A Day That’s Both Routinized and Indelibly the President’s Own
Trump’s populist tone, churlish crowd, combine with ageless Capitol pomp
If inaugurations are like weddings — the central figures remain singular and the emotional sensibilities vary, but the liturgies are similar and the outcome is always the same — then the opening day of Donald Trump’s presidency absolutely kept the metaphor relevant.
On Friday, he became the only billionaire, the only brand personification and the only person without any prior experience as a public servant to take the oath of office. And then he excoriated the capital establishment arrayed around him using caustic language and campaign-rally cadences particularly discordant for an inaugural address.
And so, as was universally predicted, Trump stamped his commitment ceremony to the country in blunt and bold ways uniquely his own.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now” is not a declaration that would sound authentic coming from any other modern American president.
Neither was his premier anti-establishment exhortation, “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.” And, of course, no other inaugural address has built to a rhetorical crescendo culminating in the new president’s own campaign slogan.
The essential nature of the day was more complex, like a wedding reception where the families can’t totally set aside the discord and mutual distrust that permeated a particularly rocky courtship. Those of Trump’s detractors who did attend professed to be doing so out of civic obligation only, without even the customary declarations of optimism about a fresh start.
For their part, the many more thousands who thronged Capitol Hill to celebrate their populist hero’s big day could not resist the urge to grumble, boo or chant “USA” whenever attention shifted from him even briefly. Several waves of jeers greeted the lone Democratic speaker, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, especially when his homage to American diversity included the phrase “whether we are immigrant or native-born.”
And so the atmospherics will be remembered as the most leaden and joyless of the eight inaugurals — equally split for Republican and Democratic presidents — that have now been held outdoors during the past three decades. (Frigid cold pushed the 1985 ceremony into the Capitol Rotunda.)
On a raw and damp day, spirits were further suppressed by a turnout undeniably much smaller than for either of Barack Obama’s ceremonies. (The National Park Service, which oversees the National Mall, doesn’t make crowd estimates anymore because of their political sensitivity, but aerial photographs and Metro ridership numbers buttress the conclusion.)
Moments of silence
The suppressed zeitgeist was unavoidable in the corridors of the Capitol, which serves for most of Inauguration Day more like a backstage than like the central space for federal policymaking. Congressional aides, security agents, catering workers and reporters hustled from place to place nearly in silence.
Members of Congress relished a morning of relative quiet off-camera, sipping coffee with their colleagues and spouses before being ushered to the temporary inaugural stage on the West Front.
The historically bipartisan approach to witnessing the peaceful transfer of power was reflected in the two-by-two parade from the Senate floor. Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York offered her extra rain poncho to her marching partner, Republican John Boozman of Arkansas. And side by side, and close to the front of the line, were two men with recently realistic dreams of taking the oath themselves: 2008 GOP nominee John McCain of Arizona and last year’s Democratic runner-up, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
For the Democrats who attended — and more than 60 of the party’s House members made a public point of staying away — their palpable distaste for virtually everything about Trump’s style and substance was offset by a desire to be perceived as statesmanlike for as long as possible.
“I don’t want to disrespect the president, now that it’s Trump, any more than I wanted the Republicans to disrespect Obama,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri. “I’m here because I don’t want anyone to have credibility in saying I’m doing something just to be partisan.”
But Republicans, as much as Democrats, share an appreciation for predictability in the legislative process as much as they crave order in their political lives. And for some of them, attending was as much about partisan loyalties as it was about an eagerness for clues as quickly as possible about where the new administration would be taking the country — and, at the same time, inevitably reshaping the GOP in a Trumpian image.
“I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next!” was one exclamation, with a Southern accent, that could be overheard through the open door of a members-only GOP reception. “Me neither!” came a Midwestern-sounding reply.
By the playbook
Regardless of how many people used the 250,000 color-coded passes, or else strained for a glimpse from outside the ticketed zone, the ceremony itself hewed extraordinarily closely to modern custom and unfolded almost exactly as orchestrated.
And that, in all but a few subtle ways, was how it’s been done since Ronald Reagan decided it would make better symbolism, and better television, to become the 40th president with his eyes looking to the west, the better to see the whole nation and also the monuments to his most revered predecessors.
Inaugurations before that had been on the East Front, which is now the locale for a different visually rich illustration of the transfer of power: The new and past presidents proceed from the oath-taking to a hulking Marine helicopter at the foot of the Capitol steps, and after firm handshakes, the former president wordlessly departs in a whirl of noise and rotor backdraft.
And then the newcomer heads to an ornate room just off the Senate floor to sign papers formally nominating his Cabinet — the only obligatory business on a day of ritualized prayer services, congressional leadership lunches, motorcades, parade-reviewing stands and inaugural balls that sooner or later starts falling behind schedule.
And so it was a remarkable moment of unplanned precision when Trump completed reciting the oath making him the 45th president of the United States within a few seconds of high noon — the moment when the Constitution decreed the tenure of the 44th president came to an end. (The timeline from the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies had the Marine Band striking up “Hail to the Chief” for the new president at 11:48 a.m.)
But no amount of planning could have choreographed the clouds, which unleashed the day’s most sustained rain showers just as Trump began his 16-minute speech. “A sign of God’s blessing,” the Rev. Franklin Graham declared in his benediction, echoing the message of so many preachers on so many sodden wedding days.