The coverage was on mute. Half the room was up dancing, others were taking Instagram photos. On YouTube, a funky salsa track that someone had forwarded to me a couple of days earlier. A colleague had translated it: ‘Ay, ay, ay, by God! I’m gonna vote for Donald Trump!’
It was 10:00 and I was on either my second Alabama slammer or third Pabst Blue Ribbon. Around me, half-eaten hot dogs, MAGA hats, Republican-branded serviettes. It was a small, ‘COVID-safe’ affair, but the hostess had gone all out.
When I’d gotten there, all colour had drained from my face. The first results in Kentucky and Indiana – reliably Republican states – had broken for Trump, but not by enough. Then Ohio started to come in, with Biden ahead. But within a couple of hours, the Ohio results seemed to normalise. It was just as well – no Republican had ever won a presidential election without it.
The pattern seemed to repeat itself all day. Polls would close in any given state, and the early numbers would favour Biden as mail-in ballots were counted. Once votes cast on the day were processed, Trump would roar ahead. That was how it was supposed to work – Corona-wary Democrats voting by mail, offset by Trump supporters turning up in force on the day.
So we’d put the music on, freshened our drinks. It wasn’t until I poured myself into a cab that I noticed that Fox News had projected a Biden win in Arizona – a state that had gone for the Democrats only twice since the Second World War. Did Fox make a mistake? Was Arizona an aberration? And critically, would the other states hold?
Still, the vote was holding up in the Midwest. Arizona would probably come back. It wouldn’t be a wipe-out like 1984 or 1972 – with Donald Trump, it never could have been – but it would be a win.
THE FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF:
STAGE ONE: DENIAL
Yeah, I was a Trump guy. Bigly.
It wasn’t always the case. Back in 2016, I wasn’t quite a ‘never Trumper’, but I was sceptical. When he won the nomination, I figured he’d lose to Hillary Clinton and lost interest. I was pleasantly surprised when he beat her a few months later – if only because of the screaming agony from the left – and started paying closer attention.
When Trump took office, he won me over. By the end of his first year, he’d passed seismic tax cuts and launched the most comprehensive red tape reduction program America had ever seen. He’d been embraced by faith-leaders of almost every denomination with his unambiguous support for religious freedom. He’d moved the American embassy to Israel’s rightful capital, Jerusalem, and brokered more peace deals in the Middle East than every previous US president put together. He defended the likes of Brett Kavanaugh against the most vicious excesses of the #MeToo movement. He was unapologetic about defending free speech at a time when it has never been under greater threat.
But for me it wasn’t just substance, but style. Trump’s policies were almost universally praised by pundits on the centre-right, but often with the caveat that ‘I don’t like the vulgarity’, or that ‘he shouldn’t be tweeting’. I was never one of those people. For me, Trumpism was never just about sound policy or expanding ‘the base’ – it was about a leader who could fight as hard as the left does, on his own terms, and win.
It’s not as if I hadn’t contemplated a Biden win. It simply never seemed like a serious possibility. Trump had a track record, star power, energy and had filled stadiums coast to coast. The Democrats had put up the weakest presidential candidate I’d ever seen, and their campaign was even worse – a meandering, depressing, indulgent, cringe-inducing disaster.
Yes, Trump was polarising – God knows he was – so was George W Bush, so was Richard Nixon. ‘Unpopular’ presidents got re-elected, and when they didn’t it wasn’t because people voted against them, but because they voted for someone else.
In America, turnout mattered. It took a star candidate like Ronald Reagan to defeat Jimmy Carter, and a masterful communicator like ‘Slick Willy’ to beat Bush 41. Biden was barely coherent and generated zero enthusiasm. And, lumped with left-wing fantasies like the so-called ‘Green New Deal’, spent more time crab walking away from his policies than selling them.
But Biden did have one issue to run on. Unbelievably, it would be enough.
The morning after, 8am. The alarm went off and I reached for my phone. Hundreds of thousands of votes had come in overnight, and Trump’s lead in Michigan and Wisconsin had evaporated. Other states were holding up okay, but for some reason they hadn’t been called. Then there was Arizona.
I’d committed to a post-election podcast that morning, and had expected to front up triumphantly after months crowing about a Trump landslide. Instead, I’d spend the morning talking about a probable loss. I knew why.
That was how it was supposed to work - Corona - wary democrats voting by mail, offse by Trump supporters turning up in force on the day.
STAGE TWO: ANGER
Trump had beaten COVID-19 in just three days, but it was about to kill him politically. It was a huge vulnerability for him, a crisis that called for the kind of technocratic, cautious leadership that Trump could never quite muster. Biden filled the vacuum, with ashen-faced warnings about a ‘dark winter’.
But still, why would Americans go for it? The US had been hit hard by the virus, but that was largely the fault of Democratic governors like Andrew Cuomo, who sent infected coronavirus patients back into New York nursing homes, all while decimating their cities with lockdowns that didn’t work.
Biden promised those same lockdowns and more, and would probably win. Even liberty-loving Americans were so terrified that they were about to hand their freedoms over to yet another big government bozo promising to ‘keep them safe’.
Or were they? It was almost impossible to tell. One news network said a state was going blue, another would say red. Conservative commentators were insisting Trump was on track for a win, ‘impartial’ reporters would say that there was ‘no way’.
Yeah, it was a fragmented media landscape, and like any political commentator worth their salt I read widely. But this was different – a blizzard of competing and contradictory information. And why was it taking so damned long? Where were all these extra votes coming from?
STAGE THREE: BARGAINING
Something fishy may well have happened on election night. Among other things, there have been allegations of Republican poll watchers being kicked out of counting rooms and banned from observing, reports of bags of Biden votes being delivered in the dead of night, scores
of videos on social media (often ultimately blocked) appearing to show Trump votes found in dumpsters and vote counters filling in ballots, and numerous election night ‘glitches’ in counting software, all favouring Biden.
Beyond that, many have raised questions about unusually high turnout figures in several key states, and the fact that despite Biden’s extraordinary popular vote, the Democrats went backwards in Congress and at a state level.
Should we take these reported irregularities seriously? Some of them, at least. Did they make a difference? Maybe. Can anything be proven? We don’t know yet. How much of it was incompetence, as opposed to conspiracy? Are the reported anomalies unique to Trump, or a staple of America’s ramshackle electoral system?
Politics can be addictive. In extreme cases, it can even be a form of madness. It gets a hold of you, makes its way into your bloodstream, and then before you know it you’re handing out pamphlets at a train station at some ungodly hour or picking through the details of a minor opposition reshuffle. And always – always – the chase, the prospect of the win.
Election coverage brings its own special kind of adrenalin. Graphs, maps, projections, the drone of pollies and pundits trying to make sense of it in real time. If you’re an observer, it’s compelling; if you’re invested in a particular side, it can be hypnotic. It had been many, many years since I was as invested in a candidate as I was in Donald Trump.
Every so often, election night would become election week, or longer. It happened from time to time, but I’d never seen anything like this. By the weekend, American politics had descended into a tug-of-war. On one side, Democrats, the media, and the better part of polite society who were willing the election to be over. On the other, Trump, who was obviously taking the advice from long time confidant Roger Stone: ‘A man is not finished when he is defeated, a man is only finished when he quits.’
Even so, the Biden votes continued to materialise. States that were close blew out. Trump’s electoral vote was stalled at just north of 200. The ‘red wave’ was flattening.
STAGE FOUR: DEPRESSION
When CNN took it upon itself to coronate Biden as the President-elect and his running mate came cackling out into a sea of obnoxious car horns, I was ready to turn the coverage off. It was a warm day, I took a walk with my girlfriend to tour the bars.
After a few drinks, I started thinking about what a Biden administration would look like; the likelihood of a sudden Harris administration, the ensuing chaos of trying to govern over a country in which 70 million citizens voted in good faith for a particular candidate, and then had their concerns over possible disenfranchisement met with derision by elites and a creepy disclaimer on social media platforms.
Even without Trump, politics went on. And there’d still be plenty to talk about.
STAGE FIVE: ACCEPTANCE
Life after the election chaos feels like the morning after your best mate’s buck’s night – the hangover is brutal, but it was worth it. Whatever happens next, Trump didn’t just deliver on his promises, he reinvented centre-right politics as we know it. He may very well have redefined democracy itself.
For four explosive years, the most powerful man in the world gave a one-finger salute to everything we hate about the bureaucratic-managerial-woke industrial complex. A human hand grenade, hurled right into the heart of the overbearing, hypocritical and downright absurd apparatus of the state. Trump tried to drain the swamp, but in the end it turned to quick sand.
We’re all in freefall now.
Trump built the strongest and broadest electoral coalition of any Republican since Ronald Reagan, bringing in millions of previously disengaged Americans and in particular minority voters who voted Republican in numbers not seen since the 1960s. But what does the movement Trump built look like post-election?
History is written by the victors. We are already seeing unfounded revisionism, backed in by the commentariat and cemented by social media algorithms. The same chattering classes that baulked at Trump’s red-blooded brand of politics is now working overtime to paint it as the thing that brought him undone.
If the Republican Party is smart – and it is genuinely unclear whether it is – it will resist this new ‘conventional wisdom’. With the right candidates, they could make hay with the chaos of an eventual Harris administration, sweep Congress in 2022. After that, who knows?
The Trump name itself will leave its imprint on US politics as much as it has on America’s skylines. His first political term was a flash of lightning in the night. Instantly, millions could see clearly for miles around, and turned on a political system that had failed them for a generation. One way or another, Trump will find a way to remind them of what they saw.
As Georgia recounts 5 million votes by hand, evidence of alleged fraud is assessed and legal challenges run their course, it should be remembered that lightning could always strike again. If all else fails, there’s already talk about Trump 2024. When it comes to Donald J Trump, nothing is impossible.