2020 election

How We’re Feeling As America’s Moment of Truth Arrives

Photo: JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

America’s day of reckoning is here at last. With the last swing-state polls published and the voting lines a few hours from dissipating, there isn’t much more to say about the candidates’ chances of victory on Tuesday night. So we asked editors and writers at Intelligencer and beyond how they’re actually feeling now that this epochal moment has arrived — about what might happen on Tuesday, what it could mean for this turbulent era of American life, and the cognitive tax the Trump presidency has imposed on all of us. Their answers, below.

Josh Barro, business columnist

In addition to my role here at New York, I have hosted Left, Right & Center, a weekly politics radio show produced by Los Angeles–based KCRW, since March 2015. Just three months after I started hosting, Donald Trump came down his golden escalator to announce his presidential run, and ever since then, he has dominated the content of that show and the pace and content of my professional work more broadly. Frankly, I resent his constant intrusion into my daily life. I’m exhausted, and I’m ready to go back to a time when political fights were less heated, less stupid, and less central to our lives.

I’m not alone. As Politico’s Tim Alberta put it, Biden’s winning pitch — that comfortably won him the primary and appears to be about to comfortably win him the general election — is that Trump needs to be fought “with a fire extinguisher instead of a flame thrower.” Trump likes to talk about the “silent majority,” but it’s Biden who has cobbled together a majority coalition of quieter voters — in the primary, where he won on his strengths with groups that are less represented on cable television and in the online discourse, like older black voters; and in the general, where he has made huge gains among white seniors. These groups aren’t the sort to shut down the Garden State Parkway with a caravan, but I’m very hopeful that they’re about to put out the fire with their votes for Biden.

Jonathan Chait, political columnist

How would you feel if you were flying a plane, and the pilot announced you were hitting turbulence, but there was a 90 percent chance the plane would land safely? That’s how I feel about the election. Staring at a 10 percent chance of the unthinkable has a disquieting effect on the mind, especially when you’ve been sitting on this particular plane for (depending on how you count) months or years.

Chas Danner, editor and writer

While processing the ramifications of Trump’s shocking win four years ago, the first thought that gave me comfort was that maybe it had to happen. Progress, at a global, national, or personal level, is never a straight ascending line. There are peaks and painful valleys. There are feats and failures of imagination. And while the Trump era has been a brutally hard, destructive lesson, it’s also been, I feel, a useful and illuminating one. Maybe even a necessary one. Everything has gotten so much worse, but there has also been an incredible collective immune response. And that will continue regardless of what happens this week. What comes after Trump can and should be better than what came before him.

Benjamin Hart, associate editor

I have not allowed myself to “go there” mentally and imagine what life will be like if Trump somehow pulls this off again; the possibility is too terrible to actually contemplate. If the president does lose as expected, I will of course be elated and relieved beyond all belief. No matter what happens, though, 2016 and its aftermath have changed my conception of the country, and my understanding of human behavior.

For years, many media types, myself included, have mocked the endless pieces in the New York Times and other outlets that chronicle Trump supporters who continue to stand by the president despite his latest vicious comment or outrageous policy. “Yes, of course Trump voters still support Trump” goes the refrain. “Why is this news?” On a journalistic level, such complaints are perfectly valid. Yet I still read almost every one of these articles, even if I rarely learn anything I didn’t already know. Because while at this point I understand on an intellectual level the various reasons so many Americans support a morally bankrupt demagogue, the shock that more than 40% of the country does so has never really worn off. How tens of millions of people could get to the point of pledging fealty to such a venal and lunatic emperor will never not be a fascinating question.

It feels like a darkly familiar one. I come from a family that was partially wiped out in Nazi concentration camps. Trump is no Hitler, and I don’t want to make facile comparisons between America in 2020 and 1930s Germany. But if you grow up in the extended shadow of the Holocaust (or maybe just if you grow up Jewish), that great lingering question — of why so many ordinary people seemed to collectively go insane for so long — lingers in the background. Having now witnessed a mass movement powered by a cult of personality to which competence, the truth, and even the specter of death seem completely irrelevant, I feel that, on some level I never expected to access during my lifetime, I kind of understand how it all went down back then. That I learned this lesson in modern-day America doesn’t mean I’m not hopeful about the future; I will be, if Biden wins. But it has made me readjust some perhaps naïve assumptions and demonstrated how fragile our supposedly stable society really is.

Margaret Hartmann, senior editor

My feeling heading into Election Day is best summed up by another terrible president: “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” My anxiety is not out of control at the moment because
I don’t think I can ever be shocked again the way I was in 2016. This time,
I feel prepared for a wide range of election outcomes, with the exception of significant political violence. (I’ve accepted that it’s a possibility, but I’m not letting myself spend too much time pondering it, because it’s too horrible.)

That said, I did get choked up over the weekend while listening to an episode of The Daily about older voters in Florida — so maybe I’m not as calm as I think! Weirdly, the part that got me was a widower describing how he lost a close friend because he’s voting for Biden this year. This is obviously one of the least significant consequences of Trump’s administration, but it made me reflect on how much of a toll — large and small — his presidency has had on all of us.

Biden was not my candidate in the primary; I thought several of his opponents had better policy proposals and felt there was no going back to the “normalcy” of the Obama years. My opinion hasn’t changed on those points, but mid-pandemic, his “Battle for the Soul of the Nation” slogan resonates much more for me, corny as it is. The often deadly consequences of Trump’s lying, misanthropy, and incompetence are now glaring. Electing Biden would only be a first step toward solving the problems we’re facing, but I do think we need his inherent decency in ways I did not realize when he launched his campaign in April 2019 and still can’t fully calculate.

Ben Jacobs, political reporter

I’ve always been interested in politics. For much of my life, this was a niche interest. Tuesday will determine if it ever will be again. The election of Donald Trump has made politics all consuming. Everything has become political; from what sports you watch, what products you buy, and even how you protect your own health. The people who once shared cat videos on the internet now share stridently political memes, and third-tier staffers have become celebrities.

I don’t pretend to know what result, if any, will change this. But it feels like tonight will be the point when we’ll discover if this was a passing fad or a permanent cultural change.

Sarah Jones, staff writer

Mostly I am very tired, which is a self-indulgent thing to admit. Why should anyone care that I feel like I haven’t slept in a week? Democracy’s at stake! No hyperbole! But I have allocated so much anger to the events of the last four years that I think I have exhausted my emotional reserves now that Election Day is almost here. I keep thinking about all the workers I’ve interviewed who are terrified they’re going to get sick from COVID and die, not just because of the way this administration has responded to the pandemic but because its business-friendly policies let dangerous employers off the hook. I’m still grieving my grandfather, who died from COVID right before Trump got it. The situation is so dire, and the rot is so deep. Whatever happens tomorrow, I think we’ll be climbing out of this hole for years.

Ed Kilgore, political columnist

I’m transfixed by the Red Mirage scenario, in which Trump is ahead in the count before all the votes have been counted — given late reporting that the president is seriously planning to declare victory on Election Night if he’s ahead (very temporarily in some cases) in states representing 270 or more electoral votes. So it’s either a comfortable Biden victory proclaimed on Election Night by just about everyone this side of OAN or quite possibly chaos and a nation lawyered up.

Will Leitch, sports columnist

I’m scared. I’m not sure there’s any other logical response right now than to be scared. I’m scared for what happens if he wins, how in the world we’ll survive another four years of this, what it will say about a country I still deeply love and believe in. I’m scared whether there will even be a country left for my kids to grow up in.

But I’m also scared for what happens if he doesn’t win: How he’ll attempt to stay in power by manipulating his followers and the meek and disengaged or, at the very least, rip out all the wiring and plumbing on the way out the door. I’m hopeful and inspired by the activism and resilience that has resulted from Trump. I’m still scared that it won’t be enough, that Trump is a problem that cannot be solved: A man without the ability to be shamed is, in a way, indestructible. I want to see the house of cards collapse, to see the Trump reckoning that is so long overdue — I want to see him and those who allowed this to happen held to account, desperate and exposed in the public square. But I’m scared we won’t, and I am scared of what happens then. I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever been more scared.

Eric Levitz, senior writer

I feel as though I am waiting for test results confirming that I do not have a rare and terrible illness. I almost certainly don’t have it — the probability is low, all the specialists have assured me. But there are enough morbid symptoms consistent with the ailment to keep my mind on edge. An uncomfortable tightness around the Sun Belt. Patches of red where you might not expect. Trump 2020 signs like boils across the surface of the exurbs as I drove through (the unnervingly named) Florida, New York, last weekend. If all goes as expected, tomorrow night will offer a modicum of relief. But even if the sickness isn’t as bad as feared, the symptoms will remain. And it will be months before we’ll know whether removing the malignant boomer from the White House will be enough to promote recovery.

Justin Miller, politics editor

I’ve been skeptical that Donald Trump would be reelected for a simple reason: he has never been popular. He was elected by a minority of the country and never convinced half it to approve of his job as president.

But in the American system of government he need not be popular in order to win the presidency and hold its awesome powers for four years, thanks to the Electoral College. (A similar dynamic applies to the Senate, also up for control today). It could happen all over again, and after an even more lopsided judgement from voters than in 2016.

If he loses, I was prepared to say that democracy defeated him, that “the system worked,” in the parlance used after Richard Nixon resigned. After all, voters would have delivered on the promise of “bringing down Trump” that various deus ex machina did not, from Robert Mueller to the coronavirus. Except when I thought about how we got here, I realized I would be wrong. “The system” allowed an incipient dictator to rise through democratic means. Once in power, he then turned to undermine democracy by declaring the election is only fair if he wins it. Then he conspired, with the full support of his party, to cancel votes and intimidate voters; the result would be a faux victory to confer legitimacy to despotism.

Tonight is the beginning of the end of something — Trump’s term or American democracy, as flawed as it is. If Joe Biden is elected and does not remedy the deep problems that brought us this crisis, he will be a democrat in name only.

Lisa Miller, New York contributing editor

At around 3 a.m. on Election Night in 2016, my husband and I were both awake and crying. For me, Trump — with his comb-over and his plastic wife — reminded me of the petty despots of the 1980s, their cheesy vanity mixed with deep personal cruelty and an implication of threat. I remember saying to Charlie that night, “Now that he has this job, he will never, ever voluntarily leave it,” while visions of military tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue danced in my head. These past four years, I have looked again and again for the people and institutions that might form a bulwark against his stupidities and tyrannies, but in the end this has made me feel not just disappointed but naïve, like a child. Even now, I find myself placing hope in people who might prove themselves heroes — John Roberts is one — when I have no reason to believe that they will.

Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent

I will not process how I feel about this era of American politics until I retire and move to a commune in the desert to do psychedelics until I die. I will send you a postcard from there and let you know what I think then. Sometime around 2050.

Jerry Saltz, art critic

I bought a red MAGA hat the month after Trump came down the escalator. I knew it meant something. Here is what it means to me today.

The blood-red MAGA hat is an American swastika. Its sight conjures great amassments of white people reveling in vengeance, possessed, imagining a 10,000-headed Cyclops that only exists in the hypnosis of the group. I see purposely fortressed walls of animus, certainty, meanness, a theater of performed and presumed superiority, a laughter that does not laugh, malicious viciousness. I see all this cloaked as Americanism, ideals, God. I see cheating and white identity politics.

There are no MAGA ideas, really. There is adamant imperious tribalism, lip service paid to “conservatism,” psychic blood libels against all thought to have ever wronged them, score settling, bad-daddy issues, a mania for rules, authority. I see a need for control. I see resentment, cynicism, grudges, hurt, a glee in never setting aside childish things. Here is a mass movement personally armored, lonely, incommunicado with the outside world. I see addiction.

MAGA is an exultation of lies, half-truths, hypocrisy, transactional politics to the point of forgetting America. Am I allowed to say these things? Do I sound like an out-of-touch East Coast progressive? I haven’t used words like racist, insidious, scandalous, cruel, narcissistic, corrupt, xenophobic, pathological, or stupid. I claim my right as a first-born, first-generation immigrant of an Estonian family that escaped to America from Stalin and Hitler, whose whole family was wiped out or who disappeared in pogroms, purges, gulags, and the Holocaust. That’ll be my in-kind identity politics. I feel scared when I see the MAGA hat, like I’m tearing up, about to cry. This is my inner four-year season of the election.

Am I or is America Joseph Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness? Are we, am I looking at the dying Kurtz and thinking, “I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror of an intense and hopeless despair … the horror, the horror.”

Jonah Shepp, foreign-affairs columnist

I went into this silly season determined not to get my hopes up for a Democratic victory, to inoculate myself against reliving the shock of 2016. No matter what the polls said, I figured Trump would find a way to demagogue, lie, cheat, or steal his way into a second term. I still don’t assume that Biden has this in the bag, but even in the best-case scenario, there’s not a lot to feel good about. By January, the coronavirus will be running rampant throughout the country, the economy will still be a basket case, and a sizable minority of the public will believe the election was stolen, because the president told them so. It will take far longer than eight years to undo the damage Trump and McConnell have done, and they will still have another two months to scorch the earth behind them. If the right-wing conspiracy theorists and white-supremacist militias expressed a paranoid siege mentality while their guy was in the White House, one can only imagine how they will behave as the opposition. This is the first election in my lifetime that is expected to result in widespread civil unrest, whatever the outcome. The bad actors, both foreign and domestic, that have leveraged the Trump presidency to destabilize the United States have done a fine job of it. We may soon find out just how successful they’ve been.

Matt Stieb, politics writer

I’m feeling the type of chest tightness that comes before phone calls you don’t want to take or make. Much of this tension stems from what’s already locked in. No matter who wins, this president will oversee the next two and a half months of a winter pandemic. No matter who wins, his party has enabled its leader to lay the groundwork to steal an election outright. No matter who wins, we’ll never get the last four years back.

How We’re Feeling As America’s Moment of Truth Arrives