As 2020 draws to a close, FRANCE 24’s François Picard digs into his reporter’s notebook to recount the prime-time jitters while covering the November 3 US election as the world watched democracy being put to the test.
That sinking feeling was back.
It’s US Election Night 2020, and as the first returns trickle in, our FRANCE 24 crew immediately senses that once again, the pollsters have got it wrong. Would democracy in the world’s most powerful nation be put to the test, as worst-case scenario pundits had warned?
Although we are posted to an outdoor beer garden in Washington, D.C., the atmosphere is, well, sober as patrons sit in socially distant clusters to take part in the time-honoured spectacle of watching returns come in from across the country. The partisan crowd in the heavily Democratic capital city greets encouraging early returns with restrained cheers.
Unspoken is the shell-shocked feeling we had witnessed four years earlier when a watch party in Alexandria, Virginia emptied out as soon as Hillary Clinton lost Florida to Donald Trump, the candidate who’d peddled the birther theory and called Mexicans rapists.
By 10pm ET, Joe Biden had also lost the Sunshine State. Despite the record turnout, Democrats knew that their hopes of the kind of “clean kill” needed to quieten conspiracy theorists had been dashed. The election would be tight, drawn out and going to the courts.
After a few hours of restless sleep, we wake up with the gnawing fear that the ghosts of 2016 were returning. With the long count of absentee ballots barely underway in some states, Trump still leads in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia, while Biden clings to a precarious lead in Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada.
Why is it even competitive? With turnout much higher than in 2016, how could Trump broaden his constituency this time? Back then, he stunned the Republican Party in the primaries by energising citizens who normally don’t vote. Could he really get more votes?
“People are desperate, people are scared,” was the disheartened assessment of one Democratic Party operative who had voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries. “Exit polls were correct when citizens listed Covid as their number one issue, only we interpreted it wrong,” she added.
In a nation where health coverage often depends on the employer’s plan, Trump’s resistance to face masks and social distancing appeared to mesh with the message that the Democrats were the party of shutting down the economy.
But it’s not only the economy.
Sunshine by day, anxiety at night
More than 74 million Americans voted for the incumbent with polls showing 77 percent of them believing his baseless claims of voter fraud.
The pandemic had accentuated the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots, between city slickers and country folk. The system felt rigged and, as one Biden camp insider admitted, “to outcasts, the Democratic party has become the party of the establishment”.
In the nation’s capital, where Democrats and Republicans most often tend to be of the establishment kind, the vote count mirrored the strangely unseasonable weather.
By day, as returns from key states started to crystallise in Biden’s favour and Washington, D.C. basked in glorious sunshine, officials and operatives of both camps calmly predicted that one by one, Republicans would quietly nudge Trump in the direction of recognising the will of the people.
But nighttime is prime time for cable news channels where manic anxiety is the business model, particularly during a pandemic. If Republicans were, for the most part, still loyal Trump supporters intent on scuppering the transition, how far would they go? What about the likelihood of a Republican-controlled Senate under a president Biden with Trump refusing to go?
Saturday public party on the plaza
The Saturday after Election Day, as Pennsylvania predicts a slowing of its ballot count, our FRANCE 24 crew starts to pack for a road trip to cover the Rudy Giuliani-led legal show in Philadelphia.
It’s late morning when CNN and then the Associated Press call the Keystone State for native son Joe Biden. Supporters grab their face masks, signs and musical instruments to converge on what’s been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza across from the fenced-off access to The White House.
The release of pent-up joy is epic for those who streamed onto 16th Street, a rare moment of communion in the midst of a gloomy pandemic.
On their way, Biden supporters march past all those boarded-up storefronts. The plywood had gone up preemptively before Election Day, a nod to previous bouts of rioting during the long, hot Black Lives Matter summer of 2020 and a reminder of the tensions still simmering in America.
“Is Trump really playing golf right now?” asks an incredulous street party reveller. The answer was “yes”. The US president was at one of his private courses in Sterling, Virginia still insisting on Twitter that he’d won the election “by a lot”. The power play was far from over.
Victory speeches and standing by the system
The 78-year old Biden was the clear winner with a popular vote margin that’s since climbed to seven million, but how does he deal with those 77 percent of Trump voters who disagree?
Most surprising to a visiting European is that Americans still have faith. The long-simmering culture war stoked by a long unwinding of the social fabric that journalist George Packer dates back to the post-Watergate Reagan revolution may have become a four-alarm fire under Trump, yet Americans still believe in the exceptionalism of their 240-year old constitution.
One after the other, players and watchers from both sides of the divide insist to me that they stand by the system and its institutions.
For one night, the manic anxiety of the cable news channels gives way to relief and euphoria.
At the Delaware Chase Convention Center, before president-elect Joe Biden delivers his 2020 victory speech, it’s the turn of his running mate. Kamala Harris spells out the challenge to a nation more tribal and politicised than at any time in living memory.
“America’s democracy is not guaranteed,” said the vice president-elect. “It’s only as strong as our willingness to fight for it.”
An uplifting line, but does it unwittingly offer the concession that maybe America’s exceptionalism is not eternal, that no constitution is sacred and no democracy is guaranteed?