Two Realities: Two Days in the Heart of Washington, D.C.

In one of President Barack Obama’s most famous speeches he said: “Nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.”

Being present in the U.S. capital on January 20th and 21st convinced me that he was wrong. Millions of voices calling for change can stand in the way of millions of other voices calling for a very different kind of change.

I came to Washington, D.C. from Canada to witness Donald Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington the following day. Both events happened on and around the National Mall with the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop. Both events happened at the same time of day, starting less than 24-hours apart. Both events involved hundreds of thousands of people.

That’s where the similarities end. The differences between the two events illustrates just how polarized the United States has become. President Trump’s supporters came feeling they’ve just taken their country back. The protesters on the Women’s March feel they’ve just lost theirs.

On Inauguration Day my trip in to the city on the Metro was a quiet one. There were no lineups, no crowds, and I spent the time reading a newspaper. The lineups to get on to the National Mall were orderly. It took almost three hours to pass through security. People grumbled a little, but stood waiting patiently. Most were in groups of two or three and passed the time speaking with people they knew. There was little sense of solidarity from what I saw. No one struck up a conversation with me.

The next day as I arrived at Vienna Metro station it was clear the Women’s March on Washington was going to have a different vibe. I had to drive further to find a parking spot. Hundreds of people were lined up outside of the station waiting to buy fare cards for the Metro. The trains were packed from the start and we passed many stations where hundreds of people waited to try to cram into the already full cars.

The energy on the Metro was dramatically different than it had been 24 hours earlier. You could see, hear and feel the excitement. I spent the ride talking with an older man sitting in front of me who was travelling alone, and to two women who had driven in from Kentucky and from North Carolina.

Everywhere I went there way a joyful atmosphere. People were complimenting each other on their hats and their signs, singing and chanting together, smiling at each other, posing for pictures with each other and striking up conversations with strangers. From the signs, the clothing and their words it was clear that the protesters were angry and determined to protect what they see as fundamental human rights. Standing together they generated a sense of joy, love and unity.

The Trump supporters did not smile much. It’s not that they were rude, they just seemed to be in their own separate worlds. Many of President Trump’s policies seem to prioritize the individual so maybe it was fitting that his supporters stood as individuals. They were excited to see and hear Donald Trump sworn-in and deliver his first speech as President. The vast majority seemed to support his calls for tighter borders, bringing back jobs lost to developing countries, and putting America first. Trump fans heard his messages, cheered, and then went on their way.

Standing in the middle of the Women’s March I witnessed a strong sense of solidarity. I met a university student from Nebraska who, along with about 120 other people from her university, had travelled by bus for more than 20 hours to attend the march. She told me that since Trump won the election she’d felt isolated and alone with her fear. She said it was incredibly reassuring to realize that she’s not alone and to feed off the energy of people who feel as she does. She had a big smile on her face even though it was the end of the day and she would soon be getting back on a bus to begin a long journey home.

After more than three hours of standing around listening to speeches and music, often from very poor vantage points, the crowds were so large that it took another hour for people at the front to be able to start marching. I walked with protesters to the Ellipse behind the White House where the march was supposed to end. But there was no stopping the crowds. No one seemed to want the event to end. They kept marching. It was a bit of controlled chaos. No one seemed to know where we were going and the crowds marched north into the city slowly working their way past an alphabet’s worth of streets.

Hats were the most common shared clothing item among the Trump supporters. Thousands wore the red baseball caps with “Make America Great Again” in white letters. Most of the hats, and the “Trump 45th President of the United States” t-shirts, were made cheaply by workers in developing countries. Those items might not be available in four years if Trump delivers on his campaign and inauguration commitment to bring jobs back to America.

Tens-of-thousands of people at the Women’s March wore pink “pussyhats.” They were a response to Donald Trump who had been recorded making sexist comments that he labelled “locker room talk.” Most the pink hats were knit at home by Americans.

At the inauguration there were a few times when Trump supporters broke into chants of “USA! USA! USA!” On a couple of occasions I heard people at the Women’s March chant the same thing. But I also heard many other chants, including:

“Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”

“Welcome to your first day, we will not go away!”

“We want a leader, not a creepy tweeter.”

There were marching bands, large groups of performance artists, and event organizers chanting information updates to the crowds trying to find their way to the rally.

It was fascinating to see how people on both sides of the divide, working with the same facts, came to view Trump’s inauguration as either a cause of celebration that a long overdue change is about to sweep over the United States, or that his inauguration is a cause for alarm and a time when the masses need to rise-up in the face of a person that threatens to turn back decades of progress on human rights.

During the election campaign Donald Trump promised dramatic changes regarding how the United States is governed. During his inauguration address he didn’t offer any specifics, but made many general comments about how things were about to change, including predicting that: “January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.”

The people who marched in Washington, D.C. a day later likely hope that January 21st, 2017 will be remembered as the day when the people let Donald Trump know that he cannot rule their nation any way he wants to.

During those two days in D.C. I saw two drastically different views of how things now stand. The reality for one side is that the United States is finally on the right track. The reality for the other side is the United States is headed in a frightening direction. Two sides, claiming the same turf, both equally convinced that their world view is right.

Senator Roy Blunt from Missouri gave a speech shortly before Donald Trump was sworn-in. Blunt said the inauguration ceremony “is a national moment of celebration. But the celebration is not of victory, but of democracy.” That is not what it felt like in the sea of Trump supporters. Every time Hillary Clinton was shown on the giant TV screens the crowd booed loudly. When Vice-President Joe Biden and his wife were shown walking in for the ceremony I heard a couple of people say: “That’s uncle Joe.” One of them then said: “F___ing retard.”

The Women’s March on Washington protesters also didn’t seem to be ready to move on from what was a deeply divisive election campaign. The event’s organizers had been careful to state that the March was not a protest against Trump, but was a way to stand up for diversity, equality and inclusion. There were lots of signs that called for the protection of the rights of women, immigrants, Muslims, and other vulnerable populations in American society, but there were also a lot of signs attacking the country’s new president.

I have no idea what happens when the pink hats come off. To this Canadian outsider the divisions in the United States seem as wide as ever. Both sides seem to be focused on digging more, deeper and wider trenches. I didn’t hear anyone talking about bringing the opposing factions together. There appears to be little focus on finding common ground and building bridges. The anti-Trump side certainly seems to have a lot more energy and solidarity, but sooner or later they’ll need to find a way to make some of the tens-of-millions of their fellow Americans who voted for Trump want to join hands with them if the country is ever going to achieve a sense of unity and heal the wounds that divide their nation.