At the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, across the city of Washington, DC, the contradictions of Donald J Trump’s improbable rise to President stalked each other relentlessly.
The night prior to the inauguration, a relatively subdued Trump briefly addressed the people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, there to jive along to the “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration”. The event had an innocuous folk festival vibe and offered a confusing montage of hyper-patriotic country superstars, silver-suited dancebots, and a fabulously incongruous set by 2000s rockers 3 Doors Down.
The assembly was largely white but not entirely lacking in diversity, though any hint of Muslim participation was absent. Men with “Blacks for Trump” signs proved a hit, darting from photo to photo. Down by the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool, two African-American couples argued respectfully with a woman who was critical of Trump. One of the men, a former marine, said that black Democrats in Congress had enriched themselves without helping the people. Now a preacher in Phoenix, he wanted to drain the swamp, but liked Trump’s pick for education secretary: private school advocate and billionaire Republican Party donor Betsy DeVos.
As he chatted, a young woman with a cameraman in tow suddenly popped up and, without introduction, began firing-off questions. A branded microphone revealed the two-person crew as members of InfoWars, a website known for recording dramatic live confrontations and peddling conspiracy theories. Its charismatic lead talent Alex Jones has been one of the surprise winners of the 2016 election cycle, clinging to Trump’s coat-tails. Despite once claiming the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked by actors, that 9/11 was an inside job, and that chemicals in juice boxes turn people gay, Jones managed to get Trump on his show in late 2015. “Your reputation is amazing,” the then Republican primary candidate told Jones at the time.
A little over a year later and here was one of Jones’ crews grabbing feel-good vox pops at a Trump inauguration event. They turned their camera to another of the men standing in the circle who said his bit then passed on regards to Alex Jones, congratulating InfoWars for their honest reporting.
The night’s best speaker was undoubtedly actor Jon Voight, father to Angelina Jolie and one of Trump’s highest profile supporters. “We have been witness to a barrage of propaganda that left us all breathless with anticipation, not knowing if God could reverse all the negative lies against Mr Trump, whose only desire” Voight bellowed, then paused for dramatic effect: “whose only desire was to Make America Great Again.” The crowd loved it.
Voight’s unnamed themes of general conspiracy and media treachery found echoes in the throngs that cleared security checks and lined the parade route 12 hours later. Down by the Newseum — a museum dedicated to news, journalism, and freedom of the press — a protester breezed by with a sign that read “Donald Trump, loser by three million votes”, referring to Hillary Clinton’s victory in the popular vote. “That’s not how the Constitution works,” a Trump supporter loudly rebuked, before adding, “and then there’s that little thing called voter fraud.” Clearly, Trump’s entirely unsupported insistence that he only lost the popular vote because of fraudulent voting had been taken to heart. A biker from Detroit, who gave his name as Devil Dog, said he wanted to see Trump take out ISIS, build “the wall”, and bring jobs back. He dismissed a group of four young DC locals who were protesting as misguided youths, before explaining with confidence they were paid operatives. How did he know that? “Because we know,” he said.
From the start of Pennsylvania Avenue, these visitors would eventually glimpse the podium on which Trump was sworn in. Hours later, a few tinted limos apparently containing the President and his family rolled by. While viral images of empty stands along the route were deceptive, there was plenty of room in the crowd.
Almost needless to say, a seething distaste for the media was omnipresent. “You’re not fake news, are you,” a woman from North Carolina asked me sceptically. The term has been deployed joyously by Trump supporters after they pinched it from the liberal media outlets who used it to explain Clinton’s defeat. Two men waiting for the parade fondly recalled Trump’s recent berating of a CNN reporter with the same phrase, which was chanted by the bikers when open-back trucks carrying reporters passed by.
No such treatment for Fox News star Jesse Watters, though. The regular contributor to conservative television institution The O’Reilly Factor made his way through the crowd like a rock star. “I love him,” one woman declared, before repeating his catchphrase, “I’m Watters, and this is my world!” Watters was criticised after he filmed an overtly racist segment mocking the people of New York City’s Chinatown late last year, but if anyone in the crowd knew about it they weren’t bothered.
For all the excitement surrounding Trump’s rise, the people waiting by the barricades often listed a conventional set of Republican grievances when accounting for their vote — too much tax, too much regulation, too much welfare. Virtually every one who talked to Crikey ascribed Trump with a twin set of virtues: non-politician status and success in business.
For one 40-year-old woman from Virginia, who migrated to the US from Romania around 2002, a range of welfare and immigration related complaints manifest in her anger at, in her own words, “when you call one for English and two for Spanish”. She was referring to companies who set up automatic phone answering services that offer callers the opportunity to proceed in either language. “There are places in Southern California where you as a white guy don’t want to go,” her husband added. “And I have Hispanic relatives so I don’t want to hear anyone say I’m racist.”
Inside the security zones things stayed mostly quiet, and remained outright dull for long stretches. But the anarchists smashing Bank of America and Starbucks windowpanes around DC were having their desired impact. Along the parade route people received texts from worried loved ones, watching the demonstrations from home. The man who had recalled Trump’s CNN jibe was now exasperated, mumbling that the media wouldn’t be showing the peaceful Trump supporters around him, instead beaming images of burning streets.
Even on this, the day his unimaginable victory was realised, he was sure he had been swindled.