The Lincoln Memorial in Washington has seen presidents come and presidents go. It has seen America go to the brink only to snatch redemption from the jaws of disaster. On Saturday it saw Joe Biden elected and Donald Trump fired.
There was a mixture of jubilation and relief among visitors here as the sun set on the reflecting pool and glorious autumn foliage, and car horns honked all around. There are always people posing for photos in front of the huge marble statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln; this time some of them clutched “Biden-Harris” signs.
For Jelani Walls, a 45-year-old African American from Chicago, it was the right place to be. “This is a great day for democracy,” he said. “Democracy has prevailed. It just seemed fitting to be here because Lincoln saved the union. By being elected I think Joe Biden saved the union too.”
Walls, a social studies teacher, added: “Trump wanted to be more of a fascist leader like Mussolini or Adolf Hitler. He was trying to bring fascism to America. Lincoln held the country together; Trump was trying to fragment the country.”
Trump has long fetishised Lincoln while displaying little obvious grasp of history. He often said: “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican,” which was widely interpreted as an admission of Trump’s own ignorance. During this year’s election campaign, Trump repeated over and over that he had done more for Black people than anyone with the “possible exception” of the 16th president, who won the civil war and helped end slavery.
The incumbent has also used the Lincoln Memorial as a political prop. He held a celebration there with patriotic music, pageantry and fireworks on the eve of his inauguration in 2017. He staged another jingoistic jamboree there for independence day in 2018 with a display of military hardware that invited comparisons with autocratic regimes. (This year he spent 4 July at Mount Rushmore, where another likeness of Lincoln gazes down.)
And earlier this year Trump even staged a Fox News interview at the memorial, which later in the the summer became the subject of a dystopian photo of National Guard members standing on the steps during protests against police brutality and the death of George Floyd.
It no coincidence that when a group of disenchanted Republican career consultants banded together to plot Trump’s downfall, they named it the Lincoln Project.
Since it opened in 1922, countless thousands of people have come to the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall as if to a secular shrine. On Saturday evening some stopped inside the chamber to read the carved inscription of the second inaugural address which, reflecting on the civil war, makes a clarion call “to bind up the nation’s wounds”.
Outside, a group young men carrying a stereo near the memorial shouted, “Fuck Donald Trump!” A group of young men shouted back in solidarity, “Fuck Donald Trump!”
Meanwhile Carroll Prejean, 55, from Richmond, Virginina, was shining a phone light on words inscribed on the memorial that mark the sport where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” address at the March on Washington in 1963.
Prejean, who works in sales and retail, said: “Lincoln worked towards freedom and civil rights and Trump hasn’t aided that cause.”
He walked up the steps with a friend, John B Todd, who, on beholding Lincoln’s illuminated statue, his left hand clenched in a fist, his right hand more open, gasped: “That is stunning.”
Todd, about to turn 63 and from Midland, Texas, said: “I’m very relieved civility has returned. He is a sociopathic narcissist and did a poor job of hiding his racism. There is no comparison between him and Lincoln.”
The Lincoln Memorial reflects the light and dark of America, Todd added. “It shows the complexity of the US. There’s the history of slavery, that we’re still struggling with, and the heights that we can rise to. It’s a country where you see democracy and that’s what Lincoln showed us.”
Jacqueline Kenny, 24, her sister Jamie, 22, and 22-year-old Natalie Wilson were standing on the steps with signs that said, “Trump is over” on the front and “Fear less, love more” on the back. Jamie said: “I feel less ashamed to be an American today.”
Natalie added: “I’m from DC and seeing all those people with ‘Maga’ [Make America great again] hats over four years was hard. But now it’s such a good atmosphere.”
Also visiting was Jodie Nova, 43, a Congolese-born US citizen who works for a nonprofit organisation and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It’s nice for the soul of America,” she said. “Every American felt the impact of this president for the last four years. You feel like a weight on your shoulder has been lifted. It was time. Thank God!”