Less than an hour before the inauguration started, we realized that we had grossly underestimated the time it would take to make it onto the National Mall.
We should just take our time, we figured. Even if we showed up later, we would probably be able to elbow our way closer to the Capitol building steps.
Five labyrinthine security checkpoints later, we were regretting that decision. The clock was edging closer to 11:45 a.m., when then-vice president-elect Mike Pence would take his oath. The lines leading to the checkpoints were slow and our patience was wearing thin. But the gray skies and showers had to work harder to dampen the spirits of some of our fellow Inauguration-goers processing good-naturedly around the miles-long roadblocks, boots squishing in the sludge and red hats dripping with rain.
Despite all the stereotypes that I’d heard about Trump supporters — that they are rowdy, racist and ready to voice their opinions at the drop of a hat — the docile crowd around me could have been strolling to the ballet.
Their enthusiasm was limited. When Clarence Thomas Jr. approached the pulpit accompanied by our next Vice President, the applause was scattered. The only full-throated cheers we heard were when Donald J. Trump took the stage, and his applause-cue pauses in between his populist mantras evinced only half-hearted reactions from within earshot. Halfway through the speech, listeners around us grew restless.
Of course, the crowd awoke to his rousing lead up to “Make America Great Again” at the tail end.
You might have heard already — there weren’t that many people on the Mall to begin with. I chatted with Kelsie Wendelberger, a big shot Senate policy assistant from Wheaton’s Memorial Student Center with way too much on her plate, about the seemingly low turnout.
According to Wendelberger, the side-by-side photo that set up Obama’s massive 2009 Inauguration crowd next to Trump’s and ricocheted across social media was an incomplete comparison. “They took that picture before the ceremony even started,” Wendelberger said. Inauguration-goers who didn’t plan ahead much — including yours truly — found themselves held up in the maze of security checkpoints, and the crowd’s early numbers reflected their absence.
But she did acknowledge the fact that there was a smaller turnout. What else should be expected? she wanted to know. Obama was the first black president; of course he’d receive a larger turnout than a white man with dangerously low favorability numbers.
This weekend, she volunteered to work in the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, helping plan Inauguration weekend. She ended up ushering VIPs to their seats the day of, and basked in her fair share of celebrity. From where she sat, she thought that Trump succeeded in his mission to deliver a stirring speech, and that he is trying to tone down on the heated rhetoric his campaign was known for.
“His tweets are a whole ‘nother story,” she laughed. But now speaking with the certainty of someone deeply entrenched in the Beltway, Wendelberger said, “He’s trying to get a better understanding of all the issues that come with becoming President.”
The day before the Inauguration, Michael Wear, the evangelical author of “Reclaiming Hope,” and former Obama-staffer, didn’t have high expectations for the speech. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s this kind of dizzying back and forth between Trumpian offhand boasts and rhetoric that is more traditional, soaring inaugural-level,” Wear said.
Many would say that Trump stuck to his stump-speech script, and that he restrained himself from making those Trumpian comments Wear suspected would find their way in. Wendelberger paid closer attention to the words Trump actually spoke: “I think the fact that his rhetoric is becoming more inclusive and more understanding is a good thing.”
Right when he turned from the microphone, the crowd started to dissipate, leaving few to hear the words of the son of Billy Graham as he deemed the rain a blessing from the Almighty.
The rain stopped, and the sea of red hats flowed west towards the Washington Monument, then off the Mall.
Women Walk In Protest
The next day, it was a whole new crowd, wearing a different style of headwear. It was striking how within 24 hours the crowd changed, and how the city changed accordingly. Local law enforcement tore down their security checkpoints and let the crowds of women’s rights marchers flow freely around the Mall. The same street vendors who hawked commemorative Trump shirts and #MAGA hats the day before now waved “Nasty Woman” shirts, bouncing acrobatically from one end of the political spectrum to the other.
For Wheaton alumna Lisa Baumert ‘09, it was her first time at large scale march. On the night of Nov. 7, informed by the media polls and her gut, she purchased plane tickets to what she expected to be a celebration of the destruction of the glass ceiling. “I was confident the American people were going to do the right thing,” she said.
But her impending victory turned to despair when she learned of the Trump win. She kept the plane tickets after waffling about whether or not to sell them, and latched onto the message of the Women’s March.
On Saturday, Baumert held a sign that was popular among other protesters: “The Future is Female.” Even though it was her first time in the trenches, she felt like the seeds that would grow into full-fledged embodied protest were planted at Wheaton.
It wasn’t a profound roommate conversation or one poignant lecture — Wheaton just taught her to care a lot about important issues. Since her graduation in 2009, her political and cultural opinions evolved, until her act of protest was “a natural extension of that innate desire to care a lot.”
The word “protest” meant different things to different people. While we were out pursuing another interview in Virginia, The Hill reported that riots broke out in downtown D.C., resulting in at least 217 arrests, smashed windows and burned waste bins. They were ostensibly anti-Trump protesters.
As the numbers predicted, we encountered far more anti-Trump protesters on Inauguration Day than pro-Trump protesters the next day. It was surprising that there was a National Mall’s worth of people celebrating Trump’s win, and a National Mall’s worth of anti-Trump protesters in the same city, and there were relatively few clashes. We didn’t encounter any riots.
The closest we came to real conflict was when we were leaving the Inauguration — a bald-headed man, riled by some admittedly vulgar signs held aloft by anti-Trump protesters, started challenging anyone who would face him to some verbal jousting.
“Name one racist thing he’s done,” he thundered. “Name one!” We pushed on past him as quickly as the crowd allowed.
Nate Haken ‘01 also participated in the Women’s March, with the Disability Caucus. Because Trump’s bent on repealing and replacing Obamacare, he and those he marched with believed that those with disabilities — like his daughter, Simone, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome — could be affected by changes to Medicaid or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“If they’re going to balance the budget on the backs of the disabled, that’s just immoral,” Haken said.
Other protestors used words much stronger than “immoral” to describe the new president. To Wendelberger, the fervor on both sides of the aisle is symptomatic of our country’s long-lived identity politics.
“Stay informed about different issues,” Wendelberger advised Wheaton students. “Ask questions to people who have different views from you.”