I conceived of this photo essay in October 2020 before the presidential election. My goal was to record either how our nation’s capital handled the transition from one administration to another or how Washingtonians would react to the prospect of living four more years with a President who had declared war on the city’s norms. I approached this project with a “come what may” attitude, not quite journalistic or artistic, but somewhere in between. On Election Day, I had no idea how dramatically the transition would unfold and how much karmic energy would be focused on the Capitol and the Supreme Court.
The 119 photos are divided into 11 “galleries” located on Flickr, which can be accessed in the essay below.
Election Day [view photos here]
Do you remember the mood of the country before the November 3, 2020, presidential election? Our elected officials and political commentators were divided because of the way COVID-10 changed the way voting would take place. Mail-in ballots took center stage. Months in advance of election day, President Trump attacked the election machinery, heightening interest in voting – as well as conspiracy theories aimed to subvert the voting process.
I voted in suburban DC by mail on September 30 and helped my father – living in an assisted living facility — cast his mail-in ballot. So many people voted by mail that elections experts warned of the “red mirage,” where early returns from in-person voting by MAGA supporters (unmoved by the threat of contracting the coronavirus) would show a lead by President Trump. As mail-in ballots were tallied – in some cases taking days – the returns would turn against him because Democrats were expected to rely more heavily on voting by mail.
Around 5 PM, I heard a reporter outside a nearly empty polling place I photographed talking about how polling places in in our county had been attracting few in-person voters throughout the day.
Our nation’s capital girded its loins for possible violence by whichever group of presidential supporters were disappointed by the results.
Biden Declared Winner [view photos here]
The “red mirage” phenomenon actually unfolded. Days after the election, the early lead held by Donald Trump melted away as Democrat-heavy mail-in votes were counted. My wife and I could not stay in our seats; we went to the Voters Have Decided Rally in McPherson Square, blocks from the White House, so that I could take photos for this project.
As we were leaving the rally, we heard car, truck, and bus horns start honking along K Street. At first, we thought the drivers were showing solidarity with the rally, but as we approached 16th Street, we saw that the celebration was something bigger. I called up the New York Times on my phone, saw the headline that Biden had been declared winner of the election, and sent the news to my daughters. I may have shed a tear or two.
The prevailing mood felt like a smaller measure of what people felt across the country in 1945 on V-J Day: unremitting joy mixed with the relief of having the jackboot removed from your neck. The celebration moved towards Black Lives Matter Plaza. We left when the crowd numbered in the hundreds; later in the day, we saw that thousands of people had converged on this sacred space.
My first hint that the transition following the election would not be smooth was on a visit to Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania.
A group of Roman Catholics marched around the Capitol behind a banner that read “Trump is President, Christ is King,” reciting the rosary and hoisting Trump-themed flags. They were calling on the deity to intervene in the American presidential election. I had trouble believing their arrogance: that God would care about their election in their country in their planet in a vast universe. As if they could know the mind of God. But such is the power of the MAGA cult.
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was certainly unnerving to see thousands of people forming a crowd.
As I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue in the direction of a rally at Freedom Plaza, the mood was the first stage of grief: a mix of denial about the election and ebullient support of Donald Trump. They gathered to mutually support each other and celebrate in the presence of other like-minded people, like a social club or church worship. MAGA supporters on this day firmly believed that somehow Donald Trump would prevail and be sworn in for a second term on January 20. Firmly.
As I approached Freedom Plaza, my reaction was “oh, hell no!” I had expected to get close to a rally of hundreds of people. Instead, it appeared that between 5-10,000 people – the vast majority without masks — attended this super-spreader event. Cynical nihilists like Kayleigh McEnany claimed, “More than one MILLION marchers for President [Trump] descend on the swamp in support.” Hah.
I froze at the first Obama inauguration and know what a million people feels like. MAGA supporters constituted a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of a million.
Our nation’s capital desperately lurched toward normal: Christmas trees going up and street vendors selling Biden-Harris merch. The inaugural stage on the west side of the Capitol was under construction. The political left got tired of Trump act and expressed its annoyance at the ongoing drama in profane ways.
Again? The first (denial) and second stage (anger) of grief merged as the mood of MAGA supporters began to sour, and a collective desperation emerged. As MAGA supporters marched on the U.S. Supreme Court, there were fewer smiles, fewer people, less mirth, and an increasingly religious fervor among the MAGA supporters. They were praying for a miracle to overturn the democratic process and return Donald Trump to our nation’s highest office. If the first Million MAGA March was a right-wing political Coachella, observing the second march was like watching a reality-TV show, this one about delusional cultists collectively facing a cataclysm.
While the rest of the country was celebrating the Christmas holidays with the families and friends over Zoom, our nation’s capital was quietly hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
I was lucky or unlucky, depending on your perspective.
I visited the Capitol and the Supreme Court in the morning. In the morning, you see, the crowds are just beginning to congregate. The risk of contracting COVID-19 by approaching demonstrators to photograph them seemed manageable. I could focus more clearly on individuals and their expressions without the distraction of other people and objects peripheral to the subject.
I did not want to venture to the main rally near the White House. Previous experiences with the MAGA rallies led me to believe that the MAGA crowd was becoming unhinged. I had no idea what was to come; in fact, most people I witnessed that morning seemed despondent, but civil.
Our nation’s capital remained stunned three days after the insurrection. Few people took to the streets, except a few, solitary protestors with a new kind of message. Our nation’s capital was locked down, and riot fences began go up. You could not get anywhere near the Capitol or the White House, by vehicle or foot. National Guard soldiers – albeit unarmed – began to make their presence known.
The treasonous crowd had succeeded in one aspect, by creating one more barrier between our country’s political leaders and its citizenry.
I have never seen so much temporary fencing. The Capitol. The White House. Our most sacred monuments. The National Mall. It felt like the symbols of our nation’s democracy and heritage had fearfully coiled themselves in the corner, keeping us at arm’s length.
A month earlier, my wife and I had anticipated that the fencing erected to protect the White House from non-violent protesters would come down on January 21st. We now wondered if these fences will be left up for a year or more. Twenty-five thousand National Guard soldiers were expected to descend on the federal district, to both intimidate fomenters of insurrection and calms the nerves of inauguration participants.
Washingtonians both breathed a sigh of relief and clenched over the fear that the insurrectionists would return. Discussion Topic #1: Will those responsible for the insurrection be brought to justice?
Bernie Sanders launched a thousand memes, one of which lands at All Souls Unitarian Church. Maybe the 81 million people who voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris can start laughing again.
Five Good Conclusions
- Under extraordinary circumstances, democracy won the battle.
- Elections run by the states ran as smoothly as could be expected, despite unpardonable long lines in some districts and unprecedented reliance on mail-in ballots.
- Republican governors and secretaries of state who voted for Donald Trump – as well as mention county commissioners, poll watchers, and poll workers – demonstrated seriousness of purpose, devotion to duty, and respect for the rule of law, even when personally and politically threatened.
- After the insurrection failed, enough Congressional lawmakers demonstrated a determination that the terrorists would not win, reconvening after the Capitol was secured, and completing the process of verifying that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had won the election.
- The infrastructure of our federal government bent but did not break. Many dedicated government workers strived to ensure a transfer of power to a legitimately elected presidential candidate.
Five Bad Conclusions
- Under extraordinary circumstances, many of us are left wondering if democracy may have lost the war. The unthinkable happened: a violent attempt by a small group of political extremists, white supremacists, and people under the sway of conspiracy theories to overthrow the will of the American people.
- Too many people in this country – perhaps millions — are not simply dissatisfied that Donald Trump is not in the White House. They neither recognize nor endorse the machinery of democracy – and seem desperately willing to accept rule by diktat, whim, favor, and prejudice.
- Too many members of Congress are delusional, cynical, nihilistic opportunists, ready to violate their oath of office and the needs of their constituents and this nation in order to remain in power.
- The issues, rage, and frustration brought to a boil in our nation’s capital on January 6, 2021, have not dissipated nor disappeared.
- Stephen Colbert’s invention of the word “truthiness” in 2005, which seemed amusing at the time, now carries with it a scary prescience. Millions of our neighbors, loved ones, and coworkers appear to believe that Donald Trump’s statements are true based solely on their desire for his words to be true, without regard to credible evidence, recognizable logic, critical analysis, or actual facts (as opposed to “alternative facts”).