WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 20, 2021, WASHINGTON D.C. — Looking out over the National Mall, where tens of thousands of tiny American flags took the places of the American people who elected him, President Joe Biden declared, “Democracy has prevailed.”
But unlike at past inaugurals, this time it took 25,000 National Guard troops to secure the celebration.
It was there, on the West Front of the Capitol Building, on the Wednesday two weeks before, that an unhinged mob of Trump loyalists stormed those same marble steps. In clouds of tear gas and rage, the rioters scaled walls and climbed scaffolding, many hoisting Trump banners higher than the American flag. This act of insurrection in the halls of democracy, incited by the former president who that day had urged the crowd to “fight like hell,” left five people dead.
America’s history of the peaceful transition of power had been broken.
And it was there, with some windows still cracked from the attack by the mob, that President Joe Biden delivered his inaugural address. He issued an urgent call to action against the “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
Yes, democracy prevailed on Wednesday, but so did something else.
We were left with a profound understanding of just how fragile our democracy is, and a vacuum of broken trust filled by a drab green military surge of armored Humvees and busloads of troops in camouflage.
For a television audience accustomed to virtual experience in these days of COVID-19 quarantine, the tension created by the unprecedented level of security did not silence the ring of freedom, but did add a layer of dissonance. For those on the ground in D.C., the military presence felt significantly more ominous.
After Biden was sworn into office, he immediately signed 17 executive orders, aiming to overturn the retrograde policies implemented over the past four years and hoist the country back onto the rails of progress. But in 2021 the transition transpired differently, behind a 12-foot-high unscalable fence topped with barbed wire, the peaceful transition of power guarded by soldiers, who were on alert but still had time to stop in at Starbucks. While around the country many people were toasting the day, on the ground in D.C. there was an unease akin to what we felt on September 13, 2001, when planes were tentatively taking to the skies again.
During the days leading up to the inauguration, the 25,000 National Guardsmen occupied Washington, D.C., with a quiet but unavoidable presence. We found ourselves at a deli behind three uniformed troops in line for breakfast sandwiches, rifles slung over their shoulders and unintentionally pointed at our feet, or on Massachusetts Avenue, near Union Station, asking permission to walk down a public street and realizing that a freedom had been surrendered we didn’t know could be so easily stripped. Or cringing at the sight of two dozen troops wearing tactical vests crammed with one-liter bottles of Mountain Dew sticking out of the Kevlar pockets intended for extra M4 rifle magazines, as they marched with vague purpose out of a Hampton Inn.
The message from the new administration was clear: A display of force was needed to prevent another attack by domestic terrorists, and Biden’s speech called out their ideology. Perhaps unintentionally, but necessarily, the Biden administration on their first day at the helm fulfilled the apocalyptic fantasies of the ragtag extremists who believe they are at war with the federal government. The public was not allowed a line of sight on the leader of the free world without a full vetting by the Secret Service. “Today’s inauguration should trouble every American,” a militia member from the Midwest blasted out in a text. “A government for the people, by the people shut the people out of sharing the moment for what? . . . NOT my idea of a peaceful transition of power.” This smacks of the far right’s victim complex — engender the chaos and then complain about the consequences.
A similar tone was struck in other communications. “Time to treat life like a counterintel op and blend in by not flagging everything you think or desire,” read one message on a public Boogaloo Bois group chat, along with calls to form local teams and, without Trump in office, settle back into a model of leaderless resistance against the state.
In the days leading up to the inauguration, 12 of the National Guardsmen protecting the president were dismissed from that line of duty for having ties to the same groups they were supposed to be defending against. It was later revealed, according to NPR, that one in five defendants in the Capitol riot cases had served in the military, illustrating how deep these sentiments have seeped into the marrow of some of the troops who are meant to defend us.
But those in the District who were there to celebrate the inauguration of a new president and kick off a fresh chapter found optimism. There was faith in the future, and hope that the worst might finally be over.
A maintenance worker, smoking a cigarette outside our hotel, took in the scene that morning. “It’s over. Thank God, it’s finally over,” he said, exhaling through a cloud of smoke.
And in many ways, it seemed to be. A group that had obtained a permit for a “free speech demonstration against the inauguration” for up to 5,000 participants never materialized. A small cluster of Baptists wheeled large wooden crosses and held up “Abortion is murder” signs, but few in the sparse crowd paid them any attention. A group of perhaps a hundred Biden supporters, one blowing bubbles and another burning sage, approached the final layer of security barriers but could see nothing of the ceremony. Half a dozen Trump supporters in red MAGA hats milled conspicuously close to a sea of reporters, all barred from the inauguration, soaking up what they may have seen as their last moments in the media’s direct line of sight.
From Black Lives Matter Plaza, we watched the Marine One helicopter transporting President Trump fly overhead, doing a quick second pass over the White House before slowly disappearing into a blip on the horizon. That dot in the sky of Trump heading for Florida, as the first president in more than a century not to take part in the peaceful transition of power, was proof that it really was over.
But underneath the confined exuberance was an unsettled, incomplete feeling, after the chaotic clashing that has echoed from inside the halls of power for four years, and reverberated across the country. There on the ground, the new president made clear it was time to take inventory, inspect the damage, and clean up the mess. ❖