WASHINGTON - On Friday afternoon, hours after Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, it seemed like his Inauguration Day was about to end in minor embarrassment as his convoy rolled along Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House with a disappointingly small crowd watching the spectacle on the sidelines. Many of the viewing galleries that were placed along the route of his inaugural parade remained almost empty and the images of the abandoned seats were visibly clear in the live television reports from the event.
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These dismal images were the second blow the new president received on Friday – the first was the constant comparisons by the media between the relatively low number of people who attended his inauguration events, and the almost 2 million who showed up to see the outgoing president, Barack Obama, take the oath of office in 2008. Trump looked confident and at peace as he strolled towards the White House gates, but some members of his team only made things worse by placing an image from Obama's inauguration as the background to his new presidential twitter account. The "stolen" image became a source for countless jokes among the users of the 45th president's favorite social network.
Yet Trump soldiered on, signing his first executive orders, seeing the swift confirmation of his secretaries of defense and homeland security and later attending three inaugural balls in different parts of the city. If the improbability and magnitude of his political achievement weren't enough to overcome the crowd-size issues, Trump also received help in shifting the conversation from an unexpected source – the protesters who took to the streets of Washington, D.C., some of whom chose to conduct acts of violence and vandalism, thus providing the new president proof of the relevancy and importance of his election promise to restore "law and order."
For most of Inauguration Day, the protests throughout Washington remained non-violent. I visited a number of demonstrations scenes across the city, and in each of them, saw Trump supporters and Trump protesters passing each other without any noticeable incidents, except one woman in a "Make America Great Again" shirt who yelled back at the protesters that they were "murdering democracy." Yet in the afternoon hours, the events took a bad turn when protesters in different areas threw rocks and bottles at police officers, broke shop windows, spray-painted military vehicles and set fire to a garbage can. These incidents didn't represent the spirit of the day-long protests, but they caught the media's attention, and for supporters of president Trump, served as a reminder to why they voted for him in the first place.
One Trump supporter in her forties, from North Carolina, who identified herself as Elizabeth, told Haaretz that, "the violence and vandalism of these anarchists is exactly why I decided to vote for Trump." She added that "our country is divided and angry. We need someone who can make everyone feel safe again. We can't have people rioting in the streets like this." Preston and Martha, a couple from Virginia who came to Washington with red "MAGA" hats on their heads, found themselves somehow standing at the heart of a 2,000 people-strong anti-Trump demonstration downtown. They also told Haaretz that the demonstrations "only make us support Trump even more."
The journalistic clichés about "two Americas" that have been repeated so many times since the election, were nevertheless relevant once again on Friday – in the streets of the American capital, and also on social networks, where some people were delighted to share Trump's crowd sizes, while others angrily tweeted about anarchists on the loose in the nation's capital. A similar divide could be heard when speaking to the protesters on the one side, and the celebrators on the other. "All the Trump supporters I saw on the streets today were white people," one demonstrator explained to Haaretz. "In our demonstration, on the other hand, you could see the whole of America: Blacks and whites, Hispanics, Asians, immigrants, Jews, LGBTQ and more. We are America." Trump's supporters, of course, paint an opposite picture. "All the people demonstrating here are either from D.C. or from the suburbs around it," said Charles Raider, who arrived from Kentucky. "People like me who came here to celebrate inauguration, arrived from all the different states. I met folks from Texas, Florida, and Michigan."
The demonstrations will continue on Saturday, when hundreds of thousands of protesters will participate in the "Women's March on Washington," at the same time that President Trump will attend a prayer at the National Cathedral. Many residents across the city have opened their homes to protesters from other parts of the country who are arriving for the march. The march could likely be a success, but a bigger question is how many people will attend its' "sister marches" in cities across the country. If a quarter million marchers turn out in Washington but very few bother to show up in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Denver, that could reinforce the conclusions of the last election regarding the democratic party's strength along the coasts, and its' weakness against Trump in other parts of America.
President Trump, meanwhile, has left most of the remainder of the weekend without an official schedule, using the time instead to get used to his new work and living environment. The big problems that await him on Day One of his administration aren't going to disappear by Monday morning.