It’s for real. Donald Trump, billionaire businessman, reality TV celebrity and – to his foes – bigot and demagogue will place his hand on a Bible, repeat a 35-word oath and be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States
. What began with a stunt, lampooned as a joke and dismissed as a fantasy will at noon on Friday become historical truth. Trump will be the most powerful man in the world.
Only the wildest optimists believe his inauguration will deliver a moment of national healing and unity. It comes in the wake of another turbulent week that saw the publication of unverified documents alleging covert links between the Trump campaign and Russia
. A chaotic press conference, in which Trump berated a CNN journalist for “fake news”, did little to instill confidence.
, hotels were booked and stands were erected in readiness for thousands of Trump loyalists, revelling in his upending of the political order, and thousands of protesters determined to gatecrash his coronation. Amid splendid pomp and pageantry, the capital is set to stage a battle for the heart of America.
“This is unlike any inauguration we’ve seen,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director of the progressive group MoveOn.org. “We’ve never seen a counter-inauguration that dwarfs the crowd at the inauguration itself. It will be unmistakeable where the energy is. It will be in the broad and diverse movement to oppose the Trump agenda.”
The eyes of the world will be on Trump, derided by critics as a crude vulgarian who eschews books but is now asked to deliver an inspiring inaugural address just as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy did before him. There will also be a jarring contrast between him and outgoing president Barack Obama, who with his family will depart the US Capitol by helicopter.
Indeed, Trump and Obama’s inaugurations will be every bit as different as the men themselves. In 2009, amid the symbolism of America’s first black president, the prevailing theme was hope. Well in excess of a million people braved the cold to fill the National Mall. Yo-Yo Ma played the cello, Aretha Franklin sang and celebrity turnout was unusually high. Four years later, at Obama’s second inauguration, performers included James Taylor and Beyoncé.
Trump’s announced headliners are 16-year-old singer Jackie Evancho – who shot to fame on the reality TV show America’s Got Talent, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Radio City Rockettes. Several leading entertainers declined invitations to perform. British singer Charlotte Church tweeted: “@realDonaldTrump Your staff have asked me to sing at your inauguration, a simple Internet search would show I think you’re a tyrant. Bye.” Actor Meryl Streep spoke for many in Hollywood when she eviscerated the president-elect at last weekend’s Golden Globe awards.
Trump, who at 70 will be the oldest person ever sworn in as US president, this week promised a “very, very elegant day” with “massive crowds”, a familiar boast at his campaign rallies. The joint congressional committee on inaugural activities, which oversees all ceremonies, is expecting 700,000 to 750,000 people – well short of Obama’s total.
The Republican, however, has outgunned Obama financially. Trump’s presidential inaugural committee has raised a record sum, more than $90m in private donations, far more than Obama’s two inaugural committees, which brought in $55m in 2009 and $43m in 2013. It says any money left over will be donated to charity.
Tom Barrack, the lead planner, told reporters he wanted to avoid a “circus-like atmosphere” in favour of a more “back to work” attitude that surrounds Trump “with the soft sensuality of the place”. Trump, whom Barrack described as “the greatest celebrity in the world”, is holding three inaugural balls. Obama had 10 after his first inauguration.
For the maverick businessman’s voters, it will be a day to savour. Michael Barnett, chairperson of the Republican party in Palm Beach, Florida
, said: “I’ve never been to an inauguration before. We’ve worked so hard for the last 15 months and now we get to see our effort pay off. I’m sure I’ll be lost in the moment and it will take a while to sink in. It’s going to be great but we know it’s just the beginning.”
Barnett, a 39-year-old African American lawyer, believes Trump can help build unity. “Your impression when you meet him face to face and talk to him is very different from what you see on TV,” he said. “He’s a really good guy and I really like him. He’ll do a good job.”
Benjamin Marchi, 38 and the owner of a healthcare business in Easton, Maryland
, will also be present. “It’s going to be a great day, a wonderful day, full of excitement,” he said. “It might be similar to election night. He is truly our first independent president because of his willingness to not pander to segments of the Republican party that are typically pandered to.”
‘Fear is an even stronger emotion than anger’
But along with the celebrations, there will be a week of protest against a man who insulted Mexicans
and Muslims and boasted about groping women. There were demonstrations against Richard Nixon in 1973 and George W Bush in 2001, but nothing on the scale Trump faces in Washington, a liberal bastion where he took just 4% of the vote (even Bush managed 9% in 2000).
Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, said: “The tone and temper of the election campaign has people worried. There are a lot of people genuinely scared. Fear is an even stronger emotion than anger.”
About 30 groups have secured permits to protest before, during and after the inauguration. District police and the US secret service plan to have some 3,000 officers and 5,000 national guard troops available, claiming this will be enough to ensure the inauguration goes ahead even if protesters try to disrupt it.
The biggest gathering will be on Saturday, the Women’s March on Washington, which organisers say could draw more than 200,000 people. Actors Amy Schumer, Scarlett Johansson, America Ferrera and Felicity Huffman will be among those taking part. Its organisers did not respond to requests for comment but Wikler of MoveOn.org said: “The march will send a message to every policymaker in Washington that the public is mobilised and ready to fight.
“The public is overwhelmingly opposed to Trump’s attitudes on women’s rights, immigrants’ rights and LGBT rights. Progressives are banding together in a way we haven’t seen in a decade. People are dusting off their marching shoes. A massive march can show which way the political wind is blowing.”
Inaugurations are traditionally a time of bipartisan solidarity, and Trump’s will be attended by Clinton and his wife Hillary Clinton, the shock loser in a uniquely poisonous election campaign. But some Democratic members of Congress are boycotting the event, among them John Lewis, a distinguished civil rights leader who told NBC’s Meet the Press that he does not see Trump as a “legitimate president”, arguing that Russian interference helped get him elected.
On Saturday, Trump made his feelings about Lewis clear, using Twitter to say that Lewis should stop “falsely complaining about the election results”. Such critics, he said, were “all talk, talk, talk – no action or results”.
Robert Schenkkan, a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright whose latest work, Building the Wall, tackles the rise of Trump, said: “It’s a tricky balance for the Democratic party. How much of this transition should be honoured in traditional ways and, given this is not business as usual, how much we should not be playing by the old rules?
“I’m among those who feel the Democrats are turning up at the gunfight at OK Corral with a knife. There is no polite resistance to this. There is nothing but all-out resistance.”
Schenkkan, 63, said this inauguration was different from any he can remember. “It’s a deeply divisive day. There will be people there who are exultant because they feel they’ve been wandering in the desert for the past eight years, but the majority of the country feels differently.
“The social glue that holds politics together in this country is under assault. It feels like we’re entering uncharted territory.”
The centrepiece of the day will be Trump’s inaugural address. He told friends that Ronald Reagan’s “style” and Kennedy’s articulation of grand national ambitions were key to the drafting of his own speech, the Washington Post reported. Kennedy’s inaugural address, 56 years to the day before Trump’s, included the now celebrated line: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Bob Shrum, a political consultant, said: “Kennedy’s address widened and deepened the definition of what it is to be an American. It had a rare eloquence.
“I don’t think you can expect that of Donald Trump.”