A world unclear about the future of American diplomatic and trade policy. A country unsure of the future of health care. A capital uneasy about the next chief executive. A Congress unsettled about its new role. A series of unforeseeable obstacles – like the weekend quarrel over whether the new president had legitimacy – ahead.
Amid all of these uncertainties, only one thing is clear as this vital week unfolds: By shortly after noon Friday, Donald Trump will be the president of the United States.
And so this week – the moment, both yearned for and dreaded of the transfer of power finally having arrived – the world turns its eyes to the unprecedented prospect that a nuclear-armed superpower with nearly unrestrained military and financial power will be led by an unpredictable leader who gained high office by defying the odds, the professionals, his own party leadership and, at each turn, conventional expectations.
Then, in recent days, an important figure in the civil-rights movement questioned Mr. Trump's legitimacy in the wake of Russian hacking allegations.
Not since the United States attained world leadership exactly a century ago, with American entry into the First World War in 1917, have so many questions, with so many implications involving so many unknown factors, loomed.
Because even before Mr. Trump takes the ancient oath of office prescribed in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, a host of questions will dominate Washington in the week ahead. As items accumulate in the new president's inbox, the next several days will be dominated by continued confirmation hearings, continued controversy, perhaps continued tweeting; the president-elect attacked one of the true American icons, the civil-rights leader and House of Representatives member John Lewis as "all talk, talk, talk – no action" over the weekend, in the runup to Monday's Martin Luther King holiday. Mr. Lewis, a national symbol of courage and commitment, had signalled he would not attend the inauguration and said, "I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president."
At the same time, President Barack Obama, interviewed on the CBS 60 Minutes program, urged Americans not to minimize the effectiveness of their next leader. "Don't underestimate the guy," Mr. Obama said.
Over all, however, this has been an interregnum of incertitude, all the way from questions about how Mr. Trump will comport himself as president to questions about how many of the Rockettes, the fabled Manhattan precision dance troupe in residence at Radio City, would agree to perform at Trump inauguration events. Over the weekend, Broadway star Jennifer Holliday said she wouldn't participate in the Trump festivities after an outcry from her gay and lesbian fans.
Along with all the stagecraft and security – both also without precedent – the great unknowns stand out in a preinaugural week that ordinarily is a time-worn, predictable set piece, a celebration of American unity and a salute to the American system.
That is the principal difference this time. The integrity of the system, usually the focus of stilted speeches and florid newspaper analyses, has been undermined repeatedly in the past year, first by Mr. Trump's own pre-election declarations that the election process was "rigged" – a notion he dismissed once he prevailed in the Electoral College, though he lost the popular vote – and then by revelations of Russian efforts to interfere in the November election.
And while American presidential elections are always hard-fought, even the rawest tensions ordinarily dissipate by mid-January. This year, they have not. There was far more reconciliation after the 2000 election, which George W. Bush won in a 36-day overtime marked by repeated recounts and court fights, than there has been since Mr. Trump won the election on election day itself.
Mr. Trump's opponents were stunned by that result Nov. 8 and still are not reconciled to a Trump presidency; many speak of the prospect with disbelief, even horror, in a shrillness that the supporters of Al Gore, who lost that contested 2000 election even as he won the popular vote, never approached. Trump supporters, by contrast, "are filled with optimism about what they see as an approaching tidal wave of change," according to an analysis Democratic pollster Peter Hart distributed late last week after conducting a focus group of Trump supporters for the Annenberg Centre for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
But the fissures are not confined to the chasm between voters who supported the president-elect and those who sided with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Instead, divisions linger in multiple dimensions: tensions between Republicans and Democrats; between members of the House and members of the Senate; between Republican rebels and Republican congressional leaders; between the new president and the Republican establishment – and even between Mr. Trump and his presidential appointees.
These latter divisions have come into stark relief in the confirmation hearings and almost certainly will multiply as the week drags on. They, too, have no precedent, not even in the Abraham Lincoln administration of 1861, which was known as the "team of rivals."
Already, the nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency has broken with Mr. Trump over relations with Russia ("I will continue to pursue foreign intelligence with vigour no matter where the facts lead," Mike Pompeo said).
The nominee to head the State Department has broken with Mr. Trump on NATO (a commitment Rex Tillerson called "inviolable"); the nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security has broken with Mr. Trump on the notion that a wall at the Mexican border would stanch illegal immigration ("a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job," John Kelly said); and the nominee to be attorney-general has broken with the president-elect on the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique for suspected terrorists ("absolutely not," Jeff Sessions said).
The centrepiece of this week's festivities will be the new president's Inaugural Address, to be delivered at the West Front of the Capitol just after he takes the oath of office. All of the unpredictabilities that surround Mr. Trump are compounded as the capital contemplates what the new president, who prefers unscripted remarks to formal texts and is famously undisciplined in front of a microphone, will say at this most sombre and sober occasion.
This is a special moment, met by his predecessors with uncommon and often unforgettable eloquence. The themes almost always reflect the times, but the sub-theme, even for Mr. Lincoln, who took office as a civil war was unfolding, almost always is national unity and reconciliation; the 16th president spoke in that fraught time of "the better angels of our nature," a phrase that has echoed throughout American history and has entered the American subconscious.
"We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural, in 1801, even though it was not strictly true, or even remotely true.
In our own age, when untruths are the currency of politics, such a declaration, whether or not true, might be welcome Friday, the expression of hope over experience, the summoning of better angels to temper the tensions of the times.