At noon on the eve of Inauguration Day, a few short hours after arriving in Washington DC on an overnight road trip from Ames, I received a message from a friend and fellow journalist that our mentor at the Village Voice, the legendary muckraker Wayne Barrett, was on his deathbed. We’d known Wayne was in poor health, fighting interstitial lung disease, but the timing was jarring: During his 37 years at the Voice, he chronicled Donald Trump’s unscrupulous real estate dealings, mob ties, and oversized ego in greater depth than anyone else. His 1991 book, Donald Trump: The Deals and the Downfall, which meticulously detailed Trump’s ostentatious rise to fame and fortune in 1980s New York and subsequent brush with financial ruin, began selling for over a hundred dollars when Trump launched his campaign, before it was eventually reissued. In a saner world, Wayne’s work alone would have long ago destroyed any of Trump’s serious political ambitions. Instead, here I was in Washington preparing to witness his swearing-in as America’s 45th president, succeeding a man he smeared as foreign-born, as I read Wayne’s obit in the New York Times the evening before. “The surreal juxtaposition of Barrett’s death and the beginning of the administration of President Trump, an event Barrett had thought impossible given Trump’s damning past,” wrote Michael Kruse, a Washington reporter who knew Wayne, “left me blinking back tears and grasping for words.”
In our bizarre new world of “alternative facts,” where the fear that a president willing to brazenly lie about virtually anything could spark an international crisis with a late-night tweet is a real possibility, this trip felt like one to an alternate universe. When I traveled here in 2009 for Barack Obama’s first inauguration, the mood was joyous as people celebrated the historic election of America’s first black president, a former civil rights attorney and constitutional law professor. Now, the atmosphere was dour in the nation’s heavily Democratic capital, where Trump, who retweeted neo-Nazi lies about black-on-black crime during his campaign and is now being sued for violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, received just 4.1 percent of the vote in an election that will go down in history for entirely different reasons.
Things started getting weird as soon as I hit the streets the night before the inauguration, after reading the news about Wayne. Downtown, protesters gathered outside the National Press Club, where sympathizers of the white supremacist alt-right movement held the DeploraBall, a black-tie event organized in part by anti-feminist activist Mike Cernovich. “Fuck Trump! You racist dog! You misogynist pig!” protesters chanted as a row of riot police in front of the building let attendees through after checking their tickets, serving as the ball’s de facto bouncers. Occasional clashes broke out between protesters and Trump supporters they derided as Nazis, with cops stepping in from time to time to pepper spray someone in the face. “My name’s Connor, and I actually kind of started this fire,” Drew Carey’s 11-year-old son told a Fox News reporter inquiring about signs set ablaze in the middle of the street. “And why did you start that fire?” “Because I felt like it and because I’m just, uh, saying, screw our president.” Across the street, people wearing red Make America Great Again hats watched the spectacle through the windows of a bar.
Around the corner, the anarchist performance artist Vermin Supreme, bullhorn in hand, taunted Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera as he entered Warner Theatre for another pro-Trump celebration: the Heroes Ball featuring Poison frontman Bret Michaels, one of the few big-name artists willing to perform for the new president. (Earlier at the Lincoln Memorial, Toby Keith and 3 Doors Down performed an inaugural concert for Trump.) In the distance, a rendition of “God Bless America” blared through loudspeakers on the Trump Unity Brigade, a truck hauling a trailer through downtown that displayed signs reading “Honk 4 Trump,” “Secure America’s Borders,” and “Trump for Veterans & Bikers.” Outside the DeploraBall, a protester snatched a MAGA hat off a Trump supporter’s head and lit it on fire, burning up all but its bill, which a young woman spotted later, remarking, “Oh no, a fallen soldier,” as her friend wearing an unblemished MAGA hat posed for a photo near it. The next day, Trump would be leader of the free world, but still, none of it really seemed real.
In the morning, hours before Trump’s inaugural address, hundreds of protesters were already converging outside the gated entrances to the National Mall, walking past bulked-up security measures including National Guard stations and cement-weighted trucks. Their causes — feminism, racial justice, animal rights activism, and raising alarm over Trump’s ties to Putin, to name just a few — were diverse, as were their tactics. At some of the gates, they linked arms to form a human barricade in hopes of preventing Trump supporters from getting to the inauguration as cops attempted to let them through. Four young women at the feminist rally, linked together with u-locks around their necks, sat in front of a gate for hours, police unwilling to arrest them. Others, including Erika and Brad Whiteley, musicians from Brooklyn taking part in a major protest for the first time in their lives, waited in line, signs in hand, for the chance to protest Trump on the Mall as he gave his speech from the steps of the US Capitol.
“Donald Trump is a bigot; he’s a fascist. I’m very scared for this country,” said Erika, 33. “It’s just disgusting. There are a million things. Where do I start?” She proceeded to list off some of her concerns, including that his administration would gut regulations to enrich big businesses and his cabinet picks — namely Ben Carson as housing secretary and Betsy DeVos as education secretary — were grossly unqualified. “Something I’ve been annoyed with is his constant tweeting,” added Brad, 36. “He’s been picking fights with actors and stuff. The tone didn’t change at all since he was elected; he’s still combating everything. He’s more worried about Alec Baldwin than security briefings.”
I left the protests to walk toward the Washington Monument, where I’d watched a very different inaugural address on a Jumbotron eight years ago. “On this day,” Obama said then, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.” Trump’s speech, fueled by the same sort of reality-bending populist nationalism that drove his campaign, struck a much darker note that was reminiscent of his fearmongering address at the Republican National Convention last summer in Cleveland, in which he painted a picture of a nation beset with violent crime and claimed his rival, Hillary Clinton, would invite terror attacks on American soil by keeping the border open to Syrian refugees fleeing mass slaughter.
From the steps of the Capitol, Trump spoke of the “just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public” — a strong education system, safe communities, good jobs. “But for too many of our citizens,” he continued, “a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
To achieve that, Trump promised sweeping change. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” he said. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” (Products marketed by Trump have been made in at least 12 countries outside the US.)
Attendance at the inauguration was far lower than it had been eight years ago, but Trump’s address was well received by those around me. “I knew it was going to be a good speech, because I knew he wasn’t going to write it,” said Scott Kelley, 18, who traveled to the inauguration with classmates at the Atlantic High School Academy of Law and Government in Port Orange, Florida. “I thought that if he really wanted to unite the people, he had to speak on a message of unity and a message of ‘America first,’ and that’s exactly what he did. So I think he did a really good job, and an even better job than I thought he would.”
Two days earlier, Trump had tweeted a photo of himself holding a notebook in an unnatural position with one hand, a pen in the other, purportedly writing his own speech. But after the inauguration, the Wall Street Journal revealed that its true authors were senior adviser Stephen Miller, who wrote Trump’s RNC speech, too, and has also worked for Trump’s attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, a man once denied a federal judgeship over accusations of racism; and chief strategist Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the alt-right news website Breitbart, which is notorious for publishing deliberately provocative articles disparaging minorities and women with crude stereotypes and topics like “black crime,” as well as the work of “Dangerous Faggot” Milo Yiannopoulos, who was banned from Twitter after inciting racist trolling against the black actress Leslie Jones. “I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House,” Bannon boasted to the Journal. “It’s got a deep, deep root of patriotism.”
The phrase “America first,” as some pointed out when Trump was saying it on the campaign trail, is rooted in the short-lived America First Committee, an isolationist, anti-Semitic organization that opposed our nation’s entry into World War II. It counted among its members Charles Lindbergh, who in 1941 at a rally in Des Moines warned that Jews were infiltrating US society. Perhaps fittingly, Iowa Congressman Steve King revealed on Twitter that among those present in Washington to celebrate Trump’s inauguration with him were the leaders of Austria’s xenophobic, far-right Freedom Party, which was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis.
“They hate Trump so much. They’re so blinded by all this fake news.”
Trump’s speech did make a nationalistic, God-and-country appeal to unity, at least superficially. “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other,” he said. “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” Then he added the religious pander: “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.” The president’s actions over the course of the following week would expose all of this as empty rhetoric with astonishing speed.
On my walk to the Washington Monument for the speech, a Trump memorabilia hawker had cautioned passersby with 90 percent certainty that his products would be sold out by noon, roughly when Trump began his address. But the unpopularity of the new president was no secret to the vendors. “Get your Trump T-shirts here!” another shouted out as she tried to identify supporters who had just left the Mall after the speech as they were played off by David Bowie’s “Like a Rocket Man.” “Two-sided Trump shirts, black or red!” “Two sides to burn,” a middle-aged man snarked as he walked by. “Believe me, if it was somebody else, there would be a lot more money in my pockets,” the vendor replied with a defeated laugh.
Anti-Trump protests continued throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Already, riot police had kettled (confined to a small area with no escape route) a group of marchers to conduct mass and largely indiscriminate arrests in an effort to sweep up the handful among them who’d vandalized storefront windows with bricks. In the afternoon, a limousine parked across the street from Franklin Square, where protesters held more demonstrations, was set on fire. The president of the company that owned the vehicle didn’t support Trump, although he told the Washington Post that his drivers often chauffeured the new president in the years leading up to the launch of his campaign.
On the opposite side of Franklin Square, I spotted two MAGA-hatted young men and asked them what they thought of the raucous protesters. “They’re so delusional,” replied one, who would give only his first name, Quentin, and said he was from Louisville, Kentucky. “Donald Trump is probably going to do something for them that Obama would have never done. But they hate Trump so much. They’re so blinded by all this fake news and everything else that they’re not going to let him help. That’s why Donald Trump tweets. He don’t go to the media.” He added, “What do they want? What are they asking for?” before two protesters interrupted the interview to taunt him and his friend, one of them telling Quentin to read their Black Lives Matter sign. “I’m black,” he said, catching them off guard. “I don’t care.”
Quentin condemned protesters for “burning shit, breaking shit, jumping people.” But in Franklin Square, Jared Krauss, a 26-year-old activist and photographer from Iowa City, had a different perspective on the utility of violent protesting. He was hoping to take photos that would resonate with the resistance and began walking toward the limo when he saw that it was on fire, shooting away. As police deployed flash-bang grenades and pepper spray, a young woman dressed in black threw bricks down at the sidewalk to break them into smaller pieces for protesters to use as projectiles against the cops. “I think there’s a lot to be said about nonviolence,” Krauss said. “It’s a really important idea to have in a revolutionary movement, but I think that it needs to be countered by people who are taking a little bit more risk with their own body and their own safety to put themselves on the physical front lines. And that needs to be exposed, and it needs to be understood as a part of this, because the government has a monopoly on violence.”
By the end of the night, according to a list the city’s Metropolitan Police Department provided to the Informer that omitted the names of five juveniles, 235 people had been arrested and charged with felony rioting, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Among them were at least six journalists, sparking outrage from press freedom organizations. “Felony Charges for Journalists Arrested at Inauguration Protests Raise Fears for Press Freedom,” read a headline in the New York Times several days later as the story gained traction. Speaking to the Times, Carlos Lauria, a spokesman for the Committee to Protect Journalists, condemned “the sharp deterioration of press freedom in the US” exacerbated by Trump, who “obstructed major news organizations, vilified the press, and attacked journalists by name with unrelenting hostility” during his campaign. (The felony charge was later dropped for one of the journalists. In a statement, the MPD said it “respects and protects the rights of journalists to have access and the ability to report on events of local as well as national importance” and that in a situation “such as the one that occurred during the Inauguration, MPD members are directed to attempt to identify journalists and to not arrest them.”)
There were also fears about what Trump, who encouraged violence against protesters at his campaign rallies and later lied about doing so, might do to crack down on protected political speech. Earlier in the day, I spoke with Cheryl Angel, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Tribe in her mid-50s, who traveled to Washington for the inauguration protests from her current home in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, where she has joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s resistance against the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline. “In the future, my fear is that water protecting will become criminalized,” she said. “In North Dakota” — where hundreds of people have been hit with often trumped up misdemeanor and felony charges, including journalists — “it is already.” Angel predicted that Trump would quickly push ahead with the pipeline’s completion, which the Obama administration delayed in December by calling for an environmental impact statement before it would grant an easement for the pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe near the reservation. Four days later, Trump signed an executive action doing exactly that.
On Saturday, the day after the inauguration, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators participated in the Women’s March on Washington, a counter-inaugural event that was ultimately an anti-Trump protest but portrayed more broadly by organizers as a march in support of women’s issues. Marchers wore knitted “pussyhats” — a response to video footage leaked to the Washington Post before the election in which Trump could be heard boasting to then-Access Hollywood host Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women by “grab[bing] them by the pussy” without their consent. The turnout dwarfed that of Trump’s inauguration, with attendance three times the size according to one estimate. Millions more joined in sister marches across the US and around the world. In Washington, there were no arrests.
Among those at the march was Huxley resident Sue Dinsdale, director of the progressive advocacy group Iowa Citizen Action Network, who made the road trip with her daughter Natalie. “I am very definitely privileged,” she said. “I’m not poor, I’m not without health insurance. I am a privileged person. But when I saw Donald Trump elected, it just set me off, because it seemed like everything he stands for is against those who can’t speak for themselves. Through my work and in my life, that’s become something that’s more and more important to me, to give a voice to people who maybe can’t or won’t or are afraid to do it.” Adhering to the old adage that all politics is local, she joined a protest against a bill to defund Planned Parenthood that packed the state Capitol last Tuesday, and encourages Iowans unsettled by President Trump to attend town hall meetings to speak with their political representatives.
“Terrorism is the use of fear for political purposes. That’s not what we are. That’s what the state is, that’s what Donald Trump is.”
Half a mile away from the Women’s March on Washington, there was a strikingly different protest outside the main entrance to the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, where activists of a more radical bent waited from morning to night for their friends arrested on Inauguration Day to be arraigned and released. They set up tables with food and beverages and smoked cigarettes to pass the time, some of them discussing plans to reconnect in the future for other causes. By the sidewalk, an older man solicited funds for jail and legal support. A police officer with the nameplate M. S. Fleming eyed the man, then turned to a cop standing next to him to sneer, “Might as well say support domestic terrorists, because that’s what they are.” A few minutes later, a middle-aged couple wearing Women’s March buttons walked by, passing a makeshift cardboard sign that read, “fuck ur cis-white supremacist ‘feminist’ bullshit,” declining to donate to the legal support fund, and thanking the cops for their service. “I’m not putting a dollar in that bucket,” one told the other disapprovingly.
Throughout the day, arraigned protesters slowly trickled out, holding paperwork informing them of their felony rioting charges. They were greeted with hugs from relieved friends, a free cigarette, and cheers of “¡a, anti, anticapitalista!” Legal observers with the National Lawyers Guild and #DisruptJ20 Legal Fund photographed the paperwork for use in a class-action lawsuit filed the same day. “Without warning and without any dispersal order, the police officers kettled all of the plaintiffs,” the complaint read. “Defendants included in the kettle not only protesters who had engaged in no criminal conduct, but also members of the media, attorneys, legal observers, and medics.” It accused police of using excessive force, adding, “Defendants proceeded to indiscriminately and repeatedly deploy chemical irritants, attack the individuals with batons, and throw flash-bang grenades at the kettled individuals.” (Similar class-action suits have resulted in multi-million dollar settlements with the city government not too long ago.)
I asked a recently released protester, whose name the Informer has decided not to publish because of the potential ramifications associated with the stigma of having a felony charge, what he thought of Fleming’s suggestion that he was a domestic terrorist. “Terrorism is the use of fear for political purposes,” he replied. “That’s not what we are. That’s what the state is, that’s what Donald Trump is, that’s what the National Guard is, that’s what the police are. I think it’s a classic case of projection.”
Another protester arraigned on a felony rioting charge, who asked that his name not be published, explained that when the protest began to get unruly, he’d planned to walk away but then noticed someone on his knees, clawing at his eye in pain. He had been pepper sprayed while wearing contact lenses (flyers distributed to protesters recommended against wearing contacts for this reason). The protester went over to try helping and was swept up in the kettle, winding up in a cockroach-infested jail cell with no toilet paper for the two dozen people crammed inside. One was a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke who a US Marshal assisting for the inauguration allegedly harassed, saying, “What would Anne Frank think of you now?” Someone else in the cell, the protester said, needed his bipolar disorder medication and was told by a guard to tough it out or be admitted to a hospital, in which event he wouldn’t be released until Tuesday. Eventually, the protester I spoke with was transported to another precinct and then to the courthouse, where he was placed in shackles and waited for hours to go in front of a judge. All told, he was in custody for about 36 hours.
Asked to comment on her department’s crowd control policies, Fleming’s remark, and the protester’s account of his arrest and time in custody, Rachel Reid, the police spokeswoman, replied, “Given that there is pending litigation surrounding these arrests, MPD cannot comment on specifics.”
“The Reagan years were in some ways the alternative press’s glory years,” said Tom Carson, a former staff writer at the Village Voice, in an interview three years ago with the now-defunct Al Jazeera America for an article exploring the decline of alt-weekly newspapers including the Voice, which laid Wayne off in 2011 because of financial constraints. “We knew we were playing an adversary role. Peggy Noonan was right: It was a revolution, destroying what was left of the New Deal, making this into a very different country. And we were the only ones calling him on it, besides a few scattered op-ed columnists.”
Trump took Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign promise to “make America great again,” trademarked it, and pumped it full of steroids in a showy campaign of demagoguery that almost no one, including Trump and his staff themselves according to some reports, thought he would win. The new president’s reactionary agenda, startling ignorance of policy issues, and impulsive nature have emboldened outlets beyond just the alternative press to call him on his dangerous lies, but that hardly seems to matter to his supporters, who echo his accusations that it’s all just “FAKE NEWS!” With his penchant for using Twitter to manipulate news cycles and invent his own realities by repeating clear falsehoods, Trump is an enigma that reporters still haven’t quite figured out how best to cover. Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, seems to revel in this. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he scolded the New York Times on Wednesday. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.” This new adversarial relationship could be a boon to a journalism revival, if early trends hold. After Trump’s election, news outlets saw a spike in donations and subscriptions.
On the day after the election, Wayne went on Democracy Now! for an interview with host Amy Goodman, where he rebuked the broadcast media for the shocking outcome, arguing that its irresponsible coverage of FBI Director James Comey’s letter announcing a revived inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s private email server had a greater political impact than the actual content of the letter (the print media was arguably guilty of this as well). “Donald Trump has said I think the most remarkable statement I’ve ever heard from a political candidate for any office, which was, I could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and I wouldn’t lose a vote,” he said. “Well, who’s responsible for that? The media is, and I think this is the collapse of the American broadcast media in particular.” When he was a student at the Columbia School of Journalism in the late ‘60s, Wayne said, it was understood that quality broadcast news was an obligation television networks owed to the public in exchange for free access to the airwaves. But that was a different era. “Now, it has to be a profit center, and instead of journalists making decisions, we have [CNN Chief Jeff] Zucker and [CBS CEO Les] Moonves and these people,” he said. “It’s a commercial enterprise. All it cares about are ratings to generate advertising, and it has plunged American democracy into this abyss.”
Wayne had been sounding the alarm on this for months, to little avail. The basement of his Brooklyn apartment was filled with boxes of documents from his past reporting on Trump that dated back to the ‘70s. During the election, dozens of reporters contacted him to look through his archives, including broadcast journalists from Canada and Europe. But the US broadcast media had “totally failed” to properly vet Trump, he told Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone last March — he’d only been contacted by one reporter from it. In October, participating in a Politico panel of Trump biographers, Wayne voiced his frustration again, providing examples of two investigative stories — one on a real estate scandal that led to a criminal investigation involving two of Trump’s children and potential obstruction of justice, the other describing how Trump promoted his brand on 9/11 by telling a local TV station that he now owned the tallest building in downtown Manhattan — that were ignored by the broadcast media.
On Democracy Now!, Wayne seemed to still be coming to terms with the reality that Trump was now the president-elect. “The most remarkable thing is that the leading birther in the United States is succeeding this president,” he said. “I can’t imagine.” Trump’s long history of bigotry documented by the media dated back to 1973, the first time his name appeared in the New York Times, when the Justice Department filed suit against him and his father for their discriminatory renting practices as landlords — a story Wayne expanded on first for the Voice and later in The Deals and the Downfall. Wayne added a prescient warning: “I think the terrible thing that some of your guests have suggested is that he is going to start with immigration, and the first people who have to be defended in this country now, by all of us who care, are immigrants.”
Capping off his mind-boggling first week as president, Trump signed a wide-reaching executive order Friday on Holocaust Remembrance Day (which the White House acknowledged without any reference to Jews) to temporarily ban citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — from entering the US. The order repeatedly invoked 9/11, despite that no citizen from any of the countries has killed an American on US soil dating back at least as far as 1975. Citizens from three other countries in the region — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — were responsible for about 3,000 domestic American deaths over the same period but exempted from the ban because of Trump’s business investments there. Against the advice of the Department of Homeland Security, Bannon and Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller — the two men who wrote Trump’s inaugural speech that included the line, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice” — demanded that the order also apply to green card holders, a decision Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes concluded served no apparent purpose beyond deliberate cruelty. After international outcry and protests at airports across the US demanding the release of both refugees and permanent residents who’d been detained, a federal judge temporarily halted deportations thanks to an ACLU lawsuit.
Earlier in the week, the Trump administration repeatedly lied about the size of the inauguration crowd, citing “alternative facts”; considered launching a voter fraud investigation over Trump’s baseless claim that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegally cast ballots; inflamed tensions with China; demanded that DHS begin construction on a Mexico border wall; took initial steps toward repealing Obamacare, without an alternative ready to replace it; and placed Trump’s chief strategist Bannon — the former head of the racist alt-right news website Breitbart who admires Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, and Satan and once told a reporter he was a Leninist who wanted to “bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment” — on the powerful National Security Council.
The dystopian hellscape now looming over America could have been avoided had more people taken heed of the real Donald Trump exposed by Wayne Barrett and the others who long ago saw through the flimsy orange facade of our new president. But as far-right nationalism makes its way from Europe to the US, there are ample signs of a strong resistance movement already growing, and the hundreds of interns Wayne mentored over the years, who have already made an indelible mark on American journalism, will continue his work as “detectives for the people” in the months ahead.