Why Boycotting The Inauguration Matters

by JR Thorpe
Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On the eve of the inauguration, some lawmakers are making headlines for their decision boycott the inauguration ceremony entirely as an act of protest. Not for them, standing in the cold being showered with the glorious stylings of 3 Doors Down while a man the shade of orange last seen on a Florida juice carton becomes president. They're staying home or doing other things. They want no part of it. And the decision is prompting a lot of discussion, not only from the notoriously thin-skinned President-elect Donald Trump but from other commentators who wonder if it's better to just sit through the event in silence and do the real fights on the floor of the House and the Senate.

On the contrary, boycotting matters. While it may be in the nation's interest (or at least in the service of its morbid curiosity) to turn on the television and watch the next signs of the apocalypse, complete with Rockettes, the inauguration boycott of concerned politicians represents both a long history of inauguration-related dissent and a message about the state of Trump's power.

While the rest of us might join the Women's March on Washington (which will be attended by various politicians who've given up their seats on the stands out of outrage) or looking through the newly-released Resistance Manual, the boycotting politicos are doing important symbolic work of their own. Here's why.

Low Popularity Lays The Foundations For Impeachment

Here's an abstract reason for politicians of both sides who have deep Trumpservations (since reservations about Trump are so widespread, it needs a word, don't you think?) to boycott, and for boycotting to be popular for Americans in general: it is an intense sign of the direction of public opinion. And public opinion is what, traditionally speaking, leads to impeachment, along with the specifics of general wrongdoing. (Of course, if he is impeached, then we'll be stuck with Vice President Mike Pence.)

Elected members of the American political establishment who choose not to attend the inauguration should do so not only out of their own disgust, but because of the wishes of their electorate. The absent faces, even if their seats are filled by others, will serve as a powerful reminder that this is a severely divided country, that there are serious questions over Trump's qualification for office, and that there's something Trump should fear more than impending ethics investigations or chaos in nominee hearings: approval polling.

As Politico explored all the way back in April 2016 (before he'd even clinched the nomination), impeachment always hinges on both pragmatics and public feeling. As Trump is the lowest-polled incoming President in the history of modern polling, a reflection of brutal division among Republicans and disbelief from Democrats, boycotting isn't an empty gesture. It's a sign that Trump is vulnerable, even if the likelihood of his actual impeachment in a strongly Republican House and Senate is pretty low without concrete proof of "Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” (We'll leave it up to other people whether the whole asking-Russia-to-hack-Hillary-Clinton thing was qualified treason or not.)

It's A Historical Method Of Denoting Dissent

Boycotts of inaugurations by protesting officials are not new. They're part of a strong tradition of expressing dissent, whether in the new president themselves or in the manner in which a campaign was run. Public political spectacle has only really been happening in the U.S. for a relatively short period of time (presidents used to campaign by staying home and letting people argue for them), but in that time the inauguration has managed to be a hotspot for displays of political ire.

The BBC has pointed out that a whopping 80 politicians refused an invite to Nixon's inauguration in 1973. (Some annoyed representatives did attend George W. Bush's inauguration wearing pins that said "This ribbon represents the fact that the will of the people was not honored in the 2000 presidential election.") And the Washington Post noted that some outgoing presidents have chosen their attendance based on their approval of their successor, or lack thereof. The people who are pulling out may be doing so in unprecedented numbers, but they're not starting a new political tradition; they're setting out an old one. Considering that other political traditions, like not letting other countries meddle in American politics, appear to be under threat, this seems like rather a good idea.

Having Respect For The Office Does Not Have To Mean Normalization

Among the statements given to the media by the boycotting politicians (all of whom, it must be noted, are from the House Of Representatives and are Democrats), one sentiment was reiterated several times: The people who were refusing to attend were doing so not because they didn't respect the office of President, but because they refused to go through the charade that this is in fact business as usual in American politics.

The word being used most tellingly is "normalizing." Rep. Barbara Lee noted that "Donald Trump has proven that his administration will normalize the most extreme fringes of the Republican Party," while Rep. Don Beyer declared that "I will not be part of normalizing or legitimizing a man whose election may well have depended on the malicious foreign interference of Russia's leaders, a person who lies profusely and without apology, who mimics the disabilities of others, who insults anyone who dares disagree with him, who would demonize an entire spiritual tradition, and who has demonstrated again and again a profound disrespect for women."

Their meaning is clear: to take part in Trump's inauguration would be, in some way, to pretend that Trump is a normal president possessing normal political qualifications, that this is an election that was won without foreign interference, and that the basis of the entire winning campaign was not racism, bigotry, or blatant incompetence.

So don't look at the boycotting politicos as people talking big about staying home rather than being sore losers in public. Their refusal to take part in the pomp and ceremony of a decidedly abnormal event is a refusal to sugarcoat; it's an acknowledgement that this is real, it's happening, and it must be challenged rather than dressed up as OK.