In the days leading up to election day, fear and uncertainty ripple through America. Tess McClure, a US-based New Zealand journalist, reports on the mood from Pennsylvania and New York.
When I walk through my neighbourhood in Harlem, the leaves are off the trees. They congeal, yellowing in the gutter.
I am walking to the dentist, who has plans to fit me with a plastic mouthguard. At some point she informs me I have started grinding my teeth at night, wearing down the enamel. I am not alone, it seems. The New York Times reports “an epidemic of cracked teeth”. This year, America has turned into a nation of clenched jaws, aching cheeks and eroding incisors.
On the walk up Broadway, I pass an early voting line, wrapping around the block at 125th Street.
The bitterly contested 2020 US election takes place as the pandemic continues to barrel through America. More than 230,000 Americans are already dead, 400,000 projected dead by Christmas. Winter is approaching. Tens of millions are out of work. Far-right and white supremacist extremism continues to fester and erupt. Protests for racial justice have occupied cities, unresolved, for months. President Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.
People in New Zealand message me: “How is the mood there? How is it feeling? How’s the election?” And the primary feeling, I think, is probably best expressed by the thought of those cracking teeth – anxiety, dread, nervous tension stored up in the molars.
I ask an American friend: “How are you feeling?”
She says: “It’s like constantly that feeling you have when you didn’t sleep and drank too much coffee instead. Overly energised and slightly manic but also like maybe you’re about to die.”
Two days before the election, I join another reporter driving down highway I-78, watching the thickets of front-yard Trump signs grow denser. It seems wrong to try and describe the mood during an election while surrounded entirely by Democrat voters. New York has been solidly blue since the 1980s, but Trump country is never far away. Two hours’ drive from my apartment, Trump is holding his last string of rallies in Pennsylvania.
We arrive at the outskirts of Reading Airfield and park on the side of the road. Trump is due to speak here at 2.30pm. We are late – crowds were advised to gather around noon – and it is not immediately clear where the rally actually is. There are no signposts or directions. A man at the gate gestures vaguely uphill: that way.
“It’s uh, kind of a hike,” he says.
People along the route give vague, sometimes contradictory directions: it’s either 2.5 miles away, or a five-mile walk. Gates are definitely open, or definitely closed since Air Force One landed. About 15 minutes up the hill, a large cluster of supporters have given up and have opted to watch from afar. Standing here on the rise, you can’t actually see or hear the president, or the plane, or even the crowd, but you can see the edges of enormous American flags fluttering from a set of cranes, and occasionally hear the echo of a distant, roaring audience.
A man wearing wrap-around sunglasses stands with a loudspeaker under his arm, and a sign that reads: “Stop sinning, obey Jesus or HELLFIRE”.
“Was hoping to get within shouting distance of the president,” he says. “But my wife is happy here.” He turns his sign to reveal the reverse side: “WARNING: homos, porno freaks, witches, liars, whoremongers” and looks at my companion with some suspicion.
“Are you on the list young man? If you’re on this list, you’re going to hell. Check the list.”
We continue, walking 40 minutes through the airport’s backroads to get to the rally entrance. The crowd is a sea of caps in the signature scarlet, a seething mass of slogan t-shirts: Keep America Great, Don’t Step On Me, Make Liberals Cry Again, and Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my president. In front of me, a man – who I briefly misidentify as a pirate – is dressed in full revolutionary war costume. Mask-wearers are in the minority here. That morning, Stanford University published a study finding Trump rallies had caused around 30,000 coronavirus infections and more than 700 deaths.
On the stage, the president is in full swing. His black overcoat is stark against the mass of red. He rails against China, against refugees (“no thank you!”), against sanctuary cities, against protesters, anarchists, looters, and against the Nobel Peace Prize Committee which has thus far failed to recognise him for achieving peace in the Middle East.
“Biden will imprison your families in your house while letting rioters roam free and loot your streets and loot your stores,” Trump proclaims. “Under Biden, there will be no school, no graduations, no weddings, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas, no Easter, no Fourth of July.” He takes a brief rhetorical detour to describe how Biden wears the wrong size of aviator sunglasses (too small). Small children run in circles – happy, maskless, clad in Trump-sloganed red.
I am thinking about Masha Gessen, who has written on how autocracy can combine horror and absurdity in equal measure. “We would prefer to think that, in global history and politics, the absurd cannot be tragic and the tragic cannot be absurd,” writes Gessen. “But the truth of the matter is that we are careening into our darkest moment yet, and we look ridiculous doing it.”
In the distance, the speech is over. Trump slowly rotates at the podium, pumping his black-gloved fist to the beat of The Village People. The crowd bops and heaves. As he exits, and the sky starts to darken, the speakers keep throbbing:
“Macho, macho man
I’ve got to be, a macho man”
The sun is setting. The crowd roars one more time, and begins to disperse.
For most of the New Yorkers I have spoken to these last weeks, there are two streams to their anxiety. The first is the outcome of the election. The second is what comes next. Will President Trump concede, if he loses? Will there be riots? The US has around 200-300 militia groups littered across the country, with an estimated 20,000 active service members. What can we expect from them? In downtown Manhattan, the streets are an unbroken wall of brown plywood; businesses have been nailing wood over their windows in anticipation.
“I’ve stopped making any plans past Tuesday,” a journalist friend says.
“I’m concerned about the election being super close, and coming down to systems or procedures or decision-makers who one side or the other will consider illegitimate,” she continues. “So no matter what, a huge number of people will effectively consider the presidency stolen. And I’m worried all that will lead to violence.”
The concern she expresses is widespread. Recent polls of American voters found 56% said they expected to see “an increase in violence as a result of the election”. Americans have bought 15 million guns since March – nearly double the same period last year – and 1.92 million guns in the last month alone. The country is experiencing a nationwide ammunition shortage.
A few weeks ago, another friend, Elliot, a data scientist, started visiting a gun range. He has not purchased a gun but decided he wanted to be proficient in using one. Last week, the Times and BBC reported on a wave of gun buyers – many of whom considered themselves liberal or anti-gun – buying weapons for the first time.
“I’m lots of things that white supremacists don’t like. I’m a person of African descent. I’m a Hispanic person. I am politically liberal,” Elliot says. If America must be awash with guns, he thinks, they should not all be concentrated in the hands of the right and white.
“Maybe gun reform never happens, and we remain this country that’s flooded with weapons. But at least the knowledge about the use of those weapons will be distributed more evenly across the political spectrum,” he says. “It might keep some of these crazy white supremacist militia motherfuckers in line.”
At the gun range in Mount Vernon, New York, a man in the mustard-painted foyer signs me in, running through the weapons currently available. “Not these,” he says, pointing to the AK-47 on the wall. “There’s an ammunition shortage.” The wait to enter the range is 45 minutes, which is lucky, he says. Lately, it’s been busier than usual. Lines out the door, wait-time two hours.
The chance of armed civil conflict seems slim, Elliot says, but still worth preparing for. It is not beyond the realm of possibility.
“I think what’s changed the most [over the past four years] is the feeling that there are guard-rails on the American experience,” he says.
People used to feel that “while there may be fluctuations, they’ll happen within these guard-rails, so we can never expect an outcome that’s too bad. That the ship will stay afloat. You might not get to be the captain for a while, but it’s not going to sink.”
The last four years have obliterated that sense, he says. It feels like the guard-rails are gone.
From the doorway of the gun range, you can see the line of people waiting to cast their ballot at City Hall. The tail of the queue, hundreds of people long, curls around one full city block and halfway down the street of the next. It is pouring with rain.
I ask a man near the front how long he’s been waiting. “Since around 10:40am,” he says. A few minutes later, the clock tower starts chiming for 2pm.
The population of Mount Vernon is more than 65% black, 21% white, so people here are likely to face a much longer wait in the voting line. Voters in majority-black neighbourhoods will wait 30% longer, on average, than those in white ones.
“We’ll wait all day if we have to,” says a woman sheltering in a knitted beanie, scarf, parka, face mask, and fogging eyeglasses. Rain streams from the edge of her umbrella.
“That’s what you’ve got to do.”
Even when the results have rolled in, when her ballot is counted, and when the outcome of these votes becomes clear, the waiting will not be over.