New York City wakes to Donald Trump President-elect
It wasn’t until well after 2am that anyone inside Hillary Clinton’s election party at the Javits Centre realised they wouldn’t be seeing their candidate that night. By the time campaign chairman John Podesta was sent out, the chants of “Love Trumps hate” had already faded. “Several states are too close,” Podesta told the thinned-out crowd, standing under a glass ceiling whose symbolism had soured as the results rolled in. “So we’re not going to have any more to say tonight.”
Glued to their phones, Hillary’s supporters had come to a different conclusion. “Trump just took Pennsylvania,” a teenage girl in a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt announced as everyone pushed out into the New York night. “What did you just say?” a cop asked her, peering at the screen.
The news spread quickly: Donald Trump was going to succeed Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. “Look at these smug assholes,” said a man in his 70s, angling his iPad for his wife to see. It was a photo of young Trump supporters at the nearby Midtown Hilton – all white, all men, and all wearing those distinctive “Make America great again” caps.
“I feel like I’m dreaming,” came his wife’s reply. “This can’t be real.”
Out on 10th Avenue, the sanitation trucks that had been used to barricade off sensitive streets and buildings around New York for election day were starting up again. Rubbish was being picked up, the lights were still on. There wasn’t even an Uber surge. But it felt like something had shifted.
The morning lightened slowly, revealing a dreary, overcast day. Amid drizzling rain, New Yorkers paced the sidewalks; heads downcast, skim-reading the first dissections of what had just happened. “Trump triumphs,” announced The New York Times. Passing a tiny grocer on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, a businessman in a tight suit did a double take at the front page. Somehow, he’d missed the biggest story in the world. Although for the past 18 months, so had nearly everybody else. Less than 24 hours before, the Times had given Clinton an 85 per cent chance of winning, of becoming the first female American president.
In Central Park, the joggers were still jogging. Because there’s a certain type of person who’ll always run, even in the rain. There’s a certain type of person who’ll still run, even after one of the biggest electoral upsets in history.
“ ‘Runners have Type A controlled personalities,’ ” Joan Didion once quoted a runner as saying, “ ‘and they don’t like their schedules interrupted.’ ” Didion was writing about a Central Park jogger, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old banker, who was found beaten and raped on April 19, 1989. The case divided New York along race, gender and socioeconomic lines, pressing into sores of inequality and discrimination that have never fully scabbed over. “By May 2, when she first woke from coma, six black and Hispanic teenagers … had been charged with her assault and rape,” Didion wrote. “She had become, unwilling and unwitting, a sacrificial player in the sentimental narrative that is New York public life.”
Just a day before Meili woke, now president-elect Donald Trump took out full-page ads in four major New York newspapers, calling for a return of the death penalty. He was directing the full force of his wealth and outrage at the young men who’d been arrested for her assault. “I recently watched a newscast trying to explain the ‘anger in these young men’,” Trump wrote in the ad. “I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.”
In 2002, all of the boys – dubbed the Central Park Five – had their convictions vacated, after a serial rapist admitted to Meili’s attack. In the aftermath, it was revealed that the police investigation had hardly considered other possible suspects. “Had Donald had his way,” said Yusef Salaam, one of the Five who campaigned for Hillary Clinton this year, “I’d be dead.”
At Trump Tower in Midtown, the world’s media was still in waiting. Camped out along two blocks of 5th Avenue, huddled under umbrellas, they strained for sound bites from the last remaining Hillary and Trump diehards. Reporters outnumbered protesters two to one. “You just elected a rapist!” one man screamed at another, who passed wearing a Trump 2016 beanie. From the windows of the Trump stronghold, security peered down, shaking their heads in what, from a distance, looked like disbelief.
Behind the barricade, an older man in a leather jacket held up a “Blacks for Trump” sign. He’d voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008. “They had eight years and they did nothing,” he said, proud of his vote for Trump. “It’s time for a change.”
Careful to hold his sign in full view of the TV cameras, he launched into a measured explanation of how Trump will make America great again – bringing jobs back from overseas, fixing the inner cities, renegotiating trade deals – before straying into conspiracy: Hillary, he said, wanted to start a one-world government.
“She’s conceding,” came the word from one TV producer, watching a live stream from the ballroom of the New Yorker Hotel a few blocks south. “I’m sorry,” Clinton began, a decidedly female response to such a huge loss. As she spoke, the camera cut between the sobbing faces of aides and volunteers – anger was absent, it seemed, leaving only sadness.
Further downtown, the awful weather had cleared even the most determined tourists from the 9/11 memorial. Crossing the plaza, a lonely pair of Wall Street types chattered about how quickly the markets had recovered after they dipped in shock over Trump’s win. The men passed between the two sunken squares, paved in dark stone, which are now all that remains of the Twin Towers.
If you stand at any point around “Reflecting Absence”, as the site is called, it’s impossible to perceive just how deep the memorial to September 11, 2001, stretches down into the earth. It would be overly simplistic to try to trace the genesis of the Trump phenomenon to those horrifying attacks – even though many Twitter commentators thought it clever to draw a 9/11 parallel between the two dates. For all of its bravado, there has always been a seemingly bottomless pit of fear festering at the centre of the American experience. From Pilgrim superstition to the Red Terror. But since 2001, the belief has hardened within great swaths of the country that the real threat, ever imminent, is coming from the outside. From the other.
Perhaps that’s how almost everyone missed it, the rising tide, the coming storm. Or, as Don Watson put it in his eviscerating Quarterly Essay on Trump, the “enemy within”.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 12, 2016 as "After the storm". Subscribe here.