Everyone wanted to talk about the election, and no one wanted to talk about the election. It loomed like a hidden planet on every Zoom call and in every group chat, its gravity dark and inescapable. We whispered about it with the same solemn, I-know-I-shouldn’t-but-I-can’t-help-it obsession you might use to talk about a close friend’s deteriorating marriage: What do you think’s going to happen? How are you feeling about it?
Everyone had theories. Every eventuality had to be acknowledged, partly as a hedge against being wrong and partly as a superstitious ritual. By Election Eve, I had become so psychologically and intellectually fragile I was willing to believe whatever I’d heard most recently, a condition of sublime, childlike impressionability I shared with the president himself. Trump would win in a landslide. Biden would lose the Rust Belt and win the Sun Belt. Trump would use force to steal the election. We were all experts, now, and also we hated experts, who were smug frauds. Could any of us really say what the world looked like outside our states, our cities, our blocks, our isolation pods, our heads?
When you open up the range of possible outcomes, as seemed to be the chief effect of Trump on American politics, hope can sneak in alongside despair. So many people were voting — we could be proud of that, right? So many people had stepped up to have their voices heard, even if we knew those voices could be muted and distorted and maybe even eventually tossed out. Still, you could feel good about the fact of the election. If nothing else, it would give us a definitive picture of the world out there.
On the other hand, did we want a definitive picture of the world out there? By Election Day, ambient anxiety cloaked every interaction. Group chats grew tetchy; Zoom calls more awkward. Every gently condescending article about election self-care felt like a direct attack: No, I will not drink water. No, I will not mediate. No, I will absolutely not log off.
When did you first start to panic? For me, it was Florida. Not so much the fact of Biden being projected to lose, but the fact that — even retyping it now is enough to give my heart a little jolt — the polls were wrong again. To hear that in 2020 is to understand what it is to be Wile E. Coyote: to have invested time and money and heartache, to have planned and schemed, to have waited for your moment, and to have found yourself ten feet off the cliff edge, the ground disappeared from beneath your feet, Steve Kornacki hovering nearby calculating the precise distance you will plunge before you pancake on the canyon floor.
“Feeling very bad,” one friend sent to the group chat. “Nothing else to contribute.” Another: “Launch me into the sun.” Friends described their elaborate dinner preparations going cold, their appetites vanished like their hopes for Democratic control of the Senate. Text conversations turned to discussions of the appropriate substance pairing for the night: beer, wine, edibles, Xanax? All four? Even nonsmokers were smoking bad-mood cigarettes in their backyards. There were tepid attempts at reassurance, based on hastily read Twitter threads of statistical analysis, but no one was brave enough to be truly confident, not in this environment. The polls were wrong again. Around 9 p.m., one large group chat underwent a schism: The main chat would be for “vibes only,” while a separate chat was devoted to “feeling bad.” Everyone stayed in both chats all night.
This was the moment to turn off the TV, if you were going to do so. A friend told me that members of her pod slowly began to leave the room one by one, only one brave soul remaining behind to update the others via text as CNN called states. Others had more absorbing plans: One friend left a party to “have sex with a random.” It was that kind of night.
It was not going to be decided on Tuesday. We’d said this to each other knowingly for weeks now, and still I fell asleep on the couch around midnight, only to wake up in a desperate panic at 4 a.m., grabbing at my phone. For two hours, I read about Georgia returns, my mouth cottony and my head pounding.
By Wednesday morning, the panic seemed to have stabilized. The polls had been wrong again — but not that wrong. We stayed tethered to our phones, waiting for new information, new theories, new funny tweets. I learned that Michigan had been called for Biden when a woman in the wineshop announced it to the store. In the late afternoon, I sat in a friend’s backyard, stuffing my face with leftover Halloween candy. Conversation was subdued, as we snuck glances at our phones, trying to parse county-level returns through the fog of our hangovers.
Spiraling despair was increasingly replaced with bitter frustration at lost opportunities down the ballot or shock and sadness that so many people had voted for a man so obviously cruel and stupid. We’d gotten the 2016 do-over we’d wanted and won. Why did it still feel a little hollow? Maybe because we received the result we’d all anticipated in 2016: a presidential victory for an Establishment Democrat, a likely Republican Senate, and a future of gridlock. Court-packing, COVID stimulus, and the Green New Deal were returned to the same status of “in your dreams” they’d occupied before Trump entered the scene. The blessed end of Trump’s tenure in the White House seemed also to mean the end of the era he’d inaugurated, a strange interregnum in which the previously unthinkable, for better and often for worse, was brought within our reach.
By Friday, when Biden took the lead in Pennsylvania, it was easy to put aside any disappointment in favor of relief, if not jubilation. (The Times’ Nick Confessore reported someone just walking through the park screaming “Pennsylvania, woo-hoo!”). On Saturday morning, when the networks and the AP called the race, the city erupted in noise. It was, fortuitously for Brooklyn, the brunch hour, and a beautiful day to boot, and people on crowded sidewalks stopped to cheer and joyfully elbow-bump each other while drivers leaned on their horns. The pots and pans that had been a nightly staple at the height of the pandemic re-emerged. I realized something was happening when my downstairs neighbor started hollering in triumph, loudly enough that I could hear him through the floor; shortly thereafter, his dog, and, seemingly, all the other dogs on the block joined in, howling in the particularly canine combination of excitement and anxiety and intuition that something was happening that they wouldn’t want to miss out on.
But the final calls were academic at that point. The real victory — and the accompanying glee — had come on Thursday night, when Trump gave a rambling address that not even his former enablers bothered to defend or take seriously. The addictively horrible, compulsively watchable, reality-TV president just looked like a pathetic mope. As he might have put it: Low energy! If nothing else, the election had sapped Trump of whatever power he held over the liberal psyche. Now he was just another desiccated ghoul in a party and government filled with them. Even the pessimists could enjoy the sight of a defeated Trump: As my most despairing friend put it, “Still lots of time for shit to go bad, but this is really nice to watch.”
*This article appears in the November 9, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!