And so, after four years, it’s over. On CNN, they were complaining about Donald Trump’s behaviour: refusing to meet Joe Biden, refusing to attend the inauguration, insisting that he ride on Marine One and Air Force One while they still had their presidential designations. It was undignified, they said.
Trump had demanded a 21-gun salute at the airport
Personally, I preferred it that way, with Trump toddler-like to the end. Nothing became his time in office, and all that. It would have been a terrible let down to see him behaving like a mature adult. TV commentators would have felt obliged to say nice things about him, as they seemed to on Wednesday for Mike Pence, who apparently deserves a medal for carrying out one of his few official duties without committing treason.
Later, there would be pomp and circumstance, or the best the Americans can manage, lacking as they do gilt-covered horse-drawn coaches and people whose forebears fought alongside one of the kings at Bosworth.
But first, the narrative required that the villain of the piece should give his final monologue. Still commander-in-chief for a few hours, Trump had demanded a 21-gun salute at the airport, and the military had agreed. Presumably they took the view that as he could have asked them to invade Mexico or nuke Delaware, they were getting off lightly.
The speech itself was a little disappointing. I had hoped the outgoing president would ask us if we wanted the truth and then tell us we couldn’t handle it, that we lived in a world that had walls and that those walls had to be built by men with fake tans.
After years of chaos, it was nice to have something take place that felt like someone had given thought to it
Instead, we got an Oscars acceptance speech, in which Trump thanked his family for all the hard work they’d done, the years in which they’d asked only what they could grift from their country. Was it a concession speech? In the sense that he acknowledged that there was going to be another president, it was. Was it gracious? No, but it’s possible Trump thought that it was. “I hope they don’t raise your taxes, but if they do, I told you so,” he said.
Was he going to acknowledge anything that had happened in recent days? No. “We really worked well with Congress,” he said, hilariously, before adding, unarguably: “We did things no one thought was possible.”
His son, Eric, meanwhile issued a statement full of lines competing to be the most plainly wrong thing anyone has ever said, culminating in the winner: “No president has sacrificed more.” And then they were off.
The televisions on board Air Force One were already showing that the cameras had cut back to the centre of the city, where Biden had been waiting, delayed by Trump’s lateness, and was now attending church.
The inauguration itself felt like a release. Partly, after years of chaos, it was nice simply to have something take place that felt like someone had given thought to it. But there was also a tangible difference from what had gone before, not least with all the women and all the people of colour, speaking, singing, signing, crying, pledging, reciting, oathing.
If it had slightly the air of the medals ceremony at the end of Star Wars, there was an added piquancy with the cameras cutting away every so often to Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz. In this movie they were now in the role of the comedy henchmen to the main baddie, somehow still alive but amusingly waist-deep in mud and arguing about whose fault it is.
Meanwhile the cuts to Pence during the bits of the ceremony that talked about defending the constitution may have been intended as respectful, but came across as sarcastic. Pence now seems to be letting it be known how unsuitable Trump was for high office, information he could more usefully have shared before he twice urged Americans to vote for the man.
Trump was in Mar-a-Lago, unable to tweet, unable to start a war, fired
Biden’s words, when they came, were thoughtful and well-delivered, a reminder that, as well as being a man who once lifted a chunk from a Neil Kinnock speech, he is also a man who could pull off lifting a chunk from a Neil Kinnock speech. But he was flattered by the previous four years. In normal times talk of coming together and being one United States are as challenging as motherhood and apple pie, but after the Trump years, they sounded almost like revolutionary ideas.
Trump himself was in Mar-a-Lago, unable to tweet, unable to start a war, fired. Will we see his like again? Let’s hope not.
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