The Strange Theater of Watching the Inauguration Online


Few people could witness Joe Biden and Kamala Harris get sworn in in person. Instead, we watched (and tried to make sense of it all) online.

In the end, it all came down to optics. Inauguration Day usually includes at least a few hundred thousand people watching from the National Mall in Washington, DC, all crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, trying to glimpse history IRL. But in 2021, as the United States swore in its 46th president, Joe Biden, and his vice president, Kamala Harris, attendance was sparse. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and just two weeks after insurrectionists overwhelmed the very Capitol steps where the ceremony took place, only as many people as could be kept safe could be there in person. Most Americans had to stay at home, tuned in on TV or watching online.

What they got was an eyeful. At a time when everyday objects—surgical masks, red baseball hats, even the American flag—have been grafted with new, at times outsized meanings, people know how to read the cues. Trained eyes, with the microscope of social media, know how to spot significance, how to see what’s there—and what isn’t. Donald Trump, of course, did not attend the inauguration. He boarded his final Air Force 1 ride to Florida in the morning, telling people he practically begged to come to “have a good life” as he walked off to the sounds of the Village People’s “YMCA.” He was the first president in over 150 years to not attend his successor’s swearing-in. 

(Also absent from DC on Wednesday were the throngs of protesters and rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6. There had been concern that the Trump supporters, QAnon conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and other insurrectionists who showed up two weeks ago might appear again for the inauguration. As of this writing, they hadn’t.)

What Americans saw on Wednesday was different from Inauguration Day four years ago in other ways. They saw Biden give an impassioned speech calling for unity. They saw the swearing in of the first woman—and first Black and south Asian woman—to the nation’s second-highest office. They saw Amanda Gorman, the US’ first youth poet laureate, recite a poem she finished in a rush on the night of the riots in the Capitol. They saw musical performances by Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks—a lineup that would look strange on a concert poster but felt unifying on the first day of a new presidency. They saw the @POTUS, @VP, @FLOTUS, and @WhiteHouse Twitter handles get turned over to their new owners just days after the previous president was kicked off of the platform. They saw a National Mall covered in flags instead of footprints. They saw. Embedded in tweets, posted on Instagram, duetted on TikTok—they saw.

Those were the happenings. The meaning of the inauguration—the sparkers of conversation—were in the details. And especially, the fashions. Lady Gaga, in Haus of Gaga style, showed up in an outfit straight from the Hunger Games, right down to the gold dove on her shoulder. Lopez performed in Chanel, all white—the color of the suffragettes. Garth Brooks wore jeans, the pants of working people. Senator Bernie Sanders donned a pair of gloves that made him relatable to anyone who struggles to stay warm; he almost instantly became a meme. Harris wore pearls, a nod to her sisterhood in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the country’s oldest African American Greek-lettered sorority. She also wore an outfit by two Black designersChristopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson—in purple, a color some speculate was intended to signify unity between Red and Blue America. Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton wore similar hues.

The other signifier on prominent display Wednesday? Masks. Despite advice from health officials, the Trump administration had been mask-avoidant throughout the pandemic. In the early days of Covid-19, when the former president was still claiming the virus wasn’t a big deal (this was long before he caught it himself), staffers were discouraged from wearing them. It was considered, one administration official told CNN, “not a good look.” By contrast, Biden’s first executive order after becoming president was to mandate masks on federal property.

To say that the inauguration festivities were just symbols is to oversimplify. America loves its pomp and circumstance, but it almost always reflects something deeper. The phrase “political theater” still puts politics first. That is why both wonks on Twitter and teens on TikTok attach so readily to every sartorial choice and signal. They all mean something. 

My colleague Jason Parham rightly pointed out recently that in 2020, amidst the pandemic, the global populace became a world of onlookers. iPhone screens, Zooms, televisions—these are the access points, the connective tissue. What people choose to look at, and the observations they make, also speaks volumes. The laser focus on Wednesday’s inauguration was to be expected—they always draw large audiences—but the attention paid to the symbols was significant. It was reflective of a populace craving a sign, and also wanting it to be more than that. Purple is nice, but it can’t manifest bipartisanship. Calling attention to that fact, even via tweet, is a way of both acknowledging the shift in priorities that comes with the new administration and promising to hold them accountable. The web is watching. 

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