On Election Day, as soon as the polls closed, I had to watch the three-hour-long 1972 movie musical 1776. You almost certainly haven’t seen it, so I’ll summarise it for you. The year is – well, you know that part – and the flies of patriotism are buzzing in the room in colonial Philadelphia where the Second Continental Congress is refusing to debate a proposal for American independence. John Adams hops back and forth, his diction slicing the King’s English into definitive new states. Thomas Jefferson, dressed in mauve, so sexual he can barely speak coherently, lounges on the window seat in a soft-focus rapist’s reverie, dreaming of not freeing his slaves after he dies. His wife sings a nymphomaniacal song about him ‘fiddling’, which is actually about him going down on her, and the Declaration of Independence, according to this origin story, is completed after he bangs her on a pile of foolscap and quill pens for 14 hours straight.
It is very, very boring, but at least no one raps in it, though you get the sense that Ben Franklin might have tried – in French. However, there are two scenes that flare to life. The first comes during ‘Momma Look Sharp’, which is sung by a 15-year-old boy, slain by the British, who lies in the killing fields and who will not rise again after the victory. This song seems to emerge from the collective mouth of the dead – the dead lying on the lawn of the White House during any given presidency, victims of a regime whose face changes but whose hands are always the same. The second comes during ‘Molasses to Rum’, chillingly delivered by Edward Rutledge, the delegate from South Carolina who will not vote for independence until an anti-slavery clause is removed from the declaration. He leaps up on a table and becomes the auctioneer, the room goes red like something laid open, and this is the moment when the real madness and murderousness of American history is allowed to break through: the madness that begins with legal slavery, winds its way alongside marchers down the road of racial injustice, and leads all the way up to the present, to the stranglehold that the electoral college continues to hold on the American people. The country began this way. It continues. There is no comfort in setting any of it to music, but still I hummed the songs.
I had watched 1776 on Election Day in 2012, when Barack Obama was re-elected, but failed to do so again in 2016; perhaps that was where everything went off the rails. To watch 1776 as the votes are counted seems like a harmless tradition, if a little bit twee – a little bit neolib, perhaps, a little bit brunch. But on 3 November 2020 what began in whimsy soon entered a clinical hell, the like of which hadn’t been seen since As Good as It Gets. The ‘red mirage’ of an early Trump lead we had been warned about was in full effect on Tuesday night, the result of efforts in several states to prevent mail-in ballots from being counted early; the count dragged on and on.
My superstitions multiplied and grew deeply embarrassing. I had to wear the same unwashed shirt that I had early-voted in three weeks before – pathetic. I wasn’t allowed to participate in the group text with my brothers and sisters, or check news websites, or look at Twitter at all. I had to sleep with my I VOTED sticker under my pillow. I couldn’t ask my husband direct questions about what was happening in particular states; instead, I engineered a squirrelish, bright-eyed look that seemed to contain all my inquiries at once, and relied on our psychic connection to get me the information I craved. If I heard the word ‘CNN’ I had to make the sign of the cross. I couldn’t pee before lunch. God help me, I had lucky zits – if you see me in the next few years and my face is cratered like Richard Burton’s, you’ll know why. Most important, I had to wear an ugly pair of red velvet shoes that looked like horse hooves, which I had also worn on Election Day in 2012. The vegan leather had crumbled badly since the Obama administration, which must be a metaphor, and every time I stood up in them too quickly I immediately fell over. I have been subject to such compulsions since I was a child; anyone who’s ever watched a basketball game with me has come away knowing I’m not quite right. But this was like the worst basketball game I had ever watched in my life – where one of the players was dribbling a human head and the other was being gently lifted by the mascot to help him dunk.
I should specify that all these rituals were performed so that Donald Trump would lose. A disclaimer that Joe Biden was not my candidate is hardly necessary; after the primaries, he was no one’s candidate, really. The Biden-Harris ticket was like being handed one of Gary Larson’s Cow Tools and being screamed at for not knowing what to do with it. ‘Look at him,’ I murmured during the debates. ‘He looks like God’s grandpa. He looks like he just got a Botox injection into the part of his brain that knows what year it is.’ But the desire to see the sitting president eat electoral shit was so powerful it had almost taken a place in the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, somewhere between Reproduction and Personal Security.
‘You’re not the only one,’ a friend assured me, and sent me screenshots of other people who couldn’t change their dresses or remove their ties until the official call came. At best, my superstitions were an attempt to stave off uncontrollable physical terror; at worst, I felt like I was giving the wrong answer to the ‘Do you think Margaret Thatcher had girl power?’ question a hundred times in a row. Yes, we were impotent within our system. Yes, our gerrymandered congressional districts now resembled cumshots, and our hyper-partisan Supreme Court was drunkenly presided over by a guy hollering: ‘I LIKE BEER.’ Yes, the vote of a person in a blue city was worth only a third of the vote of a radicalised cow somewhere in South Dakota. Yes, the prospect of a Biden presidency, even one that wasn’t hamstrung by a Republican Senate, was such a glowering and unclouded sun that most of us couldn’t look at it directly. And yes, the only thing that remained to us was to put crystals in our bra.
Certain fetishistic gestures were weighed and discarded. I had the idea to post a picture of Thom Yorke’s Normal Brother on Twitter the morning of the election for good luck. (This is the one I had in mind.) I felt in my bones that Andy Yorke would help carry us through – and, if things went according to plan, the result would lend him an aura of glamour known only to saints and celebrities, increase his value in the market of modern personhood by as much as 3000 per cent. But if things went wrong, it would make him a symbol of failure against his will, so that in history books going forward, there would be a little asterisk under this paragraph with a footnote reading: ‘Andy Yorke did this.’ Too great a responsibility. I decided against it. The meteorite necklace I was wearing when every Republican in the world got Covid-19 back in October was also judged a risk, since they had all recovered – either because God loves sinners, or because they had received special infusions of big-boy juice not available to the rest of us. However, on the day that I finally gave in and wore it, they all got Covid-19 again. The only lesson that I can draw from this is that we must listen to our bodies.
‘Magical thinking is a disease, right?’ I asked my husband.
‘Yes,’ he said sombrely. ‘Joan Didion had it.’
He was busy performing his own rituals, which I found to be laughably basic – they mostly consisted of tipping the coffee guy next door two dollars on every order and growing an election beard. (Somewhat less basic: he had to work out in the park during a severe tropical storm, rolling extravagantly in the mud while concentrating all his physical and mental power towards our dear leader’s demise, which resulted in a disfiguring poison oak rash that now covers every part of his lower half except, as he proudly put it, ‘my d— and balls’.) He also woke the group text every morning with the single word ‘Youthquake’. This was a reference to the Canadian TV show Slings & Arrows, where a white charlatan with the self-bestowed name Sanjay convinces the director of a Shakespeare festival that if he courts a younger generation with an incredibly offensive, nihilistic ad campaign – billboards reading F*CK YOU, showing current elderly patrons of the festival on life support – it will result in a so-called Youthquake.
‘Youthquake,’ Jason would text, and we would all respond.
The group text, over the past few months, had been a continuing source of comfort. Certain members of my family are now lost to me, but my younger siblings and I have managed, despite the far-right extremism of our upbringing, to stick together. My sister is working on a Covid-19 vaccine trial at a research hospital; she hates Donald Trump. My littlest brother works in IT, alongside several conservatives who once 3D-printed a Pepe the Frog at the office; he hates Donald Trump. My other brother was a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan; he may hate Donald Trump more than any of us. He is the one who will shelter us in the upcoming civil war: he has a stockpile of guns, the ability to kill a deer without crying, and a massive tattoo of the Stars and Stripes wrapped around an M16 on his torso, which will enable him to move unnoticed among the enemy. Military support for Trump fell to just 52 per cent in 2020, my brother informed me, and all his buddies had voted for either Biden or Jo Jorgensen, the libertarian candidate. Somebody fucked up, in other words, and lost the American-flag-wrapped-around-an-M16-torso-tattoo vote.
Jason shaved off his election beard on the morning of 4 November, as the votes were still being counted, because ‘I knew what would happen.’ I was aghast. ‘You shaved your election beard? Are you insane?’ Maybe people who weren’t raised Catholic didn’t know how to be properly superstitious. ‘Yeah, I looked at the numbers in the remaining counties and I shaved the beard,’ he explained patiently, having covered dozens of elections in a previous journalistic life. ‘You’re out of your decorative gourd,’ I told him, and thought of that old unquotable Rebecca West distinction, that men are lunatics and women are idiots – though Rebecca West herself was such a lunatic exception to the rule that whole cocktail parties must have fallen silent when she made this declaration, dressed for some reason like a genie from the Arabian Nights. ‘There was a guy crying against his Kia Soul when I arrived at the park,’ he told me when he returned from his workout later that day, coated with a healthy sheen of sweat, his lungs full of mountaintop election air, the poison oak on everything except his d— and balls not yet beginning to manifest. ‘I asked if he needed help and he said: “I’m just so disappointed in Georgia.” I smiled apologetically and then started blasting Toots and the Maytals.’ ‘Hahaha,’ I laughed weakly, ‘how powerful for you,’ and then attempted to walk to the refrigerator to get a bottle of water and toppled over, felled by my ugly vegan leather hooves.
As we lay in bed that night, we still didn’t know which way Georgia, our own state, would go. I woke at 4.24 on Thursday morning, feeling that something had happened, and twenty minutes later received an email from the Dutch poet Lieke Marsman, studded with hearts and champagne emojis. Georgia had just tipped 1400 votes in favour of Joe Biden. If Georgia’s arch-villain governor, Brian Kemp, had still been in charge of our state elections as he was in 2016, he would have personally eaten those 1400 votes and died at the vet’s of an obstructed bowel, rather than let that happen. But the unthinkable had come to pass: Georgia had gone blue. I had passed other elections of my adult life in Ohio and Florida: states that on election day had a tendency to open sinkholes into hell. That Georgia would eventually become a swing state, in the year it mattered most, was something I had not foreseen.
It was after Anderson Cooper’s comment about Donald Trump being ‘an obese turtle on his back flailing in the hot sun’ that I began to feel it in my body. ‘Did you just feel it?’ I texted a friend. ‘Almost like a thaw.’ Like my heart slumped sideways in my chest, or like countless small muscles held rigid for the last four years relaxed. All this was involuntary and to a certain extent foolish. (‘Do you think Margaret Thatcher had girl power?’) But one function of authoritarianism is to lock an entire people in a single man’s mind. I lived in that mind – we all did. It was a stratum of awareness, a band of information in front of your eyes; you would go to the bathroom after being railed and some part of you would be idly thinking Donald Trump is the president of the United States. Make no mistake: his primary crimes were his atrocities, his debasements of whole populations of human beings, his blood-red policies. His ousting does not rescue us from things that have already taken place, or wheels that have been set in motion; it rescues us only from the grip of this particular man, whose offences, to many Americans, are far more aesthetic than political. But there was the secondary crime of making all of us live in his mind. A few weeks earlier, Twitter had begun labelling his tweets as misinformation. The New York Times had begun summing up his deluded protests as mere ranting. The physical relief this brought was nearly explosive, and so was the anger: they could have been doing this the whole time.
The voice got smaller and smaller, like the voice of a bumblebee in a cartoon. But that couldn’t be – he had been, for the last four years, the most powerful man in the world. The missing remained missing, children were not reunited with their parents, friends of mine were still dead. More than 73 million people had voted for him. True, the agonising and protracted count had had the effect of robbing the event of a flashpoint. There was no moment at which members of the army could turn to one another and say: ‘Mobilise.’ People mostly seemed confused. The Trump caravans that had invaded downtown Savannah in the weeks before the election, and at which I had seen an equal number of Covid-denying tourists and little old ladies pumping their fists and yelling, ‘Yeah!’ were nowhere in evidence the week after. The Trump flags were taken off the Ford F150s; the bumper stickers were peeled off in the night; what used to be a long visible line of his foot soldiers, parked in front of our cathedral every Sunday, was now anonymised. This is more worrisome, in a way, because the number does not disappear. My liberal mother-in-law, member of a Florida megachurch and heartbroken by her congregation’s open embrace of the president, wrote:
I am seeing some deplorable comments on Facebook. I hate to even repeat this one but I will because it is so gross people would stoop so low. This is from a former acquaintance in Colorado – ‘I would rather have oral sex with my dog than give up my guns to the Dems!’ So sick. I may unfriend this person. So disgusting!!!
You don’t come back from that, as a country. This woman will continue to be willing to suck dog dick for this man; she will go forth in this life as someone ready to perform Second Amendment dog oral in the name of the deposed king. If my father died tomorrow, I would remember him as a man who recently threatened to drop a career-ending 22-minute video on Parler that would somehow lay bare the hypocrisy of ‘both the Democratic Party and the Archdiocese of Kansas City’. (Hold on, it just landed. Twenty-two minutes of nonsense about voting machines and communists, and then he ends with the breathtaking sign-off: ‘May God bless you, may our Republican Deep State people get their testosterone boosters so they can find themselves again.’) Jokes about Four Seasons Total Landscaping sustain us for a day, but these people are our family for ever. So sick. We may unfriend them.
We do fear what Trump will do in the next three months, we fear that he will not leave at all. (As I write, he has recently tweeted I WON THE ELECTION! and sent out a fundraising email which states: ‘One thing has become clear these last few days, I am the American people’s ALL-TIME favorite president.’ He writes these things, I repeat them; the people are locked not just in his mind but in his language.) The attempt at a coup, the week after the results were clear, was simultaneously expected and terrifying – both because we were expected to disregard it as unserious and because we knew it would lay the groundwork for further suppression of the vote, as well as keep his base operating at the necessary level of rabidity until Georgia’s two run-offs in January, which will decide the fate of the US Senate. But I also fear that we will all wake up as if from a dream, a dream in which we played our parts, and claim that all of it had to happen, that none of it could have been any different, and that it will not happen again. America is a baby that has just seen itself in the mirror for the first time; it is too busy marvelling at the movements of its arms and legs to understand that it is part of a human lineage.
Now all eyes turn to my adopted home. Georgia’s politics are a long-running soap opera, and this year’s races would have been riveting even if the state hadn’t turned out to be instrumental in electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The race for our local county coroner was especially full of intrigue: there had been a woman in the running for a while who had never even handled a dead body, and then it turned out that she had, at some point in the past, actually killed two people with her car. A man named Gator Rivers won a county commission seat after his opponent was disqualified for concealing his past as a cocaine trafficker; he lied about it and snuck onto the ballot anyway. Gator will replace, in my heart, the local mayor we had once named Pig Jones, who used when drunk to phone Jason late at night at the newspaper just to chat. All this is characteristic. Georgia hasn’t been a blue state since 1992. In every election since 2000, it has on average tipped 300,000 votes in favour of the Republican presidential candidate. But the efforts of several grassroots organisations, led most notably by Stacey Abrams, have ushered in a shift. Abrams ran for governor here in 2018 and lost narrowly after the state GOP – at the last minute, and without notice – purged more than 100,000 mostly Black registered voters from the rolls. Over the past decade, she and other organisers have helped register more than 800,000 Georgians to cast legal ballots in a state that since Jim Crow has been among the country’s leaders in voter suppression. During the same period, liberal people have migrated south from places like New York City to towns like Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Columbus and Savannah; the demographics have changed. Part of Abrams’s on-the-ground theory is that people believe the stories about their states: if they are told they live in a red state or a blue state, they believe it, and that can decide whether they leave the house on Election Day. Four years ago I hardly thought it was worth voting here; this will never be the case again. Youthquake.
Now, for the next three months, Georgia is the centre of the American political universe, with both our Senate seats up for grabs in a run-off that pits the Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, two of the wealthiest members of Congress, against the Democrats Raphael Warnock, a minister in Atlanta, and Jon Ossoff, an investigative journalist who runs a documentary production company. Whichever party wins will control the Senate for the next two years. Is it possible to win these run-offs? I don’t know. In 1776, it is the arrival of the delegates from Georgia that revives the debate on independence, which had flagged and grown stagnant when Rutledge leaped onto the table for his show-stopper. Dr Lyman Hall of Liberty County returns to the chamber and declares that he is changing his NAY vote to YAY, nudging Georgia in favour of independence as the rest of the South follows. A just-so story, maybe. A song. But until January – amid the clamour and the unmeaning noise, and the voice that keeps calling out I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT! – I’ll be humming it.