It began at about the time Chuck Schumer, addressing the inauguration crowd from the Capitol, lamented that politics is “frequently consumed by rancor.”
It sounded at first, from my seat in the plaza below the inaugural platform, like a helicopter flying low over the mall, or perhaps an unusually loud jet taking off from Reagan National Airport. But I turned to discover the noise was the combined booing and jeering of thousands in the sea of red “Make America Great Again” caps.
They weren’t only booing and jeering Schumer, the highest ranking Democrat in the land; they were booing and jeering what he was saying.
“Whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born, whether we live with disabilities or do not, in wealth or in poverty,” the Senate minority leader said, “we are all exceptional in our commonly held, yet fierce devotion to our country.”
The booing intensified when Schumer mentioned “immigrant.” It continued as he read a letter from a Civil War soldier saying “my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.”
The crowd responded: “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
Is this what we’ve come to, America?
President Trump had yet another chance to affirm national unity in his inaugural address Friday, and yet again he went the other way, delivering a modified version of his campaign speech, angry and divisive.
Yet again, he divided the United States into us vs. them. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” he said. “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs.”
Trump made only a feint toward unity, admonishing the crowd, almost all white, to remember that “whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.” He proposed that a “new national pride” would “heal our divisions.”
Yet he furthered those divisions by proposing “total allegiance to the United States” — as if this weren’t previously the standard — and by saying Americans had been “forgotten” and “ignored” by those who led the country, leaders who left “children trapped in poverty . . . rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones . . . students deprived of all knowledge . . . the crime and the gangs and the drugs . . . American carnage.”
American carnage! Even the heavens seemed sad. The moment Trump began his address, the skies opened and plastic ponchos unfurled.
Inaugurations are designed to build national unity, packed with national symbols and rituals: the Marine band and buglers, the historic flags draped from the Capitol, the 21-gun salute, the Ruffles and Flourishes. Before the proceedings, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address played on the giant screens: “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the master of ceremonies, mentioned two other inaugural addresses that appealed to national unity: Thomas Jefferson’s in 1801 (“We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists”) and Abraham Lincoln’s in 1865 (“With malice toward none, with charity for all”).
But Trump, pumping his fists and flashing thumbs-up, continued to drive the same wedge through the nation that he did throughout the campaign. “You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before,” he told his supporters.
Kennedy used his inaugural to “let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike” that his generation of Americans wouldn’t allow the undoing of human rights. Trump’s version, a “decree” he addressed to “every foreign capital,” was inward-looking: “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.”
Trump’s behavior doesn’t excuse the violent clashes with police that led to more than 200 arrests, or the whistling and heckling from a few while Trump took the oath.
But are things so far gone that Trump supporters in the crowd thought it appropriate to chant “lock her up!” when Hillary Clinton was announced? Or that they would jeer Schumer’s reading of the poignant letter of Maj. Sullivan Ballou, who said, a week before he fell at Bull Run, that he was “willing to lay down all my joys in this life” for his country?
Here’s what else they booed:
“Today, we celebrate one of democracy’s core attributes, the peaceful transfer of power,” Schumer said. “And every day, we stand up for core democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution — the rule of law, equal protection for all under law, the freedom of speech, press, religion.”
If such ideas earn jeers in Trump’s presidency, the American carnage is only beginning.
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