Opinion

America's shining moment — a stump speech, tear gas and unsold Trump T-shirts: Neil Macdonald

Americans of all persuasions had streamed from across their exceptional country, beloved by God and unique in the world, to their capital city. There, they found cars on fire.

Trump invoked rotting inner cities, 'mothers and children trapped in poverty … rusted out factories'

Americans of all persuasions had streamed from across their exceptional country to their capital city. There, they found cars on fire. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Americans are peerless creators of national myths. It's a gestalt psychology, a self-organizing collective mind, indifferent to actual events or circumstances.

Friday, hours before Donald Trump laid his hand on the Lincoln Bible, and a second Bible given to him by his mother, an inauguration myth was taking form on the television airwaves.

It went something like this:

Americans of all persuasions had streamed from across their exceptional country, beloved by God and unique in the world, to their capital city, where they'd filled the streets, eager to witness the peaceful transition of power to a freely elected leader, divisions set aside for a shining moment, standing as one before the very foundation of history's truest democracy, setting an example to all other nations.

Sacrament of democracy

At CNN, anchor Chris Cuomo emoted about how the word "inauguration" derives partially from the word "consecration," which, he said, is apt, because the ceremony is a sacrament of democracy, and in that sense, divine power radiates from it.

On Fox, veteran journalist Brit Hume noted that for two days running, U.S. B-52 bombers had attacked ISIS training camps in the Middle East, "showing the world the reach of American power." On this day, he intoned, people sitting in Moscow might look at that news and understand that "even with their oldest airplanes, [Americans] can reach us."

Commentators on other networks assured one another they were witnessing history, walking into history, seeing something epic, moving, precious, revolutionary spirited, a new dawn.

An NBC host invited viewers to "step back and watch the spectacle of American democracy." Another insisted that on this special day, Trump had chosen not to be ideological, because, you know, all Americans standing together regardless of political allegiance, etc.

California Republican Darrell Issa reckoned that the day would match Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration in size and glory (overhead shots told a different story).

Onstage, three clerics delivered Christian invocations (three more would deliver benedictions). One prayed for Trump to receive "the meekness of Christ." Trump remained impassive.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, one of the few performing acts that didn't refuse an invitation to perform, struck up America the Beautiful, this country's unofficial anthem.

America! America! God shed His grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea!

It's a lovely song. And a lovely notion.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told the audience that all Americans — regardless of race, sexual identity or orientation, or religion, living in wealth or poverty — are exceptional, and willing to sacrifice all, even their lives, for America.

Not some Americans. All Americans.

It was just around then that things started going wrong.

Violence erupted during and after Trump's inaugural address. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

As Schumer spoke, violence erupted nearby. Protesters who do not accept Trump as their president, which is almost dissociative thinking, flung themselves at the army of police that had been gathering for days. Police responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

Minutes later, a sworn-in president Trump took the stage, looked out at the overwhelmingly white crowd on the Mall, and offered a darker view than Schumer and the Mormon choir.

He invoked rotting inner cities, "mothers and children trapped in poverty … rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation," crumbling roads and bridges, schools that leave students "deprived of all knowledge," crime and gangs and drugs and violence and death and horror.

New U.S president speak after taking the oath of office 16:36

America has enriched other countries and beggared itself, he said, has subsidized other armies, like a sucker, while its own military has grown weak, defended the borders of other nations, but not its own.  

"The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world."

He promised, explicitly, to fix all that, and further, to wipe all Islamic extremism from the face of the earth. Period.

An impossible boast, but the crowd beneath Trump cheered. Obama applauded mildly, his face blank.

And in nearby streets, torched vehicles exploded. Police began waves of arrests.

Police stand guard in front of a limousine set ablaze during the protests. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

It became clear that tens of thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand, of the Americans who'd streamed in from around the country came not to celebrate in solidarity, but to vent their hatred of the new president, some violently, most peacefully, but all resolutely.

Women in knitted "pink pussy hats" — a physical satire of a crude Trump sexual boast — were everywhere, nodding to one another with wide smiles, exchanging the day's most popular protest phrase: "See you tomorrow."

Women take part in a protest against Trump in Chicago. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

Organizers of the anti-Trump women's march held Saturday expect at least a quarter of a million participants. If that is so, their numbers rival Trump's pitiful inaugural turnout.

The early arrivals walked the streets chanting, wearing painted slogans inviting Trump to perform sexual acts probably beyond his athletic ability.

"Shame on you! He's your president," passing Trump supporters yelled.

You can probably imagine what they shouted back.

Certainly, though, the women were popular with the pop-up souvenir vendors flogging Trump T-shirts and caps on every corner.

Vendor losses

Anthony Smith, an entrepreneur who'd driven down from New York, stared unhappily at the pile of unsold "Make America Great" tees. Like the other vendors, he was contemplating heavy losses.

"I'm selling them for $5 and can't move any," he said. But the women's march jerseys were flying out of his car trunk.

He sold three to Melissa Flournoy, who flew in from Louisiana along with, she said, a thousand other protesters from the state.

Smith sold three women's march shirts to Flournoy. (Neil Macdonald/CBC)

Flournoy paid $25 per: "He's not my president."

Well, yes, he is. He's the most unpopular new president in decades, but he's president.

He has the nuclear codes, supreme military rank and the executive pen. And one of his favourite songs is My Way.

It was on the playlists at the inaugural balls.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article stated that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had performed the song God Bless America. In fact, the group performed America the Beautiful.
    Jan 21, 2017 8:25 AM ET

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.

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