When President Donald Trump placed his hand on the bible to take the oath of office Jan. 20, Jonathan S. Roberts ’17 and Emily M. Hall ’18 both stood within a few thousand yards of the president. Both had traveled to Washington, D.C. for the inauguration—but they came for very different reasons.
Hall, a conservative and a member of the Harvard Republican Club, wrote in an email that she was in D.C. to “witness history.” Roberts came to protest it.
Hall, who said she did not support Trump during his campaign, watched the swearing-in of the 45th president from the U.S. Capitol grounds, having obtained a ticket from her state’s senator, Democrat Chris Murphy of Conn. Being “immersed in a historic moment” first-hand was like nothing she had ever experienced, Hall wrote.
Roberts was not watching. Instead, he stood outside the U.S. Navy Memorial Plaza with hundreds of other protesters, waiting to join a large anti-Trump demonstration held within. As he lent his voice to chants of “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!”, he said he felt the “tangible” energy of those around him.
Across the country Friday, Harvard students and professors watched Trump assume the presidency with a wide array of emotions. Some hailed his inauguration as the start of a new political era, while many others took to the streets the next day in repudiation of Trump’s fledgling administration.
Hall and Roberts were not the only Harvard students who journeyed to D.C. for the inauguration. Several members of the Republican Club also attended the ceremony, many using tickets provided by the Institute of Politics, club president Kent Haeffner ’18 said. The Republican Club vowed to withhold support from Trump in August.
Roberts said he helped organize transport for roughly 30 Harvard students, mostly undergraduates, who joined the anti-Trump protests held Jan. 20.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of people, many of whom this was their first time doing some type of protest action, and they were really grateful that they went, so I’m glad that we were able to get a group down,” Roberts said of the trip.
He said his interactions with Trump supporters at the event, many of them wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats, were mostly peaceful, despite media reports of violence. The experience helped to “humanize what Trump support looks like,” he said.
Roberts returned to Harvard that night, joining millions of people the next day in the “Boston Women’s March for America,” a local component of a nationwide demonstration meant to advocate women’s rights in the wake of Trump’s inauguration.
Eliza R. Ennis ’19 also took part in the protests Jan. 21, leading a contingent of roughly 15 undergraduates to the D.C. component of the march on a trip she planned weeks in advance. She said the experience made her feel she was a part of history.
“Being able to march through Washington, D.C., where we had all of the district’s historical buildings around us, shed great light on the fact that we were marching in kind of a line of historical protests and that we were standing up for what we believed in,” she said.
Back on campus, some students watched the ceremonies at the IOP’s watch party, held Jan. 20 in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum. Most in the audience were silent, and some wiped away tears as Trump repeated the oath of office. Prior to the election, just six percent of surveyed Harvard undergraduates planned to vote for Trump, according to The Crimson’s election survey.
When the newly minted president finished speaking, someone in the forum started clapping, but stopped quickly when no one joined in. The roughly 200 people gathered in the IOP dispersed soon after the event.
One attendee, Seth Towns ’20, said it “hurt” to watch Obama leave the White House. Towns said the 44th president and Harvard Law graduate had been a personal hero from a young age.
“It’s hard seeing someone like Donald Trump come in as president,” he said. “The president is inevitably going to be somebody who kids all around America look up to, and so with that you have to carry the responsibility of being an exceptional citizen.”
Towns added: “I just don’t see that in Donald Trump. That’s my honest opinion."
Some at the IOP expressed particular disappointment with Trump’s inaugural speech. Taras Holovko ’20, who also attended the watch party, said he thought Trump’s speech failed to unite the country after what he termed “a really hateful and intense campaign season.”
Alexander J. Cullen ’18, a Trump supporter and member of the Harvard Republican Club who watched the inauguration with his family at home, took the opposite view. He said he was pleased with the speech, calling it as “short” and “strong.”
“He didn’t sugarcoat anything, he spoke very openly and forthrightly against the establishment,” Cullen said of Trump. “It was pretty much an echo of what he said throughout his campaign.”
Reflecting on the weekend, Roberts said one particular moment stood out most to him. He remembered watching as one protester approached a Trump supporter in D.C. and struck up a conversation.
Minutes later, the Trump supporter smiled, said, “Well, I think we’re in different places,” and walked pointedly away, Roberts recounted.
“That sums up where we are as a nation right now,” he said. “It was really just an encounter of two worlds.”