‘None of the old rules apply’: Dave Eggers travels through post-election America


From dazed election night revellers in Washington DC to a gay Trump voter in Detroit to kids in Kentucky … The US writer gauges the mood of a divided nation

The word surreal is overused and often wrongly used, but in the case of the Washington Post Election Night Live party, the word was apt. First of all, it was a disco. There was a DJ playing a frenetic mix of contemporary Top 40 and pointedly apropos songs such as Pat Benatars Hit Me With Your Best Shot (Youre a real tough cookie with a long history ). Behind the DJ there were dozens of screens showing various television networks coverage of the election. The screens were so bright and so huge, and the colours so primary and vivid, that the experience was like being trapped inside an enormous jar of jelly beans.

Women dressed like Vegas showgirls made their way through the crowd with towering tiered hats adorned with chocolates from one of the evenings sponsors. The chocolates, round and the size of strawberries, were offered in pairs, enclosed in loose plastic sacks a bizarre but perhaps intentionally lewd optic? The bartenders were setting out Campari Americanos by the dozens. The food was by chefs Jos Andrs and the brothers Voltaggio. The Washington Post has a right to celebrate the paper is thriving and its political coverage extraordinary but this felt like Rome before the fall.

At some point early on, the music was turned down for 20 minutes so Karen Attiah of the Post could moderate a live conversation between the current German ambassador, Peter Wittig, and former Mexican ambassador Arturo Sarukhan. The talk was serious and enlightening, but the ambassadors seemed baffled by the nightclub atmosphere, and besides, few people were listening. The party was about the party.

And everyone expected Hillary Clinton to win. The attendees were largely Washington insiders lobbyists, staffers, legislative aides, pundits and producers. Most were liberal and most were confident. The nights only potential for suspense centred around whether or not Clinton would take some of the toss-up states, like Florida and North Carolina. When she was declared the winner which was expected before the partys scheduled end-time of 10 oclock there would be talk of who would be appointed what, with a not-insignificant portion of the partygoers in line for positions in the new administration.

Thus the mood was ebullient at seven oclock, when the event started, and was electric by eight. Kentucky and Indiana were announced for Donald Trump and that news was met with a shrug. More scantily clad women walked through the rooms serving hors doeuvres, and soon there were at least three showgirls wearing hats of towering testicle-chocolates. Young Washingtonians swayed to the music. Drinks were set under chairs and spilled. A young girl in a beautiful party dress walked through the drunken partygoers looking for her parents.

Then nine oclock came around and the party began to turn. Most of the states thus far had gone for Trump. None of these victories was unexpected, but the reddening of the national map was disheartening, and the margins in those states were often greater than expected. He took Texas, North Dakota, Kansas, Mississippi. Not a problem for the crowd, but by 9.30, people were panicking. Trump was leading in Florida and North Carolina. Nate Silver, the statistics shaman who had been roundly criticised for overestimating Trumps chances, now posted that a Trump victory was likely. Ohio was in the bag, Pennsylvania was trending toward him, and it looked like he could win Wisconsin and Michigan. A hundred guests turned their attention from the big screens to their little screens. They paced and made calls. The party emptied and we all spilled into the streets. Beyond the Washington Post building and beyond DC, the country had been swamped by a white tsunami few saw coming.

Election night at The Washington Post. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

For a few hours, the city had the feeling of a disaster movie. People scurried this way and that. Some wandered around dazed. Following the returns, we travelled from restaurant to bar to home, and the Somali and Ethiopian cabbies were stunned, worried less about Trump than about the prospect of Rudy Giuliani serving in the cabinet in any capacity. We all talked about where we will move: Belize; New Zealand; Canada. We no longer knew our own country. In Columbia Heights, when the election was settled, a young woman biking up the hill stopped, threw her bike into the middle of the road, sat on a kerb and began weeping. No no no no, she wailed.

The omens were there if you looked. A month before the election, Id driven from Pittsburgh to the Philadelphia suburbs and saw nothing but Trump/Pence signs. In three days I covered about 1,200 miles of back roads and highway some of the prettiest country you can find on this continent and saw not one sign, large or small, in support of Clinton. The only time any mention of her was made at all was on an enormous billboard bearing her face with a Pinocchio nose.

I did see Confederate flags. James Carville, the political strategist, recently quipped that Pennsylvania is Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between, and there is some truth to that. There are a lot of men in camouflage jackets. There are a lot of men out of work. When you stop at gas stations, the magazine sections are overwhelmed by periodicals devoted to guns, hunting and survival. Then there are the tidy farms and rolling hills, the equestrian centres with their white fences, the wide swaths of Amish and Mennonites and Quakers.

I was in rural Pennsylvania to see the United 93 National Memorial in Shanksville a monument to the 40 passengers and crew who died in a windswept field on 9/11. The day I visited was bright and clear. The surrounding country was alive with autumn colours and, far on distant ridgelines, white windmills turned slowly. Just off the parking lot, a park ranger in forest green was standing before a diverse group of middle school students, admonishing them. Boys and girls. Boys and girls, he said. Youre standing here where people died. There are still human remains here. Youre goofing around and laughing, and I shouldnt have to tell you to be respectful. They deserve that. They quieted for a moment before one of the boys nudged another, and the giggling began again.

Trump supporters rally in Oceanside, California. Photograph: Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images

The memorial is beautifully constructed and devastating in its emotional punch. Visitors can walk the flightpath of the plane, a gently sloping route down to the crash site, which is separated from the footpath by a low wall. Its a grave, another ranger explained. So we dont walk there. Higher on the hill, there is an indoor visitor centre that recreates every moment of the day in excruciating detail. There are video loops of the Twin Towers being destroyed, fragments of the plane, pictures and bios of every passenger, details about the calls they made from the plane once they knew they would die. It is shattering.

Leaving the museum, a man in front of me, young and built like a weightlifter, couldnt push the door open. I reached over him to help and he turned to thank me. His face was soaked with tears. I got into my car, shaken but heartened by the courage of the 40 humans who had realised what was happening that they were passengers on a missile headed for the White House or Capitol building and had sacrificed their lives to save untold numbers in Washington DC. The American passengers of United 93 were from 35 different cities in 11 different states, but they died together to save the capital from incalculable loss of lives and what might have been a crippling blow to the nations psyche.

I left the memorial and turned on to a two-lane road, part of the Lincoln Highway that runs through the state part of the first coast-to-coast highway in the United States. Just beyond a sign advertising home-grown sweetcorn, there was a residential home, the first house anyone might encounter when leaving the United Memorial, and on this home, there is a vast Confederate flag draped over the front porch.

Its important to note that this was the Lincoln Highway. And that the civil war ended 160 years ago. And that Pennsylvania was not a state in the Confederacy. So to see this, an enormous Confederate flag in a Union state, a mile from a symbol of national tragedy and shared sacrifice, was an indicator that there was something very unusual in the mood of the country. Ancient hatreds had resurfaced. Strange alliances had been formed. None of the old rules applied.

The Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Mark Makela/Reuters

Steven McManus has come out of the closet twice. First as a gay man, then as a Trump supporter. We were sitting at a coffee shop in Detroits Eastern Market neighbourhood, and McManus was almost vibrating. This was two days after Trumps election, and McManus was elated about the victory, yes, but more personally, about the fact that after Trumps election, hed had the courage to post a message on social media declaring his support of the president-elect.

I lived a lot of my life as a closeted guy, McManus said, and the liberation I felt as a man coming out was similar to how I felt coming out for Trump. You really truly think youre the only one who has these feelings. Its liberating. I felt it was time to come out again.

McManus is a thin man in his late 30s, bald and bespectacled, with a close-cropped beard. He grew up in the part of the Detroit suburbs known as Downriver. Many of the areas residents had come from the American south in the 1940s to work in the auto factories, and the area still retains a southern feel. His father was a salesman who brokered space on trucking lines. Looking back on it now, McManus appreciated the fact that his parents could raise five children on one salesmans salary. But then came the Nafta, and the gutting of much of the Detroit auto manufacturing base. McManus watched as Detroit and Flint hollowed out and caved in.

Trump was the only candidate talking about the trade imbalance, McManus said. Being a businessman, a successful businessman, he understood why business decision-makers, at the highest levels of their companies, move their production overseas. McManus was angry when auto companies, after receiving bailouts from the US government in 2009, continued to move production to Mexico. In Detroit, we gave America the middle class. But this is now a false economy. The housing market is decimated, and the middle class is shrinking. I want someone to shake it up. Lets move the whole country forward.

McManus is not blind to the rareness of an openly gay man supporting Trump. But I dont have to vote a certain way based on my sexuality. In my mind weve moved beyond having to vote Democrat just because youre gay. And hes not worried about a reversal of the hard-fought right to marriage gays just achieved. Weve got our rights now, he said. Its settled. McManus and his husband got married three years ago in New York, before the supreme court decision legalised gay marriage nationwide, and it was in his new place of domestic tranquillity that McManus watched the Republican national convention. Two moments affected him profoundly. First was the appearance of Peter Thiel, the former CEO of PayPal, who was given a prime speakers spot and said from the stage, Every American has a unique identity. I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I am proud to be an American.

McManus was moved then, but he was even more affected by an unscripted part of Trumps speech. It was shortly after the Orlando massacre, and for the first time in my life, a Republican candidate for president said things like, forty-nine wonderful Americans, or beautiful Americans or whatever he said, were savagely murdered. And he said, I will protect gay and lesbian individuals. Some people at the convention cheered and some people didnt cheer. And then Trump said, off the cuff and off the teleprompter, he said, For those of you who cheered, I thank you. And I cried. I cried.

McManuss husband works for the army, as an IT specialist, and they both became bothered by Clintons email setup. If my husband had done the same thing, hed be fired. And its pretty hard to get fired from a government job. McManus began to follow Trump more closely, and found that he was agreeing with most of hispositions on trade, immigration and national security. I began to realise that Im more conservative than I thought. But he couldnt reveal this. He lives in Detroit, a liberal city, and works in the restaurant industry in town, where left-leaning politics dominate. But after coming out as a Trump supporter, he is finding himself emboldened. The day after the election, McManus saw his doctor, who is Muslim, and he mentioned that hed voted for Trump.

I just wanted to get it off my chest. I was feeling a little McManus sits up in his chair, to indicate the new confidence he felt that day. I told him, I came out as a Trump supporter today. And he went off for 15 minutes to the point where I almost walked out. He was impassioned about how he felt that Trump was disenfranchising Muslim-Americans. But our present state of terrorism does have a religious undertone to it. Finally I managed to get something off my chest. I cant remember who said this to me, either my husband or my ex, but I said to my doctor, You know, it wasnt a group of Catholic nuns that flew planes into the World Trade Center.

Proud to be a Republican Peter Thiel. Photograph: ddp USA/REX/Shutterstock

Later that night in Detroit, I ran into Rob Mickey, a professor of political science. He grew up in Texas, but has spent about 10 years teaching at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. We were at a party benefiting an educational nonprofit. Doing something concrete and positive felt good, and being around kids felt good, but everyone was exhausted no one had slept since the election and 30 seconds into every conversation it turned to Trump, Clinton, what had gone wrong and what would happen next. One of the events attendees had been living in a central American cloud forest for years, and there was much talk about following her down there.

I told Mickey about McManus, and to him, the story of the gay Trump supporter was both surprising and unsurprising. Everything about 2016 was upside down. Parts of Michigan who had voted twice for Obama had turned to Trump. Rob and his wife Jenny had gone canvassing for Clinton on the Sunday before the election, and the reception they received was not warm.

I would say it was hostile, he said.

They had gone to Milan, Michigan, an overwhelmingly white town 50 miles southwest of Detroit. Its spelled like the Italian town, but pronounced MY-lan, Rob pointed out. The Clinton campaign had given Rob and Jenny a list of names and addresses of white working-class residents who had registered as Democrats but were labelled sporadic voters. Milan had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and winning towns such as Milan was key to delivering a Clinton victory in Michigan.

The homes they visited were run-down, with No Soliciting placards on every door. They saw no Clinton signs on anyones lawn. There were Trump signs scattered around town, but most of the residents they met were disgusted by the entire election. One woman said, I dont want to have nothing to do with that, Mickeyrecalled. Another said, I hate them both, including that guy of yours. When I pointed out that our candidate was a woman, she said, Whatever and slammed the door.

One house with a Bernie Sanders sign on the lawn looked promising. Mickey knocked on the door. A white man with a US ARMY shirt answered. He was missing an arm. Mickey introduced himself as a Clinton canvasser, and told the man he had supported Sanders, too, during the primary. Thats great, the man said, and closed the door.

The people we met that day were straight out of central casting, if you were making a movie about the disaffected white working class, Mickey said. Between 55 and 65, without college degrees. You could see that Lena Dunham and Katy Perry were not going to do anything to form a bridge to these people. If I hadnt read any polls, and I was basing it just on the people I met, I would have thought, boy, Clintons going to get wiped out.

It was different in 2008. Knowing that Michigan was securely in Obamas column and Ohio was on the bubble, Rob and Jenny went to Toledo to knock on doors in trailer parks and housing projects. Foreclosure signs were common. When they introduced themselves as canvassers for Obama, the residents, all of them white, were welcoming and chatty. The interactions were long, Mickey said. The people were worried and they wanted to talk. Ohios 18 electoral votes went to Obama in 2008 and 2012.

This campaign wore a lot of people down, Mickey said. The state was bombarded by pro-Clinton ads, but she failed to offer any sustained and coherent economic message. She said, Im not crazy and Im not a sexist racist pig, but for working class whites thats not enough. I would say that of the people who slammed their doors on me, most of them didnt vote for either candidate.

A Hillary Clinton supporter applauds her televised concession speech. Photograph: Steven Senne/AP

In fact, an unprecedented number of Michigan voters cast ballots without choosing either Clinton or Trump. This kind of voting happens every election where voters make their preferences known down-ballot but dont mark anyone for president but never in such numbers. In 2012, there were 50,000 Michigan voters who declined to choose any presidential candidate. In 2016, there were 110,000.

Clinton lost Michigan by 13,107 votes.

The week after the election, the business of the United States went on. Schools and banks were open. The stock market plummeted and rose to a new high. Commuters commuted, and I was headed from Detroit to Kentucky. All of this was travel planned months before, and none of it had anything to do with the election, but it felt like I was making my way, intentionally, into the heart of Trump country.

At Detroit airport it was impossible not to feel the tragedy of Tuesday as having realigned our relationships with each other. Because the voting had split so dramatically along racial lines, how could an African-American or Latino pass a white person on the street, or at baggage claim, and not wonder, Which side are you on?

The emergence of safety pins to symbolise support for Clinton (and equality and inclusion) was inevitable it fulfilled a need, particularly on the part of white Americans, to signal where they stand. Otherwise all iconography is subject to misinterpretation. At the airport, I found an older white man staring at me. His eyes narrowed to slits. I was baffled until I realised he was looking at my baseball hat, which bore the logo and name of a Costa Rican beer called Imperial. Was this man a Clinton supporter who suspected me of being a white nationalist? Was the word Imperial sending a Ku Klux Klan/Third Reich signal to him?

Anyway, I was in the wrong terminal. I was in danger of missing a flight to Louisville, so I left and poked my head into a Hertz bus and asked the driver if he would be stopping near Delta anytime soon. He paused for a moment.

Yeah, Ill take you, he said.

His name was Carl. He was a lanky African-American man in his 60s, and we rode alone, just me and him in this enormous bus, for a time. He asked how I was doing. I told him I was terrible. I was feeling terrible, but I also wanted him to know which side I was on. He laughed.

A traveller in Detroit airport. Photograph: Jim Young/REUTERS

Yeah, I was surprised on Tuesday, too, he said. But I almost feel sorry for Trump. I dont think he thought hed actually win. You see him sitting next to Obama at the Oval Office? He looked like a child.

In Louisville, three days after the election, I sat with 32 students at Fern Creek high school. This was supposed to be a regular classroom visit by someone passing through, but the atmosphere was different now. The students at Fern Creek are from 28 countries. They speak 41 languages. There are refugees from Syria, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We sat in an oval and ate samosas. Nepalese samosas, I was told. Three of the students in the class were from Nepal, and had a particular recipe. The food was extraordinary.

I told these students, three girls still learning English, that Id always wanted to go to Nepal, and asked them to write down some places theyd recommend. They wrote Jhapa, Damak (Refugee camp). They were from Bhutan and had grown up in a UNHCR camp in eastern Nepal. A young man to my left had come from Iraq two years earlier.

Their teachers, Joseph Franzen and Brent Peters, guided the conversation through topics of creativity, social justice and empathy. The students were without exception thoughtful, attentive and respectful of each others opinions. Every time a student finished a statement, the rest of the class snapped, Beat-style, in appreciation. We didnt talk politics. For the time being, the students had had enough of politics. The day after the election, theyd had a charged discussion about the results, and, still feeling raw, they had written about the discussion the next day.

The thing I didnt say yesterday was that Muslims scare me. The thing with Isis is out of control and I dont trust them at all and I dont get why Mexicans cant take the test to become legal? Are they lazy?

The election didnt really bother me even with the outcome, I didnt support Trump. The main reason I cared about Clinton winning was cause I didnt want my family to be affected. My mom is gay and married to a woman.

As a Muslim female in high school its hard to deal with this and let it sink in. But I know Trump doesnt have full power of his actions. So I feel like even if hes president, everything will be the same.

I was downright disappointed in the country. Because Trump won, racism, sexism, misogyny and xenophobia won. It goes to show what our country values now. Either this is what we value, or this is what the majority is OK with.

I feel like everything said yesterday doesnt even matter anymore. We as American citizens cant change whats been decided. Not everybody gets what they want. Thats what life is. Trump will be our new president and we cant change that. WE need to make America great again, NOT Trump. Thats our job as people.

I think Trump and Hillary are both crazy and Im kind of eager to see how trump runs this b—h.

And so we see how differently we express ourselves on paper. The students, sitting in their oval with the smell of Nepalese samosas filling the room, were unfailingly kind to each other. But on paper, other selves were unleashed. Despite the many international students, the schools population is mostly American-born, 48% white and 38% black, and it was easy to see how Trump could bring dormant grievances to the fore, could give licence to reactionary theories and kneejerk assumptions. The students had witnessed eight years of exquisite presidential self-control and dignity, and now there would be a 70-year-old man in the White House whose feelings were easily hurt, who called people names, and who tweeted his complaints at all hours, with rampant misspellings and exclamation marks. Our only hope will be that the 100 million or so young people in American schools behave better than the president. A president who has not read a book since he was last required to. Think of it.

After the class, a tall African-American student named Devin approached me. Hed introduced himself before the class, and had asked some very sophisticated questions about using imagery to convey meaning in his poetry. He was a wide receiver on the schools football team, he said, but he was also a writer. He handed me a loose-leaf piece of paper, and on it was a prose-poem he wanted me to look at.

We sat on top of my house, laying back, looking at the stars, the stars shining, waving back at us. They told us hello. Time froze. I turned my head to look at you. Still fixated on the stars, you paid me no mind. I studied you. This was the true face of beauty. Your royal blue eyes, the brown polka dots on your face. Your smile making the moon envious because it could not compare in light. I reached out to grab your hand. You turned your eyes to look at me. Our hands intersected and we both smiled. I told you you were were beautiful.

Below the piece, Devin wrote, in red ink, Do I have something here? Should I continue?

Anti-Trump Protesters march through Los Angeles on 12 November. Photograph: UPI / Barcroft Images

That night in Louisville there was another benefit event, this one for an organisation called Teach Kentucky, which recruits high-achieving college graduates to come to the state to teach in the public schools. Joe Franzen and Brent Peters are among Teach Kentuckys recruits, and if they are any indication of the quality of humans the organisation is attracting, the programme is a runaway success.

At the event, Franzen and Peters spoke about their craft, and about making sure their students felt they had a place at the table. There was much talk about their classrooms as families, of meals shared by all, of mutual respect. It was very calm and heartening, but there was also a moment where the audience was encouraged to let out a primal scream (my idea, I admit it), and 200 people did that, screamed, exorcising our election-week demons. Later on, Jim James Louisville resident and leader of the rock band My Morning Jacket performed a medley of songs, from Leonard Cohen to All You Need Is Love and Blowin in the Wind. And then everyone got drunk.

There was good bourbon. It was called brown water by the locals, and after stomachs were full, we all vacillated between despair and measured hope. But the questions loomed over the night like the shadow of a Nazi zeppelin. Would he really try to build a wall? Would he really try to exclude all Muslims? Would he actually appoint a white nationalist as his chief of staff? And did 42% of American women really vote for a man who threatened to overturn Roe v Wade and who bragged about grabbing them by the pussy? Did the white working class really elect a man whose most famous catchphrase was Youre fired? Like a teenager with poor self-esteem, the American people had chosen the flashy and abusive boyfriend over the steady, boring one. Weve had enough decency for one decade, the electorate decided. Give us chaos.

It is not easy to get a ticket to Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. This is the newest museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC, and its design, by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, is so successful, at once immediately iconic and bold but also somehow blending into the low-slung surrounding architecture, that it has become the most talked-about building in the United States.

Admission is free, but there is a six-month wait for passes, and the passes are timed. If you get a pass, you must enter at the assigned hour or wait another six months. I had gotten such a timed pass, and it so happened that the pass was for the day after the election. That morning, I had the choice between staying in bed, forgoing my one chance at seeing the building in 2016, or rising on three hours sleep and keeping the appointment. Like millions of others, I did not want the day to begin. If I woke up, I would check the news, and if I checked the news, there would be confirmation of what I had remembered foggily from the night before that the people of America had elected a reality television host as their president. I closed my eyes, wanting sleep.

Then I remembered the Gazans.

Back in April, I had been in the Gaza Strip and had met a married couple, Mahmoud and Miriam, journalists and activists who badly wanted to leave Gaza. I had e-introduced them to an asylum lawyer in San Francisco, but from 7,000 miles away, she couldnt do much to help. The impossible thing was that they actually had a visa. A real visa issued by the American state department. All they had to do was get out of Gaza. But permissions were needed from the Israelis or Egyptians, and they were having no luck with either. Finally, one day in October, an email arrived. Mahmoud and Miriam were in Brooklyn. Theyd bribed an Egyptian guard at the Rafah gate and had made their way on a 14hour journey through Sinai.


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