Donald Trump vowed to make America “greater than ever before” as he stood framed by Washington’s Lincoln Memorial and addressed a crowd of supporters on the eve of his inauguration as the 45th president of the United States.
“It’s a movement like we’ve never seen anywhere in the world,” the former property developer and reality television star declared before fireworks lit up the sky above the National Mall and the president-elect headed across the normally sleepy city to Union Station for a black-tie dinner for his supporters and the donors he once derided.
“There’s never been a movement like this. And it’s something very, very special. And we’re going to unify our country. And our phrase, you all know it. Half of you are wearing the hat — Make America Great Again.”
Tens of thousands of Trump supporters — and throngs of women who will participate in a protest march on Saturday — poured into Washington on Thursday for the inauguration. At noon on Friday, after driving from the White House to the Capitol with President Barack Obama, Mr Trump will place his hand on his bible for his swearing in by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The moment will complete an improbable and tumultuous journey for a man who was universally dismissed as a joke by elites before he beat 16 Republican rivals and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Mr Trump was jubilant at the dinner as he joked with Republicans, including Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives who was a sharp critic during the election. Speaking in front of his wife Melania, his daughter Ivanka, and the rest of his family, the president-elect pointed out several times that he had won the White House with many more than the minimum threshold of 270 Electoral College votes. But the elation did not conceal the fact that Mr Trump enters the Oval Office as the most unpopular president in modern history.
Underscoring the polarised nature of the US electorate and the divisions that were further exposed during the ugliest race in decades, Hollywood actors and other celebrities protested on Thursday night outside the Trump hotel that recently opened a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, and outside a Trump hotel in New York.
Mr Trump has struggled to attract the A-list performers who helped usher Barack Obama into the White House in 2009. While Mr Obama was serenaded at his inauguration by the likes of Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, Mr Trump was turned down by dozens of stars, including singers such as Elton John.
His inauguration marks a new chapter in US politics created by the powerful populist current that propelled the billionaire to victory. As elites bemoaned what they viewed as abrasive and vulgar rhetoric, Mr Trump found broad appeal among white, working-class voters he dubbed “the forgotten man”.
A sign of the growing transatlantic populism was on display on Thursday when Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party who spearheaded the Brexit campaign and campaigned with Mr Trump, held a party at the Hay Adams hotel across from the White House.
Mr Trump flew from in to Washington from New York on Thursday on a military aircraft — having been forced to abandon the private jet that became known as “Trump Force One”. While he and Mike Pence, his vice-president, spent the day attending events and participating in rituals such as the laying of a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery, his cabinet nominees were facing gruelling confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill where Democrats were making their first major stand against the man they never believed would defeat Mrs Clinton. “The other side is going absolutely crazy,” Mr Trump remarked at the gala dinner.
Earlier, in sharp comments directed at Mr Trump who had vowed to “drain the swamp” in Washington, Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, accused him of forming a “swamp cabinet of bankers and billionaires”. Mr Trump defended his cabinet picks several times during the day, telling guests at a luncheon that his team had “the highest IQ of any cabinet ever”, employing the hyperbole that has been his hallmark.
While Mr Trump moved quickly to name a full cabinet, critics say his transition team has not paid enough attention to the next layers of top officials that form the backbone of any successful administration. Andy Card, the former chief of staff to George W Bush, told CNN Mr Trump needed to move quicker in that regard.
While most of the inauguration is consumed with the pomp and ceremony that will have little bearing on how Mr Trump performs as president, many people are watching to whether he will give the sort of uplifting healing speech that John F Kennedy delivered in 1961 when he called on his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”.
The seriousness of the global challenges that Mr Trump will have to tackle were evident on the eve of his inauguration as South Korean media reported that Kim Jong Un, the despotic leader of North Korea, was preparing for possible tests of two intercontinental ballistic missiles. Mr Obama warned Mr Trump in their first meeting that Pyongyang was the most dangerous challenge he would face.
But as Mr Trump celebrated his victory on Thursday night, he seemed impervious to the world he would inherit as soon as Mr Obama and his wife Michelle fly away on the Marine One helicopter. As he thanked his supporters, he stressed that he did not care whether it rained on Friday as forecast.
“If it really pours, that’s OK, because people will realise it’s my real hair . . . ight be a mess, but they’re going to see that it’s my real hair.”