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Reporter’s Notebook

The emperor’s empty grandstands
by Rick Perlstein

Feb 2, 2017 | Politics, Rickipedia

Rick Perlstein

In Chicago I filed onto my Southwest flight, and was just about ready to throw my coat upon an unoccupied middle seat when I saw the man by the window in the T-shirt reading, “If guns kill people, then spoons make people fat,” and backed away. My trip to Washington, D.C., for Donald Trump’s inauguration had begun.

I started reading the web pages I’d downloaded to occupy myself on the plane, beginning with a help-wanted ad someone had pointed out to me—

We are actively seeking Trump Honeys! If you support Donald Trump and want to earn money doing it we are interested in speaking with you.

As a “Trump Honey” you will wear your Make America Great Again hat, Trump/Pence tee shirt, etc. at public events…

Trump Honeys receive liberal pay.

Trump Honeys will always be safe, we provide armed security.

Some assignments require partial nudity…

—and laughed nervously.

I read one piece explaining that hundreds of briefing papers created by Obama’s National Security Council have likely gone unread by Team Trump, and that of 690 positions requiring Senate confirmation only 28 had been filled so far. I read a reflection on the news from a friend who worried that agencies instead are being run by “landing teams” of corporate and conservative movement hacks who, without benefit of background checks, may force through monstrous actions under cover of night. I grew a little light-headed.

Then I read a piece propounding “some words of advice for those employees of the federal government who are currently in positions of relative authority and who will be interacting with political appointees.” It was written by a former staffer of indicted Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell, who recalled being “asked to do a few off-the-wall things” back in his government days. He addressed those in similar positions now:

Some . . . directives you will be told to implement will probably be counter to the stated (and authorized) goals of the agency . . . many of them will be given to you orally.

First, go back to your office and write them down. If feasible, send it in memo form to your superior asking if you have gotten the directive right. That is, put it on the record.

Second, whether you have or haven’t received a reply from your superior, make a list of issues, both pro and con, that may be affected by the proposed policy. Describe them in full context and cite the relevant legislation as necessary. Send this up the chain of command as well.

Third, you may also receive calls that are threatening or problematic. Write a memo to yourself to keep a record of it, and show it to a trusted friend as soon as possible, to establish a time line. . . .

 My light-headedness turned to nausea.

On a layover in Boston I read “New Trump Adviser’s Company Being Sued for Hiring White Men to Attack Black Patrons” posted by The Daily Beast, then a New York Times profile of Rick Perry, who “gladly accepted” Trump’s offer to become energy secretary: “Believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry.” He then “discovered” that, “if confirmed by the Senate, he would become the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about, caring for the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States nuclear arsenal.”

And I literally felt like I had to vomit.

On the Boston-to-D.C. leg I sat next to a bright, cheerful African-American woman in a colorful hijab, who regaled me with stories of Muhammad Ali’s funeral, taught me about how American Muslims turned the bean pie into a staple of black folk cuisine (she’s making a documentary), introduced me to the “Halal Kitty” memes—and shared what it was like at Brandeis University the day after the election, where she serves as Muslim chaplain. “I’m trying to find words to describe people’s faces. Depression?” She reflected, “This is a low point, but also a high point. This had to happen for you to see it”—for white people, she meant, to confront the kind of bigotry they had heretofore been able to ignore because it remained beneath their radar screens. She was on her way to the Women’s March set for the day after the inauguration. I’d be attending that, too.

As were, it turned out, most of the people on the shuttle bus to the train station—where there was no one, as best as I could determine, on their way to honor Donald Trump. Instead, on this crowded little bus ride, I was transported back to the feeling of attending Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, when strangers struck up conversations with strangers as if they’d known them all their lives. The first woman I talked to, a young health care lawyer, had purchased plane tickets months ago to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s inauguration. “It took me about 20 minutes to decide,” she said, to come to Washington anyway. “Jewish guilt. I think it’s such a catastrophe, that I had to do whatever I could.” Another remembered, when she was 14, seeing the blood in the streets around Lincoln Park after the historic clashes at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. “But this is the most important thing. My friend is flying in from Alaska.” A woman from Las Vegas who works in a casino: “I’ve never marched before.” An older woman from Boston who hadn’t protested anything since Reagan’s election in 1980. A mother and her 10-year-old-girl, about whom I can’t say much: she was too shy to talk.

At the Metro station, the credit card machine was balky, so when the young lawyer finally got it to work she bought tickets for the next three people in line, her friends now, and nonchalantly waved off a guy’s concern he didn’t have enough cash to reimburse her: solidarity. How many D.C. first-timers were on the train? At least one, who asked the conductor to make sure to tell her when they get to Union Station—the last stop. “If you miss it,” he responded kindly, “you’ll be the first.”

The train pulled into the station. Comes the first obvious Trump supporter I’d seen since the guy with the gun-loving shirt, waiting impatiently for the doors to open: A man in a custom suit and pocket silk who asked an attractive blonde woman, “You here for the nomination, too?” She nodded, then he pretended to “complain” about the $2,700 he was spending for two nights in a hotel and the $3,000 for ball tickets. She ignored him.

Overheard the next morning, at an Adams-Morgan Safeway:

“I feel like I’m in a dream today.”

“A nightmare,” her companion responded.

In this dream, you walk down Massachusetts Avenue past the gorgeous, exquisitely maintained embassies, and reflect upon all the care nations take to present a beautiful image to the world. You hear a fire truck clanging in the distance, and think, Molotov cocktails, already? A helicopter is buzzing overhead, You pass a Presbyterian Church on the corner of 23nd and P Street and you spy the giant #BLACKLIVESMATTER banner streaming down the entire bell tower and picture one of the out-of-town right-wingers who knows for an actual fact that Black Lives Matter is a movement of cop killers who live to torture whites: you picture them, horrified, thinking, churches supporting a thing like that, and smile a little. Later, you encounter an ad on a bus shelter for an abortion pill that works 10 weeks after conception, and, thinking about the steam coming out of that same right-winger’s ears over the Sodom and Gomorrah our nation’s capital has become, smile a little more.

I smiled, certainly. Because scenes like that were precisely what I had in mind to write about on this visit to D.C. Great masses of frenetically passionate Trump supporters, great masses of equally passionate Trump haters, coming together in the same city at almost the same time, engendering the sort of encounters that are more and more rare in our increasingly assortive nation. As a gent whose life’s work has been studying the confrontation of America’s “Red” and “Blue” tribes, this was a historical moment I could not afford to miss. There turned out to be only one problem. As my experience on all those planes, trains, and buses had already suggested, there were few frenetic Trump fans to find in Washington, D.C., on the weekend of the inauguration.


Milling to the Mall

I turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue and fall in step to eavesdrop on three young women, whom I’d guess might be Republican Capitol Hill staffers, from their appreciative gossip about a Team Trump man of the hour, Dan Scavino, Trump’s former caddie who became the campaign’s social media director and was appointed to the same role in the White House: “He’s like a young guy. Like 30. He did a good job.”

At DuPont Circle, Massachusetts Avenue becomes closed to traffic, guarded by military police stationed with two military Humvees for every intersection. “They’re improving in quality,” one of the women observes of the vehicles as we get closer to the inaugural grounds on the Mall. “A-Team. Not jayvee.”

We pass, I don’t know, a taco restaurant, or maybe some sort of consulate. “Mexican flag,” one of them says, and they all giggle.

As a gent whose life’s work has been studying the confrontation of America’s “Red” and “Blue” tribes, this was a historical moment I could not afford to miss.

I make my way to the office of a news organization where I’ve borrowed a desk. NBC is on. A talking head describes the kindly letter George W. Bush wrote for Barack Obama and left in the Oval Office desk: “That’s what America is all about—class, grace.”

Another commentator takes up the banality baton: “Bob Gates was asked to stay on by Obama, and it’s nice that some similar gestures of continuity were made by Trump.” (I guess he hasn’t read the speculation about the potential of a quiet coup by Mr. Trump’s “landing teams.”)

Katy Tur, NBC’s “embedded reporter” on the Trump campaign, refers to “those red hats that have become so enigmatic of Trump. . .” Sic.

Chris Matthews invents a new word, referring to Obama’s “finenenness.” Onscreen, Sheldon Adelson is escorted to his seat.

A reporter near me wonders if he should break out one of the “protests kits” before heading out into the field. They contain ski goggles, bandanas, and Vaseline.

I make my way to the Mall, worried, among other things, that I forgot to secure a ticket. I had one back in 2009 for Barack Obama’s inauguration, and even then had been pretty far away. It’s about an hour before the ceremony’s scheduled beginning, and there’s a long detour around endless security barriers to find an approach to the Mall. I fall in for a friendly chat with a cadre bearing rainbow flags and “LOVE TRUMPS HATE” placards. “Any trouble?” I ask, and learn that there has been none.

I pass the General Services Administration, the federal agency that owns the historic Post Office building a half mile from the White House, currently leased to Trump Hotels, with a stipulation that “No . . . elected official of the Government of the United States . . . shall be admitted to any share or part of this Lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.” Out front is a big blue sign announcing a new building project by the GSA’s Public Buildings Service, with white letters spray painted through a stencil reading “Donald J. Trump” above the words “President of the United States.”

I pass the Art Museum of the Americas, and a giant banner advertising a show called “The Great Swindle.” (No, not him, it’s work by an artist named Santiago Montoya.)

This is 18th Street heading east, past street signs stickered “Experts Agree: Trump Is A Pig.” Then past the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall (where Marian Anderson was denied the right to sing in 1939 and Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization and organized a concert for Anderson, who appeared before 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial). By this time the conclusion is gapingly obvious: there’s barely anybody walking down this street who is for Trump. Perhaps a majority are there to protest the inaugural. Once more I ask a group of protesters how the reaction has been. “Mellow,” one says, and “lots of thumbs up.”

I spy one man at least carrying a great big “Buy American” flag at an opening to the Mall at 18th and Constitution Avenue, a little over a mile from the rostrum at the west front of the Capitol. The line for the security check seems rather short—but before I get to it, a cop suggests we enter farther east, because you can get much closer than this.

At 17th Street, a young woman says, “I’m going to cry when people start referring to him as ‘president.’” People, mostly reporters, are gathered around two young men, one holding a sign reading MEET A MUSLIM, another, who has a Spider-Man backpack, holding one that says MUSLIMS FOR PEACE. Like carnival barkers, they entice all comers by citing a poll that found that 60 percent of Americans have never met a Muslim—and now was their chance. “Ask us anything!” Almost every person they’ve met has been positive, one of them says. “I haven’t had a single stupid question.”

There are lots of sidewalk vendors, like there are every day along the Mall. “How’s business?” I ask one. “Business is good,” he responds unconvincingly.

I follow up: “How does it compare to a nice sunny weekend?”

“Business is better on a nice sunny weekend. But I’m here, and it is what it is, as the old saying says.”

That is, indeed, what the old saying says. What his tone says is, “I dropped a pile on these Trump T-shirts and laminated ‘I WAS THERE’ fake credentials, and fuck am I taking a bath.”


Photo Credit: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro


The White Plastic Desert

Between the Washington Monument and the gorgeous new National Museum of African American History and Culture are gates marked “timed entry,” where bored, lonely workers stand sentry. I think back to what everyone kept repeating on January 20, 2009—crowds all the way back to the Washington Monument!—and turn to inspect the plastic wallets with Trump’s face printed on them, which a vendor is selling for a buck each. A Trump acolyte asks about a protest sign he sees, “What’s rape culture?”

A guy walks into a street-light post and tumbles to the ground. Someone cries, “Asshole down!” A woman who sees a prostrate figure with people huddled around him inquires worriedly, “Did they get him? What did he do?”

We are at the final non-ticketed gate, which a security official says will allow us to get all the way to the Capitol. I think, this gig has something in common with Woodstock.

They’re not evening bothering with tickets.

I’m traipsing across a great empty expanse of white plastic laid down to protect the Mall’s grass, one long block, then two, before stopping at a card table with a C-SPAN banner laid over it and two director’s chairs you can sit in while a friend snaps a picture that will make you look like you’re on TV, with crowds all around you. But there are no crowds. It’s a white plastic desert.

I walk one more block east almost to the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building—almost as far as I was able to get in 2009 with an entrance ticket a congressman provided me. But there still is hardly anyone around. I look back west far into the distance: “Is that at the press tent?” I ask a camouflaged soldier. “Yeah. Fox on the left, CNN on the right. What a joke.”

My information proves not to be precisely correct: sans ticket, I am not able to get all the way to the Capitol. Instead, I easily make my way to the first row of the non-ticketed section: I’m a readily identifiable speck in one of the now-famous side-by-side photographs from 2017, which are actually more revealing than I have seen reported. In both, you can easily tell the boundary between the ticketed and non-ticketed section, which is right at the distinctive donut-shaped Hirshhorn Museum. In the Trump picture, the ticketed crowd in front, toward the Capitol, is perhaps 80 percent of the size of the Obama one. Think of them as the insiders: the people with the pull or the initiative to get a favor from a congressman or senator, who are each provided limited number of tickets to distribute as they wish. A considerable number of people in that space are only there because they have to be. Behind that line are the unwashed masses, who are there because they want to be. At Obama’s inaugural they comprised a shoulder-to-shoulder sea of humanity stretching from one side of the Mall to the other for three-quarters of a mile.

At Trump’s, we are a clump a half block long and a half block wide: Trump’s eager public, on the day of his apotheosis. Though it turns out that many are not part of Trump’s public, and even those are not so eager.

The ceremony is about to begin; I slip on the Make America Great Again camouflage stocking cap I bought at a Trump rally during the New Hampshire primary and plant myself next to a guy in a “Hillary for Prison” T-shirt, behind “Peter Brown, Hockey Dad #10” (as his fleece jacket announces), who wears a Navy cap. His wife, who is a cafe au lait hue, speaks with an accent. Their two sons both wear Make America Great Again baseball caps. President Obama shows up on the giant video screen—to cheers, and one mild boo. The Vice President-elect: “Go Pence!” cries Mrs. Navy cap. One of the sons, responding to a protest sign, says, “History is not a nightmare.” Dad responds: “Because it didn’t go to Hillary!” I ask them where they are from: Prince William County, Virginia, 25 miles away. My small survey of the participants around me indicates none have traveled more the a hundred miles to be here.

The ceremony begins approximately on time, at 11:33, with the only Democrat to speak, Senator Chuck Schumer:

“. . . Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity—”

The mom sighs: “Here we go.”

“. . . And every day we stand up for core democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution, the rule of law, equal protection for all under law, the freedom of speech, press, religion. The things that make America—”

And mom interrupts Schumer once more: “—great again!”

Schumer then makes a gutsy rhetorical move. He begins reading from the letter of a Civil War soldier to his wife before the first Battle of Bull Run, “one of the greatest letters in American history,” and I expect a retreat into the dim past when politicians besotted by the ideology of American consensus invoked the Civil War to lament the sad necessity of brother fighting brother, reaching to find moral equivalency between North and South. (John F. Kennedy did that a lot.) Instead, the minority leader pulled no historical punches. He quotes Major Sullivan Ballou of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers secure in his knowledge “American civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government,” indicating his willingness “to lay down all my joys in this life to maintain this government.”

There are no crowds. It’s a white plastic desert.

Which is to say, to die so the North could prevail over the South, to defeat traitors. For a speech introducing the inauguration of a new president from a party that in many respects is the spiritual heir of those racist traitors, the message was hard for historically informed listeners to miss.

It wasn’t missed by a high-school age kid behind me, who observed of the First Battle of Bull Run: “North lost that battle.”

The Vice President was sworn in, and “Love Trumps hate” chants wafted briefly in the distance. By the oath’s words “without mental reservation” I could hear boos. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir gave us “America the Beautiful,” then came the soon-to-be president, reciting his oath to another scatter of chants and boos. The 21-gun salute, a “U-S-A!” chant—which didn’t last much longer than the protesters’ chants. “Guess what?” the kid who knows his Civil War history says. “He’s your president now, you friggin’ protesters, so now you have to shut up.”

It begins raining. The president begins speaking, about the bad old days when politicians “reaped the rewards of government,” which “all changes starting right here and right now.” The first of many applause lines that, around me, anyway, did not get much applause. No applause for: “You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.” Another protest chant rises, then dissipates. “This American carnage stops right here,” lands to very little response. After he says,“The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans” he paused for a considerable interval, rescued only by applause after several seconds.

About 10 feet away, after his utterance “America first” gets the biggest ovation so far, a woman begins a running commentary:

“I will never let you down.”

Yes you will! You’re fired!!

“We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.”

“No you won’t!

Everyone, Trumpies and anti-Trumpers both, giggle. She keeps on going, to the slightly less mild irritation of some. (“Shut the fuck up!”) But a confrontation that could have made for scary tension did not feel particularly tense. Without a mood of gravity in the air, the interruption seems to raise no sense of threat. Nor do the scattered wafting chants. When Trump begins, “And, yes, together, we will make”—and the crowd joins in with “America great again!”—it doesn’t have the menace of a fascist mob, but the feel of a bored crowd trying to have fun.

It turns out that is the last sentence, but the whole thing comes off so anticlimactically that peoples’ eyes seem to say, Is that all there is?


The Emperor’s Naked Bleachers

I wait in a two-hour security line to see the inaugural parade. Two elderly couples chit chat:

“When they met on the tarmac and he guaranteed she’d be attorney general—”

“—They didn’t meet to talk about grandkids.”

It’s the first time I’ve seen a phenomenon among Trumpies I’ve already witnessed again and again among anti-Trumpers: new friends bonding in ideological solidarity. I catch snatches: “Look at the people he’s surrounded himself with. I love it.” . . . “She said she’s going to leave the country. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.” . . . “It shows the strength of our Constitution that he tried to ram everything through by executive orders, but now can be reversed.”

One of the wives says, “We had some terrorists but as far as illegals, we have Guatemalans, Mexicans, don’t know their status. They take care of their families. They work. I don’t know what to think—”

Then the other wife cuts through her cognitive logjam: “Get rid of the bad ones and the Muslims. There are these mosques.”

“In Maryland?”

“Yes. He gave them all this money.”

The first woman seems satisfied now.

Inside the security perimeter along Pennsylvania Avenue I find a good viewing spot directly behind the bleachers, which are set up within a second, inner security perimeter, It’s a good spot because the bleachers are empty. That provides an unobstructed view of the street. “I suppose it’s warm in that shark costume,” a woman remarks to me, pointing to a person so clad across the street, with a “DRAIN THE SWAMP” sign. (Swamps have sharks?) Then, a Park Service police officer opens up the metal barrier, ushering us in to fill in the bleachers. Papering the house, they call it in theater, when they give away tickets to make a show not look like a flop.

The lady next to me lives in Maryland, but is originally from Vermont. She wanted Ben Carson to win the nomination. (Her daughter, she told me, married a man who is Asian and African-American; the proud grandma says the mix makes her two-year-old granddaughter especially adorable. She reflects that her generation grew up learning to be racist, and it’s been a learning experience. “Sometimes, my husband still slips.”) She doesn’t think Trump has what it takes. “He’s trying to do too much good for the whole country and not fight for his own agenda”—like, she says, Bill Clinton and Obama had; Trump, by contrast, is “not selfish.”

It’s 40 minutes beyond the time the parade was supposed to start. Weary and cold, the crowd starts doing a half-hearted “wave,” like at a football stadium. The streets are lined on each side with state police from around the country at about 10-foot intervals. Ours, poor souls, are from Georgia.

I think about something I learned in my historical research, that half the 600 residents of Jimmy Carter’s Plains, Georgia, traveled in a chartered Amtrak train to the inauguration 40 years ago, which was how they learned about an invention called “long underwear.”

The shark has left. The costume, apparently, was not warm enough. Me, I’m grateful I decided to wear long underwear. Or else I would not have made it long enough to finally hear a voice issue from the loudspeaker to kick off the festivities:

“Today, you stand in the great stream of American history.” I kid you not. This, my friends, is amateur hour.

The parade begins. Barack Obama’s had 15,000 participants; this one has 8,000. (Was that counting the horses? Or the poor saps in janitor coveralls, who had to march behind the horses with rolling dumpsters, dustpans, and brooms?) Later, watching video on C-SPAN’s site, I was able to confirm that not even Barack Obama could make an inaugural parade interesting. But I was also able to see with my own eyes that Obama’s parade, unlike Trump’s, was not nearly so marred by interminable waits, contradictory information from the announcers, and traffic jams. Perhaps it would have been more interesting had Trump’s reported wish to feature tanks and missile launchers not been nixed by military officials who warned that the street would sag irreparably beneath their weight. As it was, it was: not interesting.

O.K., there were interesting moments. Collecting malapropisms uttered by one of the parade announcers: “President William Harry Harrison,” “Justice Stephen BRAY-er,” “John Phillip SO-sa.” (She had a droning schoolmarmish voice: “Torture!” someone near me pronounces. “Sounds like Hillary!”)

And the gargantuan tractors. They were mildly interesting; also the fact that one of them contained, as a guest of honor, the CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group, the second largest owner of TV stations in the country, covering 30 percent of American households and notorious for biased right-wing news programming. Sinclair stations, under the radar of the national political media (as The Washington Post reported six-and-a-half weeks after the election) “gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign.” The company struck a deal with the campaign by which Trump and his high-profile surrogates provided exclusive interviews with Sinclair’s local newscasters, who asked questions scripted at the company’s national headquarters. Like: “Dr. Carson, you toured Detroit, your home town, with Donald Trump Saturday. What will Donald Trump offer the African American community better than Hillary Clinton can?”

Perhaps it would have been more interesting had Trump’s reported wish to feature tanks and missile launchers not been nixed by military officials who warned that the street would sag irreparably beneath their weight.

After the tractors: the umpteenth cordon of crisply uniformed soldiers, marching in lockstep. Would I manage to last long enough to see the new president close up? I hoped to outlast my boredom, friends, I really did. But I did not. I left, however, confident I had gotten the story. For by the time I left, the bleachers were only one-quarter full, and un-filling fast, which meant that whenever this accursed procession finally wended its way to its thrilling conclusion—the new president’s walk down the parade route—an indelible image for the ages was assured. The Emperor’s New Clothes would be enacted in reverse: the king would be wearing lots of clothes (long underwear?). The bleachers themselves would be naked.


The Extremists on TV

But would the people ever get to see the image?

I retreated, and passed a small, guarded opening at a security barrier, and a sign reading, “TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL, WASHINGTON D.C./ HOTEL GUESTS AND INVITEES ONLY ENTRANCE.” A minor thing—but easy egress and entrance, bypassing the two-hour lines for the plebes, is, in a small way, a tiny example of Trump privatizing a public resource, reserving it for people who paid the president’s company: an emolument, as we newborn scholars of Articles I and II of the Constitution have learned to call it. And yet I hadn’t seen the existence of this hidden entrance reserved for rich people reported anywhere, only finding confirmation of it in a single comment thread. Perhaps they had to make room for the important news that the name of the company—“Don’s Johns”—that provided some of the porta-potties was mysteriously taped over in advance of the events.

All day, this has been my obsession: how is this stuff being reported? Would the bigfoot media manage to bury the obvious lead: the Trump Regime had lost its popular mandate by Day One? Early in the afternoon, shortly after Trump took the oath of office, I’d checked in with a friend who reported the coverage on NBC. Tom Brokaw, she reported, was “freaking out,” reporting that Trump was signing his official cabinet appointments with one pen for each appointee instead of the traditional dozens that posterity is supposed to preserve as symbols of the great day. (“The pen is very important.”) And that the Senate Intelligence Committee hadn’t yet voted out Trump’s CIA nominee, but Trump would be visiting the CIA tomorrow, and wouldn’t that be “awkward”? Two hours later, my friend relates that NBC’s cameras have turned to the Trump International Hotel, where the staff has emerged with a huge sign reading “Thank You.”

News is filtering out about violent confrontations between protesters and police. My friend emails that the Peacock Network’s sages are now reflecting that “the information divide has made it easier to polarize,” and that the demonstrators are all extremists who have no point, and “Brokaw exasperated about protests. Compares them to 1968, when there was actually a moral crisis over Vietnam.”

Team Brokaw then turns the floor over to Franklin Graham, who had given a closing inaugural benediction (there were six prayers during the ceremony, all told). Franklin Graham—he of the conviction that Islam is “a very evil and wicked religion,” and “True Islam couldn’t be practiced in this country” because it enjoins followers to “beat your wife” or “murder your children if they’ve committed a adultery.” Franklin Graham, who wasn’t sure President Obama was a Christian, and praised Vladimir Putin for “protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda,” and opined that Mormonism was a cult—until, that is, he endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012, and such representations were removed from his web site. But it’s only the protesters who are the extremists.

Graham believed that Trump “might go down as the greatest president in American history.” And all those protests? “One of the problems with the millennials, everybody gets a trophy. People aren’t use to losing.”

Later, I learn that the image I’d considered the defining one of the day had been suppressed by news organizations who, fearing giving offense, neglected to mention that the Emperor’s bleachers were naked.

Although, according to Google News, at the Sinclair Broadcasting CEO’s spot in the parade it was reported—in the publications Wisconsin Ag Connection (“Inauguration Parade Will Include Ag Leaders Driving Tractors”), AgWired (“Presidential Inaugural Parade to Highlight Agriculture”), Fence Post magazine (“Rural Tractor Brigade To Be Part of Inauguration”), and Broadcasting & Cable, which in an article entitled “RFD-TV Rolls Into D.C.” reveals that this particular procession was basically a free commercial for a new cable channel. Who says the Emperor is not a generous man?


And Then, The Women’s March

I need not say much about what happened the next day, because you all know what happened next: counter to my expectations and worse fears, it became a story too big to ignore.

Though since I’m writing this article not just for you, but for the benefit of the historical record, I should set down at least a few observations.

Favorite signs:

I’M WITH HER (Carried by many, many men, and with arrows pointing in every direction around the words.)







MAKE AMERICA KIND AGAIN (A kid’s, in rainbow letters.)


WELL-BEHAVED WOMEN SELDOM MAKE SCIENCE (One of many messages Sharpied on the back of a lab coat.)

“MEN OF QUALITY ARE NOT THREATENED BY WOMEN OF EQUALITY”—THOMAS JEFFERSON (I’m sure Jefferson never said it: the notion of psychological “threat’ not being exactly au courant in the 18th century, but I endorse it, as did lots of men carrying the slogan on their signs.)

PATRIARCHY IS FOR DICKS (Also frequent, also wielded mostly by men.)




Nasty never quits indeed.

I could go on. I don’t have to, because, reports are, Women’s March signs are being actively collected by museums around the world. We now know that this event made history—for all the good reasons. But when I headed back to Union Station to leave town, I feared it might make history for bad ones.

There were 6,000 security personnel on duty on Inauguration Day. All day at the Women’s March, I saw only four security personnel, two park police, and two military police standing by one of those khaki-colored Humvees. (I thought of the disgruntled soldier on Inauguration Day: “What a joke.” These soldiers, conversely, were smiling and buoyant. People in pussy hats kept thanking them for their service.) Everything you’ve heard about the massiveness of the crowd: it was bigger than you know. People are saying 500,000, but there were no security helicopters circling that could take overhead photos, as on Inauguration Day, and even pictures of the Mall would have been useless as tools for analysis. From the teeming shoulder-to-shoulder nucleus, where you couldn’t move a foot in any direction for minutes at a time, people radiated outward for block after block from the Mall, straggling even to the White House, two miles away from the Capitol.

All that, and virtually no security.

A terrorist, or Biker for Trump, would hardly have had to drive a truck bomb into the crowd to cause carnage: a well-timed shove could have caused the same deadly domino effect. I mentioned that to one of the smiling military policemen and he grew serious: yes, I was right, but there was nothing they could do now. No official had anticipated a crowd this big.

Neither, apparently, had any vendors. Someone selling knit, pink, pussy hats could have made a killing. As it was, in miles of walking (my smart phone recorded 31,000 steps in two days), amid the dozens of vendors I passed, I only saw two selling Women’s March swag. Call it an allegory. Everything official on inauguration weekend was anemic. And everything grassroots and authentic surged beyond bounds.

Finally, on one of those crowded arterial streets that had been all but empty 24 hours earlier, I saw two lonely Trump fans, and slipped on my camouflage MAGA hat for one more undercover interview. I asked, with feigned concern, “What do you make of all this? The Inauguration had about a tenth of this energy.” I watched an old man fix on my gaze, sounding smugly satisfied that he’d figured out a story to rationalize it all away: “A lot of people are bored with life. And if they would find something productive to do, they would be better off.”

He’s right, of course. And, sad for him, they’re doing it. Like the “10 Actions/100 Days” project. Or the plan for young people to commit to actions at district offices during the first week of congressional recess. Downloading the Countable app to learn about pending congressional actions resisters can fight against; downloading scripts to do so, or just registering to vote. Totting up civically useful actions that can be done over a couple of lunch hours at the web site 2HoursAWeek.org. Signing up for monthly demonstrations, and finally, copying the right-wing’s ace-in-the-hole strategy of working to take over state legislatures for a resurgent left.

Something’s happening. We’ve got the momentum. At his Inauguration Trump was already fading. And by 2018, I think we might make the Tea Party look like a tea party.


Peripatetic historian Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

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