Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration ceremony generated the largest crowds ever. Donald Trump’s 2016 ceremony generated a week of bizarre lying about the numbers at his much smaller event. And now there will be no public inauguration at all, with the National Mall, stretching from Congress to the Washington monument, to be closed to the public.
It would be hard to overstate the symbolic significance of such a move. Washington, the city, was laid out in such a way as to emphasise the new federal/imperial republic arising from the motley collection of colony-states that had made a revolution.
Its design is explicitly occult; long avenues making sacred secular sites visible from each to each. The monument itself is startling, at once pharaonic, but also more modern than the steadily more kitsch monuments that followed.
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John Adams, second president, nearly abandoned the new capital when he found that the White House was being built with slave labour. A few years later, Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana purchase, which changed the country and the presidency, defining the latter’s executive powers — by buying half a continent — as anything not explicitly ruled out of doing.
The empire — the projection of expansion as the unfolding of enlightenment in the world, rolling out from its marble capital — had begun. That empire is far from over, but something within it is, if the new government so fears a section of its people that the general public has been replaced by 26,000 soldiers in camo, camping out in those polished white halls.
The logic is hard to refute: the event would be such a target rich environment, and the usual ratio of actually violent crazies to the merely angry and disgruntled — usually in the tens of millions to one — has been so upended in the Trump era, that a political event like a mass inauguration is now unpoliceable.
Or maybe it isn’t, who knows?
But it would be a daring new administration willing to find out. This is an extraordinary wrecking operation, led by one man and his sycophantic enablers. A country founded in principle, on a set of principles, evolving out of instituted state racism, a place with extremely open settings of free speech, a court system that for decades enforced a secular liberalism beyond the beliefs of much of its population — all this has held together.
Its great recent upheavals — the civil rights/black power movement, and the Vietnam/new left movement — cut with the grain of its spirit, holding it to account on its own terms. Somehow, a general collapse of mutual consent — such as had occurred in 1860 — was avoided.
In four short years, Donald Trump and his enablers have taken that to the edge of destruction. It is an extraordinary anti-achievement. Trump’s willingness to mobilise refusal of consent, based on phantasms of electoral fraud, so greatly assures him of the worst president ever status, that no one else comes close.
The usual contenders — Lincoln’s predecessors, James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce, from the 1850s — usually get the wooden spoon because, as pro-slavers, they meddled and connived in negotiations around a dying system, emboldened the South, and made the Civil War inevitable. But that was a clean break, which led to emancipation — sabotaged by another wooden spooner, Andrew Johnson, a virulent racist, who’d been Lincoln’s VP for political reasons.
Trump’s genius has been to lend state power, the voice of sovereignty, to the process by which the culture and history was atomising the minimal consensus on which it relied. Yes, worse than the civil war crew. Other contenders — Warren Harding, Zachary Taylor — no longer come close.
In Crawford, Texas, Dubya must be yelping with relief. He gave away US hegemony and crashed the economy. But that now counts as mere incompetence, compared to a president who widened the fissure running through US society itself. The question is, how far and how irrevocably?
The next few days will give some answer. It is yet another sign of the great shift that what has in the past been a ceremony of legitimating celebration is now a moment of unique apprehension in which the US finds out what it now is.
Between 1968 and the end of the ’70s the country was subject to several thousand political bombings. Several thousand. It was potentially not as close to a fracturing event then, as it is now. Such a possibility may prove, in the years to come, pure chimera.
Politics may return to the realms of elite technocracy, the condition of large sections of the public to the state of permanent dissatisfaction and steady material decline for the bottom quarter, that appears to be the long-term condition in much of the West.
Trump may prove to have been the ultimate diversion, Joker a political movie as expressive of its era as The Battle of Algiers.
Or… that may be the throat-clearing. We are seeing the Trump carnival parade as the end of a certain type of right-wing redemptionism which was born in the mystique of Reaganism, and could only maintain such mystic force by going deep into the gnostic extravaganza of the Q conspiracy.
But mystical movements can precede a re-rationalised politics. What if, out of Trump’s spectacular rise and fall, a fully rational, cell-structured but well-organised national movement of right-wing violence emerges? That would be a self-selecting movement. As the crazies and fantasists go back to carbs and sitcoms, the more committed find a new resolve that arises from the fiascos they were fooled by.
Such a movement would only need to have 1000 or so “resolved” soldiers out of the millions of fringe crazies, Dunkin’ Donuts militias, and out of the 320 million Americans, to sow havoc.
They would be paralleled by a political movement in certain states that would be neo-secessionist, as a serious movement — seeing in president Biden’s centrist administration, the great horned beast of permanent progressivism. Why, in Texas or Idaho, stick with a United States that offers only that? Secessionism with mass support now seems at least plausible, and that is another product of Trump’s reign.
Either he just disappears, as he said COVID would, or he turns out to be history on a golf cart, in slacks both shit-stained, and white as imperial marble.