Governor Charlie Baker will attend the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump, citing the need to celebrate the peaceful transition of power.
Congressman Katherine Clark will not, citing the new president’s misogyny and racism and the desire not to normalize his repulsive and dangerous behavior.
Both have come under intense criticism. But they are both right.
A presidential inauguration is one of our democracy’s few affairs of state. When combined with a transfer of power from one head of government to another, the event takes on heightened significance.
Governor Baker’s attendance is important because he is the Commonwealth’s head of state. The Governor is styled “His Excellency” because of the office, not the officeholder. Only a Governor represents an entire state and thus he travels to the inauguration as the walking embodiment of the Bay State.
It’s not only expected that the Commonwealth have a role in such events, the presence of our Governor is a reminder that even in dark times of political turbulence, being united around the Constitution is important.
We are not so far removed from those times when disunion threatened the fabric of the nation. Between Abraham Lincoln’s election and inauguration, seven states had seceded from the Union. War was imminent. Having our states represented at the inauguration is a reminder of what can happen when they stay away.
And yet as much as an inauguration represents more than the person taking the oath, that person is the key factor. Presidents are both head of state and head of government.
We defer to a Head of State differently than a political leader. Consider the different rules of decorum for meeting a King or Queen (heads of state) versus meeting a Prime Minister (a political head of government).
Others nations separate and differentiate these roles. We bring them together, co mingling the ceremonial with the practical. This adds to the complicating nature of what is happening on Friday.
Congresswoman Clark has chosen a different path, one now taken by almost 20 Democratic members of Congress, including Georgia’s John Lewis who, wrongly, called the President-elect illegitimate and provoked noxious tweeting from our notoriously thin skinned President-elect.
Clark is not wrong: Donald Trump ran a campaign of hate and fear. His sophomoric mockery of others was beneath the dignity of the great people he wanted to lead. The election changed nothing. Rather than using it as a moment to try and gain the respect of a free people, he has only doubled down on his incivility.
Consider his response to Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, who was, nonetheless wildly off the mark in his recent comments. The Constitution confers legitimacy. The new president won the Electoral College. Once those votes were certified, he became the legitimate president of the United States.
In response, Trump trivialized Lewis and then resorted to his tired, and racist, characterization of cities. Of course, the man who began his career by denying housing to black people who then became the cheerleader of the racist, birther lie could hardly be expected to act differently.
Clark, Lewis, and their colleagues are right to note that the President-elect has crossed too many lines of decency.
Inauguration Day 2017 is perhaps the most conflicted since Richard Nixon’s in 1969.
By representing our Commonwealth at the ultimate affair of state, Baker brings the hope that the unity of the Constitution and our traditions can keep the nation together during a difficult period in its history. He’s right to go.
By staying away, Clark and her colleagues continue to raise the flag of caution because the man who becomes President on Friday poses a unique threat to our Constitution and to the world. Pomp and circumstance cannot sweep that reality away. She’s right to boycott. The inauguration is one of our most significant moments of state. But we are not crowning a King, we are giving an oath to a man. You can both attend in the good faith we place in our constitutional norms and not attend given the repulsive nature of the man at its center. We who watch from afar might do well to temper our criticism of whatever choice other leaders make.