Friday’s inauguration of Donald J. Trump as president is, as many have noted, remarkable in a historical context. Ever since George Washington turned the presidency over to John Adams more than 200 years ago, the reins of power have changed hands in this country peacefully. That’s a testimony to the resilience of the democracy (even if flawed), and Americans’ faith in the political process.
But an inauguration is not beyond protest, and the more than 50 members of Congress who have decided to skip it are entirely within their rights to do so. As Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) explained, “There is nothing ordinary about this inauguration or the man that will be sworn-in as our next President.”
In reality, about the only people whose presence is required at the oath-taking are the president-elect and someone to swear him in. The rest is pageantry, though the quadrennial inauguration has taken on a significant traditional heft.
But I don’t buy the argument that elected members of Congress who want to symbolically boycott an event at which their presence is symbolic are somehow behaving badly.
About the only people whose presence is required at the oath-taking are the president-elect and someone to swear him in.
Rep. John Lewis became the focal point of the controversy after Trump’s ahistorical tweet about the civil rights movement leader being “talk — no action or results.” Lewis had said he’s boycotting because he believes Trump’s election was not legitimate.
But Lewis and others on the left who argue that Trump was somehow not lawfully elected are wrong. Trump won by the rules we’ve established for presidential elections, and even if dirty politics and disinformation from Russia affected how people viewed the candidates, they still voted — or chose not to vote — freely.
There are persuasive arguments to be made that Republican voter-suppression efforts affected the outcome of the election, but that doesn’t de-legitimize Trump’s win. The election system has long suffered from inadequacies, and the nation has elected presidents in even more trying circumstances. Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 reelection came without voting in the secessionist states (and he lost New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky to George McClellan, whom Lincoln had removed as the Union’s top general).
Still, contemporary Republican efforts to chill turnout or deny access to the polls should be a call to action by Democrats and voting-rights advocates to fight even harder against such blatantly anti-democratic manipulations.
But where the boycotting members of Congress are right is in their protest against Trump as a person. Trump’s campaign was defined by divisiveness: He insulted Mexican Americans and African Americans, women (and, in a video recorded before his run for office, seemed to confess to committing sexual assault) and the disabled, to cite just a few.
Those who are offended by Trump’s views are not doing anything untoward by saying they will not sit as symbolic witnesses to his taking the oath (and listening to whatever Trump spews in his inaugural address).
Key here is that one can be repulsed by Trump on grounds other than partisan differences. This isn’t about policy. It’s about refusing to serve as window-dressing for the inauguration of a president who reflects the worst of American society, not the best. There’s nothing wrong with elected representatives — and musicians, for that matter — spotlighting that by staying away.
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