The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inauguration Day was a milestone, but it’s not the destination

Kamala D. Harris is sworn in as vice president. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

For the past year a lot of Americans have been obsessed, whether they knew it or not, with the idea of time travel.

Quarantined in their houses or masked up in grocery stores, the ultimate fantasy wasn’t about going somewhere else but somewhen else: closing their eyes and opening them again to learn that a vaccine had magically been approved. Climbing into a pod and setting the open-date for whenever daily life didn’t require a keg of Purell. Would it always be Blursday? Or would we, like Bill Murray, one day open our eyes to an alarm clock that flipped to something new?

The presidential election was a natural time stamp, and so the inauguration seemed like a natural destination. Just teleport me to Jan. 20, I heard more than one person joke. Cryogenically freeze me until it’s over. In Washington, the scaffolding for the inauguration platform gradually took shape, and honestly, it looked as if it could be something from NASA: a launchpad for a rocket to anywhen.

The underpinning of the time-travel fantasy was the idea that America could sort itself out if only we checked out for a little while. As if the vast and entrenched problems of pandemic illness, unemployment, death, racism, toxic nostalgia and total information warfare amounted to little more than a stress fracture that would heal in time as long as we had patience. As if it’s a bumpy flight, and your big challenge is to pop an Ambien and see whether you can fall asleep soundly enough to wake up at your destination.

It became obvious that a large portion of the country — 74 million, as Donald Trump keeps reminding us — wanted to travel not forward but back: way, way, way back. “Make America Great Again” was always its own time machine. The phrase raised questions. Great for whom, exactly, and when? But never mind that: they wanted us to go back. To 2014, maybe, before same-sex marriage was legalized. To 1972, before women could end unwanted pregnancies, or to a pre-Voting Rights Act 1964.

Or to 1814. Two weeks ago, rioters invaded the Capitol, the first time such a thing had happened since British forces tried to burn it down. They smashed windows, toppled artifacts, rifled through senators’ private desks in search of “evidence” that would help them literally turn back the clock, negating the results of a free and fair election.

The rest of us could only watch it and think: Just get me to the inauguration. Put me in an H.G. Wells novel. Find me a wrinkle in time.

The time travel fantasy is pure escapism, which is to say it’s both optimistic and wholly irresponsible. It’s a way of saying, I wish things were better, but also of saying, let me know when we get there, okay? A way of being a perpetual passenger, insisting you’re not equipped to drive.

“These kids will be a better generation than we are,” is a time machine. “I’m waiting for the perfect candidate,” is a time machine. Longing for things to be changed without working to change them is a time machine.

So, the inauguration.

Here we are! We made it to Jan. 20.

Was it everything you imagined? Yes. In a lot of ways. It was hard not to breathe a sigh of relief when President Trump absconded off to Mar-a-Lago, when President Biden took the podium and said he would fight against white supremacy, poverty, illness and inequality — when he said, “My whole soul is in this.”

Then again, for now there is still the pandemic. There is still racial injustice. There is still a desperately broken health-care system ineffectively serving desperate people.

Perhaps you made it to Inauguration Day only to realize it wasn’t the destination, just a connecting gate, and that the destination always ends up being a connecting gate.

Perhaps you realized that arriving at a better future doesn’t happen all at once, and that you never just wake up to it.

“We’ve come so far,” Biden said. “But we still have far to go.”

Meanwhile, there is also this: Kamala Harris became the first female and the first Black and Asian American vice president. She was sworn in on a Bible belonging to Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice. Administering her oath of office was Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to serve on the Court: “I, Kamala Devi Harris, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter.”

She stepped onto the scaffolding in front of the recently besieged U.S. Capitol and she communicated that, no, we would not be traveling back to 1814 or to anywhen else. No, because of the votes of 81 million Americans, we would be moving only forward.

Here is what I think about time travel, and the longing for it: The only real time machines are our own bodies, carrying through from the past to the future. The only real way to travel through time is to move through it, day by day.

And some days, that looks like the storming of the Capitol, and it seems as though we’ve all been catapulted back 200 years. And some days, that looks like Kamala Harris, a daughter of immigrants, standing in front of that same Capitol with her hand on a historic Bible, and it feels like we’ve arrived someplace new that will soon be old.

If you’re going to time travel, know that the machine moves only in one direction — the future — and that the machine is you, and that it never really gets there, but you can always move forward.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.

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