Culture

48 Hours In Trump’s America: An Australian’s Report From Inside The New York Bubble

It's been one hell of a week.

Rachel Withers is an Australian political junkie currently living in New York. Earlier this week she thought this would give her a front-row seat for one of the most exciting moments in history. What she got was something slightly different. 

This is what’s been happening in New York — before, during, and in the aftermath of this week’s historic election.

10am

Mood: Christmas Day

Location: Cafe, Brooklyn

The end-of-campaign analyses were rolling in, and my three Aussie visitors and I inhaled them over our Brooklyn brunches.

We talked about where in Manhattan we wanted to be when it happened — both candidates’ election night parties were in New York that night, and my favourite not-for-profit bookstore was hosting a live viewing party with drinking games and political bingo for what was sure to be a liberal-minded crowd. I said I would be at the bookstore until the speeches were done, and then would revel in the streets with anyone who wanted to.

We played with the Election Day Snapchat filters, celebrating every small piece of joy we could get from the day.

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1pm

Mood: Stickers!

Location: Polling stations, Brooklyn

As political tourists, we were keen to see some US democracy in action. Neither of the Brooklyn polling stations we visited had a line, which was sad. They also didn’t have any democracy sausages, which was sadder. We figured the crowds were in Manhattan.

We got ourselves some ‘I VOTED’ stickers (“my friends here have come all the way from Australia!”) and wore them with pride.

4pm

Mood: We Can Do It!

Location: My apartment, Brooklyn

I couldn’t decide what I wanted to be wearing when the glass ceiling broke; a moment I’d spent so long thinking and writing about. I knew it wouldn’t really matter if I was wearing white for the suffragettes or dressed as Rosie the Riveter when it happened — I’d be too busy dancing and laughing and crying and hugging strangers to even notice.

As I tied my twisted-up shirt around my head, I couldn’t stop thinking of my favourite Julia Gillard quote: “What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that.”

6pm

Mood: Anticipation

Location: Housing Works Bookstore Election Party, Manhattan

I met my friend Louisa from Seattle, dressed in suffragette white, in the line for the bookstore. We had been talking about Clinton since the day we met. This was important to Louisa — her great grandmother had been part of the suffragette movement, her grandmother was President of the League of Women Voters, and back home in Seattle her mother too was dressed head-to-toe in white.

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The event felt more like a New Year’s countdown than a live results feed. The vibe amongst the liberal New Yorkers was euphoric, a combination of mounting anticipation for the historic moment and “it’s finally over!” for the country that had been stuck on this horrible ride for more than a year. Soon they would no longer have to see Trump on their screens every day.

There were pantsuits everywhere, and I wasn’t the only Rosie the Riveter. It was the sort of party where you made friends in line for the bathroom.

7pm

Mood: Jubilant

Location: Housing Works Bookstore Election Party, Manhattan

We knocked back cheap beers like they were glasses of expensive champagne. The feed to the CNN broadcast kept cutting out for minutes at a time (“we’re really glad you’re all here, but we’re going to ask you again to PLEASE stop using our free wifi so we can all enjoy the telecast”) but it didn’t matter. We were celebrating a foregone conclusion. We were in the media capital of the world, and the media had essentially called this in the morning.

Wild cheers went up from the crowd every time Clinton won a state, even if it was a given. Everyone applauded wildly for themselves, as the blue-ticked box for New York flashed across the screen.

9pm

Mood: ???

Location: Housing Works Bookstore Election Party, Manhattan

Things were slowing, the crowd was still drinking, and Trump was climbing in Florida. I didn’t know enough about which parts of Florida were reporting, so I messaged my friend and American-Antony-Green, Max.

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10pm

Mood: Panic

Location: Housing Works Bookstore Election Party, Manhattan

People in Australia started messaging me asking what the fuck was going on, as if I had the answers. The needle on the New York Times predictor flipped. The DOW Jones began to plummet.

We looked for a poll to make us feel better, any poll that was still okay.

The liberal millennials were walking around the bookstore clutching their iPhone chargers, desperately hunting for power outlets so they too could watch the little needle on the New York Times website waver on their screen.

11pm

Mood: Horror

Location: Hell

All around the room I could see my own stricken expression reflected back at me on the faces of women. Their wide eyes were glued to the screen, mouths slightly open in silent horror.

The crowd let out an enormous cheer when Clinton took California, but it was only a half-hearted cheer. We knew she was always going to take Cali. Still, those 55 votes felt like a relief.

Florida got no better and the needle got worse. The store announced that it would be closing at midnight, result or not, so we decided to move on before midnight hit.

12am

Mood: Fear

Location: New York University Graduate Housing

It wasn’t a done deal, there was a very unlikely path to a Clinton presidency. Louisa and I rushed to a nearby NYU student housing lounge to keep following the news.

Louisa was almost in tears already. The deep misogyny of parts of her country was staring back at her and she felt it all. She told me about the website she started about the prevention of domestic violence and the death threats she started receiving within days. She had shut it down.

The needle hit 95 percent chance of a Trump Presidency.

12.30am

Mood: Alcohol

Location: Broadway

Louisa went home and I went to meet up with another friend at a bar. The streets of New York, always bustling with people, were basically empty.

Walking down Broadway by myself, I couldn’t help feeling like I could be sexually assaulted and half the country I was living in wouldn’t care, or at least wouldn’t think that my accusation should discount my attacker from being their President.

I started to run.

1am

Mood: Numb

Location: Nowhere Bar

I ran to Nowhere. Everyone was staring with the same wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression they had at the bookstore. It was probably time to go home, but there was still no concession, still no victory speech, still no closure.

My classmate went home because we had class at 10am (and also because this was the only sane thing to do). I drank by myself for a while, thinking about how when I’d been in New York in December, the Trump presidency had been such a joke, how it had never really stopped being a joke here in New York.

2am

Mood: Pain

Location: Democracy Plaza

I took the subway to meet my Melbourne friends at Rockefeller Plaza. It had been rebranded “Democracy Plaza” and lit up in red white and blue for the night. Security was letting people out but not in to the barricaded square. Most had deserted, so it was empty but for a small group of dedicated pundits.

We bought a slab of beer, and passed a Duane Reader pharmacy stocked with copies of New York Magazine. A cover, featuring a photo of Trump with the words ‘LOSER’ splashed across it, reminded us how badly the media had betrayed us.

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We returned to the barricades at Democracy Plaza, trying to avoid the by now overrepresented and emboldened Trump supporters who were picking fights. The big screen announced that Hillary Clinton had just called to congratulate Donald Trump.

No one spoke as we stared at the screen. This was happening just three blocks away from us and being inside the eye of the storm somehow made it feel less real.

As Trump appeared, a black woman beside us let out a wail and started to cry. I stopped listening to his speech. I couldn’t hear anything else but this woman sobbing, pushed to the fringes of Democracy Plaza. Then I realised I was sobbing too.

As we turned to leave, the LED screen on the side of the NBC studio behind us flashed over to show that Trump had hit 270.

3am

Mood: Beer

Location: Deserted plaza, Midtown

Four forlorn Australians, who 16 hours before had been gleefully spending their house deposits on brunch sat huddled around their slab of Budweiser.

We had Googled the punishment for public drinking because cops were swarming the city, but it didn’t seem high enough to worry. We wouldn’t be a high priority for the cops trying to deal with the drama before us anyway.

Around the corner, outside the Fox News Headquarters, we tried to keep our heads down. There was a sea of media and Trump supporters holding signs, wearing matching hats, covered in badges. Not four blocks away the man himself was celebrating.

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At 3.30am a group of Trump supporters in suits passed through our square. “How unGRACIOUS… that she won’t even come out and concede,” said one. “I hear she has Parkinson’s… probably having a fit,” said another.

Our next passer-by nodded to us as he walked by. “Good luck, future… Donald FUCKING Trump.”

4am

Mood: Post-apocalyptic wasteland

Location: Times Square

Times Square was near empty save for a few revelling Trump supporters. McDonald’s was full of Make America Great Again caps.

A group of five men holding BLACKS FOR TRUMP signs were chatting to a cop out the window of an NYPD van. The cop said “I’ve never heard him say anything racist!” and we couldn’t agree on whether he was trolling them.

Uptown, a woman was screaming at someone on the phone. “That was before DONALD FUCKING TRUMP GOT ELECTED… I wish compassion and love could do SHIT.”

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9am

Mood: Bye Bye Miss American Pie

Location: Bushwick, Brooklyn

The sky was dark and grey, and matched New York’s mood. I couldn’t figure out if the cafe where I stopped for a desperately needed coffee was playing ‘American Pie’ ironically or not.

I found New Yorkers spoke a little more gently to one another (which was pleasant, but sadly unrepresentative of what was happening around the country). Maybe that was just my imagination. It was not my imagination that my morning L train was emptier than usual. The man opposite me looked like he was about to burst into tears.

“How is this a thing?” another said into his phone.

On the 6 train, a little girl in a pink and orange headscarf and a brown coat looked across at me with big eyes, while her mother nodded off beside her.

10am

Mood: Shame

Location: NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute

The media had been wrong. We had been wrong. We had added to the din.

I was embarrassed by how I had been saying only the week before “Isn’t it great how Hillary, not Bill, will be the Clinton name that history remembers best?”

Here in New York, we had been living in a bubble.

Of course, we knew his supporters were out there — we read about the economic issues affecting them in The New Yorker, trying to understand them, to acknowledge their pain — but we didn’t think they could form a large enough number to elect him. We didn’t think they could actually touch us.

We were ashamed of our own arrogance.

12pm

Mood: “Donald Trump is going to be our President”

Location: NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute

We all piled out of the classroom to watch Hillary’s speech on the school TV. As we waited, our professor told us how her 11-year-old girl was heartbroken. Others compared watching the results come in to watching 9/11.

5pm

Mood: Resilience

Location: NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute

As the day wore on, I began to see less expressions of horror and loss, more of defiance.

Soon, there was a different kind of wall: in the 6th Street subway station a passageway was covered in Post-It notes sharing messages of grief, hope and action.

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 –

6pm

Mood: Defiance

Location: Union Square/Trump Tower

As protests were rolling out across the nation, there was no question for us Aussies that we would add our voices and bodies outside Trump Tower. Arrests be damned, shooting at the Seattle protest be damned. Sleep. Be damned.

“DONALD TRUMP/ GO AWAY/ RACIST, SEXIST, ANTI-GAY”

The crowd stretched out down 5th Avenue, as far as we could see. I had never seen so many police officers in my life and it terrified me. It struck me as surreal that this was really happening, in the United States of America, people were marching in the streets against their President-elect, thousands upon thousands of people screaming at this building.

“WE/ REJECT/ THE PRESIDENT-ELECT.”

I stared up at Trump Tower, feeling amazed that a man who inspires this much hatred and fear had won almost 50 percent of the vote. That it had actually happened.

“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE.”

Democracy was yesterday, I thought. This is what despair looks like.

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All images via Rachel Withers.

Rachel Withers is an Australian political junkie living in New York City. She blogs about women and politics at anastywomansblog.wordpress.com, and tweets when she gets upset at @rachelrwithers.