It was a jarring few minutes of seeing the world through Donald Trump’s eyes and indulging his fantasies.
As the White House pool reporter on Saturday, taking a turn to shadow the US president for print media outlets, the Guardian found itself at the back of Trump’s motorcade, rolling out of the executive mansion grounds and on to Pennsylvania Avenue.
At 10am the dozen black shiny vehicles with flashing blue and red lights were greeted by a sight seldom seen in Washington, a Democratic bastion: hundreds of Trump supporters, cheering and clapping, whistling and whooping, punching the air and hailing their idol as if he had in fact won a glorious victory over Joe Biden.
What a difference from the previous Saturday when Trump returned from a round of golf to be jeered and booed by denizens of the capital who had just learned that he had been fired by the electorate. Some foreign observers compared that scene to Paris after the liberation or a Middle East autocracy that had overthrown its dictator.
But a week later, with Trump adding election defeat to the coronavirus disaster and climate crisis as truths that must be denied, supporters – among them far-right groups including the extremist Proud Boys – poured into town to endorse his baseless claims that the election was stolen from him.
Attendees at the “Million Maga March”, a number as inflated as Trump’s estimation of his inauguration crowd, swarmed the motorcade as it made its stately progress down Pennsylvania Avenue, which in its time has witnessed inaugural parades and funeral marches, suffragists and the Ku Klux Klan.
Some punched the air; others took pictures with phones. Many sported clothes patterned in red, white and blue, like the stars and stripes. Outside the Willard Hotel, a man proudly wore a t-shirt that declared “I’m deplorable” – a reference to Hillary Clinton’s disparaging remark about Trump supporters that he and they never let go. Biden’s glancing reference to “chumps” never stuck in the same way.
Among the signs being waved were “Best prez ever” and “Stop the steal”. Among the numerous flags were “Trump 2020: Keep America great”; “Trump 2020: No more bullshit”; “All aboard the Trump train!”; “Women for Trump”; and “Trump 2020: Pro-life, Pro-God, Pro-gun”.
The motorcade did a lap of Freedom Plaza, where people had climbed walls and other structures for a better view, and turned at the Ronald Reagan Building. Trump’s own hotel was not far away. There were chants of “USA! USA!”, “We want Trump! We want Trump!” and, somewhat optimistically, “Four more years! Four more years!”
It was reminiscent of Trump’s strange pre-election drive-by of supporters outside Walter Reed military hospital, when he was under treatment for Covid-19. A few enthusiasts chased the motorcade, perhaps hoping for a last glimpse of Maga magic before the lights go out.
The view from the motorcade was a reminder that, having spent four years surrounded by sycophantic cabinet members, soaking up the adulation of crowds at endless rallies and consuming constant praise from conservative media, Trump may have thought he was truly loved by the vast majority of Americans.
The election result would have come as a very rude awakening. No wonder he still can’t quite believe it.
Finally the presidential limousine swept on and arrived at Trump’s golf club in Sterling, Virginia, where both supporters and protesters were assembled. Among the latter, one held a sign.
“We voted,” it said. “You’re fired.”