‘Just us and the cockroaches’: my day at the Trump inauguration

Duncan Wu reports from Washington as he attends the inauguration of Donald Trump

January 23, 2017
Donald Trump, US flag
Source: iStock

In October last year, Georgetown University professor Duncan Wu predicted on this blog that Donald Trump would win the US presidential election – one of few in academia to publicly make such a claim. In the build-up to the vote, he reported on the pre-election debates, and in the days after the vote, gave us his take on the outcome. On Friday, he was in Washington for the inauguration, and this is his report. 


"How far do I have to walk to find another member of the public?" I asked one of the secret service guys (you know that’s who they are because they have the words "secret service" emblazoned on their uniforms). He smiled behind his shades, shook his head sadly, and pointed me towards the capitol, a mile away. "Walk another three blocks and you might see someone."

We didn’t.

The walk down Constitution was like something out of a film about nuclear disasters; just us and the cockroaches. I had expected to find myself challenged by white supremacists, but perhaps they had opted to watch it on Fox News. So this, I thought, is how it’s going to be. Life under Trump. Drab as hotel wallpaper.

Eventually I and my bodyguard (the novelist Aminatta Forna) did see some people wandering disconsolately round the new museum of African-American History, including a Hispanic lady with a dog, which looked like the happiest creature on the National Mall. But then, it hadn’t voted and wasn’t aware of the possible consequences of this disastrous election.

Back in 2009, when I reported on Barack Obama’s inauguration for Times Higher Education, the nation’s capital was so jammed with people it was impossible to move. The sub-zero temperatures deterred no one and the mood was of unfettered jubilation.

But on Friday the mood was weirdly subdued. These were, for the most part, those who had voted for the winner (assuming that’s the correct term for the man who failed to win the popular vote), yet none was in the least jubilant. It was as if they knew they had done a hateful thing, and had themselves become hate figures like the orange-tinted court jester to whom the keys to the Oval Office were about to be handed.

The eerie calm was that of the joke that had fallen flat. And, overlaying that, the sour expectation, implied by the crowds of uniformed security personnel, of some impending terrorist outrage. On our way towards Pennsylvania Avenue my bodyguard and I passed through a checkpoint where they confiscated my bananas.

"Why are you taking them away from me?"
"The bananas are a security hazard, sir."
"That’s not the question I asked. What’s the problem with bananas?"

The policeman paused, stared at me, touched his cap, and pressed the holster of his gun with the ball of his thumb.

"Sir, the bananas are a security hazard. We are detaining them by executive order."

My bodyguard stepped towards me, grabbed me firmly by the arm, and dragged me to safety.

The historic route from the Capitol to the White House was lined with cops but no one else. There were some Japanese tourists milling in front of the Trump International Hotel (so-called) which, in its newly refurbished condition, looks more than ever like the kind of Stalinist municipal building they used to throw up in the Soviet bloc. It was there we heard the wretched man’s voice, booming across DC, telling us we had come by the tens of millions. Ever the salesman.

For one insane moment I felt a pang for Melania. What can it be like to be married to a man who so hankers after Phaoronic commemoration yet so consistently receives its opposite? The Trumps have come all the way from New York to a snake pit in which only failed childrens’ entertainers can be found to provide star turns at his inauguration ball, and no one but me and my bodyguard want to fête them in style: with banana-skins, as they totter falteringly towards the White House.

The figures speak for themselves. The New York Times reports that 160,000 people were on the Mall in the hour leading up to Trump’s inauguration speech, compared with 460,000 in 2009. And the Women’s March on Saturday attracted 470,000 people.

Mr Trump, paranoid materialist of the century, had his press secretary to scream the words "Why are you printing these lies?" at the unfortunate journalists in the White House press room on Saturday evening. But the question is misphrased. He should be asking, like a dictator in his bunker, "Why does no one like me?"

The long walk back to civilisation took me and Aminatta across the Memorial Bridge, now closed to traffic. It was a cathartic experience, as we left a city oppressed by the appointment of a new president widely regarded as the illegitimate holder of an office handed to him by an electoral college that failed catastrophically to reflect the will of the people.

As I looked across the Potomac to Georgetown University, I turned to my bodyguard and asked: "Where will this craziness end?"

"I don’t know," said Aminatta, "but perhaps the time has come to pickle ourselves with a gin and tonic."

"Or perhaps," I answered, "a banana daiquiri."

Duncan Wu is Raymond Wagner professor of literary studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. 

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