At the end, it all boiled down to optics. Grand opening day typically includes at least a few hundred thousand people watching from the National Mall in Washington, DC, all piled up shoulder to shoulder trying to catch a glimpse of the IRL story. But in 2021, when the United States swore it for its 46th president, Joe Biden, and his vice president, Kamala Harris, attendance was sparse. In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and just two weeks later insurgents submerged on the very steps of the Capitol where the ceremony took place, only as many people as could be kept safe could be present in person. Most Americans had to stay home, watch TV or watch online.
What they got was eye-catching. At a time when everyday objects – surgical masks, red baseball hats, even the American flag – have taken on new and sometimes disproportionate meanings, people can read signals. Trained eyes, with the microscope of social media, know how to spot meaning, how to see what is there and what is not. Donald Trump, of course, did not attend the inauguration. He boarded in the morning for his last Air Force 1 flight to Florida, telling people he begged to come “Have a good life” as he left to the sounds of the Village People’s “YMCA”. He was the first president in over 150 years not to attend the swearing-in of his successor.
(Also absent from DC on Wednesday were the crowds of protesters and rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6. There were concerns that Trump supporters, QAnon conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and other insurgents who showed up two weeks ago are not reappearing for the grand opening. As of this writing, they had not.)
What Americans saw on Wednesday was different from the inauguration day four years ago in other ways. They saw Biden deliver a passionate speech calling for unity. They witnessed the swearing-in of the first woman – and first black and South Asian woman – to the country’s second highest office. They saw Amanda Gorman, America’s first Young Poet Laureate, recite a poem she hastily completed on the night of the Capitol riots. They saw musical performances by Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks – programming that would look odd on the concert poster, but felt unifying on day one of a new presidency. They saw the @POTUS, @VP, @FLOTUS and @WhiteHouse Twitter handles get return to their new owners just days after the former president launched of the platform. They saw a National Mall covered in flags instead of footprints. They saw. Embedded in tweets, posted on Instagram, duet on TikTok – they saw.
These are the events. The meaning of the inauguration – the sparks of the conversation – were in the details. And above all, the fashions. Lady Gaga, in Haus of Gaga style, appeared in an outfit straight Hunger games, down to the golden dove on his shoulder. Lopez starred in Chanel, all white – the color of suffragettes. Garth Brooks wore jeans, the pants of the workers. Senator Bernie Sanders donned a pair of gloves that made it accessible to anyone who struggles to stay warm; he almost instantly became a meme. Harris wore pearls, a nod to his fraternity in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest African-American sorority in the country in Greek letters. She also wore a two black designer outfit–Christopher john rogers and Sergio hudson—In purple, a color a little speculate was intended to signify the unity between red and blue America. Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton wore similar hues.