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How the crowd at the Trump inauguration reflected our divided politics

“Today is supposed to be a celebration, but instead it’s just ... crushing.”

Sean Illing/Vox

“Today is supposed to be a celebration,” Barbara Queeney told me, “but instead it’s just ... crushing.”

Queeney, a gregarious woman from St. Augustine, Florida, was standing on the sidewalk in downtown Washington, DC, on Inauguration Day, holding a sign that read, “Not Fit, Not Worthy, Not Legitimate.” I asked her why she considered incoming President Donald Trump illegitimate. “He was influenced and aided by a foreign government,” she told me.

A few blocks away, Amy Kellash had a much different perspective on the Trump inauguration. She’d traveled with her family from Gilman, Minnesota. For her, Trump’s victory “meant ending the corruption of the previous administration and politicians in general.”

She didn’t specify what corruption she was referring to, but that wasn’t the point. Trump won, Clinton lost, and that meant “hope for me and my children.”

The differences between protesters and attendees were hard to miss. The protesters were young, diverse, casually dressed in dark colors. The attendees were largely white, older, and formally dressed. And their views, like Queeney and Kellash’s, represent the deep divisions between Americans over the new president.

Trump won the presidency but lost the popular vote by several million votes. The presidential transition after the election didn’t help win over the Americans who voted against him. Trump is extraordinarily unpopular for an incoming president. His approval rating sits at 37 percent, as low as we’ve seen at this stage of a presidency. Fifty-one percent of Americans already disapprove of the job he’s doing.

The majority coalition that voted against Trump and the supporters who carried him to the White House found no unity on Inauguration Day. I expected the inauguration to reflect the divisions of the election and transition, and it did. The people who voted for Trump think he’s America’s last best hope; for everyone else, a calamity.

The scene in downtown DC on Inauguration Day was tense. Anti-Trump protesters descended on nearly every entry point to the inauguration area. Led by a group called DisruptJ20, the protesters sought to block each of the entrances into the inauguration. And that’s precisely what they did.

At the corner of 10th and E streets, Northwest, perhaps the most trafficked entry point, a wave of protesters pushed their way to front of the line. Dozens of protesters blocked both sidewalks and shouted at Trump supporters as they attempted to pass, screaming, “Find another way!” Several others sat directly in front of the entryway, locking arms and forcing police officers to move them.

Those who made it past the barrier were greeted with cries of, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as they made their way to the security tent. Hundreds more protesters inserted themselves into already long lines, hoping to clog things up.

Police prepare to break up a chain of protesters.
Sean Illing / Vox

For the most part, attendees did a good job of ignoring the provocations. A few skirmishes between protesters blocking the entrances and Trump supporters trying to get through, but nothing erupted into full-scale violence. Others knocked over trash cans and moved barrier gates around to confuse attendees.

Later, there were reports of protesters vandalizing property and clashing with police. The Associated Press reported that “police gave chase to a group of about 100 protesters who smashed the windows of downtown businesses including a Starbucks, Bank of America and McDonald's as they denounced capitalism and Trump.”

The goal of the protest was disruption. “We call on all people of good conscience to join in disrupting the ceremonies,” a statement reads on DisruptJ20’s website.

“If Trump is to be inaugurated at all, let it happen behind closed doors, showing the true face of the security state Trump will preside over. It must be made clear to the whole world that the vast majority of people in the United States do not support his presidency or consent to his rule.”

Law enforcement clumsily managed the situation, physically breaking the human chain in order to let people by. But the chains quickly reformed, and the stalemate resumed. And so it went for most of the morning. Eventually police deployed tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse the crowds.

Barbara Queeney of St. Augustine, Florida.
Sean Illing / Vox

I noticed a group of women holding two massive banners that read “Illegitimate” and “Not Our President.” They made the trip here from Chicago.

One of them, a woman named Val Jones, echoed a sentiment I heard over and over again: The election, she said, “was devastating. ... I think there’s something desperately wrong with this election. I think most of America feels cheated and knows this wasn’t a legitimate election. ... I’m disappointed that we couldn’t stand up as a country against this threat. But I’m here today to do just that.”

I asked Val’s partner, Sharon Jones, what she thought about the strategy of disruption. She wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, but, like many of the people in the street today, she saw in the Trump administration an existential threat.

“What we have with Trump and his Cabinet,” she told me, “are fascists who would undermine our rights in order to serve the 1 percent. ... This is a democracy, and we have to fight back. We have to send a message.”

Sean Illing / Vox

Trump supporters were less distraught than the protesters, but their guy won. I asked them the same two questions I asked many of the protesters: What did Trump’s victory mean to you? And what kind of country should we be? Their answers echoed Trump’s stump speeches.

Helen Matuz, a woman from Long Island, told me she voted from Trump because he’s gong to “build up our military and make America great again.”

Ann Kellash, Amy’s sister, said she believes Trump “will straighten everything out and run the country like a business.” “We need change,” she added, “and that’s what Trump is.” Change, as ever, is the key word here.

Sean Illing / Vox

Some will say the protests today went too far, that blocking gates is counterproductive. Perhaps. But protests are about disruption, and so in that sense what happened today wasn’t — apart from the acts of vandalism — unusual or extreme. A point was made.

As for whether or not any of this is likely to make things better, the answer is probably not. No one’s in the business of persuasion anymore. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop noted, Trump made little effort in his inaugural address to reach out to people who didn’t vote for him, choosing instead to double down on his vaguely ethnonationalist campaign rhetoric.

What will be interesting to watch is how Trump voters respond to what will presumably be a host of failed promises. Trump ran an aggressively populist campaign. Millions of white working-class Americans are expecting economic deliverance. But the reality is that Trump’s plans will likely be a nightmare for many of these Americans.

Before the inauguration ceremony was over, Trump’s new WhiteHouse.gov website went live. On it is a series of traditional “trickle-down” and libertarian policies, which, if enacted, will devastate working- and middle-class Americans. (Vox’s Dylan Matthews examines the proposals in detail here.)

If Trump fails to bring back jobs, if he slashes taxes for the top 1 percent, if he guts the regulatory framework or undercuts our social welfare programs or strips millions of Americans of health coverage, working-class peoplewill suffer immensely. Trump and the Republicans will have to own it. And the talking points won’t suffice.

What I noticed today talking to Trump supporters and protesters is that everyone tends to want the same things — better jobs, more opportunities, equity. I asked Amy Kellash, the Trump supporter from Minnesota, what kind of country America should. Her answer was: “Free.” I asked Queeney, the Trump protester from Florida, the same question. Her answer was: “Free.”

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