Remember the breathless excitement that accompanied Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009; what it felt like, after eight years of George W Bush, to sit in front of a screen and see a black man (and such a charismatic black man) take the Oath of Office; how even those allergic to displays of patriotism were moved to tears by the sight of Aretha Franklin, in her big-bowed hat, singing My Country, ’Tis Of Thee. Oh, even then, we were aware it was an illusion; that Obama could not possibly live up to expectations which refused to be managed. But the sense of history; the flash of hope: that was something to be alive for, was it not?
This week, there will be another inauguration. Once more, history will be made as the old guard yields to the new, and the first US president with no prior experience of holding military or political office enters the White House. But there will be none of the easy charm, the dignity, the gravitas. Donald Trump is no orator. At best his speaking style is blustering Apprentice candidate, at worst deranged Roman emperor, and his reputation is damaged beyond repair.
Trump’s behaviour has already impacted on the Garden State Gala Ball; so many acts have refused to perform, the bill appears to have been reduced to an America’s Got Talent runner-up, a Bruce Springsteen tribute act and a handful of Rockettes willing to overlook his “grab them by the pussy” comments. Less pizzazz, more pis aller. The only expectation Trump’s election has raised is of four years watching the news through the cracks in our fingers. And while some tears may indeed be shed on Friday, they are unlikely to be induced by joy.
As if the contrast between the two men – so obvious throughout the campaign – was not painful enough, the juxtaposition, last week, of Obama’s farewell speech and Trump’s press conference twisted the knife once more. Back in Chicago, where it all began, Obama was the embodiment of grace. He was self-deprecating – “You can tell I’m a lame duck, because nobody is following instructions” – and pitch-perfectly generous, telling Michelle: “You made the White House a place that belonged to everyone”, and his supporters: “Because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place.”
Though he couldn’t resist the occasional sideswipe, he stopped the crowd from booing Trump, reminding them of the importance of “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next”. And, even as he took credit for the achievements of his presidency – the end of the recession, the introduction of Obamacare – he accepted its limitations. The vision of a post-racial society raised by his victory “was never realistic”, he said.
For those less enamoured of Obama, there were things to take issue with. The slightly preachy tone, reminiscent of Tony Blair, which is sometimes held up as evidence of his metropolitan condescension, still moseyed its way in from time to time. And, in the midst of all that self-congratulation, it seems reasonable to ask, Prizzi’s Honour-style: “If Obama was so f***ing great, how come Trump was so f***ing elected?” Surely, his failure to understand or address the public’s distrust of Washington – to tackle the corruption and lack of transparency at the heart of the establishment – must be partly to blame for the rise of the alt-right.
But these reservations fade to naught in the face of Trump’s press conference – a terrifying peek through the curtains to the moral nihilism beyond. There, forced to address unsubstantiated claims about “degrading sex acts” and his relationship with Russia, Trump displayed all the rhetorical, strategic and interpersonal skills of a thwarted toddler. It was almost as if he’d made a list of his flaws – megalomania, incoherence, defensiveness – and the qualities he lacks – self-awareness, self-control, self-discipline and a grasp of irony – and set out to demonstrate them one by one.
So, Trump dismissed the Russian sex dossier as “fake news”, without acknowledging the part fake news played in his own election and compared the intelligence services to Nazis for supposedly leaking it. He responded to the allegations of sex acts, said to have taken place in a Moscow Hotel, not with a straightforward denial, but with a weird rant about how he was far too wary of foreign cameras to get caught. Then he threw in an inappropriate joke about being a “germaphobe” for good measure. He refused to take questions from CNN, lashing out at BuzzFeed the way he lashes out at all his critics: with a playground taunt. Just as the multi-garlanded Meryl Streep was “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood”, and Sir Christopher Steele, the MI6 operative who compiled the dossier, “a failed spy”, so the media company was “a pile of garbage”. His reaction to the possibility that Russia might have tried to swing the election in his favour was to present the support of Vladimir Putin as a gift to the nation.
At the same time, there were growing suspicions his own press conference might be as fake as the smiles the White House staff must be rehearsing in advance of his arrival. Some news reports suggested the papers he produced as evidence of the preparations he had made to pass control of his businesses to his sons, were blank, while others said a large number of his supporters had been invited into the briefing room.
Not everyone thought Trump’s first press conference in six months was a disaster. Writer Timothy Stanley appeared to be serious when he praised him for being upfront about his legislative priorities – building the wall and repealing and replacing Obamacare – and called his style “ugly, but compelling”.
However, there was little to reassure those still holding out for some small sign of integrity, insight or empathy. When Obama took office hopes ran so high, they could only be dashed. This time round, they could not be lower. Forewarned, we have already adopted the brace position, but who knows if that will be enough to protect us from the turbulence ahead?