I had just gotten out of the shower when my mom told me that we were leaving in a half hour to go to the white house. It was the summer of 2018 and I had spontaneously decided to visit my mom while she was on a business trip to Washington D.C during a particularly brutal heat wave. The White House was hosting a dinner for a handful of National Park service employees, and my mother was invited because she works as the deputy superintendent of the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Here I was thinking I was just coming to the capital to wander through the Smithsonians all day, and now I was having dinner with one of the most controversial figures in the present day.
Finally settling on a long maroon dress, I walked with my mother to the White House in 95-degree heat and soaking wet hair. Everyone on line was dressed like royalty and exuded sophistication, making me feel like an outsider. Almost all the faces shared the same expression of politeness, uncertainty, and undeniable excitement. The whole atmosphere was very strange because many people there clearly did not love Donald Trump, yet everyone was in line to attend a dinner at his house. The process of getting into the White House was very lengthy. We went through three background checks, got sniffed out by bomb-detecting dogs, and were constantly on surveillance by secret service. It took every ounce of self-restrain that I had not to reach out and scratch the fluffy German Shepherds.
When we finally got into the White House, I roamed from room to room admiring the paintings of presidents-past. There was one green room that was the color of a blade of grass that particularly stuck out to me. The light from the setting sun cast a soft green glow on the faces of the room’s occupants, making them look Grinch-like. Each room was full of the rich, brainy, or beautiful, who were sitting down on historical grand couches and sipping on fine wines as if they owned the place. My mother, who works in artifact conservation, was cringing the whole time while people laid their plates down on hundred-year-old side tables and sipped red wine while leaning over to look at paintings. One thing that particularly struck me about this crowd of people were the amount of scantily-clad beautiful women who were clinging to the arms of older looking politicians. Their high heels filled the large halls with a chorus of clack clack clacks. I couldn’t help but draw the parallels between the beautiful Melania and the older, richer Donald Trump.
The rooms were ladened with paintings of the past presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and John Adams. I wondered, would Trump’s portrait hang from the wall someday along side these great American leaders? That thought stayed in my head as I wandered into the room containing collections of plates from each president’s time in office. Trump’s plates lay right next to Obama’s. Trump’s plates were a decadent golden color with intricate designs, while Obama’s were more delicate with hints of dark teal. Even between these inanimate plates lay an undeniable tension that filled the room filled with China from years past.
When the adults had been properly intoxicated and it was finally time for the president to make his appearance, we were all ushered into a large room with a podium. The whole crowd squeezed together so that there was no air in between us, and everyone started to nervously chat with each other. People were taking photographs and smiling as the political state of the country was momentarily forgotten.
The door finally opened a young woman emerged, holding a binder and placing it on the podium. Everyone’s faces dropped, and they returned to conversation. This false alarm happened about three more times and people were starting to get agitated in the warm body heat that we were all exchanging with each other. Finally, an official sounding voice announced over the speaker,
“Ladies and Gentleman, the President of the United States.”
The room did not erupt with applause. I would describe it as a polite clapping of hands, not including the two hooting men in “Make America Great Again” hats that both very closely resembled Donald Trump with their flushed faces, squinty eyes, and white hair. I was surprised by this generally polite applause by the audience, considering I heard more excitement from the audience of a small band at a concert. When President Trump took his place behind the podium followed by First Lady Melania Trump, I could feel how intensely everyone was examining the two. It was as if they were aliens to us commoners. For the past year all I have heard on the news was Trump did this, Trump did that, and not the man behind all the conflict was standing just feet away from me. The whole thing was very surreal, and I think everyone in the room was in a state of shock. It was as if everyone was trying to run everything they have heard about the president through their minds and match them to the man in front of them. He looked and sounded like the man from the screen, but I still did not register him as the Donald Trump. As he began to speak, the room became deadly silent, and the audience hung to every word. Melania stood behind him, with a tight smile plastered onto her face the whole time like I had seen on the screen. I actually thought his speech was good, and so did the audience who applauded at the end.
After the event my mother and I spoke to a man that shook the president and Melania’s hands, and I asked him how their handshakes were. He was perplexed by my question.
“I honestly don’t remember Trump’s, but I believe Melania had a firm handshake,” the man said, considering the question. His answer comforted me as I remembered my father’s words,
“The handshake is the most important part of every greeting. It is character defining.”
It comforted me to know that although there is currently great political unrest in the country, Melania gave the impression of having strength. Thinking of Melania as just a trophy wife and a decoration as many people do, does a disservice to women across the globe, so imaging her giving a strong and certain handshake made me see her as more of a woman in power.
When I stepped out of the White House, I stepped directly into a protest. There are always protests in front of the White House, but it was not even on my radar when I was attending the dinner. I walked into the protest to explore because I had never seen one up close before, and what I saw was the exact opposite from what I saw inside the White House. People were dressed in bright colored shirts, red faced and yelling with confetti cannons. They were holding signs that read “Impeach Trump!” The group had a leader who was yelling things that were echoed in a chorus of yells from the protestors.
“Enough is enough! We must act!” The leader was yelling. I stood, mesmerized by the display of such an emotionally charged rebellion. A few people walked past me on the street and I turned to them to find out what exactly was going on. One of them replied,
“No idea, just a bunch of fucking liberals protesting about something again,” the man said, turning to his friends and laughing.
That night I returned to my hotel with a pit in my stomach. I had experienced two totally different environments, both filled with varying levels of anger and unrest, and none filled with love. The whole evening had been filled with the “us versus them” mentality on both sides; We are a country divided. The visit to the White House was a surreal and exciting one at that, but I left wondering what it would feel like to attend this dinner with a president who I and both the country greatly admired. I suppose there is some level of unrest in every presidency, but the level of unrest I witnessed seemed to cross the line of what is deemed normal.