Two days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, I passed through the revolving doors of Trump Tower in Manhattan. I might have described it as a gaudy monstrosity if it weren’t so bizarrely dated, with its distinctly '80s water features and over-reliance on fake gold. There, Donald Trump sells shot glasses bearing his own face and the words “45th President of the United States”, written in a kind of Windows 97 font across the base. There’s a press area, too: At one point while I was there, Eric Trump walked into the downstairs elevator, causing a dozen long lenses to stand to attention and paparazzi catcalls of “Eric!” to ring through the lobby. In New York, I realised that Trump's election was the moment two USAs finally became one. On the one hand, there’s the America that believes its own myths of liberty, good governance and democracy. On the other, there’s the America of untrammelled ambition, glorious excess and celebrity – and Trump Tower is its ground zero. When Donald Trump was elected president, one of those countries was simply subsumed by the other. I had predicted Trump would win the election; not out of clairvoyance but because, unlike so many others, I was miserable enough to believe that such an appalling turn of events might actually happen. But I still remember that grim feeling when, at 1am on 9th November, after a few too many drinks, the news came in that Clinton had lost Florida. The DJ at the bar I was in started playing Kim Wilde’s Kids in America, and I suddenly felt like I was trapped in an episode of Black Mirror. A reality TV star had just become president. The next four years would be a horrifying and extravagant spectacle, so I decided to go to the US to watch day one. I just wanted to see it. A couple of days after landing in New York City, I took a bus to Washington, DC. The day before the inauguration was one of those lush winter days you only seem to get on the US East Coast. It was sunny and cloudless, but cold – as though the whole city was infused with a thick, golden, mountainous light. It was deserted, too; the predominantly Democratic inhabitants of Washington having performed a mass exodus or stayed at home, emerging only to grumble at the traffic restrictions demanded by the pomp and ceremony of the big day. On every street, inauguration stewards, barriers and temporary signage made it feel like the day before a festival, but there was also a strange sense of desolation in the air – a dank, dark Glastonbury. For the last eight years, the citizens of Washington, one of America’s most liberal cities, have lived in relative peace with having the US seat of power right on their doorsteps. But the inauguration marked the end of the White House as the residency of the man for whom most of them voted. Now, its prim facade seemed more like Mordor, and several locals I talked to admitted that they expected to shudder every time they walked past. On the eve of the inauguration, it felt as though the entire town was holding its breath, reluctantly preparing for a party none of them wanted.
But actually, when it rolled around, inauguration day felt surprisingly flat. Clear sunlight had been displaced by mist and drizzle; it was cold and miserable, and the city was suddenly full of anxious protesters and delighted Trump fans trudging around, side by side. Every now and then, a ludicrously impotent altercation would break out (I saw one group of protesters arguing with a white nationalist over who opposes socialism the most), but these would eventually dissolve and both sides go their separate ways. Sometimes, protesters would heckle queues of Trump fans waiting to get into the inauguration secure zone but these acts would mostly result in dismissive grumbles from the gathered crowds; words to the effect that people would not be protesting if they pulled themselves together and got a job. In fact, I spent much of inauguration day queuing with Trump supporters. Although the media reported poor attendance, it still took hours to get to the National Mall, where the action was taking place. After spending two or three hours waiting, I eventually gave up and committed the most un-British crime of all – I jumped the queue. This sparked muted outrage from the people around me, although that, too, fizzled out quickly. I couldn’t help but develop a fondness for the Trump supporters corralled in these pens with me. They were universally friendly, often fascinated by my British accent and – once I said I was there in my capacity as a journalist – desperate for me to get the message to the British people that the media lies about Trump all the time. I met a biker gang from North Carolina who took an instant shine to me. “Trump’s a businessman,” they said. “He’s not political. He had all that wealth and he put it aside to serve his country.” This was a common theme among the Trump fans I spoke to: Trump was good at business and uninterested in politics – exactly the right qualities to get the country back on track. For me, it was like listening to visitors from another planet. To hear dozens of people ascribe any kind of virtue to his actions was completely surreal. Most people I spoke to were straightforwardly right-wing; one 15-year-old girl told me, “I come from the most conservative town in America and socialism kills people”. Others had more complex opinions, such as support for free healthcare, or hatred of the Republican party, which made me wonder whether, had the Democrats run a different campaign, would these people be sharing a queue with me to watch Donald Trump become president? When Trump was sworn in, cheers rippled through the crowd, but in the middle of a vast group of people it was hard to tell what was really going on. “Oh, he’s been inaugurated,” observed one man in a Make America Great Again hat, with a notable air of detachment. Anonymous in the audience, you didn’t feel like you were there to witness the spectacle for yourself but rather as an extra in a show staged for the benefit of the assembled news networks. In this respect, the absurd grandiosity of the occasion was more suited to the likes of Trump than Obama. The whole event seemed geared towards making good TV – and no one knows more about that than Donald Trump.
Later there was a parade, and this was the only time I experienced the low turnout of the occasion first-hand. The whole thing was quiet; crowds a couple of rows deep hanging around in the drizzle to watch Trump’s motorcade roll past. When he arrived, the applause was half-hearted. Although I was embedded among people who were on the winning side, it all felt remarkably joyless. I couldn’t figure out why anybody had bothered coming; it was like we all knew the inauguration was an inconvenient ritual that had to be seen through so that Trump could do the job – like going through the fire regulations on your first day at a new workplace. The spectacle I anticipated had certainly taken place, but I guess I expected there to be life on the ground as well; a manifestation of the USA's famous optimism. But like The Apprentice, it was a facade. Perhaps the fact the inauguration felt so formulaic is what was so unnerving. It turns out US institutions can sit by and accommodate a man who conducts himself like a petty dictator. I expected the day to produce outrage, or some feeling at least, but it was business as usual. And what does it say about America, that a man like Donald Trump becoming president can be described as 'business as usual'? The real excitement of the inauguration came the next day, with the women’s march. In the same Washington streets, Trump’s sluggish supporters were replaced by the furious in their hundreds of thousands. It was eye-wateringly massive, diverse and uplifting. In that march I found real, heartfelt optimism – from a group of people whose worst political nightmare had just been realised. The women’s march revealed raw energy that can be channelled into something useful over the next four years, and genuine resistance can come of it. But the problem this fledgling movement faces is suspicion from the side of America that currently holds all the power in the country’s electoral system. Before Americans start to plan the ways in which they’re going to resist the Trump administration, I can’t help but wonder if some searching questions need to be asked about how this supposedly modern democracy ever allowed itself to get here in the first place.