*As always, the opinions expressed here are completely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my family or traveling companions.
Bill Clinton was my first president.
He was inaugurated on January 20, 1993 and I was born that August. So the 2000 Bush v. Gore election is the first one that I can actually remember.
I was in 2nd grade and spent most of the fall semester arguing with classmates about whom our parents said was going to win.
My friend Max’s mom was a reporter. He said Bush told her there should be school on Saturdays.
I was very concerned about this.
More so concerned, however, that Clinton would no longer be president.
My 7-year-old brain couldn’t understand the idea of a peaceful transfer of power. Bill Clinton was the president. I had memorized this. He always had been. He always would be.
But then suddenly he wasn’t.
On January 20, 2017, I attended the inauguration of Donald Trump and felt that same confusion.
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I didn’t vote for Trump.
And I didn’t vote for Clinton, either.
I felt comfortable in this choice because I live in Texas, a deep red state sporting this sunburn since 1980. It doesn’t matter who I vote for, or if thousands of my fellow Texans vote anything other than red, because it seems like the state’s 38 electoral votes will always go to the Republican candidate.
Instead, while I did vote for a president, I focused my attention locally and voted down ballot for judges, sheriffs, representatives, and commissioners who I could be sure supported the people and causes dear to me.
But I still knew I needed to attend the inauguration.
I made plans to go well before the elect was chosen, as my friend Smoky works for a Texas Senator and invited me to the ceremonies in May 2016.
I bought my plane ticket, rented a dress for the Texas State Society inaugural ball, and went to bed on November 8, 2016 thinking I was probably attending the swearing in ceremony of America’s first female president.
But I woke up to Trump’s America.
Was this election controversial? Sure. Argumentative? Absolutely. But so, so American.
Think of it this way: Adama Barrow is currently hiding out in Senegal as he awaits Gambia’s first transition of power in nearly 22 years. Could you imagine if Trump, entering office with the lowest approval rating in the modern era, had to be sworn in on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Virginia, or in Guadalajara, only to be smuggled into the country later?
I watched the President of the United States willingly give up his position. Seeing the most powerful office in the world swing from hard left to right without even questioning that the incumbent would dig in his heels and stay anyway is a uniquely American privilege. And we’ve seen this pendulum crash by three times in the past sixteen years.
But what was it like at Trump’s Inauguration?
January 20, 2017 was a dreary day. It started early as I was suddenly jolted out of a too-short rest after going a little too hard at the Black Tie & Boots Inaugural Ball with 10,000 other Texans the night before.
It wasn’t even a mile from Smoky’s home to the inauguration’s entrance for yellow tickets, but as we trudged along and joined the lines of other attendees, I couldn’t help but notice how quiet it was. How tense.
I didn’t dress warmly enough and as the rain began to mist over the security checkpoint, I briefly considered turning around and crawling back into bed.
But I couldn’t do that. It was my job to be there.
I say that because the majority of white Americans voted for Donald Trump and I am a white American. These voters can (very generally) be divided into white working-class folks from the “Rust Belt” who I affectionately refer to as rednecks, and middle-class evangelicals who were unwilling to cross party lines, no matter the moral character of the nominee. That said, morality seemed to be quite dubious on both sides of the aisle this go around.
Because the majority of Trump’s supporters fall into my demographic, it’s my responsibility to hear them out and work with them; a responsibility I would not expect others (namely my POC and LGBTQ friends) to be responsible for at this point in the process. They can work in their communities; I will work in mine.
As we settled into yellow section 11 (a seated section, fairly close to the Capitol thanks to Smoky’s hard work leading up to the ceremony) I noticed the people around me fell quite neatly into the two categories above. I started to count the non-white attendees and had reached seven in about half an hour before I was distracted by playing presidential trivia with my friends.
We arrived at 8:30 for the ceremony and while it did take a while for our section to fill up, by the time the Missouri choir sang, I turned to look and, from my vantage point, the Mall seemed packed back to the Washington Monument. I have to chuckle about it now, after seeing the aerial photographs showing the “sparsely populated” event, as the couple behind me, also from Texas, commented that they were sure CNN would say there was no one there.
I enjoyed the “parade of presidents” and will always cherish the opportunity to see Dubyah struggle with his rain poncho in person, but more so the unique occasion to see the loser of the presidential election seated nearly directly behind the new elect as he was sworn in. What was going through her mind?
When the Clintons emerged from the maroon-draped hallway, the woman in front of me, who spent a good portion of the time before the ceremony disparaging the “event” in Ferguson, turned her back while some of the crowd erupted in boos. But then, quietly at first and then building, I heard angry chants of “lock her up” ripple out from the sections behind me.
“Oh, have some class!” shouted fellow Texan man in frustration.
Something I’ve heard a lot about over the last year and a half. Respect for both the Presidential Office and the person who holds it.
I’m working on the latter.
It would have been nice to be there when someone I adored, or at least trusted, became my president. To be able to cheer, feel elated, or even just know that I, and the people and causes I care about, are truly in capable hands. The president might not protect the vulnerable, but I, from my position of immense privilege, can offer support and a platform.
Speaking of the vulnerable, as the ceremony progressed and Melania appeared, the crowd lost it.
“There she is! That’s our first lady!”
“This is the luckiest day of that staff sergeant’s life. Woof,” said the Texan man behind me.
She looked beautiful, as I’m sure anyone who watched the ceremonies could see, but she also seemed nervous. I wondered how she was feeling, as someone who seems shy, amid a crowd of men “woofing” at her.
The crowd was quite vocal. Not as much in my seated section, but the rowdier, standing sections behind me had extremely visceral reactions, including loudly booing as Senator Chuck Schumer read a letter from a Civil War solider in an attempt to encourage Americans to strive for unity.
I wasn’t sure if they were booing at what he was saying, or just at him in general, but either way, it was frustrating. This was a presidential inauguration. Not the Super Bowl.
And then it was time for Donald.
When I was in college, I spent a semester in Rome, Italy and during that semester, spent a freezing, rainy Wednesday morning waiting for Pope Francis outside Saint Peter’s. I was soaked and my teeth were chattering from hours of exposure, but as soon as the Pope Mobile rounded the corner, the rain suddenly ceased. My friends and I laughed that it was an act of God.
At Trump’s inauguration, it was the opposite. As soon as the last of his Presidential Oath left his lips, it began to rain. It had been threatening to all morning and had drizzled on and off, but as the 21 cannon salute began (which was terrifying? I didn’t know it was going to happen and suddenly was surrounded by explosions at a very tense political event), so did the rain in earnest.
As I sat quietly listening to Trump’s inaugural address, adjusting my own poncho, I noted his apparent change in demeanor. Sure, his hands were flailing per usual, but he seemed to be trying really hard to seem “presidential.” I don’t really know what I expected, but it wasn’t that.
Then, way before I thought it would, the ceremony concluded.
As I trudged across the muddy Capitol lawn, trying to process the event that had just unfolded before me and avoid being caught in a stampede, I heard the roar of a helicopter and looked up to see the Obamas fly right over me, officially leaving his presidency behind.
Na na na na.
Those around me began to sing.
Na na na na.
Hey hey hey.
The dress I’m wearing is from Dress Barn.
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