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.