“Are you really going to wear a black veil to the ball?” my mother asked. “You’re going to a ball, but I’m going to a funeral,” I replied.
Here’s what it was like inside one of the most dystopian events of the decade.
Doors were to open at 5pm. As we stood waiting in the long entry line in our evening wear, I overheard an elderly woman in a wheelchair say, “Trump’s the first person to tell it like it is. He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever known.” I pulled a piece of beef jerky from my bag and listened to the women talk, wondering whether or not there would be food at this thing. Nearly an hour later, marching police officers formed a blockade to shield the line from the street as we made our procession through security. Protesters gathered on the other side of the street, chanting, “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA.”
“We can’t help it if we’re white,” remarked a woman standing next to me.
“Shame, shame, shame,” the protesters chanted.
Despite my anger about the election and inauguration — I’m not a fan — I decided to go to Trump’s inaugural ball. When I told my then editor-in-chief I had a ticket (via my mother) to attend the ball, he jumped at assigning the story. “Go and observe,” he said. “Whatever happens, I have your back.” The Women’s March of 2017 was occurring the same weekend, so it felt fitting to be in my hometown for the occasions. I was uncomfortable about the ball, but as a journalist I had to see it for myself — I had to go.
But I also went for another reason: To support my mother. On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, we sat in bed together watching the raw, unedited footage from my latest interviews: a series of formerly incarcerated women discussing their intimate stories, showing ultimately how we can grow and build together through love and resilience. We both watched with tears in our eyes, nodding our heads in unison at their words. We agreed on every point.
And yet, the very next day, we would be attending the Freedom Ball together — she, as a Trump supporter, and I, definitively and decidedly, in opposition.
“I feel like Cinderella. Are you going to let me be happy?” my mother asked.
“Yes, mother, I want you to be happy.” And I did — I do — want her to be happy.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would be frolicking with neo-Nazis for the evening. Was this how it felt in 1939 in Germany? As we descended the stairs to the ball area inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, I was taken aback by the stark concrete floors, the towering steel beams, the strange blue hue that permeated the room. The empty space only amplified by the complete absence of chairs.
We were given four drink tickets for the evening; each ticket was redeemable for a single glass of champagne or two glasses of wine, so naturally I chose the wine. My mother, beaming with excitement, and I, in my black veil, walked around the venue to look for chairs or a table. There were none in sight, and her feet were already beginning to hurt from her heels. “I can’t believe there’s a ball with no chairs or tables,” she said. “Think of the pregnant or the elderly. Something’s not right. I’m going to complain about this tomorrow.”
As I heard these words, I wondered why she wasn’t just as bothered when she thought of Trump’s divisive words, his bigotry, his racism. Why didn’t that make her complain?
Although more people were coming in, the crowd was shockingly sparse. I scanned the ball and noticed something else: At nearly 8pm, I had yet to see a single person of color. Between the child performers, cold concrete floors, and utter absence of diversity, the entire inaugural ball felt off, uncanny.
With my drink tickets gone, I purchased more and went over to the bar. “We’re in a den of wolves,” I said to the bartender. She nodded in quiet solidarity and poured wine to the very top of my plastic cup.
I had to get some air. While smoking outside, I met a young man named Toby who flew in from Texas for the inaugural events. The singular benefit of smoking is that it tends to unite people; we’re a dying breed, so we may as well stick together. In his rented tux, Toby explained that his tickets were a gift, and he was honored to be there. “I’m a feminist,” he said, smiling. My mother took to him quickly, and we decided to stick together for the evening.
New York City, at least its affluent parts, exists in its own little bubble, as a city culturally autonomous from the rest of the country. A large part of its demographic is incapable of identifying socio-politically with most of America. It’s been a hard pill to swallow; a hard shame to bear. The country itself is not only divided, but the fissures have made their impact on families as well. Families like mine.
This is how the political becomes personal. Not just in the courtrooms and the Congress floor, where women’s bodies are regulated and scrutinized and controlled, but in the living rooms and kitchen tables all over America. Trump’s rhetoric is unacceptable to me at my core — and yet, some of the closest people to me are his champions.
Politics can be divisive, but really they’re just lines drawn in the sand. These divisions appear as assured as a horse’s reins tied to a plastic chair. It’s the illusion of restraint that keeps him immobile, but the reality is, he can move at any time. Politics occasionally functions as this veiled illusion, a charade; but then again, in other ways it doesn’t. Language is real. Laws are real.
There are fundamental realities that separate us: real issues of health care, reproductive rights, and racial and religious discrimination, not to mention foreign relations, that can and will affect our day to day. When racist and misogynistic rhetoric is slowly accepted and even celebrated, the shock factor dissipates. Divisive semantics become the norm. But is it really possible to get used to it, to become numb to it? To quote Elie Wiesel, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Back in the ball, we noticed a long line in the center of the room with nearly a hundred people waiting to take a photograph next to a sign with the presidential seal on it. A sign, we all laughed. Why would they do that? “Because some people have no identity,” Toby remarked.
We marveled over the evening “entertainment” or lack thereof, the miniature food buffet that consisted of crudités with cheese cubes and brie (but no cheese knife), and bodega-buffet style pasta. We commiserated over the overpriced drinks with light pours and the absence of a single chair in the entire convention center. “It’s like going to a carnival or a circus,” he laughed. Basically, we connected, as human beings, as new friends. And somehow, despite my best efforts not to, I was enjoying myself.
Toby introduced me to his date for the evening: a young, openly gay Texan woman. (We’ll call her Michelle.) “It’s hard living in Texas when so many people tell you that you’re living in sin. Even my friends say they’ll pray for me because I’m gay,” she told me. At this, my mother took her arm, patted it, and said “That’s not right. Don’t let them make you feel ashamed for who you are.”
I had, and probably always will have, trouble reconciling all this. My mother, comforting a woman ostracized for her sexual identity, voted for a vice president who believes that being gay is a choice. How can the same woman, who speaks with passionate fury against the injustice of working women, the poor, the elderly, possibly be a fan of Donald Trump?
During the course of our conversations, Toby and Michelle admitted the unexpected: they had both voted for Hillary. “Why are you here then?” I asked Michelle. Looking me in the eyes, she simply replied, “Because it’s a historical moment.”
When the Trumps finally made their entrance and took their first dance together on the stage, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” played on the speakers. I felt a jolt and shudder run through my body when I heard the opening lines “And now the end is near.” The atmosphere of the entire evening felt like an ethereal episode of The Twilight Zone, and I couldn’t help but wonder: is this real life?
Yes. Yes, it is real life.
“What a beautiful post-apocalyptic evening,” Toby said at one point, as we walked arm and arm through the crowd.
I stood next to my mother the entire evening. Our bond goes beyond divisive lines in the sand. Family will always trump politics, or at least, that evening it did. But I still can’t shake the eery feeling lingering from that night. The song felt like a foreshadowing of the future to come: babies kept in cages at the border, racist and sexist slurs becoming the norm from the highest person in power, fear of nuclear war with Iran, refusal to accept the rapid global climate crisis, impeachment (and eventual acquittal). The last three years can be summed up as one of increasing anxiety and fear. As a nation, we feel the instability — and that translates to our personal, emotional selves, too.
Now in 2020, we’re at the start of what is, undoubtedly, the most important election year of the current century. In our modern age of anxiety, what will happen if we choose to let ‘fear’ win again? What will happen if we choose to let certain groups chisel away at Roe v Wade until women’s rights are setback nearly 50 years?
If, as Adrienne Rich said, the personal is political, then we also must become invested in the outcome of the collective, too. We may not know or even understand the full story, but our intuition is stronger than we think. One way or another, we’re all connected. So how can we usher in a new sense of hope and find unity — even in the face of fear — once again?
Parts of this story were originally published on Culture Trip.