I’m standing at the corner of 10th and E, one block from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, one hour after the sky started to cry when Donald Trump checked his hair swoop and put his hands on the Bible to become our 45th president, and I realize where I really am: deep inside an internet comments board. Or maybe a long @reply thread on a public figure’s Twitter account. Technically, I’m standing outside of a checkpoint for Trump supporters to go watch his parade. Anti-Trump protesters are congregated in this spot since it offers consistent access to their target audience. It feels as if, after months of shouting to one another online, what every American who schlepped here to witness history really wanted was the chance to shout at ideological enemies in person. “When was America great? Then why does your hat say that?” “Shut up, communist.” “FASCISM.” “ASSHOLE.”
I came down on the train this morning, sitting across from a boomer on her way to the Women’s March with an “I Voted” sticker on her iPhone. “Resistance is fertile,” she says, laughing and Instagramming her train ticket, while telling her daughter in Austin on the phone that she’d just learned about pink pussy hats from some 90-year-old woman the day before. “I feel so out of it,” she said. Maybe she should: Within the first five minutes of entering Union Station, I saw a patrician man of about 70 sporting one in a Starbucks. Almost everyone here has hats, or scarves, or T-shirts declaring their allegiance for one side or the other. The thought crosses my mind that perhaps T-shirt culture created identity-politics culture, rather than the reverse. Nasty Woman is a big theme. I spot a backpack decorated by a homemade pink triangle with the words “No More Walls.” Then there are the ubiquitous red (or occasionally camo) Make America Great Again hats. I see them on enough children and teens, including a punk crowd with acne and skateboards, to make my heart ache. A vendor sees me, my pale Midwestern face peering out, and tries to sell me a Trump beanie. Registering my surprise, he tells me to come back tomorrow. “I’ll have stuff for the Women’s March. I’m leaning more your side, you know.” He’s black. Most people here either resisting or supporting the president are white, including the entire group of college-age kids standing proudly for a photo-op with a banner that reads, “What will we do today to dismantle white supremacy?””
Shake Shack at the train station has bathrooms and a TV, so I stop to watch the ceremony here. My sister texts me to be careful and remember her instructions about keeping water or milk on me in case of tear gas, since there are anarchists downtown smashing car windows. I fail to tell her my intrepid reporting has taken me as far as the second floor of a cozy Danny Meyer chain establishment, where two blonde women in jeans and sneakers are the only people applauding as Trump speaks; everyone else is quiet. An elderly couple is sitting close to the screen, silently filming the television, which has the sound off. I wonder why they’ve come all the way here to watch it this way, screens on screens, and then realize it might be the most authentic way to experience our first reality-TV president: through mediated media, with an appropriate remove of unreality. Just as Mike Pence takes the oath of office, protesters walk through Union Station chanting, filling up the hall with noise. Cops run toward the noise, as do fast-food employees, holding up iPhones to film things, just in case. I hold up mine too; nothing much happens. But here we are, confirming to ourselves with the video button that we’re inside the spectacle.
On the Metro, I sit near some Trump supporters making friends with one another. A man with a square jaw and an expensive-looking overcoat greets a cowboy-hat-wearing couple. They talk about how the protests have been inflated by the media and how piddling their attendance is compared with the number of people who’ve come for the inauguration itself. “They’re Trump supporters, but they don’t know it yet.” A man with black-rimmed glasses and Converse, an emissary from Portlandia’s America, comes up and aggressively asks the cowboy-hat wearer what policies of Donald Trump’s he supports. “All of them,” is the reply, to which he is rewarded with a lecture on what’s good about Obamacare. It’s all surprisingly polite.
I found an old photo this week I’d taken on the Mall at Barack Obama’s first inauguration. It was a shot of a sign held by one of the few protesters there. “Warning: Baby killing women, porno freaks, sports nuts, drunks, homos, Jesus Mockers, Mormons; Judgment Coming.” I was giddy that day; I think I found it funny that hate was so on the ropes that it was relying on Judgment Day for a victory. This time around, protesters are everywhere I look. This time, a block from the checkpoint, the signs say “Love Trumps Hate”; “I’d Say Piss on Trump But He’d Probably Enjoy It.” “Fucking assholes are blocking businesses,” says a guy in a MAGA hat. There are the usual chants: hey hey, ho ho; a he-said-she-said duet of “Our bodies our choice”/“Their bodies their choice.” Plus some Trump specials, like “Hands too small can’t build a wall.” There’s a group of kids passing a joint. “Fuck Donald Trump,” says one of them, a girl with a skateboard, with a voice full of joy. A group that’s gone all-out comes by, dressed as Russian soldiers, draped in red flags with a hammer and sickle, with a speaker playing the Russian national anthem and carrying signs that read things like “KGB to Trump: We Made You, We March With You.” Everyone cracks up, and we elbow each other for a good photo angle.
Last night, clips of the concert on the Mall, with its military music and ominous-seeming fireworks had frightened me: Washington in all its low-slung beige and red and white and blue seemed authoritarian, our patriotic traditions revealed as fascistic in their kitschier versions. Here, away from my screen, amid all the yelling, there’s nothing that feels authoritarian. I check my email, and there’s one from a friend saying simply, “I’m so sad.” But suddenly, in that crowd, I’m not.