A Korean at Inauguration
The first tense moment of the day came a lot earlier than I expected.
The doors to the Blue Line train opened at L’Enfant Plaza. The portly men standing on the platform took in the posters reading “Putin’s Baby” pointing out at them from the train. The young women waiting to step off the train stared at the red caps. Then, looking ahead, both groups of people walked by each other in complete silence.
I witnessed similar near-brushes between Donald Trump supporters and protesters later in the morning, but the only one which came close to an exchange between these groups happened after Trump’s speech, as inauguration attendees walking back to the Federal Center station caught sight of two women clad in pink, carrying signs that read, “IMMIGRANTS WELCOME” and “SAY NO TO ISLAMOPHOBIA”.
“Foreign agents! Foreign agents!” one passing man yelled repeatedly over his shoulder. The women-in-pink merely shook their heads and smiled at the departing crowd.
The man wasn’t wrong about the presence of a foreign element in the crowd. He was just looking at the wrong person.
One in the Crowd
Trump’s inauguration was not the ceremony I originally planned to attend. Perhaps somewhat foolishly, I bought my non-refundable ticket from Seoul to Washington, D.C., in mid-October, three weeks before Election Day. I had attended the last great spectacle of American presidential pageantry, the 2013 re-inauguration of Barack Obama, and I expected to see the country inaugurate its first woman president come January. Once it became clear, however, that Hillary Clinton would not be the 45th President of the United States, the only reason left for attending was to see and feel for myself how the tenor of this country, the first of my many adopted homes, had changed since the last inauguration.
As I emerged from the escalators of the Federal Center metro station, I realised that my greatest concern in the crowd was not keeping an eye on my sizable camera, but in making sure I did not stand out too much. At Obama’s re-inauguration, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with members of the diverse coalition who turned out in droves to re-elect him. Today, I made out a total of three non-white faces in the stream of people decked out in “Make America Great Again” and “Trump 2016” paraphernalia headed toward the Capitol grounds.
Despite what Roy Blunt, chairman of the inauguration planning committee in Congress, said in his opening remarks today, inauguration is not a simple quadrennial celebration of democracy for people gathered at the Mall. This day in 2013, I sensed the relief of Obama’s supporters: relief that he had received another chance to press forward with his progressive agenda, and re-affirmation that America’s first black president was not going to be a one-term fluke after all. Today, the people around me were there to witness their vindication - and at times, to voice a desire for vengeance that I did not witness at the last ceremony. On my way into the ticketed section, I passed by a few vendors still selling “Hillary for Prison 2016” t-shirts and “Warning! This Vehicle Does Not Stop for Anti-Trump Protesters” bumper stickers. Most of the attendees basked in the company of family and like-minded folks, but there were also people egging for a fight, squinting around for liberal rabble rousers. When Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer began speaking about Americans’ common loyalty “whatever our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, whether we are immigrant or native-born,” boos and chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” erupted from a crowd evidently displeased about being lectured on diversity after the victory of Donald Trump.
The Politics We Deserve
They say people are more unified by a common dislike than interest; unsurprisingly, the greatest outburst from the people, aside from the raucous appearance of Trump himself, was directed at Hillary Clinton, emerging from the west façade alongside her husband. The occasional appearance of her face on the Jumbotrons elicited the most jeers; the men standing behind me expressed disappointment that she did not appear often and long enough for them to get the old chant of “Lock Her Up!” going in earnest. By this, I was reminded of the recent mass demonstrations in South Korea, where protesters have called in earnest for the resignation and arrest of the now-impeached president Park Geun-Hye. The charges against Park are certainly serious - she is accused of being an accomplice in the extortion of funds from Korean conglomerates, or chaebeol, by her longtime confidante Choi Soon-Sil. Yet I also find it troubling that in both the United States and South Korea, citizens are willing to assume the worst in both women when the evidence of wrongdoing, while numerous and varied, is marred by incomplete investigation.
With President Park frozen out of power and Hillary Clinton removed from the path to the presidency, the protesters in Seoul and the attendees of Trump’s inauguration probably feel that they have reclaimed ownership of their countries from their business and political élites. Trump gave voice to this sentiment by claiming that the inauguration was “not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but… transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” Not only does he claim a mandate here, he also conflates a meagre electoral victory with the popular will. I, however, feel that rather than losing power, people in both countries delegated and surrendered it repeatedly to the wrong representatives. After all, the trends of wage growth stagnation and unbalanced wealth accumulation are over forty years old in the United States; the concentration of economic clout into the hands of the chabeol is a similarly old phenomenon in South Korea. The failure of policymakers to rectify such trends is not the responsibility of one candidate every four or five years. Presidents and former First Ladies only have so much power to single-handedly misdirect their democracies.
This is not to say that when elected politicians make unethical or ruinous decisions, they are not accountable to answer for those choices. Most national constitutions address the possibility of criminal wrongdoing by elected officials, but entrust the process of investigating such offences to other legislators and politicians, whom voters also elect after long periods of habitual disinterest. In the absence of conspicuous wrongdoing, these representatives can continue in office without serious scrutiny from the very people who need to watch their actions in power - the voters themselves. When voters collectively and repeatedly return ruinous decision-makers to office, eventually they must call into doubt their own competence to stand at the ballot box after a prolonged absence from political engagement. Voters must, in short, examine their own complacency in allowing political tribunes to do all the work for them.
Events such as impeachment votes and elections are necessary checks to executive authority, but they also distract from the question of who is responsible for the absence of political remedies to economic problems in both the United States and South Korea. Scandals and elections are useful junctions for introspection amongst voters. These grand events also serve as an excuse for citizens to throw the wrench to the next master screw-up, and thus unburden themselves of the constant oversight that is necessary to keep elected representatives alert and honest. Yet with the perpetual preference for personality over policy that was on display amongst attendees today, a systemic overhaul of the ills of American democracy and its South Korean protegé seems no more imminent today than it was before the autumn of 2016.