Thursday, 3 Dec 2020

Exhausted and anxious, voters in US election find the country more divided than ever

HOLLYWOOD, FLORIDA (NYTIMES) – It was just after 2am on Wednesday (Nov 4) and President Donald Trump was speaking from the White House, declaring both victory and voter fraud.

Mr Dan Hensley, a lifelong Republican whose reservations about Mr Trump had given way to strong support for former vice-president Joe Biden, was sitting alone in his Amelia Island, Florida, beach house, listening to the President say he had already won the election even though millions of votes remained uncounted.

Mr Hensley, 63, rose from his favourite chair in the family room, turned off the television and went to bed, feeling like the country was more divided than ever.

“The great wedge in America just got bigger last night,” said Mr Hensley, a corporate executive who had cast steady votes for Republicans since 1976 except in 2016, when he did not choose Mr Trump or Mrs Hillary Clinton.

Three weeks ago, he joined his wife and two adult children in voting for Mr Biden.

Wednesday morning dawned with uncertainty, dissatisfaction and fear.

Hundreds of thousands of ballots were still being counted and major races – including for president – were still uncalled.

But some truths were perfectly clear: Mr Trump was not going to prove the experts wrong with a resounding win from the “silent majority”. And the Democrats were not going to deliver a decisive repudiation of Mr Trump’s party with victories up and down the ballot.

That meant that as the two political camps geared up for litigation and spin battles in the coming days, many voters of both parties were left with the troubling realisation that perhaps they had misunderstood their country, their towns, perhaps even their neighbours.

“Honestly, I woke up exhausted and anxious,” said Ms Marbili Walters, 37, a Venezuela-born Trump supporter and local business director who spent the last two weeks knocking on doors in St Petersburg, Florida, trying to convert voters.

“It feels like there is one side or the other side and voting for someone else should not feel like we are at war.”

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Across the Gulf of Mexico in Brownsville, Texas, Mr Tony Villalobos, 44, was eating lunch with a workmate at a bustling taqueria on Wednesday afternoon.

He had supported Mr Biden, who he thought was a better reflection of South Texas values, and had expected he would win in a landslide.

But not only did that not happen, Mr Trump had found support from those Mr Villalobos knows best – or thought he knew best.

“We were all on the same page and now we’re not,” he said. “In my friends and my family, now more and more people are going for Trump.”

Many Trump supporters and Biden supporters, pointing to poll numbers or boat rallies, had expected a definitive win for their preferred candidate, proof that clear majorities, even including people long assumed to be on the opposite side, quietly agreed with them about the country’s direction.

It turned out to be untrue. And now the question was this: What would come next?

Among the most common predictions was violence in the streets, talked of as if it were almost a sure thing – some harking back to the tumult of the 1960s.

Asked how this unrest might break out, most were quick with an answer: The other side would start it.

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If Mr Trump were in fact to pull off a victory in the end, “there’s still going to be riots”, said Mr Nicholas Lubischer, 60, a utility salesman in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina.

“There’s still going to be civil unrest, nothing’s going to change as far as the divide in the country.”

This sounded pessimistic coming from a Trump supporter like Mr Lubischer, who was convinced on Wednesday that Mr Trump won and was surprised only that the race had been so close.

But then he turned to the alternative.

If Mr Biden winds up winning, Mr Lubischer said he expected liberal politicians to incite street violence when their agenda was blocked by a Republican Senate.

“It’s going to be actually worse,” he said.

For many, it was not the division itself that was so troubling. It was the source of that divide, a difference in values far too profound to be amenable to compromise.

The election, for some of the most politically engaged, made it clearer that the only way forward was through more fighting.

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The early leaders of the Democratic activists – the “resistance” – who mustered after the 2016 election are now veterans.

Some of them were among the least shocked on Wednesday morning, even though they had been working toward this moment relentlessly for four years.

“It’s not 2016 anymore,” said Ms Valerie Fleisher, 43, who in January 2017 was a founding member of a group in the Pittsburgh suburbs called 412 Resistance.

“We’re not wringing our hands and saying, ‘How can this have happened?’ We know how this can happen. This is a very divided country right now and that division is based in racism.”

“This is going to be tough,” said Ms Fleisher, now a member of her local school board.

“We’re going to have to scratch out a win and then we’re going to have to fight like hell to protect the win, and any gains will be incremental and hard-fought.”

This lesson from Tuesday night – that one’s value system is in danger of being overrun without a fight – was shared across the political spectrum. The difference is which side appears to have the upper hand.

“I think the trend of our progressive culture is just overwhelming,” said Mr Terry Leap, 45, a Baptist pastor in northern Kentucky.

He was no fan of Mr Biden, considering him corrupt and in mental decline, and he did not like Mr Trump, seeing in his demagogy a bad leader for conservatives.

This has left him isolated, literally so on election night: Sequestered after a Covid-19 diagnosis, he watched the returns alone until 3am and then “went to bed very unsatisfied”.

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What worried him most was a sense that ageing social conservatives, though they appeared to put up a fight on Tuesday, were losing the ability to hold off an ascendant, secular left who had a very different conception of the country.

“This may be the last election that we see a very hotly contested electorate,” Mr Leap said dejectedly. “I don’t think there is an optimism for the future.”

Others saw the possibility of healing, or at least civility. But it would take time.

Mr Kameron Smith, 19, a sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta, voted for the first time, trading early support for Senator Elizabeth Warren for Mr Biden.

He woke up on Wednesday trying to make sense of an unresolved election.

Mr Smith expected urban centres to go for Mr Biden and figured rural areas would support Mr Trump.

What he did not anticipate was the anger some felt at the prospect of losing, describing the election as a fundamental fight over personal values – such as human rights versus capitalism – that had been forced out front by the pandemic.

He said it would take at least two terms for a president, any president, focused on unity to bridge what he described as two Americas.

“The last 24 hours showed me that America is not what we thought it was,” said Mr Smith, a political science major who voted in his hometown, Newport News, Virginia.

“I feel like this is the beginning of something to the tune of the 1960s with massive protests in the streets, and maybe something close to violence,” he said.

“There is just so much outrage that has been building over the last four years, and the skeletons are falling out of the closet.”

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One of the main diagnoses of our national discord is that the warring halves of the country live and work in different places and watch competing news shows.

But this is not entirely the case. There are plenty with strong views who have found themselves living among the other half.

Mr Bryan Koehler, 55, manages a brewery with two locations in rural western Pennsylvania, deep in the heart of Trump Country.

A Republican who is aghast at how Mr Trump has run things, Mr Koehler keeps his opinions mostly to himself at the brewery and at the regular card games with old friends.

They surely know what he thinks. But they also know not to ask about it.

“It’s like there’s something there that’s nagging that’s not right, the world’s not spinning the right way,” he said of living among people who see the world so differently.

“And you ask yourself, ‘What am I missing here? Should I be seeing the world a different way?'”

Still, he does not see his beliefs about right and wrong changing, anymore than he sees his friends coming around to his views. And now, after this election reinforced what the half of the country he lives in truly wants, he will say even less.

“Get up tomorrow and keep going,” he said, by way of self-advice.

“Take care of the things that you need to take care of over the next four years. And hope we start to head in a different direction.”

For live updates and results, follow our US election live coverage.

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