Waiting for relief
Election Day began with a nation clenching its fist. Trying not to cry; ready to fight.
And desperate to breathe a sigh of relief.
The citizenry was pulled taut across the political divide: the left with their “vote” masks and the right with their MAGA caps. Across the country, stores, banks and office buildings were boarded up tight — fear of upheaval and chaos transforming entire neighbourhoods into empty plywood caverns. Washington is the centre of this emotional tumult. It is the swamp; it is the beating heart of our democracy. It is reviled even as it is revered.
The Capitol was surrounded by silver metal barricades as well as two layers of green fencing bearing a warning from the Capitol Police: “Area Closed”. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House gleamed bright, behind black metal fencing and cement barriers and metal bars and the watchful gaze of Secret Service officers.
Everything leading up to this day has been tense and abnormal. Some citizens have been trying to run democracy into a ditch. The incumbent built his case for re-election on the illusion of a pandemic on the wane, the dire threat that suburbia would soon be extinct without his law-and-order defence and a repeated reassurance that he is the least racist person in whatever room he happens to be in. The challenger simply promised normalcy and calm.
It’s too exhausting to look back to the beginning of President Donald Trump's administration, at all that has ensued, from the country’s departure from the Paris climate agreement to impeachment. It’s enough to reckon with the past few months and note how much we’ve been weeping about, how much there has been to fight about: masks, systemic racism, the power of economic success to bandage this country's every wound — to paper over the pain with money.
The candidates, up through the last moments of the campaign, embodied the country's raw conflict. Joe Biden began his Election Day with Catholic Mass and a visit to the graveside of his son, Beau, who he has said inspired him to take up this presidential gambit. He went back to the house in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he lived as a boy. He returned to his beginnings to consider where he might be headed. “My good-luck charm is to always go back to where I started,” Biden said.
The former vice-president spent this campaign talking about the soul of the nation, which is really a conversation about morality and decency, about the way Americans feel not only about themselves and their neighbours, but also the marginalised and even the stranger in another country.
Trump’s Election Day outing consisted of a trip to his campaign headquarters in suburban Arlington, Virginia. There, he thanked his supporters, complained without evidence that voting was untrustworthy and described himself as a bad loser. He has expressed little concern for the nation’s moral standing, for its true north. He is focused on its top-line growth and its swagger. Trump preaches the gospel of prosperity: a combination of a baller’s paean to bottle service and a recent convert’s confidence that his God is better than everyone else’s God.
Trump versus Biden is emblematic of America’s enduring tension between getting there first and leaving no one behind. It reminds us that having to choose capitalism over kindness is a false choice.
The prosperous come to the Trump International Hotel, which is not boarded up but towering behind a maze of metal fencing. The visitors have been arriving by private car and by Uber, lining up as security staff stops each vehicle at the hotel’s barricaded driveway. Two blondes hop out of their car before the driver makes the turn off Pennsylvania Avenue, and they pull their roller bags onto the sidewalk and desert them while they take pictures in front of the hotel. Then they scurry over to the entrance and into the current administration's unofficial clubhouse. A grey Bentley pulls into the driveway and the driver rolls down his window to announce that of course he belongs in this castle. Then he motors up to the entrance.
Only a few yards away, someone is huddled under a tan blanket asleep on a bench, belongings tucked into a smudged grey duffel bag. A pair of shoes set neatly alongside it.
Ready to cry, ready to fight. Desperate for relief.
America comes to Black Lives Matter Plaza. Signs protesting the present administration and posters that raise up the names of victims of police violence cover the fencing, again, that separates the street from Lafayette Square and the White House. In the afternoon, Trump supporters visit the plaza to hoist their “Latinos 4 Trump” signs and praise Jesus. A woman in black spins around and around in her own personal liturgical dance while wearing a red Trump 2020 baseball cap. A grizzled man with a silver horn wears a T-shirt that reads: “Jesus is my saviour. Trump is my president”.
Burly men march around with yellow signs in the shape of a cross that declares their love for Jesus, and a young man yells back at them that he doesn’t need their religion. A street preacher sermonises on his bullhorn about the blessings of wealth. A vendor sells bandanas that read “I (heart) Jesus.”
They make a pilgrimage to the plaza as the emissaries of a president who considers the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice an abomination. They come to make sure they are seen and heard and respected — rather than to be respectful of the place where they stand. They bring the country's familiar carnival and sideshow of shouting and praying and selling.
America is desperate.
There weren’t significant waits at the polls in Washington on Election Day. People refused to let a pandemic, a hobbled Postal Service or disinformation stand in the way of their civic duty, their hard-won right. They wanted a taste of normalcy. So much of America had already voted. And early vote totals in Texas, Arizona, Montana and Washington state each surpassed all votes cast in those states in 2016.
Folks have already cried, too. They’ve fought over the dinner table, over social media, on the streets. Now, it’s time for relief.
• Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press