By Peter Eisler, Melissa Fares and Dustin Volz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Rob Cortis calls it the “Trump Unity Bridge” – a bulky, metal 45-foot structure welded to two wheels and bedecked with red, white and blue signs echoing President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign themes.
He has towed it more than 20,000 miles (32,000 km) across the country. But as he arrived in Washington on the eve of Trump’s inauguration on Friday as America’s 45th president, he struggled to navigate the city’s crowded potholed streets.
“I’ve been on dirt roads that are smoother,” said Cortis, who lives in Michigan.
Things are no smoother for Washington – a city with a history of welcoming its White House occupants – following one of the most polarizing elections in modern U.S. politics. Nowhere in the country did the Republican Trump get less support, winning just 4 percent of the vote in the District of Columbia in the Nov. 8 election.
On K Street, best known for its well-heeled lobbyists, about 200 protesters chanted: “No Trump … no fascist USA.” Nearby, Trump supporters – some draped in red, white and blue shirts, hats and jackets – declared their unwavering support for the New York businessman.
Denise Hendrickson, 51, a nurse who moved to Washington when Democratic President Barack Obama took office eight years ago, walked the streets on Thursday with a sign thanking him for his service and proclaiming: “We Already Miss U.” As she moved down the sidewalk, she invited Trump supporters to talk, promising hugs to anyone who was willing.
One man wearing Trump’s signature red “Make America Great Again” hat just smiled, took a picture and moved on. Then a middle-aged woman, also in Trump gear, approached to talk. After a few minutes, the two women hugged.
“This city is bummed out, it’s a Democratic city,” Hendrickson said.
But Hendrickson said there was a need in the current political climate to listen to people with different views. “We are open to having a conversation with any Trump supporter,” she shouted.
Traci Turner, 38, no fan of Trump, arrived from Atlanta with her husband and mother-in-law, both avid Trump supporters who got tickets for the inauguration.
“We could not be more different in politics. We’ve been married 13 years and we try to stay away from that subject,” she said. “They’re here for the inauguration. I’m just here for the sites, just for the history.”
As Turner spoke, a stranger walked by and reminded her there were other options for people visiting the city, including a march planned for Saturday when hundreds of thousands of women are expected to turn up in support of women’s rights.
Some 900,000 people, both Trump backers and opponents, are expected to flood Washington for Friday’s inauguration ceremony.
Opponents of Trump are riled by his disparaging campaign comments about women, illegal immigrants and Muslims and his pledge to build a wall on the border with Mexico. His supporters admire his experience in business and his promises to shake up Washington and put America’s interests first.
Cortis, 53, who has spent months driving the country with his trailer-mounted model bridge, said the atmosphere had been cordial despite the political differences on display across much of the city.
“Nobody has been really nasty,” he said of reactions to his bridge, which features a Trump mannequin, a Statue of Liberty figurine and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, symbolizing American manufacturing.
“You can tell some people have a negative vibe when they see it, but they kind of shake it off, because we’re playing positive, uplifting music and we have a positive message,” Cortis added.
With all the different visitors, “it’s been one of our busiest weekends yet,” said Roger, a 41-year-old cabdriver who declined to give his last name. “They’ve been supportive of Trump, protesting against Trump, and not giving a damn about the man,” he said. All I know is that business has been good. Real good.”
Not everyone in the city is planning to stay in town for the event. Preston Mitchum, 30, a gay man, plans to go away for a few days with friends. Sweating on an exercise machine at a gym on Thursday afternoon, he noted most of his friends are gay or members of racial minorities – groups that generally opposed Trump’s candidacy.
“We don’t want to deal with the fact that we may have to get into an argument with someone (supporting Trump),” he said.
On Wednesday night, Mitchum was among hundreds attending an outdoor “dance party” organised by gay and transgender activists near the home of Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
Rainbow flags, the symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride, have cropped up on scores of houses in the liberal neighbourhood where Pence, who opposes gay marriage and laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, took a short-term rental while he waits to move into the vice presidential mansion.
Participants at the dance party were well behaved, said police, who reported no incidents or arrests.
(Editing by Jason Szep and Peter Cooney)