DECEMBER 21, 2020
THE NIGHT BEFORE election day in Los Angeles had the almost contrived feeling of suspense before a plot’s resolution, with its sense of anticipation for what the morning would bring — the luxury shops boarded up, the jewelry taken offsite from the jewelry district, tactical police teams on call throughout the city. I saw a lone figure in red leggings walking Rodeo Drive with his Trump flag folded up, as private security forces and Los Angeles County Property Preservations barricaded Saint Laurent and Gucci. The idea was to protect expensive things after some of them had been damaged by protests over the summer. Like many others, I was on the hook the next day to write an Election Night dispatch on the precarious conditional of “if people take to the streets/the world is on fire,” making the promise of visual unrest seem reassuring in at least certain specific ways.
The day before the election was a university holiday, so the hours of Zoom I usually owed my workplace were cancelled, contributing to the lingering sense of constant lead-up to the event of November 3. I decided to take part of the day to drive around Los Angeles County on the eve of the election. Admittedly, these sorts of wafting car trips to “see things and get a sense of the mood” — readily available in California in a fuel-efficient vehicle — are not only usually a fool’s errand but can also give the sense of a narrator unabashedly at a loose end, entirely without a motive even when the earnest purpose is to “take the pulse of the world” at an exact moment before it is alleged to change, before the morning after. If you’re a young woman in your 20s, taking to the freeway can sound like a vapid rip-off of Didion’s Maria in Play It as It Lays: up early to get in the car, full of dread and momentum, cracking a hard-boiled egg on the steering wheel to rush nowhere and then back. You don’t see any action from the window of a car, and if, like me, you don’t want to get out and bother a voter in Lancaster to confirm, without assignment, that they might like Trump, or at least that they might feel alienated, the main event of the trip ends up being to cultivate a personal memory of a general tone that will later be hard to remember. I’d read stories about California voters in the weekend Los Angeles Times as I sat in my garden in Eagle Rock looking over an empty street; the world felt far away. I wondered if anything would come of going to see the aberrational swatches of Los Angeles, the precincts daubed red on the largely blue electoral map: this comes down mostly to East Hollywood, where the Scientologists are, Beverly Hills, and the area around the high desert town of Lancaster.
The only time I’d gone to Lancaster before was in the spring, earlier in the pandemic and election season, when I went first to a neighborhood called Porter Ranch, a “master-planned community” in the San Fernando Valley, to get a grill that I bought off Craigslist. The seller was in the pool with two young children, little girls in floating swimmer wings, and I followed the sound of their voices and trail of chalk hearts they’d drawn on the walking path. From there, I drove the Antelope Valley Freeway to see the famous poppy bloom. The poppy reserve as an attraction was technically closed, with the virus having shut down all state parks, but the poppies themselves spanned empty decrepit public fields off of farm roads. A few Instagram influencer types in flowery caftans were taking photos of nothing. I pulled off the road in an area where someone had flung a ton of trash, even an old desktop computer, and after walking a few minutes found the carcass of a dead animal with a few flowers blooming through its skeleton. The poppies were mostly closed, as flowers, because the sun was setting. I took a few seedlings and put them in a cardboard espresso cup I had on the floor of my car, then went to one of the three Walmarts around Lancaster to get propane for the grill. Bright police lights were up in the Walmart parking lot, and a long line of masked people waited to go in and get Mother’s Day stuffed animals, ammunition for guns, baby formula.
The day before the election, after my second jaunt up to Lancaster — where I saw a few painted Trump signs and then the parking lot of a Dollar Store in a complex of other big-box stores where I used a Starbucks bathroom — I told a newspaper editor friend I’d gone up there. He was home working on an opinion column. “The Times is always writing about Palmdale,” he said. “I should go up there and see it at some point.” For work and for myself, I’d done a certain amount of this resolute meandering, where most people — and this is heightened during COVID-time visits to red states — ask why you went there in the first place. I thought about James Fenton’s piece on trying to see the fall of Saigon:
I wanted to see a war and the fall of a city because — because I wanted to see what such things were like. I had once seen a man dying, from natural causes, and my first reaction, as I realised what was taking place, was that I was glad to be there. This is what happens, I thought, so watch it carefully, don’t miss a detail. The first time I saw a surgical operation (it was in Cambodia) I experienced the same sensation, and no doubt when I see a child born it will be even more powerful. The point is simply in being there and seeing it. The experience has no essential value beyond itself.
I always liked this straightforward justification, and found it sort of propulsive, particularly during an election year in the United States. I spent the last moments of crowded normalcy before the pandemic seeing Trump at a Keep America Great Again rally in Milwaukee; going to a car race in Daytona, Florida; watching the New Hampshire primary, where the five eligible residents of Dixville Notch cast their votes just after midnight; and then visiting the Nevada caucus, which took place on the Las Vegas Strip in the ballroom of the Bellagio casino, where ties are broken by a card draw.
The immediacy of a Trump rally feels almost like being at a Rolling Stones concert or a 24-hour auto race. People come hours early to stand in the rafters, sometimes spontaneously breaking into song or dance, after giddily waiting in line all night to be there in person. The multicolored semicircle of 100,000 stadium seats at the Daytona International Speedway, where I’d covered the auto race, conjured a similar image — a diptych of crowds traipsing in and out of a large area to see something mesmerizing. NASCAR had the idea to implement a trade-in program where if you brought a Confederate flag you could swap it for an American one, no charge. Since Daytona’s 24-hour race wasn’t run by NASCAR, rebel flags were allowed. I spent the weekend in a sprawling outfield of trailers, many of which had Trump and rebel flags. The group I watched the race with offered me oysters and Jell-O shots and jovially called me a member of the lying fake news media.
On the Fourth of July, I was under a tarp in Belgrade, Montana, where people smilingly welcomed everyone to an event called Rage Against the State, a picnic for Independence Day. I’d come there via standstill traffic over the I-15 into Vegas, where a room at the Mandalay Bay casino was $48. A man entered a full elevator wearing an N95 mask and remarked to everyone, “Six months ago we never imagined we’d be living like this.”
“It’s like Chernobyl,” another passenger responded.
“What a good HBO series,” said the first.
As I arrived at the picnic in Montana, organized by anti-government types, a speaker advertised DVDs about the Constitution, before asking for a show of hands of who had researched the truth about 9/11 — most people — and then advertising his bookstore of sacred texts in Livingston, Montana. The real American slavery, he said, is the country asking people to wear slave masks. The crowd nodded approvingly. The tenor of the event was that one should be scared of the government, not of the coronavirus. Speakers came up to say things like, “Do not wear the slave mask,” and, “Be angry and sin not.” The most used joke was when someone paused or faltered for a moment in their remarks, they’d say, “Oh, I’m having a Biden moment.” It always got a laugh. The family hosting the picnic didn’t have Social Security numbers.
I’d come there with my boyfriend and a man he’d met while reporting on the Bundy standoff in eastern Oregon — a lapsed Mormon farm boy who’d become a friend in some ways, though I knew his evenings were spent mostly watching right-wing YouTube videos in his trailer with his new puppy. He presented the trip with a Dantean schematic, wherein he was a sort of self-aware “redneck Virgil” — his words — who took us to see people he knew. He brought a handful of pocket Constitutions and gave us radios so we could communicate between his car and ours while on the road. Because of COVID-19, we’d asked to drive separately. As we drove up toward Montana that night, through the sand dunes of Idaho, he walkie-talkied incessantly back and forth between the two cars to weigh in about freedom and the United States. I kept trying to fall asleep, and he’d crackle back in on the radio saying the country had to be separated into urban and rural, divided officially, the promise of one country finally done away with. Occasionally, our radio would pick up signals from other cars; at one point a woman’s voice blasted into the car, asking for two hydrocodone pills.
And then this fall for the first half of October, I was in Idaho, visiting a sagebrush restoration project in the southern part of the state; because life is no longer localized and all my work could happen remotely, I was glad for a reason to spend the lead-up to the election in the banana belt of Idaho. The project, which I observed, was to swing a hoedad all day for 50 cents a plant and revamp a landscape blasted by fires. “It’s heaven here, but they made it hell,” a friend said matter-of-factly about the dusty Big Ag landscape, where the place to get coffee in town, Bullets ’N Brew, doubled as a gun shop, which had a long handwritten sign-up waiting list to buy an AR-15; people specified the color they wanted, and easily a third requested “rose.” They also sold trucker hats that said “COVID” on them with a middle finger through the lettering. One day on the job site, I tried to make small talk with a man who was drinking a can of Starbucks nitro cold brew — I wanted one — and he said, “I’ve never had Starbucks before. I thought this was a beer.”
On the drive up through Nevada to Idaho, we ran out of gas and a one-legged veteran came and helped us get a gas can. I’d called ahead to the Sinclair station to say we were probably going to run out of gas two miles from their gas pump and could they help; then my phone cut out, and it seemed like they just dispatched a customer who was in the process of badgering the store owner. He was living in a local motel — “Room 2, that’s where I hang out; I painted it myself” — and had moved up from Vegas. “I got tired of the people in the city looking at me like I had coronavirus,” he said. He told us he’d got $3.6 million in the settlement for his lost leg; he had a gun on the hip of his intact leg, and said he’d voted for Trump — who was at that moment hospitalized with COVID-19 — twice.
I’d spent time peripherally in these circles not really knowing what it would amount to, unsure how Election Day itself would crystallize anything. The palpable feeling of the world of Trump — or just quotidian life in a red state — receded in some obvious ways when I got back to Los Angeles from Idaho. As it happened, on Saturdays for the past few months, people had gathered in Beverly Hills for “freedom rallies” started by local dog walker, fitness trainer, and dance teacher Shiva Bagheri. “Beverly Hills is an unlikely outpost for Trump supporters,” read the Los Angeles Times headline. At the final rally before the election, 4,000 people attended; an alleged skirmish between Antifa and a pro-Trump protester made international news; Cardi B’s husband was detained by police. Small spinoffs of the gatherings began to take place almost every day along Santa Monica Boulevard, right by the Beverly Hills sign — sometimes groups congregated with “No More Bullshit” flags while passersby honked from SUVs, shouting “four more years,” or marched down Rodeo Drive in Trump paraphernalia.
I’d applied and was not selected to be a Los Angeles County poll worker on Election Day, so as a backup plan and out of curiosity, I signed up for the Army for Trump “Election Day operation.” I texted back and forth with a friend who covers the far right to ask whether I could ethically click the Army-for-Trump-required box saying you promised under perjury that you would vote for Trump. In the end, I called Bagheri and asked what her group was doing for Election Day. She suggested that I come to Beverly Hills, where she’d be in a park with a dog named Blue, a 170-pound Great Dane, and then she told me Trump has made animal abuse a felony. You don’t see the media reporting on that, she said. I drove across town, past the polling place at the Magic Castle on Franklin, where I got trapped behind an Uber dropping someone off to vote.
I met Bagheri in Holmby Park, a rectangle of green space in Beverly Hills, down the street from Playboy Mansion and beneath the Manor, the largest and most expensive home in Los Angeles. It’s one of several rogue patches of red in L.A. County: in 2016, Hillary Clinton easily won Los Angeles’s Westside, except for this one Beverly Hills neighborhood, which spans the Beverly Hills Hotel to the Los Angeles Country Club and where Trump owned a home. Bagheri had on a pink racerback tank top with the American flag on it and a pair of defensive boxing gloves a fan had given her. “For if I have to protect myself,” she said. She encourages attendees at the Beverly Hills rallies to start organizing massive militias against the government.
Before we could walk far, Bagheri was approached by a personal trainer. “He’s a big fan,” said the trainer, gesturing to a man on a yoga mat. His client put down his barbell and thanked Bagheri for organizing the freedom rallies, which he attended each week. He recounted taking a video of an Antifa supporter who he says tried to provoke a skirmish with him at one of their rallies. The man showed her a cell phone video of the altercation. “Fighters are taught to respect. They only fight for self-defense,” she said. She showed him her boxing gloves. She gets recognized all over the Westside. “They’re people like me, who were intimidated because of our support for our president. I’ve got a block of liberals trying to get me evicted from my apartment for my support for Trump — trying to get me to take down my sign.” Bagheri looped back toward the house where the Great Dane lived so that she could drop the dog off. She left a voice memo telling the client that the dog was back, then read me part of the Black Lives Matter website, which she had bookmarked on her phone. Bagheri was certain about the election results that evening. “I know Trump will win. I don’t think he will — I know he will. Nothing the left says makes sense. They wear their Nikes while they talk about capitalism and oppression.”
A mile down the road, Trump supporters congregated behind police blockades on Santa Monica Boulevard, opposite a black mural that read “PEACE.” A few feet behind a sign mandating mask-wearing in Beverly Hills stood a man holding a sign that read “Enemies of the People: Corporate press, academia, Hollywood, deep-state, big tech.” Underneath a tree, a man in black slacks and a black “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirt balanced his MAGA hat as he practiced handstands; others waved California Republic flags. A group sat in lawn chairs around a Blue Lives Matter flag; another circled with a sign that said “LGBTQ Latinos for Trump.” An elderly man stood alone waving a flag with the Roman numeral III, which indicates the Three Percenters, an anti-government paramilitary group. Pickup trucks, convertibles, and Range Rovers drove by with Trump flags.
“I’m not going to leave this state,” said Bagheri, who is from Iran. “I’m going to fight for it. We can really fix California.” Of the election results, she said, “If Trump doesn’t win, I don’t think our group is going to believe that result. We’ll know it’s cheating. There’s no way he’s not going to win.” She went on, “I think there’s going to be a civil war. People are fed up with the lies, the deception. You wouldn’t believe how many gun sales there have been in Beverly Hills. People are armed and ready. If any of these people think they’re going to come into our city, they’ve got another thing coming.” As we circled the park, children played in socially distanced setups, and people worked out in small groups. Masked couples walked their dogs.
“We will protect ourselves,” said Bagheri. “We believe in self-defense. It’s not about accepting the election results. We know that they lie. We don’t want to live in a banana republic. What’s happening now is a coup d’état against our president. We’re fed up with this.”
Bagheri was out of time; she had to teach two dance classes. We finished our loop of the park, and she hopped into an idling white Lexus. “I gotta go,” she told me. “I love you. Stay safe here.”
On Friday the 6th, a Wilhelmina model in the freedom rally Facebook group posted that the Beverly Hills Freedom Rally would be meeting to pray and to peacefully protest the election results. I was curious about what the freedom rally people would do in the aftermath of a Biden victory; the election was far from over for them, and in some ways their particular type of interest in freedom had never had much to do with electoral politics at all. I told Bagheri I’d come see her in the crowd. She showed up in front of the Beverly Hills sign in a blue onesie with a megaphone and her MAGA hat, dragging her daughter by the hand. People brandished #StopTheSteal signs and tacked “Trump: Do Not Concede” and “Hold the Line” posters onto police barricades, as men in hoodies stopped a blue Ford pickup with Trump 2020 signs in the middle of Santa Monica Boulevard to give a fascist salute through the sunroof. Most L.A. neighborhoods were in the midst of revelry after Biden’s win was announced, skaters spraying Champagne onto passersby in Silver Lake, but in Beverly Hills, hundreds of Trump’s supporters filled the streets shouting, “We’re not done.” Bagheri told me she’d switched from Fox to Newsmax because Fox had turned on Trump. I talked to a woman standing alone in Louboutin boots and a leopard skirt and asked her what she thought about Bagheri’s sense of imminent civil war.
“The future of Trumpism is just going to get bigger and bigger — if they deny us our president, this movement is going to turn into something far larger.”
The gathering was not so much a protest against the idea that Biden had won that morning, as it was a jubilant celebration of Trump and his future, election or not. For those gathered on Santa Monica Boulevard, the past four years had been just the beginning of Trumpism.
Last Christmastime in Los Angeles, the house across the street burned down, and a charred page of a burnt dictionary floated into our driveway. Nobody was home for the fire, but the paper was there when we got back. It looked like a novelty item, manufactured to mimic paper that caught fire. It reminded me of when kids have to make a scroll for a school project, so they bake paper in the oven to give it the appearance of ancientness. It’s the sort of succinct visual image that, when it appears in the real world, feels too on the nose during times that are described as apocalyptic for a number of different reasons. You wouldn’t believe it in a novel, my boyfriend said of the scrap’s appearance. It has turned up in various places in our apartment all year.
By September, the air was gray and dull with wildfire smoke from the Angeles National Forest, blowing ash toward where we live. The West was on fire; several million acres had already burned. Rolling blackouts meant the garage wouldn’t open, and electric cars didn’t charge. You couldn’t leave when the fires arrived. The TV had gone black from outages in the middle of the Zoomed Democratic convention and again during the live-from-DC Republican convention. Twitter speculated conspiracy theories about each. The Santa Anas were allegedly on the way, and everyone was quoting some version of the Raymond Chandler story where the winds make the wife reach for a knife as she eyes her husband’s neck.
I left the California fires for the fires in Portland, Oregon. Armed civilian checkpoints stopped cars full of evacuees to question them. Residents of Oregon towns, ordered to evacuate, had seen disinformation campaigns online and accused journalists of being looters, shouting at them to leave. A friend insisted that Interstate 5 — which runs from teal-watered San Diego through the armpit of California’s Central Valley, then up through Oregon — won’t shut down unless China invades the United States. You could read headlines about a 13-year-old burning to death with his dog on his lap going to rescue his grandmother, who also burned alive, but these events took place in brackets on either side of the big main road. Asphalt won’t burn.
In Oregon, the air was dense with smoke, thicker than fog, and made my eyes water and swell up. I wanted to walk to the center of Portland, which had just had its 100th night of Black Lives Matter protests; the Patriot Prayer, a group of far-right extremist Trump supporters, came into town on Saturdays to clash with BLM protestors. I layered two masks and went to the Justice Center at Lownsdale Square to see if the most diehard of the lot were congregating or marching. Early evening felt like two in the morning. The streets were empty, and all businesses had closed because of the air. One group of teenagers rode by on Bird scooters. I got to the epicenter of where the “riots” that illustrated the urban-rural divide in Oregon had been playing out. It looked as desolate as the rest of the city, with a few homeless people asleep, and a small group of transients sitting on the grass. In the middle of the square was an elk statue covered in chalk slogans, like “Take the power back.” People had left Prosecco and toilet paper at the elk’s hooves, like an altar. One tent had a maskless woman grilling ribs to give out to protesters. I paused to look around for a minute, then walked back home. The air ended the protests. I texted a British journalist who joked that the American narrative was stopped by smoke.
I went back the next day to see it in the light. A guy was there with a tripod, obviously also looking for something to see. It was an area of residue and mild detritus, with a few more scattered encampments, people with masks around their noses back selling ribs in the tent, still to no customers. I noticed a basketball hoop and an old floral couch with a pair of teens canoodling on it. I thought of this vacant — yet totally climactic and ongoing — American moment in Portland as we drove home through a silent, boarded-up Los Angeles on Election Night, and as I cased the neighborhood again the day after. Bagheri had told me that Antifa, dressed as Trump supporters, were going to loot the shops. She’d also promised a civil war.
Driving to the beach early one morning this summer, I had heard a foreign radio correspondent reporting on the American election, describing the possible forthcoming Biden years as “a presidency you can keep on in the background.” But I wondered about a triumphant return to plodding normalcy and reassuringly tedious white noise — or a breath exhaled in relief at a blue wave — after spending time around people who already saw the country as being against their freedom and divorced from their lives, with Trump as the only possible salve, and who would now see Biden and his mask mandates as something to rebel against. I thought about the woman who told me that a family had asked her to leave their store because her face mask scared their children — and the more obvious images of armed maskless men outside statehouses. The Trump presidency was a fugue-like moment where what felt at first like fringe politics became visible, where what had always been lurking here became something you could easily just go look at and see. “The nation’s rifts remain,” The New York Times headline reads today, every day — an existential hangover. This election, nearly half of the voters chose Trump, a portion of which now thinks the election was stolen from them. A Biden victory doesn’t mean they’ll recede or that the underpinnings will. I wonder what will happen in the 75 days Trump has left in the White House.
When the Dodgers won the World Series last month, you’d have known even if you weren’t watching the game because my neighborhood exploded in fireworks, and people took to the streets. I wondered if a similar outpouring would be how I found out Biden won, or whether his victory would be a quiet Friday night. In Maricopa County, Arizona — which still hadn’t officially been called for Biden — civil servants were surrounded by sheriff’s deputies in riot gear to protect them from Trump’s defenders gathered outside. I thought about driving to Phoenix or Las Vegas to see the armed protestors who wanted to try to stop the votes from being counted, but in the end I stayed home. I had no immediate sense of urgency to travel and be near history. The chance to see these scenes isn’t going anywhere.
A version of this essay appears in the new anthology Now What? The Voters Have Spoken — Life After Trump (Wellstone Books, December 22, 2020).
Antonia Hitchens is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired, among other outlets. She teaches at Columbia University.