The Arkansas State Society has a grand tradition of throwing elegant inaugural affairs. In 1953, when President Eisenhower was sworn in, it hosted a ball, a reception and a square dance. The 1993 celebration for President Clinton featured a performance by first brother Roger Clinton and his blues band, Politics. In 2009, 1,000 guests turned out for the society’s party to celebrate the first inauguration of President Obama, who lost the state by nearly 20 points.
Veteran Washington party-hoppers know that the “official” balls — where the new president and his wife make an appearance — are generally just a small part of the inauguration party scene. Every four years, the city comes alive with a flurry of unofficial celebrations, ranging from chummy state-society affairs to exclusive corporate shindigs to cash-bar mixers open to anyone.
But although it’s hard to predict the size of the crowds that will greet President-elect Donald Trump at his public events this week, it seems increasingly clear that the after-hours revelry will be markedly muted. Not only is Trump hosting only three official balls — far fewer than his predecessors at their first inaugurals — but the spillover festivities appear smaller and fewer.
Several of the city’s great halls are going unrented. Far fewer big-name celebrities are headed to town. And while many events are reportedly sold out, others are still looking to fill their rooms.
Meanwhile, many of the parties that are carrying on are sending messages that are somewhat confusing.
There’s a PETA-sponsored vegan feast marking the arrival of our steak-loving president-elect (who, in fairness, did ban mule-diving at his Atlantic City hotels, the invitation notes). There’s the Latino Coalition’s morose invitation, which ponders “whether this is the best of times or worst of times for Hispanics in America. . . . The answer to that question has at times been mixed.”
Then there’s “Dardanella: A Great Gatsby Inaugural Ball” hosted by a retro party-planning company that, for $450, is offering guests the chance to travel back in time to an era when Trump did not yet exist and the stock market was poised to collapse.
“We stress that this is a celebration of the United States presidency as an institution,” said organizer Paul Erwin, who said ticket sales plunged after the election and left him briefly worried they might have to cancel. Now, they are close to selling out, but “it has been a fine line and it definitely has been a bit of a straddling act.”
Trump’s high-profile struggle to attract celebrities to perform at his inauguration has trickled down to the unofficial balls. The Recording Industry Association of America got superstar Rihanna to play its ball in 2009. For Trump, it’s trotting out Big & Rich. Even a Bruce Springsteen cover band that played the Garden State Presidential Inaugural Gala for both Obama inaugurations has dropped out.
The overall low wattage of the weekend may reflect the president-elect’s drooping approval ratings; it may not help that he drew a mere 4 percent of the vote in the District of Columbia — historically low even in a strongly Democrat-dominated city.
Locals aren’t exactly eager to raise a glass to toast our new president. But people don’t even want to drink to forget him, either. Party planners Brightest Young Things hosted all-day inauguration extravaganzas in 2009 and 2013. But even though they’d have the prime audience for a massive anti-Trump blowout, they decided to sit this year out.
“I felt the energy is going to be kind of weird,” said BYT organizer Svetlana Legetic. “I don’t want to be like, ‘Come hide with us and get wasted and deny what’s happening.’ That seems like the wrong attitude. I’m officially a grown-up.”
Legetic agreed to help promote Busboys & Poets’ star-studded Peace Ball, because it was “billed as a safe space.” But the idea of dressing up in gowns and tuxes to complain about Trump held no appeal to her. “I would hope that people realize that it is in bad taste,” she said.
Bars aren’t expecting a wild night, either. Only 108 of them registered for extended hours with D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, down from 160 in 2013, and 280 in 2009, the first year that extended hours were permitted for inauguration weekend.
Nightclub owner Ian Hilton procured late-night hours for the bars and restaurants he owns with his brother, Eric — including Marvin and the Gibson — but he’s keeping his expectations low.
“Obviously in , U Street blew up,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
He hosted parties for the last two inaugurations but said that he’s had zero requests from groups looking to hold events in any of his bars.
“We certainly haven’t had anyone coming into town who’s looking to have private space, and we haven’t had any opposition people, groups of women, saying they wanted to meet up and organize,” Hilton said. So, “we’re treating it like business as usual.”
The inauguration is usually an excellent boost for Washington restaurants during the otherwise slow month of January. But not necessarily this year. The restaurant 701 is generally a hot spot, given its location on the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, typically booked a month before Inauguration Day. But owner Ashok Bajaj said that evening reservations are still rolling in, and he’s less certain that this inauguration will be as profitable for him as years past.
“It’s very hard to tell right now what’s going to happen, because all of these things started very late,” Bajaj said. “Hopefully it will be as good.”
His private rooms are fully booked, including an Inauguration Day reception hosted by Republican Govs. Rick Scott of Florida and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. And yet: “Generally there is an excitement about the new administration,” Bajaj said. “Everything feels different this time around.”
For many hosts, the Trump inauguration will be like any other. The Embassy of Canada has hosted a parade viewing party ever since 1993, the first inauguration after it moved to its current Pennsylvania Avenue perch. A spokesman said the invitation-only event will be comparable to 2013’s in prestige and size, with over 1,000 invited guests.
But will they show up? Not only do Washingtonians seem uneager to celebrate the Trump administration, many want to pretend it’s not even happening. Legetic noted a striking lack of bars and restaurants opening early for viewing parties this year. Instead, people are getting out of town. People are sheltering in place. People are sitting shiva.
“I’m getting a lot of emails about cocktail parties or small get-togethers with friends,” Legetic said. “People are really kind of turning to people they know and love.”
There’s one part of the city — a particular corridor of wealth and clubby conservatism — that might seem a little livelier, though. “I feel like Georgetown might be real busy,” said Hilton.
He’s right. Franco Nuschese, owner of Cafe Milano, said his reservations for private parties were full “immediately after the election, as expected.”
“In a very humble way, we knew it,” he said. “That is usually the case.”