It’s show time. The bands are tuning up, revelers and protesters alike are ready with their signs and their voices, and Donald Trump – businessman, showman, political maverick – is about to step into the role of a lifetime.
At noon on Friday, Mr. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, the next stage in a journey as improbable as any in American politics. Just as eight years ago, when Barack Obama carried the hopes of millions into office with him, so too does the larger-than-life Trump.
But the notes of discord are much louder. Political polarization has only grown deeper, and shows no sign of abating. Trump enters office the least popular incoming president in four decades. Large demonstrations threaten to mar a day usually reserved for pomp and pageantry, and often bipartisan fellowship.
The boycott of Trump’s presidential inauguration by more than 60 House Democrats has added to the dissonance. But that is both less and more significant than meets the eye. Less, because lots of members of Congress skip inauguration every four years, for various reasons. And more, because of the meaning Democrats have given the boycott.
“This has become a signature moment of Democratic resistance to Trump as president,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
What began as a trickle of Democratic boycotters turned into a flood after Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia announced over the weekend that he too was skipping the ceremony, because Trump would not be a “legitimate president.” He blamed alleged Russian meddling in the election. Trump then tweeted attacks on Congressman Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement.
Critics of Lewis’s tactic say he was lowering himself to play Trump’s game. It was Trump who had spent five years questioning President Obama’s American birth – and thus his legitimacy as US president. There is no evidence that Russian meddling caused Trump’s election.
There still will be plenty of high-profile Democrats present watching Trump take the oath of office – from Mr. and Mrs. Obama, to former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Trump defeated in an upset. In addition, no Democratic senators are boycotting. Even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont will be there.
Honoring the process
On a busy day of nomination hearings on Capitol Hill Thursday, Senate Democrats, from liberal to more conservative, told reporters they planned to attend the inauguration in honor of the democratic process and the office of the presidency.
At the same time, they said they respect their Democratic colleagues in the House who have decided to boycott.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, said Thursday he had just told some young adults that they’re “participating in the greatest process the whole world knows – an orderly transfer of power in the superpower of the world.”
The senator said people all over the globe look at the US and dream they could have such an orderly process.
“Whether you voted for President-elect Trump, or voted against, whether you agree or not, whether you’re concerned or happy,” Senator Manchin said, “the process is, basically, an exercise in the greatest form of democracy the world has ever known.”
And yet, he said, those Democrats engaging in a boycott have strong feelings that should be respected.
“Do I agree with it? No,” Manchin said. “Do I respect it? Yes.”
It’s worth noting that 10 Democratic senators from states Trump won – including Manchin – are up for reelection in 2018, and so the lack of Senate boycotters may also be tactical. Most of the House Democratic boycotters are from safe districts.
As for the boycott’s impact on the Democrats’ ability to shape legislation in the new Congress, analysts see little downside: Democrats already have little clout, especially in the House.
“My sense is, the idea that the Democrats could find a path to cooperation with the Trump administration and Republican majorities in Congress on major items like health care was probably never going to happen,” says Professor Jillson.
Moments of grace
Obama’s posture on the boycott has also been instructive: He declined to comment, when asked about it at his final press conference on Wednesday. The president has been steadfast all along in not questioning the legitimacy of Trump’s election, and in setting a tone of cooperation with his successor and facilitating a smooth transition.
There have been other moments of grace as Inauguration Day approached. Former President George H. W. Bush, who is ill and could not come to Washington, sent a heartfelt note to Trump.
“We will be with you and the country in spirit,” Mr. Bush wrote, speaking for himself and his wife, Barbara. “I want you to know that I wish you the very best as you begin this incredible journey of leading our great country. If I can ever be of help, please let me know.”
The note is particularly poignant, as the Bush family had disavowed Trump during the campaign, after son Jeb Bush was ridiculed by Trump during the hard-fought GOP primaries. The second President Bush, George W., and his wife, Laura, will attend the inauguration.
In these times of intense political combat, every gesture of comity is meaningful – including among Republicans.
Remembering 'date night' in Congress
Still, the public is not hopeful. A Pew poll released Thursday showed 86 percent of Americans believe the country is more divided today than in the past – the highest share since Pew started asking the question in 2004.
So as the Trump era starts, is there any hope of improving the atmosphere in Washington anytime soon? Democratic pollster Mark Mellman doesn’t rule it out.
“The president could say he wants to meet with Democratic leadership right away,” says Mr. Mellman. “To my knowledge, he has not said that. If he were to have ongoing, productive consultations instead of just yelling at them, that could change things.”
Democratic consultant Peter Fenn notes it hasn’t been that long since former Sen. Mark Udall (D) of Colorado promoted the “date night” concept at the State of the Union address in 2011, in which members of Congress would invite a member from the other party to sit next to them. After Senator Udall lost reelection in 2014, the practice faded.
Mr. Fenn also recalls the time, in 1997, when newly elected Rep. John Sununu Jr. (R) of New Hampshire offered his tickets to President Clinton’s second inauguration to the man Mr. Sununu had just defeated for Congress.
“That, to me, is classy stuff,” says Fenn. “That was 20 years ago. You don’t see much of that these days.”
Staff writers Francine Kiefer and Story Hinckley contributed to this report.