The inauguration's sad symbolism

America's tradition of inaugural celebrations — and peaceful protests — is another casualty of the Trump era

The Capitol building.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Like almost every other aspect of the past year, Wednesday's inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won't look like any we've seen before. Aside from the alterations that have been made due to the coronavirus pandemic, the special measures being taken because of the January 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol and the ongoing threat of violence from Trump loyalists mean that this day will be a terrifyingly unique moment in history.

The security measures are extensive. As many as 25,000 troops have been deployed to Washington, D.C. The National Mall, normally filled with as many as one million spectators, has been declared off limits, and barricades circle the Capitol where the inauguration ceremony will take place. Across the city, various zones have been marked off to restrict traffic and general movement. As The New York Times recently reported, "the security perimeter…is necessary to prevent an attack from domestic extremists. Such groups 'pose the most likely threat' to the inauguration, according to a joint threat assessment from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security."

None of those threats should be confused with the legitimate and lawful protests that often accompany a presidential transition. Indeed, peaceful protests have been a regular feature of presidential inaugurations — and of American history itself. But the violence that has marked this presidential transition, and that possibly overshadows Wednesday's events, demonstrates the particular danger Trumpism still poses to the country and how much it has assaulted the basic foundations of American democracy.

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Especially in the 20th century, when inaugurations became enormous public spectacles, Americans have regularly protested the events. Sometimes they protested the person taking office. Other times, they used the moment to direct attention to a cherished cause.

That was the case at the first major protest to mark an inauguration. In 1913, over five thousand women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue on the day before Woodrow Wilson's swearing in as president in what became known as the Women's Suffrage Parade. Wanting to bring focus to their call for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, the marchers instead drew the ire of thousands of spectators, many of whom unleashed violent attacks on the women as police stood by. But the parade gave a boost to the growing suffrage movement. Seven years later, the Nineteenth Amendment fulfilled their goal.

In the second half of the century, protests at presidential inaugurations accelerated. Anti-Vietnam War protestors gathered in Washington for Richard Nixon's first and second inaugurations in 1969 and 1973. At the latter, as many as 60,000 anti-war activists shouted, "Nixon, Agnew, you can't hide; we charge you with genocide." Opponents of another war, this time in Iraq, descended on George W. Bush's second inauguration in 2005. By then, Bush was used to it. Four years earlier, 20,000 of what The New York Times described as "loud but mostly peaceful protestors" had shown up to demonstrate against what they believed had been a stolen election.

Much smaller protests visited Barack Obama's two inaugurations. His successor, however, would witness the largest protest ever assembled for a presidential inauguration when nearly half a million people in D.C. — and at least four million more in cities across the United States — joined in the Women's March the day after Donald Trump was sworn in.

Predictably, Trump took to Twitter to offer a rather unpredictable response to the protests against him. "Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don't always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views."

That rare endorsement of democratic traditions and Constitutional guarantees was quickly overshadowed by Trump's long record of illiberal actions and anti-democratic impulses as president, especially his love of violence carried out on his behalf. At his numerous rallies, Trump regularly greeted protestors with threats of violence by his ravenous crowds. His continual encouragement of white nationalists and hate groups yielded devastating and deadly results.

All of that culminated with the events of January 6. Rather than accepting the results of a free and fair election, Trump, and his willing surrogates, stoked anger and outrage among supporters with their lies of rampant voter fraud and a stolen election. Instead of conceding his loss and initiating the process for a peaceful transfer of power — a bedrock condition of any functioning democracy — Trump spewed heated rhetoric while Congressional Republicans planned their outrageous challenge of the Electoral College results.

Riled up and enraged by all of it, Trump's core supporters showed up to carry out violence in his name, certain theirs was a righteous cause. In his inciting speech to the crowd shortly before the attack, Trump raged, "We will not let them silence your voices," while the crowd roared back, "Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!"

They didn't need any last minute encouragement to violence, of course. Trump spent four years cultivating insurrectionary sentiments among his followers. But the rot goes much deeper than the several thousand who showed up to storm the Capitol. Nearly half of Republicans surveyed have said they support the attack. In just one presidential term, Trump has shifted the most extreme and out-of-bounds positions to the center of his party — and right into the mainstream of American politics.

That's why although Trump will no longer be president after Wednesday, Trumpism still dangerously lingers, perhaps even more inflamed.

Faced with a rampant pandemic and a cratering economy, Joe Biden must tackle some of the biggest challenges this nation has seen. But none may be bigger than attending to the lasting damage Trump has done to American democracy, now all-too-visible in a presidential inauguration conducted under heavy guard.

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