I spent inauguration day in Trump Tower and all I got was crushing despair
Red hats and naff cocktails in the (former) home of the world's most powerful man
by Andrew Lowry
This past Friday, Donald Trump was sworn-in as the President of the United States – and luckily, freelance writer and former ShortList staffer Andrew Lowry was on hand to throw himself right into the arsehole of the storm, the Trump Tower in New York City, New York...
“Trump Tower is rocking today!” someone shouted.
I look over my shoulder, and everyone’s dancing with joy under their Make America Great Again hats. They start a chant of “Don! Ald! Trump! Don! Ald! Trump!” and the rest of the bar joins in as their beloved magnate completes the swearing-in ceremony on TVs that usually show NFL games. Glasses are raised, there’s a cheer louder than war, and Trump is President. I knew having a drink in the building that until the day before Emperor Trump actually lived in would be odd, but this was something else.
I happened to be in New York the week of the inauguration, and it was pretty clear where I had to go. It’s surprisingly easy to walk into Trump Tower: there were a few rudimentary checkpoints where my bag was searched, and then I sauntered in. In theory, you have to justify to a cop what you’re doing there, but Tiffany’s is right next door on Fifth Avenue so they’re not going to stop you. I didn’t have the heart to tell a policeman I wanted to have a gawp at the people toasting the inauguration of a possible sex offender and KKK monolith in a bar plastered with his name, so I lied and told him I was buying a suit in Gucci.
Inside, you see the famous golden elevator doors, complete with a small press pen and whatever psychogeographical stain was left by Nigel Farage’s visit. The lobby - where Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015 - is pretty much his entire campaign in physical form. Filled with gold surfaces, marble floors, and doormen dressed like Miss Daisy was their last employer, and designed as a multi-level space for you to feel very small in, it has none of the understatement you might associate with serious money. It does what Trump did every day of his campaign: project an image of success, glitz, power, and wealth to rubes who don’t share New Yorkers’ famed cynicism. For all the controversy of the campaign and the fears of a new slide into global anarchy it raised, this rube had to confess that - even in the most shallow, base form possible - he was a little impressed too.
I walked into the bar past a glass case selling a range of Trump-branded products - from the ubiquitous red hats to copies of The Art of the Deal to cufflinks to Donald-branded body butter - and was greeted by the main hostess who wearing a striking red dress she’d clearly specially chosen for the day. She was insanely friendly, and I couldn’t help but fall instantly and eternally in love. I asked about her boss (or her former boss; Eric Trump is apparently now in charge of this wing of the business), and apparently he is “very nice, very kind… a great boss.” I watched carefully for blinked expressions of morse code despair, but she seemed to mean it - she was hardly going to be wearing a Bernie 2016 hoodie, was she?
Inside, the bar contained every conceivable strain of American barring a Clinton voter - a rare achievement in New York - and there were more ill-fitting slacks than at a Floridian timeshare convention. There were a few burly dudes with cheap suits and earpieces who were most likely bouncers, but I enjoyed pretending they were secret service guys who’d got lucky on the work rota; college Republican androids with hair like Trump’s sons and charm to match; flyover state types visibly thrilled to be in the Big City; and ostentatiously square men grinning as if the only media figure they respected was about to become president - like that would happen!
There were also a handful of bag ladies, which I didn’t expect, and I admired their chutzpah. But most disappointingly, it was busy, but only approaching capacity - perhaps because it was the most mono-racial environment I’d been in in America outside Texas. The atmosphere was of a group of fans gathered to watch a match they knew they would win, full of celebration and anticipated triumph.
Keen to get into the spirit, I checked out the menu, which offered cocktails like ‘The Billionaire’s Martini,’ ‘The Boardroom,’ and ‘“You’re Fired.’” I settled on the Martini, seeing it as a healthy compromise between integration and sanity. I sat down and got chatting, keen to make sense of a phenomenon so many Europeans find baffling. Was Trump’s win a con-job by a tax-shredding elite, or rural revenge on the smug city, complacent in its Beyoncé-GIF liberalism? The fumbling fist of those left behind by the tech revolution, or an ugly American reaction against the people supposedly taking their jobs, and the women who dare control their own bodies? Would he be an American Berlusconi, Mussolini or Caligula?
The answer was all of these and none, but if I was looking for a cross-section of responses to all this, I couldn’t believe my luck with who I was sitting between. On my right were a Trump-voting couple called Randy and Suzanne from Raleigh, North Carolina, and on my left was an elderly New Yorker who’d arrived leaning on a walker, run a women’s film distribution company for thirty years and had brought a miniature Russian flag to protest the speech. If that wasn’t ideal enough, my new pal to my left had gotten married in… Raleigh, North Carolina.
Reeling from serendipity, I asked questions. Film lady (she asked not to include her name) was a veteran of the movement against the Vietnam War whose mantra was, “I’m a white middle-class radical... I can’t believe we still have to protest this after all these years.” Randy, on the other hand, was more mellow, I imagine as his side was in the ascendant. “Can you believe we’re effectively in the Northern White House?” was his go-to phrase; he and his wife were practically jumping up and down in their chairs with glee, especially after I bought them a round of drinks. “Trump has been doing deals all his life,” Suzanne says. “Isn’t that what politicians do?” She was also convinced Melania Trump would restore “elegance” to the White House after eight years of Michelle Obama, a code I had no trouble breaking but didn’t see the profit in probing.
Far from the bellowing, rage-fuelled Trumpistas we see facing down protestors on the news, these two, by virtue of where they were from, would likely have voted Republican if they’d run a bin bag stuffed with Bible pages. Enjoying a peaceful middle-age and bottomlessly amiable, I found it hard to picture them as the enablers of fascism they had been characterised as by some - surely nobody who could so sincerely feign interest in my explanations of the Six Nations could be that bad. That said, once my mate started waving her flag, Randy did tell me he hoped the Secret Service’s sights were aligned so they didn’t hit me as well, but I think it was a joke.
The air got louder as more champagne flowed around the bar and the ceremony started. This crowning-of-a-mad-king vibe was what I was here for, and I got it in spades: every appearance of Barack Obama on-screen - on Fox News, of course - was greeted with howls of forced laughter. “It ends NOW!” somebody shouted. There was also laughter at a shot of a man in a turban at the ceremony, a reaction that was one of the few genuinely uncomfortable moments of the day.
Trump’s first appearance is met with the kind of cheering reserved for somebody who’d just destroyed an earth-bound asteroid. I say to a guy standing next to me that Trump looks oddly nervous, and he yells, “He is a GREAT man,” at me three times. All the prayers receive loud Amens from almost everyone there, and the more ceremonial vows prompt a few people to stand to attention.
Then, the climactic moment comes, and the guy from the Supreme Court declares Donald J. Trump the 45th President of the United States. The plutocrat was now a potentate. The place went even wilder than it had at his first appearance, with waves of the stars and stripes and chants of his name like it was a sporting victory - which, given how American politics presents itself, it kind of was.
A man who could have led American in a dystopian view of 2017 from the Eighties was now president, after being initially given odds of 150/1. The lunatics had seized control of a very, very big asylum, and the very clever, very driven, very sinister men who work under their celebrity salesman boss could now get to work. The celebrations were such that it was hard to get a sense of Trump’s actual address, but I did pick up his key phrase “American carnage,” which was also the name of a joint Slayer/Megadeth tour a few years ago.
People couldn’t understand why I found that funny.
Trump’s line about us all bleeding the same “whether we are black, white or brown” prompted someone to yell “YEAH” on “white,” but I couldn’t work out if it was coincidence or not. The speech went on, in its darkness and lack of uplift, there was the ritualised recitation of “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” from the entire room in synch with Trump, and then that was that. As Obama got into his helicopter to leave Washington for California, the whole room cheered and bade him some pretty unfriendly goodbyes.
Overwhelmed by both the weight of history and the realities of addiction, I popped outside for a cigarette.
Across Fifth Avenue there was a protest of around a hundred people. It was right outside a branch of Prada, and as I stood there three limousines drove past, making it perhaps the most New York scene possible outside of Scorsese shooting De Niro pistol-whipping the Statue of Liberty. In truth, I had expected more - this was the day before some of the biggest demonstrations in the history of the US, but I wasn’t to know. The feeling of the good guys losing, or even surrendering, was a depressing one, and hard to shake.
Next, I tried to buy one of those red Make America Great Hats, but wasn’t allowed to because I wasn’t a US citizen. I was initially horrified, then thrilled at having a vivid final image for this piece, then just disappointed when it was explained to me that buying an official one was technically a campaign donation, and therefore forbidden to non-Americans. The staff very pleasantly offered me some similar hats I could buy, but they weren’t the real thing. I mulled over seeing if I could expense buying some Success by Trump aftershave, but bottled it.
Not knowing what to do, I went back into the bar.
At this point Fox News was dwelling on footage of protesters being tear gassed in DC, adding an apocalyptic, or at least besieged, tone. Surprisingly, my question of “So is America great again yet?” drew only smiles, screwing up my plan to deliberately draw someone into an argument. One woman from Trinidad, however, was having a spirited barney with two people I think had come in from the protest. “We conservatives are too nice,” she told me. “We need to just tell them to fuck off.”
Another pair I presumed were father and son - both in tailored suits, with a pinstripe Plainview vibe - were hostile in a more smug, Wall-Street-reptile way. “Those liberals outside fucked it up,” says the dad. “They had their chance. Now it’s time for someone who knows what he’s doing.” Bizarrely, there was a Lithuanian guy who looked so much like Eric Trump I did a double take when I saw him. Asked about how Trump’s Russian policy puts the sovereignty of the Baltic republics at risk, he said he didn’t care, and spouted boilerplate Trump campaign rhetoric.
So too did his tablemate, in her sixties and seemingly the only African-American there. I asked her about her outlier status in the Trump coalition, and she told me how she was born in Atlanta, much like Martin Luther King, and that all politicians had let down his legacy. I wanted to get more on this, but the vampires in expensive suits told me to leave her alone - I didn’t know it, but another journalist had been kicked out of a Trump bar in Chicago, the lucky bastard.
Undaunted, I ordered another cocktail and got talking to a few people at the other end of the bar. One, Josh, was a big guy with the nu-metal beard inexplicably favoured by some veterans of the American military. I forgot to ask if he was, but he was from either Minnesota or Missouri - my fat fingers meant his home state was predictive-typed into my phone as ‘Middleton Minecraft.’ Whether he’d served or not, Trump’s foreign policy was what impressed him: “For eight years, Obama refused to say ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ once. Trump did it in his first speech. That’s why he got my vote.” I point out that Obama was happy to send flying robots around the world to kill thousands of people on the mere suspicion of being a terrorist, but he didn’t care. “His whole way of doing things was just naive, like he was this professor suddenly put in charge of the best military in the world.”
Most unexpectedly, I next got talking to a Scottish Trump supporter and his Serbian wife, both long-term residents in the US. She was wearing a massive badge that read ‘Trump, Brexit: The Year of the People,’ and he was a translator at a major NGO and had just popped in there on his lunch break. He’d had to hide his Trump t-shirt under a shirt at work, and was clearly happy to be relaxing amongst his people.
I gently raised Scotland’s left-wing heritage and the irony of two immigrants supporting the most anti-immigrant president ever, but he wasn’t fussed. Self-identifying as a libertarian (and identified by me as someone who didn’t let his wife talk much), he was the closest I could find to the fabled ‘alt-right,’ spouting talking points I’d heard all over YouTube about “snowflakes,” “social justice warriors” and “virtue signalling.” He wasn’t frothing at the mouth, he was friendly and clearly relished a debate, but I got the feeling I was only ever two seconds away from the word “Illuminati.” Besides, he had to get back to work, so after somehow forgetting to buy me one back for the drink I’d gotten him, he re-disguised his torso and headed back to the office.
At this point I was running out of people to talk to. Some of the people I’d met were decent folk whose only sin was feeling culturally jettisoned by the metropolitan elite while some actively revelled in their “deplorable” status. Some were classic small-state Republicans eager for Trump to get out his razor, some wanted the city on the hill to pull up its drawbridge, some were authoritarians of various stripes, and some were just nuts.
In short, it was exactly what I imagine any gathering of the modern Republican Party to be like.
For all the – justified - liberal panic over his victory Trump is just the most successful modern incarnation of some very old trends in American society. There’s been the “America First” - words Trump loves - rhetoric of the Lindbergh camp in the Thirties, the segregationist George Wallace running in the Sixties on a platform of race hate and dismissal of the two main parties as two sides of the same corrupt coin, and the anti-global trade stances of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. Roy Cohn, Trump’s early mentor, cut his teeth in Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts; a later Trump sensei, Roger Stone, was a dirty tricks specialist under Nixon. This has been building for a long, long time: all it needed was a celebrity salesman.
And that’s what Trump is: the whole building he lived in, from the crass merch to the golden lobby to the naff cocktail names, was just part of his pitch. Throw in a straight-talking manner presumably honed on building sites in his years as a property developer, the mega-fame afforded to him on The Apprentice, and ideas that have long gestated in the dark side of American politics, and you have a potent brew sure to stain your teeth.
Be in no doubt: it’s celebrity that did it. That’s what going to Trump’s bar on his big day felt like: a personal appearance, only without the person. There was the same feeling you always get at these events - a motley crew of people whose only unifying factor wasn’t politics, or heritage, or ideas on infrastructure spending. Their only solidarity wasn’t through ideology; they were Trump fans. They were there not to celebrate with one another, but to rejoice and pay tribute at one of the nodal points of Trumpism. However distant he is and will forever be from their lives, he was all they had in common, and they wanted to touch in some abstract way his big orange self. If this wasn’t a cult of personality, I don’t know what is - but isn’t that just another term for celebrity?
With the party dwindling, I was getting bored, and I found myself with an hour to kill before my flight back to London.
I went to the 9/11 memorial, and didn’t see a single red hat.