It started out as a different kind of night at Donald Trump’s election night party in the Hilton Grand Ballroom, before the crowd on the other side of town was forced to take stock of their candidate, country and future.
But early on, it was the sober crowd at Trump’s victory party that sounded cautious notes.
They wore dark suits, solid-colored dresses. They ventured guesses about the future of the Republican Party in future elections. They tried to get into the VIP section where the alcohol was free.
Nothing happened quickly. Large stacks of scoff-inducing signs — “Women for Trump,” “Hispanics for Trump,” “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump” — dwindled as people took them and incoming vote tallies made at least some of them less far-fetched Someone rolled in a cake styled after Trump’s head, jowled cheeks like that of a Roman bust. It didn’t really look like him, but everyone took pictures anyway, before things began to change.
Everyone was surprised, including Trump’s supporters
Suddenly, Trump was up dozens of electoral votes, and there weren’t quite that many states left.
Everyone in the room sprouted Make America Great Again hats in different styles. As new states were called for Trump, supporters leapt up, cheered, fist-bumped. The hats were frontward, backward, cocked, worn doubled like Sherlock Holmes. The ballroom became a sea of red. Glasses clinked.
A reporter charging her phone whispered, “I think he could very well win.” A smooth-cheeked campaign staffer smirked about Clinton “counting chickens before they hatch.”
A husband and wife from New Jersey barge in as Georgia goes Republican. The husband, wearing a tuxedo, says, “The media can suck it. Europe can suck it. Man, this is America first.” He prattles on, then asks that various comments be stricken from the record; he’s had a few drinks.
Trump had nearly won; then he won.
He appeared on stage to the theme of “Air Force One.” In a brief acceptance speech, he congratulated Clinton and spoke of binding America’s wounds, thin words after months of deplorable talk that did the opposite. The least qualified candidate in history had become president-elect.
On Twitter a consensus started to form, matched with restrained glee by the Fox News commentators who were the only entertainment in the ballroom: Democrats didn’t know their country anymore.
Where do we go from here?
But the country is plenty recognizable.
The racist insinuations, policies and misogynistic behavior of the Trump campaign were plenty recognizable. The fact that something like half the country wasn’t particularly bothered by either is fairly recognizable, too.
So is the idea that Americans might be frustrated by the status quo. We had a whole Democratic primary about that.
Nevertheless, the country appeared so unrecognizable to some that they professed intentions to leave it — Canada’s immigration website reportedly crashed, possibly due to increased traffic.
But leaving is exactly the wrong idea, at a moment when so much is at stake: continued economic recovery, fairer health care, criminal justice reform, climate action, steady leadership in foreign affairs, to name just a few domains where President Barack Obama has been particularly active, and in which Hillary Clinton would surely have doubled down and expanded that crucial work and more. What would have been her historic election will have to be achieved by someone else. That’s a real shame, and it looks starker in the light of day.
In the meantime, we’ll have our own work.
Two years of angst and campaigning led to this brief moment and the duty of a single vote. Thankfully, American democracy has other outlets to be guided by the people’s will. That means state and local government, so much closer to citizens’ lives anyway.
It means organizing and activism, which we’ve seen from Occupy to Black Lives Matter have real effects in real time. It means principled as opposed to reactionary obstruction, if President Trump — as others have before him — disgrace the office or push the country in a direction away from its better angels.
But to do that work, you have to remain. The room can change.