves and keychains whether he might not have had better luck selling Obama gear, and he shrugged. “It’s too late.”
But he also said: “Tomorrow.” Tomorrow! You lie and I lie and our dear leaders lie, but the numbers don’t lie. I went to Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The trains were packed; the souvenir stands were packed; the streets were packed; the stores were packed. On inauguration day 2017, the train was less crowded than a normal commuting weekday; the vendors were having only moderate luck; the streets were spacious compared to an average Saturday at the Air and Space Museum; and you could walk right into a Pret-a-Manger and buy a sandwich without even waiting in line. If your expectations for inaugurations had been calibrated in 2009, it was hard not to feel an eerie ghost town quality this year.
On the mall, images of the Obamas and Bernie Sanders shown on the TV screens drew solid cheers. It felt like at least a third of the crowd there to watch Donald Trump be sworn in did not like Donald Trump. The true believers spanned the entire spectrum from families of suburban whites to families of rural whites. There was also a significant number of young male Trump fans—frat boys in red MAGA hats, biker types, hardcore-band-looking groups of friends wearing matching “DEPLORABLES” sweatshirts—who rallied to Trump with an enthusiasm that seemed to be made up purely of testosterone, undiluted by any messy concerns about policy. “Wooooo! Trump! Fuck yeah!” they hollered. For them, liking Donald Trump was an action equivalent to playing first-person-shooter games with your friends while wearing headsets, or joining the Army just because you think guns look cool. Loser macho chic. Like all wayward young men, they were just searching for something meaningful to hold onto in a confusing world. It would have been easy to feel sorry for them were it not for the fact that they could be the Brownshirts of the very near future.
When white America sends its people to cheer for Donald Trump, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing cultural disaffection that manifests as virulent anti-intellectualism. They’re bringing a willingness to sacrifice people who do not look like them on the altar of retrograde Americana. They’re bringing Toby Keith. And some, I assume, are good people.
There was a lag of about three seconds between the images on the TV screens across the Mall and the sound coming out of the loudspeakers. When Trump finally took his oath of office, there was a short, precious moment when you had seen his lips move but had not heard the fateful words. All the hopes of humanity could have fit inside that moment. Seconds later, the words arrived. You can’t call it “surreal” any more. It’s real.
Hours later, the black bloc people flooded K street. A line of dozens of cops clad in riot gear tossed concussion grenades at a moving group of protesters. It was exciting, but it all seemed so very perfunctory. Smash a Starbucks window? Check. Scream at cops that “we have your badge numbers?” Check. Set a trash can on fire in the middle of the street, only to see that lone burning trash can surrounded by 50 photographers in an absurd scene of meta-media farce? Check. Later, they burned a limo. Check. I personally have no desire to fight a cop and lose, but I can appreciate the strategic value of rowdy elements who like to break things, because they establish an edge that makes it easier for the more moderate activists to accomplish what they want to accomplish. If you do want to fight a cop, though—fight em! They’re right there, and would like nothing more. The most self-consciously badass segment of the opposition movement seems extremely heavy on documentarians. Then again, who the fuck am I to talk.
The black smoke of burning trash bags over Franklin Square was the perfect scent for a day of doom. But then came tomorrow. Tomorrow! Tomorrow, Saturday, the entire city of Washington, DC turned over. Gone were the red hats, and in were the pink hats. The Women’s March day, not inauguration day, was the reappearance of 2009. The packed trains and packed stores and packed streets were suddenly there, all at once. And, just as magically, all the thousands of police that had lined the streets the day before had disappeared. The march itself was so big that it was less of a march than a thriving blob, spilling out in all directions past the assigned route, across the Mall, and all over downtown DC, turning the city into a vibrating mass of resistance. We all flowed. To be in that city on those two days was to learn something invaluable: Donald Trump’s base of support is not as strong as his opposition. That piece of knowledge alone should be enough to sustain us for a while.
Nobody knows what is about to happen. On Saturday night, I sat in McPherson Square, listening to a nearby punk concert echo off the walls of DC’s endless office buildings. Those buildings, glass and marble and handsome and unchanging, existed because of their ability to absorb change. No matter which party is in power, the class of lawyers and lobbyists and business functionaries who occupy those buildings continue on in their tasks, keeping things the way they have always been. Even though many of those things are broken and bad, these buildings have a remarkable capability to normalize it all. They absorb the punk songs and the police sirens and the smoke of concussion grenades and then, when it’s all swept up on Monday morning, keep whirring along in their business. Whether that resolute normalcy is desperately needed now or whether it desperately needs to be smashed depends on which way the balance of power tips now. The streets or the offices. Inside, or outside. Anyone who claims to know how this will turn out is lying.
Friday’s protest encampments had been cleared out of McPherson Square. Several homeless men were sleeping on the benches. All that was left were a few boxes of donuts and a rather poignant sign graveyard—hundreds of signs, propped up in a circle around the monument. Towering over them all was the figure of Union General James B. McPherson on horseback. He was killed in Georgia, in 1864, shot down off his horse by Confederate troops. Sometimes our system is strong enough to hold together peacefully in times of great strife. Other times, it’s not.