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Searching for Time-Travelers on the Eve of the Trump Inauguration


From the National Mall to the DeploraBall, an investigation into whether anyone from the future has come back to prevent what’s about to happen.

By Laurie Penny


President-elect Donald Trump gestures to the crowd during the inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial on January 19th, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve gone down the wrong trouser-leg of time?

That’s the atmosphere in Washington, D.C., this weekend, as the world waits for a race-baiting, boorishly misogynist billionaire with a hair-trigger temper and an appetite for vengeance to become the most powerful person on Earth. The sky is as white and ominous as President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees, and the international press scampers down the tumbleweed-empty boulevards looking for someone, anyone, with a concrete idea of what the world’s going to look like next week.

For the last few months it’s taken more effort than usual to believe that the big story of the human race isn’t galloping toward its final chapters, and, as a result, I’ve been inhaling science fiction novels as though my sanity depended on it. It occurs to me that this inauguration is exactly the sort of historical event that attracts time travelers eager to change the course of the future. As an honest journalist, I refuse to treat this moment as anything other than the bizarre magic-realist pageant it is, and, anyway, there’s nothing else to report on. So I decide to see if I can spot anyone who looks a little lost in time.

In Franklin Square, where 20 people are gamely watching some protest punks thump out a funeral march on a small stage, I spot a future human. With her silver-sequinned jacket and bright-red mohawk, she’s not blending in very well, although her cover story is that she’s “in a band” and “here for the Women’s March.” I wink to let her know I won’t give her away, and ask her, quietly, what the future is like.

“Oh — oh, it’s wonderful,” she says. “The weather’s great. Florida’s not a swamp anymore, it’s about 60 degrees everywhere; it all came out OK with the climate. Everything’s been given over to organic gardens, fruits, and vegetables. It’s so beautiful.”

I’m heartened. I ask if she’s got a team with her for her desperate mission to save America. She indicates the empty scrub of lawn around us. “They’re invisible,” she explains. Of course they are.

So, for that matter, are the thousands of angry and/or awestruck Americans who were expected to cram the streets of D.C. this weekend. The city is curiously empty — amid a plague of unreason, citizens with any sense have packed their cat and coffee machine and evacuated. This excludes journalists, of whom there are plenty.

“Please ignore him, he’s feeding off this,” someone pleads. This would have been a good campaign slogan, if we could but go back in time.

Press aside, though, the place is emptier by an order of magnitude than it was eight years ago, when more than two million people packed the streets to watch Barack Obama become president. Today the streets feel haunted. A significant number of locals have clearly chosen to stay indoors, day-drinking and looking for a new job on another planet. The only D.C. natives I meet are homeless people with nowhere else to go, wrapped in blankets on every street corner and asking, a little too late, for change.

Change is certainly coming — and it’s a change nobody seems to want to believe in. Nobody, in fact, seems quite sure what to believe in. In the corner of the park a young man in a Guy Fawkes mask twitches a Trump flag in front of any passing camera and babbles a word-salad of libertarian alt-right search terms.

“Freedom of Information!” he yells, trying to make his voice carry on the wind. “No censorship! Trump is the only person who could stop crooked Hillary! Free Julian Assange!” I wonder if he even realizes that Trump won. The cameras move away, and Mr. Anonymous stops shouting for a while and just stands there, blinking behind his plastic V for Vendetta mask. We’ve come a long way from Zucotti Park.

Still, the most prominent crack in the time-space continuum turns out to be Trump’s ″Make America Great Again Welcome Celebration″ concert, an extravaganza on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that takes place in an alternate reality where not a single black person had an impact on American culture. The event is a two-hour festival of bunting, where interchangeable young men in shiny suits do dreadful things to a piano while they bash out a terrifying cover of “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful,″ a song about abusive relationships. Melania watches stony-faced behind bulletproof glass.

The television cameras wheel drunkenly around the stage, occasionally closing in on audience members mumbling along like they’ve been asked to, but never pulling out to show the crowd, which doesn’t even half-fill the National Mall. Once the Piano Guys — a band so established they didn’t even bother to think up a name for themselves — have finished doing to their piano what Trump’s transition team will shortly do to the United States constitution, a nice young man with a fade-cut comes out to lead everyone in a sing-along. He has the strained expression of someone who’s spent the past few hours fielding angry calls from half his Facebook friends, but he insists via the medium of song that “Everything’s Going to be OK.” He invites the audience to put aside their differences and join the happy chorus of Everything’s-Going-to-Be-Okayness like a life coach who’s just discovered Prosperity Theology. The audience does neither.

If you’re at all familiar with the tropes of time travel, you’ll know that nipping back to stop a disaster from taking place rarely works out the way you planned it. My main worry, though, is that someone’s already tried it—which would explain the thick sense of unreality oozing around downtown D.C. Perhaps some pissed-off Bernie-or-Bust guy was so unwilling to compromise on a disappointing Democrat (who just happened to be female) that he stepped through a time-portal of crypto-misogyny and somehow stopped Hillary Clinton from being elected. And now we’ve fallen through the looking glass to a land of pitch-adjusted country music. I don’t want this for my kids.

It’s getting dark. I stumble back through Franklin Square in search of caffeine and sensible conversation. Instead, I run across the world’s tiniest and most dejected protest concert, still more impressive than the “Celebration Welcome” concert despite having a crowd of around 40, at least half of whom are press. The speaker is a very nice-sounding, harried-looking lady in a long Puffa jacket who has prepared a really quite rousing speech about resisting the normalization of racism and the influence of Big Oil. I realize that this is Jill Stein, the former Green Party presidential candidate. Stein is an effective speaker, and I really wish anyone were here to listen. “It’s like Alice in Wonderland!” she says, struggling with microphone feedback in the near-empty park. “We’ve got people appointed to head the very departments they’re trying to destroy!”

At the back, an enormous man in a Trump hat starts screaming about the imminent Communist takeover of America. Like almost every Trump fan I encounter, he has not let victory dampen his desire to shout at women who want to make the world better, and now he’s found one, and he’s going to call her a cunt if he damn well pleases, because freedom of speech and America and stuff. A couple of attendees attempt to reason with him. He screams that they’re faggots and pussies. The press flocks to record it. “Please ignore him, he’s feeding off this,” pleads one of Stein’s helpers. This would have been a good campaign slogan, if we could but go back in time.

The largest protest of the day gets lost on the way to the DeploraBall, the first official alt-right shindig, and 300 angry protestors wearing hoods suddenly have to perform a three-point turn past ranks of journalists and police — a maneuver more impressive than it sounds. They are chanting about how they don’t want a self-confessed sexual predator in the White House, and also about how the people being ushered past the police line to party with Breitbart might be a little racist. The police duly bring out the tear gas and tasers. Small fights break out in the darkness outside the National Press Club.

Inside, a shaken-looking line-up of largely white people dressed apparently for a historical re-enactment of 1980s Wall Street wait to be politely frisked and searched. The DeploraBall is only letting “friendly” press inside, so I don’t have a ticket. The attendees make nervous comments about the personal body odor of the protesters, which I could not detect over the stink of pepper spray and fireworks. One of them pulls his phone out and reads aloud an alt-right think piece about why the left is losing the culture war, as if to calm himself.

It does have a soothing effect, but the guests still have the twitchy smiles of people who’ve arrived at a marvelous party only to wonder whether they’ve remembered to turn off the stove. Later footage from the event will show partygoers demonstrating the triumph of white culture by dancing like drunk uncles at a wedding everyone knows will end in violence, stiff-hipped and shuffling, their fingers pointing at nothing.

It’s hard to have edgy, anti-establishment fun when you’re suddenly the establishment. Even today’s winners seem a little unsure what they’re supposed to do now. The future is a dreadful, unscripted blank, and the reality of what’s about to happen appears to be sinking in. The magnitude of what could go wrong is not apparent only to the left.

Outside in the darkness, the protests are petering out. I spot a few possible time-travelers in black hoods and I ask one of them, just in case, what the future is like.

“I don’t think there’s going to be one,” she says. She tosses her cigarette away.

You can’t go back and change history. Everyone knows that’s not how it works. We’ve got one chance to get it right. In the past two months I’ve heard desperate progressives listing calming mantras about how calamity is reversible: Sexist and racist laws can be overturned, despots don’t stay in power forever except when they do, and anyway there’s always 2020. But we don’t get a do-over on climate destruction. We don’t get a second chance after a nuclear exchange. We don’t get to roll back the tape and watch the bullets sucked out of young black men gunned down by police, the jail doors opening on political prisoners; we don’t get to watch the tens of thousands of people who will be denied life-saving health care pick up their mats and walk. Large numbers of adult Americans seem to have decided collectively to wait for the children of whatever future there is to come back and fix it somehow.

But they’re not coming. We’re stuck here in the land of dad-dancing and dog-whistle racism, where the trolls have won and they’re still not satisfied, and we’re going to have to get to the future the long way round.