A few days ago I was in the capital, taking a last look at the White House under the present occupant, and trying to imagine Washington after all its sacred real estate is under new management.
The air was crisp and clean. The monuments were aglow and festive. The inscriptions behind this great experiment of a nation were as stirring as ever. But there was no escaping the incoming blizzards of a man who will govern by Twitter tyranny and the blunt force of an impulsive executive office.
One day, the president-elect took a shot at the First Amendment, urging deportation and prison for anyone whose freedom of expression includes burning a flag. Another day, he was played by a 93-year-old lobbyist, Bob Dole, working as an agent for a foreign government, Taiwan. And as I left, the soon-to-be most powerful person in the world was bullying a union man who dared to challenge him.
It struck me, as a citizen-tourist from one Washington visiting the other, that it will take all the sentiments embodied in marble to contain the dangerous excesses of Donald Trump. Most everything inscribed in stone will be tested.
I took a walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, from the Capitol steps to the White House — a preview of the parade route Trump will follow on Inauguration Day. It was worrying for what was to come, and encouraging for what had come before.
Not long after he swears to uphold the Constitution, Trump will dine in the People’s House. This may be the first test of Trump’s fragile ego, for he was not the people’s choice, having lost the popular vote by more than 2.6 million.
Congress will have its hands full with Trump’s Cabinet nominees. What’s the plan of an education secretary who doesn’t believe in public education? Why put a man who wants to take away public health care in charge of public health? And please expose the crackpot theorizing behind a climate-change skeptic picked to run the Environmental Protection Agency.
At street level, Trump will pass the National Archives Building, sheltering the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights — documents that the incoming president appears never to have read. Though he does not care for history, he should pause on the parade route to read the words on a pedestal outside that building, from Shakespeare: “What is past is prologue.”
He’ll walk right by the Newseum, which celebrates those who used the First Amendment as a license to fly. Journalists, Trump says, are “the lowest form of life.” Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt — all professional scribes — would have to be counted among the scum.
The ugly edifice of the J. Edgar Hoover Building is next, named for an authoritarian with many grudges. Trump owes a big part of his election to the man who oversees the FBI, James Comey. But woe to any president who tries to enlist G-men and women in private vendettas.
Across the street is the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building. Kennedy used his power to integrate public places in the South, and he walked with Latino migrants in California. Trump’s choice for attorney general, Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, is an advocate of heavy police surveillance and a hard-liner on immigration. His views on race were once sufficiently odious for a Senate committee to deny him a federal judgeship.
Now Trump will stroll by Trump International Hotel, in the handsome Old Post Office building. It’s already become one of many ways for the Trump presidency to enrich the Trump family, as visiting diplomats suck up by bucking up for rooms with high-thread-count sheets. The Trump organization leases the hotel from the General Services Administration, the head of which will be appointed by a transition team dominated by the Trump organization. Follow the money.
This conflict cycle repeats up and down the avenue. The Trump organization owes millions of dollars to Deutsche Bank, which is negotiating a settlement with the Justice Department. Treasury — whose building is near the end of the parade route — oversees the Internal Revenue Service, which is supposedly auditing Trump’s tax returns.
Finally, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Trump will enter his latest home, a palace with 132 rooms, 35 baths. On Inauguration Day, the president will likely huddle with a national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who could not pass a security test to be a mall cop. It’ll be the job of a man who promotes fake news to sift fact from rumor in a precarious world.
Trump would do well to consider the statues he will have passed over the last mile or so — Americans who fell in wars against slavery and wars against fascism, Americans who fought for equal opportunity and fair play. If he remembers the dead, he’s less likely to do great harm to the living.