'American carnage': Donald Trump's vision casts shadow over day of pageantry

In Donald Trump’s first speech as US president, he offered a sinister view of the US: cities afflicted by crime, political elite in control and closed-down factories

At the stroke of noon, as is the American way, power passed from one man to another man. And with that passing of the baton from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, made manifest in a 35-word oath, the country was changed beyond recognition as the new president offered a dark vision of his nation and the world.

The new 45th president of the United States coined the sinister phrase “American carnage” to vividly conjure an image of inner cities he said were afflicted by crime, a political elite that had forgotten ordinary people, and a landscape of rusted factories like tombstones.

And with Hillary Clinton watching only a few painful feet away, Trump left no one in any doubt that he intends to unleash what he called a new vision of “America first” on the world, delivering a brutal and unrepentant speech that made little attempt to soothe the world or begin the healing of an agitated and anxious nation.

Trump delivered a 16-minute inaugural speech that more closely resembled his thunderous addresses from the campaign trail than the oratorical heights of his predecessors, berating the Washington elites of both parties for ignoring the American people and allowing inner cities to fester in “crime and gangs and drugs”.

“The American carnage stops right here, right now,” he said. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”

As Trump uttered the first sentence of his address, the slate-grey sky over the Capitol building opened up and it began to rain, pouring over the head of the incoming president and, just a few rows away, those of Clinton and her husband Bill. Having won almost 3 million more votes than her opponent, but gone on to lose in the electoral college, the defeated Democratic candidate listened silently as her vanquisher described a future for America that was entirely antithetical to her own.

“Together we will make America strong again, wealthy again, proud again, safe again and, yes, together we will make America great again,” Trump promised, his words prompting a wave of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants from a sea of red caps that stretched back to the Washington Memorial – although white tarpaulins protecting the grass of National Mall revealed vast gaps in the crowd.

It was a peaceful transition of power, but hardly harmonious. With protesters already descending on the capital in droves for Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington, which is expected to comfortably outsize Trump’s inaugural crowd, there were signs all over the city of the open gashes of a vicious and divisive election battle.

Long before dawn, protesters carrying placards saying “fight fascism”, “not my president”, “no Trump, no KKK, no racists, go away” were fanning through the largely deserted streets. There were tussles with police in riot gear as groups tried to block the entrances to the Capitol grounds, while some protesters managed to pass security and themselves gain entry; one woman dressed in pink shouting “Stop GOP war” reached the front of the tier directly below the new president before being escorted out.

Protesters clash with police at Trump inauguration in DC

As the inaugural ceremony was under way, police deployed pepper spray after a group of protesters from the anarchist group black bloc, smashed store and car windows.

The proceedings are called a transition, but “transformation” better conveys the significance of the day: a nation transformed, as power slid from an individual known for his calm, professorial demeanor to a man who says he doesn’t have time to read but does have seemingly endless capacity to shoot 140-character bullets at his enemies.

America’s first black president metamorphosed into America’s first reality TV president. “Yes we can!” gave way to “Make America Great Again!” as Trump was inducted into power on the West Front of the Capitol.

On one level, there was so much about the day that was familiar, filled with the comforting filigrees of a ceremony that has taken place every four years since George Washington’s first inauguration on 30 April 1789. It began with a church service at St John, Trump stepping out in his standard uniform of navy suit and red tie; his wife, Melania, in a powder blue suit with unmistakable echoes of Jackie Kennedy.

As Trump’s entourage were leaving church, Obama was filmed through the glass door of the Oval Office as he completed his final act, leaving a letter of welcome for his successor – as a workman up a ladder made final preparations for the arrival of Trump 45.

After church it was coffee at the White House with the outgoing Obamas, then the shared ride to Capitol Hill, and the portentous swearing-in, replete with ruffles and flourishes on drum and bugle, Hail to the Chief and the 21-gun salute.

The Obamas greet the Trumps at the White House

The solemnity of the occasion was later to be leavened with the inaugural parade back to the White House and three evening balls attended by the Trumps, a pared-down display of revelry compared with the Obamas’ 10 in 2009 as a sign, aides said, of the new president’s determination to get down to business.

Trump took the oath of office with his left hand resting on two Bibles held by his wife – his own bedside volume and a second more historic edition. That was the Bible used in 1861 at the first inauguration of a president who knew a thing or two about national disunity, Abraham Lincoln. It also marked a rare note of continuity between Trump and his predecessor, Obama having used the same Bible in both his inaugurations.

In his speech, short by the standards of past inaugurations but lacking nothing in terms of ominous punch, Trump attempted to set up his electoral victory in grandiose terms. It was the product of a movement “like none ever seen in the world”, he said, that would return power from the self-interested politicians to the American people.

“For too long, a small group in the nation’s capital has reaped the benefits while the people bore the costs. Politicians prospered but the jobs left and the factories closed,” he said.

He painted a picture of a devastated country he had inherited, full of mothers and children trapped in poverty in the inner cities and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”.

He paid lip-service to those who have criticized him for emboldening racism and white supremacy on his journey to the White House, but only in the thinnest terms, expressing a call for diversity through the prism of nationalism. “When you open your heart to patriotism there is no room for prejudice,” he said.

“A new national pride will heal our division. It’s time to remember that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.”

Donald Trump after the swearing-in ceremony.
Donald Trump after the swearing-in ceremony. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

At the end of his speech, Trump stood behind bulletproof glass beside the podium, right arm punching the air as he finally claimed the spoils of his world-turning victory. Then attention momentarily veered back to Obama, by now a common citizen, having been stripped of his aura at noon in the manner of Cinderella at midnight.

He and his family made their way to the East Front of the Capitol, where a Marine Corps helicopter awaited them. As they were whisked off to Andrews air force base en route for the California resort of Palm Springs – a suitably soothing destination in which to begin recovery after eight draining years in the White House – Obama’s America receded into the distance.

Transitions in times past have not always been easy, or friendly. The 1829 handover from John Quincy Adams to Andrew Jackson, that of Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman to Dwight Eisenhower were all marked by animosities.

But rarely has the lurch from one president to the next been so wrenching, or come at the end of a presidential campaign and transition in which the incoming president had willfully insulted so many. Trump’s historically low approval ratings even before he begins the job are just one indication of the discontent harbored by those he has alienated.

Among them are individuals like John Lewis, the civil rights hero of Selma, denounced in a tweet for his “talk, talk, talk”, and the “overrated” Meryl Streep. Also among the abused and disaffected are entire communities and categories of Americans: Muslims who Trump proposed to ban, Hispanics whose undocumented brethren he threatened to deport en masse, intelligence chiefs likened to Nazis, women demeaned by fat-shaming and sexual bragging.

The day was defined as much by those who chose to absent themselves from the inauguration as those in attendance. At least 60 House Democrats, Lewis among them, boycotted the event. A slew of celebrities also kept away, an awkward inconvenience for Trump given that he made so much during the campaign of his own celebrity status as former host of The Apprentice.

Also absent was Vladimir Putin, though the Russian president was very much there in spirit, hovering over the Capitol building. The full extent of the Kremlin’s meddling in the US election is not, and may never be, known; what is certain is that all main US players, Trump included, now agree that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic emails during the election, to which one might add that from Putin’s perspective, he got his man.

While the injured nursed their wounds, it remained Trump’s day. Hundreds of thousands of his supporters poured into Washington from all over the US, partly to savor this moment of history and partly to celebrate that the country was theirs again.

Many of the Trumpistas were making their first visit to the nation’s capital. “With the help of our new president, to remind the world why America was great to begin with,” said Jimmy Kirby, 46, an electrician from Nashville, Tennessee, who had driven 11 hours to have his first taste of the city.

Another newcomer, Jeff Krotz, 49, from Buffalo, New York, used edgier language. A military veteran, he said: “Nobody respects us. There’s no God in the country any more, and the way I see it if you don’t like the way we do things here you can go somewhere else.”

Shirts proclaiming “Proud member of the basket of deplorables” were peppered through the crowd, as were those demanding “Hillary for prison 2016”. Others had an even more malevolent ring, with one man sporting a T-shirt that said: “The witch is dead”.

“This is the mood of the world,” said Richard Pease, 53, a printing sales executive from New Hampshire. “You just watch: first Brexit, then Trump, next Marine Le Pen for France. People want their lives back.”

Asked to elaborate, Pease said: “I’m a white male who owns firearms. At least for the next four years I get to keep my guns and my balls.”


Ed Pilkington in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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