Originally published to businesspost.ie on January 21st, 2016.
Rally writ large.
The address, commentators agreed, was a stump speech. An amped-up, textbook rework of the kind delivered ad nauseam for the past 18 months. Familiar were the words, the pledges, and the two-mode index fingers.
The atmosphere on the streets of D.C. was familiar, too. The words used by the people who filled them were inflammatory, not celebratory. The jeering was loud and the acid nature of the idolatry was clear. On each street, “Make America Great Again” was stamped as far as the eye could see, repeated into meaninglessness.
The content of the t-shirts was more ambitious than ever. “JESUS IS JUDGE”, a set read. Red, of course. “Abortion is murder, homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, evolution is an illusion, feminism is rebellion, liberalism is fake rebellion”. The wearers paraded in the direction of the National Mall, slapping each other’s matching backs.
The President’s support was, as ever, white. Immediately, confoundingly white. There seemed to be a greater-than-usual number of couples, too. Heterosexual, middle-aged couples. Faux-fur stoles beside PGA Tour caps and umbrellas, blonde curls dangling beside shiny suit jackets and chinos. Tie clips. Burberry plaid. Louis Vuitton monogram. Ostentatious hand-holding. In not-isolated cases, matching rain ponchos.
The same badges ($5.00 apiece, or three for $10.00), the same hats, the same flags. The same chanting: LOCK HER UP, followed by BUILD THAT WALL, followed by U-S-A.
The last, the simplest, started up in response to any perceived sleight of President Donald J. Trump, to any rogue protest message, or to anything interpreted as less than full commitment to the remaking of America as “great”.
U-S-A! As though “USA” was the special preserve of the Trump camp. As though the invocation of the country’s name was shorthand for what was being laid out, again, at the United States Capitol. President Trump’s hackneyed, oblique, USA-obsessed vision.
That selfsame message. Only now, with a mandate.
To leave New York City by night, where Trump is the subject of easy, widespread resistance and ridicule, and arrive to a place freshly filled with supporters seduced by his promise to reinstate greatness, was jarring.
Here and there in D.C., however, versions of bemusement and disgust could be found manifesting themselves in different ways.
On 3rd and 300, a young man wearing a hot pink Planned Parenthood beanie, trilling: “Workers’ rights are under attack! What do we do?”. In every case [trans rights, “repro” rights, emigrants’ rights], the same refrain: “Stand up, fight back!”
One block from the National Gallery, an elderly man, wearing a camel trench coat and toting a fat cigar, carrying a placard about his height: TRUMP IS A FASCIST.
A couple of young women near Union Station embraced, laughing, after one fleetingly mistook the other’s parody hat — MAKE AMERICA MEXICO AGAIN — for the real thing.
A mother with three young children, hurrying down to the Mall, calling, flatly, inexplicably, after a female police officer: “Ma’am! Please arrest Trump!”
A lone sign, hovering bravely amid scarlet baseball hats, against a grey sky: MUSLIM. GAY. UNAFRAID.
Arriving to the city later than planned, unencumbered by either press pass or ticket (available in six color-coded categories to those with the foresight to ask local congresspeople), I prepared for a tedious hash of queuing with the latecomer general public.
The wait for the “Mall Standing Area” would be more than three hours’ long. The violent American intolerance for “cutters”, people fond of or adept at skipping lines, created a certain tension along the edges of the pack and forbade the most remote advancement, however subtle.
Ultimately, I and scores of others watched the 2017 inauguration ceremony on CNN (in my case, on a rose-gold iPhone with a furry cover, generously held aloft by a young Asian woman in front of me). I was unprepared for this, and blown away by the studied unconcern of the organizers.
Gradually separated from the rose-gold phone and its pearlescent pink portable charger, I turned my attention to a second phone, fixed to the end of a selfie stick, which two men were taking turns cupping so that the incoming president’s words could be heard over the feedback of his live words less than half a mile away. They were rapt.
Photographs of a patchily occupied Mall were being gleefully tweeted. We inched hopelessly forward. No speaker. No screen. The people around me had travelled to cheer Trump on from Florida, Michigan, and Nebraska, driving and flying. With the exception of some optics-based concerns, aired in passing, nobody seemed to care.
Noon. Rain began spitting down on the gathering of heads, hatted and hat-free. At a total remove from the events unfolding, mere awareness of the development was still greeted by whooping, cheering, and jubilant shouts.
Nothing could be heard. Nothing, with the exception of the silhouettes of two snipers and the uppermost tip of the Washington Monument, could be seen.
It occurred to me: nothing needed to be. “Great” is a feeling.