To the backdrop of the ’60s pop classic, It’s My Party And I’ll Cry If I Want To, the world has stumbled blearily through its first week of the Trump era.
Like the decor inside some of his buildings – lashings of gilt overlaying acres of chipboard – it’s going to be difficult to gauge what is real and what is artifice. And it’s already apparent that these “post-truth” times are going to be rich in political theatre. Crushed Democratic Party voters no doubt think it all a tragedy, but at least the inauguration itself was comedy. Albeit of the cringe-making kind.
Traditionally, inaugurations are defining national moments. At Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration, with victory imminent in the civil war to end slavery, Lincoln embraced reconciliation: “With malice towards none, with charity for all … let us strive to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
And in the ’60s, John F Kennedy stirred with “let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”.
An inaugural address is not only about spurring idealism, but also about presenting a coherent vision of how to navigate the perils ahead. Barack Obama tempered a soaring first inaugural with the blunt warning that the challenges America faced were substantial and “will not be met easily or in a short span of time”.
Donald J Trump, in contrast, delivered a nationalistic rant, studded with staccato “America first” choruses. This was angry, bombastic and as crass as only Trump can be.
With four former presidents sitting stony-faced behind him, he could find not a single word of thanks or tribute. Instead, he churlishly intimated these were the people who caused the “carnage” from which he, SuperTrump, would rescue America.
It was a declamation delivered, however, to a half-empty theatre. Photographic comparisons gave lie to the “alternative fact” assertions of White House press secretary Sean Spicer that this was the inaugural biggest crowd yet.
Those who in ineffectual protest refused to watch the televised inauguration, missed some memorable moments. One involved Hillary Clinton, the woman whom they had fully expected to see in the starring role on the presidential podium. She was seated on the stage in front of husband Bill. During the proceedings she turned her head to smile at him, only to catch him leering at Melania Trump with unabashed lust. The Hillary smile turned distinctly frosty.
Shortly after the swearing-in ceremony, Trump shepherded legislators and members of his family into a room to watch his first presidential action, signing some paperwork with much flourish and trumpeting showmanship.
It reminded me of another, long forgotten, look-at-me moment of presidential vanity. Paul Kruger, president of the South African Republic at the time of the Anglo-Boer War, was barely literate and enormously proud of having mastered the penning of his name. When he was about to sign an official document brought to his home, his wife, Gezina, would rally the Kruger children with the cry “kom kinders, papa gaat zijn naam teiken”, meaning “gather around kids, papa is going to sign his name”.
When the curtain comes down on the Trump era, whatever the critics’ final verdict, this opening act will always be remembered as a cheesy bit of burlesque.