At long last, Americans get to decide. More than usual, most people don’t like their choices. More than usual, many Americans believe that people who don’t agree with them are not only wrong but are also best avoided.
On the eve of the election, America is afraid. People talk about buying guns to protect themselves from troubles to come. They talk about places they steer clear of and people they don’t talk to anymore. Casual conversations have blown up into hurtful arguments. Friends vanish from Facebook feeds. People who used to put up yard signs don’t for fear of what their neighbors might do. And people who thought things were improving, in their own lives and in their communities, wonder whether they missed the real story, a darker tale of division and despair.
But America is also what it’s always been, a green field of possibility, a place where people relish rogues and truth-tellers, and a place where being appalled by politicians is part of the deal, something that can even bring people together.
Only eight years after millions of Americans poured into the streets in spontaneous, joyful celebration of the election of the nation’s first black president, optimism seems to have been sucked out of the country’s marrow, replaced by a heavy anxiety, a sense that things aren’t right and can’t easily be fixed.
The candidates for president have made it harder to be optimistic, many Americans say. One candidate said things were so bad that only he could make America great again. The other asked people to consider that the country would be stronger together. But neither captured the hearts or hopes of any broad cross-section of the people. Neither offered any grand idea for a more secure, happier future. There was no New Deal, no Great Society, no Thousand Points of Light.
Yet in the final hours before the vote, Americans remain bullish about their prospects, eager to keep plugging, for themselves and their children. In interviews across the country, whether they’re voting for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, anyone but them or no one at all, Americans almost uniformly say that the politicians are clueless but that the people will eventually do what needs getting done.
Melinda Powers opens the heavy door of the industrial oven and carefully removes a fragrant, steaming apple crisp. She inspects it meticulously. At 19, she dreams of opening a bakery. She worries that this election is her obstacle.
To get from the culinary studies program at Newbury College in Brookline, Mass., to a business of her own, Powers expects she’ll need her parents’ help. But they’re fighting over politics right now, and it’s bad enough that Powers could see them breaking up, which would probably nix her bakery plan.
Powers’s parents met at Winchester Repeating Arms — an Irish American guy who produced gun parts and an immigrant woman from Cape Verde who inspected guns. They fell in love on the shop floor.
But the election has driven a wedge between them. He’s for Trump; she’s for Clinton. “My dad jokingly brings it up all the time,” Powers said, “but my mom doesn’t think it’s funny at all. Trump offends everything she’s ever worked for.”
Powers’s mother is so disturbed by the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment she’s seen this year that she sometimes threatens to move back to Cape Verde if Trump wins. “My dad obviously doesn’t want to leave his Harley-Davidson buddies behind and move to a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language,” his daughter said.
The campaign has also divided Powers from her old friends from Blue Hill Regional Technical High School in Randolph. Most of those friends are white, and all but one support Trump. “My white friends think they can say racial stuff more than they used to,” Powers said. “They use the n-word a lot more now . . . . There is more hate directed toward other races and toward immigrants.”
Powers is still an optimist; no matter who wins, she will work hard to achieve her dreams. She says she still believes America is the greatest country. But she’d thought the battles over racism “were fought for me long ago,” and now she sees a hate that masquerades as humor. “We can be driving somewhere,” she said, “and they’ll be like, ‘Melinda, sit in the back.’ Then they’ll laugh. After a while, you do feel slightly left out, because at the end of the day, we are not all the same. I am the different one.”
Optimism, perhaps the most exceptional of American traits, is down. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found earlier in the fall campaign that 42 percent of Americans were bullish about the next year, the lowest number since 2004, the first national election after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Yet here was Sheila Rushing, 67, knocking on doors, even on doors of houses that looked empty, with boards slanting over the windows. Rushing had avoided politics for years, a job requirement: The work that got her through divorce, at the Detroit museum of African American history, was a nonprofit, limiting her political activity. But when she retired, she canvassed for the first black president and now for Hillary Clinton.
“I’m doing great,” she said. “Glad and blessed. Glad that the Lord woke me up.”
Rushing, like many Detroiters, was offended when Trump declared that black Americans were living in “hell.” The past eight years were no hell. She had raised her grandson, Armando, after his father died when the boy was 14. He turned 26 on Halloween, and Rushing had helped him through high school and on to Wayne State University to get his degree in criminal justice. And now he’s working. Rushing took pride in her own ability to pay off her home note, and she thanked Obama for the bigger Pell grants that got Armando through school.
Rushing learned this fall not to broach the subject of politics with some friends. It was too raw. Still, she knocked on another door. The home was empty but not abandoned. She left a flier with a picture of Clinton and Obama deep in conversation in the Oval Office. “Protect his legacy,” it read.
Nearly half of Americans — 45 percent in a Post-ABC poll in September — believe the United States is “less great” than it has been in the past; 37 percent said it is about the same; and 16 percent said it is greater. The idea that the country has grown less great is much more common among Trump supporters (77 percent) than among Clinton backers (21 percent).
Through the years, pessimism about the country’s direction has been stronger among supporters of the party that’s out of power. In 2008, as the economy weakened and the war in Iraq dragged on, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that 77 percent of Obama supporters said the nation was in a “state of decline,” compared with 57 percent of those backing the Republican, John McCain.
Tony Kadlcek first came to the United States from Czechoslovakia in 1990, soon after the revolution against his country’s communist regime. His uncle invited him to visit, and while in Chicago, Kadlcek met the woman who would become his wife. The next year, Kadlcek legally migrated to the United States to be with her. He got a job with the commercial HVAC business that his wife’s family owned. He still works there.
But 12 years ago, the couple moved farther from Chicago, to Lisle, a suburb to the city’s southwest, because of corruption and crime, he said. Now he drives through Chicago, sees dilapidated buildings and worries about crime. “There were 17 murders” over one October weekend, he said. “Obama promised to be a uniter, but it seems like he divided us. People hate cops; blacks and whites seem more separate now.”
Kadlcek, 47, likes his life; he has four kids, makes a good living and owns his own home as well as a six-apartment building that he rents out. But the building’s value has not recovered since the economic crisis, and he partly blames Obama. He and his wife, a legal secretary, are fed up with high taxes, debt, corruption and illegal immigration. When their kids go to college, they might move to Wisconsin or Indiana. Frustrated about what’s happened to the country, he worries about a crackdown on guns; he recently bought an “expensive rifle, so that if Hillary wins I’ll be grandfathered in.” He likes Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again, because it admits the country has gone downhill.
But Kadlcek isn’t advertising his support for Trump. In years past, he put bumper stickers on his Cutlass Supreme, going back to Dole-Kemp in 1996. Not this time: “People are afraid if you have a Trump sticker on your car or a Hillary sticker, someone will key it.”
Mae and Daniel Harrison are riveted to the campaign news — well, she is. He can take only so much. Both of them have seen the campaign eat away at relationships. They’ve argued with fellow shoppers in grocery lines. They avoid Trump supporters. And for the first time in many years, they’ve felt unwelcome in some places.
“We are fearful of going too far away from home because of what we see,” Mae said.
The campaign is all the 74year-old retired United Methodist pastor talks about these days. When her girlfriends call, she can’t help but get into the emails. After a pastor friend from Texas phoned and declared she’d be voting for Trump, Harrison held her tongue. She hasn’t called back. Not until after the election.
The Harrisons, who live in Fort Washington in Prince George’s County, Md., read the paper, then have the TV on much of the day, CNN and MSNBC mostly. It’s Trump and Clinton, and Trump, and Trump. Mae listens as she flits about the house. Daniel sometimes rebels.
“Cut that off, Mae,” he tells his wife. “I don’t like the sound of his voice.”
Watch Netflix instead, he says. Sometimes, she does. But come 6 p.m., the temptation is too much, and she puts the news back on. Daniel gives up and goes upstairs to the computer or to watch a game show.
Daniel, 78, a retired microbiologist, grew up in Louisiana. Mae, a former teacher, came from North Carolina. For two accomplished African Americans from the South, Trump has unearthed a past they thought they had left behind when they moved to a prosperous, majority-black county in the shadow of Washington.
Now, the name-calling and bullying of the campaign has them wondering whether the old hatreds had only gone dormant. At a restaurant in Virginia, a group of bikers stared them down. At the supermarket, Daniel argued with a man who couldn’t see how Trump was bringing out hatred. At a church event, Mae sat well away from a black woman who said supportive things about Trump.
She can’t stop thinking, even if Clinton wins, what will the backlash look like? How long does this last? When does the healing begin?
Healing is normally the last thing Brent Beaupre thinks about around the family campfire in Kennebunk, Maine. On sweet summer nights, with three generations gathered, all should be copacetic. But one night this summer, Beaupre’s grandmother turned to him and asked, “You’re not going to vote for her, are you?”
“Oh, but I am,” Beaupre said. He tried to explain himself. And then his grandmother turned to him again and said, “But you’re not going to vote for her, are you?”
They went at it. “Can’t you see how crazy he is?” Beaupre said.
“Yeah, but she’s the biggest criminal ever,” his grandmother replied.
“It’s like talking to a wall,” Beaupre said. “I love these people to death, but there’s nothing that permeates.”
He’s 21, and this will be his first vote, and what he sees is utter alienation of each side from the other. “With the Romney-Obama cycle, you had two incredible intellects who very much knew their subjects,” he said. “It was about the defense of our country. It was about the national deficit — real topics. I feel in this election cycle it’s about sensationalism, whatever grabs the media.”
With his stylish leather shoes and blue Oxford shirt, Beaupre moves with professional efficiency through the sea of denim and sweatshirts on the campus of Suffolk University in Boston. An honors student with a major in finance and a minor in big data, he has been offered a job upon graduation with a major bank.
“I’m a gay man who wants to work in financial services who comes from a conservative household and now lives in a very liberal city,” he said. “It’s a constant back and forth.”
The first in his family to attend college, he’s nonetheless worried about the future. “My friends entering the industry have been told point-blank that we should be wary of the economic situation we’re in,” Beaupre said. “If the economy doesn’t do well, our jobs are going to disappear. Everybody’s waiting for this election; everything is on hold.”
Business is good for Ryan Snyder. Life is good, too, even if good does mean 12-hour workdays, seven days a week.
Snyder, 33, puts those hours into a little country breakfast-and-lunch spot in Goochland, Va. He bought Satterwhite’s Restaurant from his father in January. The place sits at a rural crossroads that’s unlikely to stay rural. Four miles away, the Richmond suburbs stretch out — a Whole Foods, a glitzy mall, and, if electric car guru Elon Musk gets his way with state officials, soon a showroom for six-figure Teslas.
For now, Satterwhite’s sticks to what it has always been. The menu sticks to old favorites, such as salt herring with biscuits or toast for $7.85. Snyder thinks about adding a few items. Nothing fancy. “If it’s not broke,” he figures, “don’t fix it.”
He does think Washington is broken. Congress can’t get anything done, and the federal government “gets too involved in a lot of things.” And now this unacceptable choice. “I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say, ‘I like Hillary’ or ‘I like Trump,’ ” Snyder said.
He “can’t stand Hillary. I think she’s a liar,” he said. “And Trump is Trump. You can’t go to world leaders and just run your mouth.” He won’t vote for Clinton. Maybe Trump or Gary Johnson, though he knows the Libertarian Party nominee has no chance. Snyder and his wife have stopped talking about the election; Brittany thinks Trump is a misogynist. Ryan doesn’t disagree; he just mistrusts Clinton more.
He expects little from whoever wins. But he remains upbeat about his own prospects. He and Brittany expect their first child in February. In September, they bought their first house, a brick rancher near a big dairy farm, 10 minutes from work.
Things look good outside the restaurant, too. New shopping centers, office parks and housing have gobbled up farmland and attracted more diverse residents. A Hindu cultural center and temple popped up about a mile away.
Some Satterwhite’s regulars grumble about the new development, but Snyder likes it fine: “It’ll do nothing but increase my business.” New development means new people, some of them new to America. Snyder is concerned about terrorists, but he doesn’t think it makes sense morally or economically to turn everyone away.
He figures the people at the new Hindu center are “educated and ready to work,” he said. “How do you turn that away? We’re all immigrants in this country, so you can’t shut the borders down.”
For many immigrants, there is a special urgency to this election, because of Trump’s harsh rhetoric about keeping out Mexicans and Muslims, and because there have been so many deportations, with the prospect of many more.
As the sun set Wednesday night, Rosa Rosales walked the bridge from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso eating from a cup of corn and chilis. She paid her 50 cents to reenter the United States, and she was home, where she is a citizen. She had gone across the border to get her medicine.
The politicians fight forever about immigration, and Rosales walks the bridge. They fight forever about health care, and Rosales walks the bridge.
A home care nurse, she has no use for Trump or Clinton. She voted early, writing in her senator, Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), mostly because he agreed with her that Obamacare is no good. Too expensive, and it’s wrong to punish people who lack insurance, she said.
She supported Obama eight years ago, but when she needs simple care, she crosses the border. If she has something big, like the kidney stone that bedeviled her a few years back, she stays in Texas.
She fears Trump. “He’s a racist; he’s rude,” Rosales said. “He has a lack of respect for women. I’m a Mexican, and I think he will do something against Mexican people.”
Rosales crossed the marker between the United States and Mexico and let out a little cheer. She had her dinner and her medicine, and she was okay.
Halfway across the southern edge of the country, Rafael Marin is secretly obsessed with the election. Patrons come into his downtown Miami shop, Richard’s Fruit Center, for fresh fruit and smoothies. Marin, 59, plays ’80s pop on the radio — no political talk shows. He likes to keep the vibe cheerful and positive.
In the city’s busy workingclass hub, people hang out drinking Cuban coffee, arguing about the election. But in Marin’s shop, he tries to keep things peaceful. He hears “Ugh, those emails?” and he pivots to “Can I get you anything else?”
The rest of the country could learn a lot from downtown Miami, he said: “We all live together, and our language is a mixed language — Spanish, English, all used together . . . a beautiful thing.” Son of a Puerto Rican father and a Jewish mother, Marin lives in a city where nearly everyone is an immigrant of some sort, coming here from somewhere else. So Marin doesn’t get Trump, doesn’t want America to be seen as unwelcoming. Marin likes Clinton, marvels at her ability to withstand attacks and investigations.
Whatever happens, he said: “America will be fine; it rises and it falls like the waves. We owe some money, so what? Our credit is good, and we get to live here, in America.”
A customer asks in Spanish whether raspberries, pineapple and ginger make a good smoothie. Marin nods in approval. Any blend is a good blend.
A thousand miles to the north, in Barstow, Va., Lynda Trinh Frank recalled the night four decades ago when her family left Saigon and piled into a lifeboat. Frank’s mother lined up her six kids and told them they could each take one bag. Frank packed her toothbrush, pajamas and Smurf comic books. Six years later, after time in a refugee camp in Arkansas, her family was naturalized and living in Richmond, and Frank renamed herself after Lynda Carter, TV’s “Wonder Woman.”
Now 50, Frank wonders whether her five half-Vietnamese, half-Caucasian children “will have the same country that we hoped to live in when we came here.” She left her job as a telecom consultant with a six-figure salary to be a full-time mom. “I’m here,” she said. “I help shape my children.” Her kitchen is decorated with children’s artwork, Bible verses, and portraits of saints and Jesus.
Frank has instilled antiabortion values in her children from early on. Her youngest daughter, staying home from parochial school with a broken arm, whines; her arm itches and she’s bored.
“Could you offer your suffering for the babies?” Frank asks.
“So they won’t get killed, Mom?” the 7-year-old replies. “Exactly,” Frank says. She wants leaders who will reject abortion and lower taxes. She has helped put up Trump-Pence signs. She likes Trump’s hard stance against illegal immigration and applauds his evolution into antiabortion beliefs.
She worries that America no longer reflects her family’s values. “The last eight years, instead of empowering people, it’s ‘gimme, gimme, gimme,’ ” she said. “Everything is a race issue. Look, I’m an Asian. I’m ethnic. I’m a minority. I don’t say, ‘You need to give me a job because I’m Asian and a woman.’ No.”
Carol Blaser sits in her Ford Mustang in the lot outside the hair salon where she works in Ann Arbor, Mich. She downs a McDonald’s cheeseburger, worrying not about the election, but about her son, about his illness — one that, as she said, “nobody runs a 5k for.”
Her adult son is mentally ill, in and out of the justice system, 31 now, doing better with good medication. But she frets about him when her clients go on like the talking heads on cable news, yammering about “low-information voters” and “the Paul Ryan effect.”
Earlier that day, while cutting the hair of a homebound customer at his townhouse, the man’s wife came into the living room to demonstrate their lifelong Democratic support by showing off a vintage 1990s T-shirt that read, “Support Hillary’s Husband.” “I wish I was that sure,” Blaser, 58, said later. “One day I wake up and think I’m going to vote one way; one day I wake up and think I’m going to vote another.”
Blaser hasn’t spent the past year glued to the TV and Facebook following the twists and turns. She’s been too busy with life. Two of her kids got married. Her daughter came out as a lesbian. Her 30-year-old’s three kids had birthdays in October.
And she’s leaving Delia’s Salon, where she has rented a chair for 16 years, because Delia raised the rent by $30, to $230 a week.
Her neighborhood is dotted with Trump-Pence yard signs, and she considers herself conservative, but she voted for Obama twice after going for Republicans Bob Dole and George W. Bush. From what she can glean, Trump is an “idiot about a lot of things,” but Clinton is “a conniving little b—h.”
“I’m leaning towards Hillary just because she’s the least evil, but I don’t know if she’s evil or not,” she said. “I don’t know! Do any of us really know what goes on, what they go through?”
Her absentee ballot sits on her counter, “and I keep walking by it and looking at it. I want to fill it out and get it away from me, but I don’t know what to do. This damn election.”
THE WASHINGTON POST