WASHINGTON, DC – It’s a cold and drizzly Friday morning as we walk towards the Red Gate Secret Service checkpoint to watch Donald J. Trump be inaugurated president. I’m dressed in a navy blue suit with a dark tie, hoping to pass as a Trump supporter in the almost entirely white crowd. My friend Dan, whom I went to college with and who is now a professor in Maryland, is with me, as well as two Pakistani American college students, younger sisters of one of my friends from New York.
Along the way, we pass hundreds of protesters. One of the most memorable is a young man dressed as the comic book hero Captain America. I ask him what his costume symbolizes. “Captain America fought fascism,” he says. “Donald Trump is a fascist so I think this is appropriate.”
A few minutes later, we spot Alex Jones, the conservative radio host and alleged conspiracy theorist who is broadcasting live on Facebook. I walk up to him and ask for a picture. “You bet,” he responds. He puts his arm around me as he continues to speak into the camera. “They make everybody feel like you can’t be a quote minority and support Trump,” he says. “Brother, what do you think about how they’re trying to like divide everybody?”
I try to maintain my cheese smile and look into my friend’s camera while Alex waits for my response. “I don’t support Trump. I’m a Ron Pauler. I’m a libertarian,” I answer, silently kicking myself for blowing my cover so soon. Alex isn’t giving up. “Ron Paul, that’s cool, but what do you think about the division they’re trying to push?”
I channel my best Miss America response. “It’s not good, division is not good. Freedom. Liberty.” “Absolutely, brother” responds Alex, shaking my hand as he walks away to take a picture with a little kid in a Make America Great Again hat. (Later that day, I find the video of our interaction posted on Alex’s Facebook page under the title, “Civil Unrest Intensifies BLM Targeting Women.”)
We finally make it to the checkpoint and wait in line for fifteen minutes before heading into a tent with airport style scanners and metal detectors. The Secret Service agent turns on my camera and looks through my pictures then opens my reporter’s notebook to make sure it’s actually a notebook. Once we’re cleared, we push past the crowd and walk as far deep into Union Square as we can. We finally end up near the front of the square, just behind the Reflecting Pool, about a half mile away from the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Behind us, a group of children play on a makeshift blanket their parents have laid out on the grass.
Last November, I had called my congresswoman – Grace Meng, from Queens, New York – to request two tickets to the inauguration. (Each congress member is allotted a certain number of tickets which they then distribute to constituents.) I wasn’t expecting to hear back but a few weeks later I did. When I finally arrived in Washington, DC to pick up the tickets, I was disappointed to find they were silver tickets - the worst tickets and the farthest away from the ceremony. So I spent half an hour walking around Capitol Hill knocking on random doors and schmoozing with staffers.
I hit paydirt at the office of an unnamed Republican congressman from Nebraska whose door was invitingly open. I walked in and asked his staffer if she could help me locate Congressman Thomas Massie’s office. (Massie was also a Ron Paul Republican and I had consulted on his campaign.) She asked if I was going to pick up tickets and if I was, then she might be able to help me out. I noticed an enormous pile of tickets on her desk and responded, “Sure.” She offered me two silver tickets, and I asked her if there was any way she had better tickets. “Um, we can give you red?” “That would be great!” I responded, quickly following up with “Is there any way I can get four?” And that’s how I ended up with four red tickets to Donald Trump’s inauguration.
As the musical performances begin, the atmosphere seems friendly and festive but quickly turns angry. Halfway through New York Senator Charles Schumer’s five minute remarks, the crowd starts booing, chanting “We want Trump, We want Trump.” One of my friend’s sisters seems stunned and shakes her head, adorned with a MAGA hat she bought earlier that morning to fully immerse herself in the experience. “He already won, what else do they want?” she mumbles.
Standing next to us is a particularly vocal kid whose parents have brought him here to celebrate his tenth birthday. When the camera first pans to Hillary Clinton, he starts screaming “Lock her up!” as his dad encourages him and smiles proudly. When the camera turns to Jimmy Carter as he walks to his seat, the dad turns to me and says, “Carter is glad today because he’s no longer America’s worst president.” It takes me a moment to realize that he thinks that Obama is America’s worst president. It seems bizarre to me but this is the mindset of so many among the other 46% of America whom my friends and I rarely interact with.
Then Donald Trump is inaugurated by Chief Justice Roberts and he begins his inaugural address. Like many other journalists, I had been expecting a conciliatory message aimed at reconciling the country’s division. Instead, his harsh remarks catch me by surprise. When he says “We will…unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth,” it takes my breath away, and I ask myself, not the first time, what I’m doing here. After the speech, my friend Dan, who grew up in western Pennsylvania, turns to me, hesitantly, saying, “You know, if I wasn’t a Muslim, I’d probably be here wearing a Trump hat.”
Later that day, I head towards McPherson Square to witness the anti-Trump protests. Dozens of people are standing around a bonfire made up of signs and posters, many of which have Trump’s picture on them. A few hundred feet away is a barricade of police officers in riot gear, holding tear gas canisters. People tell me about the limousine set on fire earlier in the day. I spot signs reading “Trump Lost” and “No Sleep Until Impeachment.” I seem to have caught the tail end of the protests and there is very little structure to be found. The crowd is fickle, demoralized and confused. A young man runs up to us, shouting “Hey guys, I hear they’re marching two blocks that way!” No one seems to know what is going on. I hope what I’m witnessing isn’t representative of anti-Trump resistance over the next few years.
That evening, I’m back in Baltimore, where I’m staying with a friend for the weekend. I head to Blue Moon Café, an eclectic 24 hour diner in the heart of downtown. I catch up on email at the bar while waiting for my omelet. I overhear a well-dressed, older white man who appears slightly tipsy – let’s call him John – who’s talking to the waitress and refers in passing to the big celebration tonight. I ask him if he’s referring to the inauguration. “Of course!” he responds. I’m confused because I had imagined a Trump supporter would be hard to come by in downtown Baltimore.
“Why are you celebrating?” I ask. “Now, look here,” says John. “I don’t know where you’re from. But Trump is going to make other countries be afraid of us again. That’s important.” John tells me that he’s a civil engineer and has lived in Baltimore for over forty years. He tells me he was a major in the Air Force. All of this is a shock to me. The stereotypical Trump supporter according to much of the U.S media is a factory worker from the Midwest, someone who didn’t go to college, someone voting for Trump out of economic desperation. The idea that an educated, intelligent professional – in Baltimore, of all places – could be a Trump supporter doesn’t fit that stereotype. And this is a big part of why so many liberals and progressives were so surprised by the results of the election.
I ask John about the protesters in Washington, DC. Initially, he seems charitable, saying “I support all these young people, even though they’re misguided.” But he quickly gets emotional. “If it were up to me, they would be shot.” I ask him if he’s referring to the violent ones or the peaceful ones who are just holding signs. “All of them,” he says. “They’re all paid by George Soros, that’s why they should be shot.” I’m struck by the lack of humanity in his words, the realization that he probably will never speak face to face with one of these protesters, nor will any of these protesters ever speak with him. All they know of each other is based on what the media and the Internet tells them.
“Obama was known as a homosexual in Chicago,” John tells me. “Three of his homosexual partners got executed in one week. He had people shot!” I try to change the topic, asking him if he thinks America should be a Christian country run according to Christian law. “It already is!” he tells me.
And this is when I realize the mismatch in stories in America today. Is America a heterogeneous land for people of different races and religions who have a shared commitment to liberal, democratic values? Or is America simply the home of the American people? Which narrative will dominate after this election? Does that fact that we’re even asking this question mean Trump’s narrative has won?
Saturday is the women’s march, which will end up being one of the largest coordinated protests in American history. I sleep in and take the Metro into downtown in the afternoon. The energy in the streets is hard to describe, the vibe completely different from both the inauguration the day before as well as the anti-inauguration protests. This seems more like a celebration, a festival, and a gesture of solidarity. People of color abound in every direction and I’m thrilled to discover this isn’t the whitewashed gathering critics had once feared it would become.
The signs range from those expressing defiance (“65,844,610: We Are The Majority” and “My Daughter Is Watching You”) to solidarity (“We Take Care of Each Other” and “Marching for our Mothers”) to outright hostility (“Trump: There’s Blood On Your Tweets”, “We Refuse To Accept a Fascist America”, “The people elected a woman, The system elected a rapist”).
In McPherson Square, I meet Scott, an activist with Refuse Facism. I ask him what makes Trump illegitimate. He seems incredulous, and slightly offended. I clarify that Trump supporters argue, quite reasonably, that the election was held according to certain rules (i.e. the Electoral College) and Trump won based on those rules. “Trump is morally illegitimate,” Scott tells me. “My mother grew up in Nazi Germany. The window to act is very small.”
A few blocks away, in Chinatown, a large crowd of women’s marchers have gathered near the entrance to the Metro station to watch a street band singing R&B music. “I will always love you,” croons the band’s lead while the attendees’ pink hats sway in tune with the music. I wonder what will become of the marchers’ energy in the weeks and months ahead, and whether the normalization of the Trump administration is inevitable.
I had promised a friend I would get her a bean pie from Washington, DC, so I head towards the city’s historic H Street Corridor. Bean pies became popular in the early days of the Nation of Islam and were promoted as a healthy, all-natural food that the community could bake and sell as a means of promoting economic self-sufficiency. I had learned on Yelp that Horace and Dickie’s Seafood Carryout sold bean pies in addition to fried fish so I started walking in that direction. Along the way, I pass tourists in Make America Great Again hats, hipsters winding down from the march, as well as locals heading home from work. I wonder if any of these groups would ever talk to one another.
After picking up a few bean pies and a platter of fried fish, I hail a cab to take me back to Union Station. “How are you, brother?” I greet the older African-American cab driver. He responds heartily, calling me brother as well. A few minutes later, he asks, genuinely curious: “Did you address me based on my affiliation with humanity?” I’m confused for a second, and then I have my aha moment. “Oh, are you Muslim?!” I ask. “Yes!” he affirms, and bursts out in laughter. “I thought you were too and I was wondering how you knew,” he tells me.
He asks me where I’m from and I tell him my family is from Pakistan. “When I first became Muslim, I would read a lot of Maulana Maududi,” he tells me. “That brother, mashaAllah.” I’m surprised that he knows of Maududi. (I imagine few Pakistani Americans my age can say the same.) He tells me his name is Abdul Mateen and banters with me in Arabic for a little bit.
“Man, I love talking about this stuff,” he tells me. “I realized a long time ago that the more I study Islam, the better human being I become.”