One theory of depression is that it’s unexpressed anger, turned against the self. Perhaps that’s why I felt not only sadness as I paced up and down the National Mall on the Fourth of July, but heaviness as well. I was a lone n+1 shirt in a sea of MAGA hats, speckled with a few KAG hats—Keep America Great, Trump’s reelection slogan. I felt angry, but outnumbered. I wanted to flick all the hats off their heads. Or perhaps the heaviness was the heat and humidity of DC, the proverbial swampiness. We moved here exactly a week ago.
People keep telling me that this is not how DC usually feels. Operating under the temporary hold of the Trump Administration, its current residents promise me that it always feels different under different administrations. 2021, my new boss told me, will be an exciting time in DC, especially if a Democrat wins. Right now, it’s hard to say what’s wrong—the population changes somewhat under every new President, but it’s not just that. The city doesn’t have the same energy as under Obama, they say. I’ve been walking around trying to imagine, somewhat unsuccessfully, what’s so unsettling.
The Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall was the clearest symptom I’d found, so far. It was, in reality, a taxpayer-funded Trump rally, as $2.5 million was diverted hastily from the National Park Service to put on a rather shoddy show: Three LED screens in front of the Lincoln Memorial, facing the Washington Monument, displayed a rippling American flag for over an hour while only a couple of speakers played the same few songs over and over. The Trump supporters milling around all looked unhappy, waterlogged and wet, dogged from a day of intermittent thunderstorms. A woman in an American flag dress was saran-wrapped in a hot pink poncho. A mother crouched on the floor of the dismal public restroom while her teenage daughters blew her hair dry.
I wondered what they got from this experience: driving in, showing up, hanging around for hours with their unhappy kids and QAnon flags. It was clear they didn’t live in DC; there was too much aggression beneath their unhappy faces. Blacks should make reparations, too, one T-shirt read. Don’t give up the ship, another said—actually a shirt from the Naval Academy. Americans before illegals, read a third, under a silhouette of a machine gun. A man in a muscle tank that said USA across the front had a tattoo for the 3 Percenters, a right-wing militia group. I found myself trying to walk out of step with the snare drum.
Not that it was some kind of nationalist show. The tanks Trump brought in were out of sight for the general public, as far as I could tell. The lawn around the Reflecting Pool was too empty to feel like the people gathered there represented a country-wide sentiment. They had scared off the district’s natives. The sense I got was of a takeover—rather than people secure and calm in the exercise of their rights to assemble. Like the left occupying Zuccotti Park, the Trump supporters were exactly where they weren’t supposed to be; but, unlike Occupy, they brought a message of exclusion to one of the most visibly public spaces in America. At the same time, whatever insurgent conviction they possessed was halfhearted. Nationalism used to require a unifying idea; occupation only requires a body. A part of America occupying the White House. A part of America populating the Mall when Trump asks them to. One shirt had a definition of patriotism: defending the country, at any cost, from enemies or detractors, both foreign and domestic.
I got sick of it—Trump’s speech was delayed by rain—and left. Walking home, we were stopped for the presidential motorcade coming out of the gates of the White House. People around me forgot to cheer until after the black cars passed. I continued up 17th Street, watching a livestream of Trump’s speech on my phone. Water streaked the bulletproof glass between the camera and his face. “Hello America,” he said. “Hello.”