It’s hard not to be impressed by the trappings of inauguration, particularly up close.
There was a moment from my press seat on the U.S. Capitol steps when President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were perfectly framed by the columns next to the empty podium.
Soon, a man would take that podium to speak in apocalyptic terms about tearing down everything the former two had worked for. Yet Obama and Biden sat quietly, stoically, sometimes smiling. Hundreds of Democratic legislators behind them did the same.
There’s a lot of empty rhetoric about the beauties of bipartisanship — sometimes, it sounds to me like loser’s compensation or excuses for the status quo. But there’s something deeper in this once-every-four-years civic holiday, the moment when America makes good on its peaceful-transition promise.
At the edge of the Capitol, I met June Steder, a Donald Trump supporter and Republican who had come with her 15-year-old grandson to cheer the new president. Was it the young man’s first inauguration? No, they’d both been to Obama’s second in 2013. They weren’t Obama voters then, but they clapped with the rest. A black man winning another term, said Steder, 55, was “still a historic event.”
The symbolism of the moment could be seen in the servicemen and women in dress uniforms escorting guests of governors and diplomats as well as disabled attendees. At one point, they stopped and held a stiff salute for Obama, minutes before he would no longer be commander in chief.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, minority leader, spoke for several minutes, alluding to the many rights and privileges Americans fear are endangered under a Trump administration. But he spent a good chunk of his time reading that most American letter (so Ken Burns-ified it’s beautiful but almost maudlin now), from a Union soldier to his wife just before dying in the first Battle of Bull Run. Schumer gestured at the task of overcoming division.
Early speakers invoked history, of the dozens of inaugurations past which sometimes led to enormous swaps in power, sometimes in swerves to the left or right, always presided over by new presidents who seemed at least to give an inkling of the idea that they understood the responsibilities in store. Campaign season, an endless autumn, ends for at least one day every four years. Politics can begin again all too soon.
Most jarring yesterday was that President Donald Trump apparently understood none of this as he strode to the podium to deliver his address.
He was apparently unaffected by the day’s grace and solemnity, by the new power with which he is now imbued. He continued the bleak rhetoric of the campaign, along with dog-whistle asides about people on welfare and “the crime and the gangs and the drugs.” He declared, hyperbolically, the U.S. a land of “carnage.”
He defined America narrowly by what it was against — the whole world — rather than by what it is: a set of principles that lets even him into the White House because the people voted for him knowing other societal institutions can and will keep steady the ship.
Full of meaningless phrases and overly boastful ideas, Trump’s address provided the fodder his supporters wanted rather than looking to calm the rest of America, even for a day.
The inauguration is, by design, a calming ceremony. It underscores the promise that even change you don’t want can be lived through. We can be on different sides, but shake hands. In four years, we’ll be back.
Measured against the moment, Trump came up short. The moment was all prepared, constructed for him.
He didn’t see that, and maybe never will.
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.