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Diary of an Unprecedented Election Night: How We Experienced, Watched the Voting Results

Dispatches from Stephen Colbert's studio, Brooklyn, a Hollywood bar and 30,000 feet up in the air. Plus: What do we tell our kids?


Broker reacts to the Trump news in Frankfurt, Germany.

Michael Probst/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The IndieWire team spent Tuesday night scattered across New York and Los Angeles, attending campaign events, sitting in the audience of live TV events, drinking at election parties and watching the coverage at home. Here’s how they experienced the unexpected win for President-Elect Donald Trump.

Election 2016

Stephen Colbert

Scott Kowalchyk/SHOWTIME

Colbert’s Rapport

I watched the election results with Stephen Colbert, in his New York City studio with several hundred people for his Showtime election special. It was one of the weirdest experiences of my life.

Colbert struggled to find humor in an increasingly despondent situation and the audience slowly sunk with him. The fixed nature of the program — the guests, the sappy one-liners, Colbert’s occasional f-bomb made possible by the cable format — felt totally out of sync with a combustible scenario that caught everyone by surprise. Being in a studio audience for a show watched around the country should feel exciting; instead, a claustrophobic gloom hung in the air for the duration of the night.

Before the show started, Colbert held his usual Q&A with the audience. Trump was already way up in the polls. One woman asked, “Is crying allowed?” (He deflected the question with, “There’s no crying in baseball.”) Another asked him how he was holding up. “I’m fine,” he said. “I was there in 2000 with Bush and Gore, so…” And as he trailed off, words failed him. (Eventually he settled on, “Ask me in 32 days.”) It was an unsettling moment that didn’t make it to broadcast, but nonetheless defined the mood for the rest of the evening. Even Colbert couldn’t wrestle punchlines from a train wreck.  — Eric Kohn

READ MORE: ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ Will Keep Going Live, Even As the Election Ends

Apathy at 20,000 Feet

As I walked home with my wife on Tuesday morning, we were buzzing with the fresh excitement of voting for a female presidential candidate: “We’re making history!” We then ran into our super in the lobby of our apartment building, who asked if we had just come back from the polls. He quickly took the wind from our sails: “Fuck ’em both — they’re crooks.”

That afternoon, I hopped onto a flight from NYC to LA. I was sure everyone would be obsessively chattering about the candidates and breathlessly watching CNN, but the mood was dour. During takeoff, the seated flight attendant tried to get our section talking about it, but things just were depressing: “Who cares,” “the lesser of two evils” and “I want to move out of the country” were about the only things anyone could muster the energy to mutter.

Initially, I was sure I’d have some pithy tale about the Trump Train colliding with Hillary fans in coach. But from my vantage, I was the only person watching political coverage during the trip. If our cabin was any indication, the only thing most Americans can truly agree on is “fuck ’em both.” – William Earl

READ MORE: Donald Trump Elected 45th President of the United States in Shocker Vote

What Do We Tell the Kids?

Tuesday night, 9:15 p.m. I’ve sneaked away from the TV screen for a moment to tuck my 11-year-old into bed. He’s in tears.

I had tried to shield him and his seven-year-old brother from the election coverage all night. But they kept walking into the room where I was monitoring the TV, just to see the results. It wasn’t supposed to be that way; I came home expecting to share with them the historic moment when a woman was elected the President of the United States.

Both of my sons saw right through Trump as someone who acted like a child, constantly lied, had a thin grasp on the world and treated women and minorities poorly. They particularly saw the absurdity of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and the idea that Mexico would pay for it.

As I’m hugging my 11-year-old, trying to console him, he demands that we move to Canada. I tell him that we can’t. That everything’s going to be OK. But I’m not so sure how convincing I am. I’m not sure if I believe it.

“But what if it’s not?” he asks. I give him one more hug. It’s going to be a long night. – Michael Schneider

Election 2016

This Is Not a Game

I’ve been lucky enough to watch election results with friends for as long as I’ve been able to vote, and since 2008 we’ve chosen a Los Angeles sports bar chain by the dignified name of Big Wangs to see the news come in. This year was no different, and we had prime reserved seating in North Hollywood, with three different TVs playing MSNBC, CNN and Fox News side by side.

Elections are the strangest sort of unscripted, unstructured television, a narrative without momentum but the highest stakes. This only adds to the value of communal viewing experiences, which have a power like nothing else. Being surrounded by friendly faces was a powerful balm all night long — during the lull that occurred as Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and other “too close to call” states swung in the balance, we did our best to distract each other; several very shouty rounds of Heads Up were played at one point.

Watching the election in a sports bar is theoretically pretty optimal, as these are spaces that are optimized for public viewing, and the sort of food and beverage available there is equally conducive to victory or defeat. There are certainly drawbacks (like, say, the moment a Trump fan happened to wander into our corner of the bar and some violent words were exchanged — fortunately, no actual punches were thrown). But theoretically, these are establishments that embrace the expression of open emotion. It was less than a week ago that grown men sobbed as the Cubs won the World Series, in bars just like this across the country.

Yet being at Big Wangs, in the moment, with news anchors acknowledging that “history is being made” moments before the President-elect speaks…Nothing has ever felt less like a game. – Liz Shannon Miller

READ MORE: Indie Filmmakers and Hollywood React to Election Day 2016, From Darren Aronofsky to Julianne Moore

Brooklyn Frights

Of the six Brooklynites watching MSNBC’s coverage of the presidential election Tuesday night, all six at one point or another requested that the channel be changed to another network after the news started getting bad.

But there was no escaping the truth. What was supposed to be a celebratory evening quickly turned into something closer to a horror movie, but this time it was real, and bound to last for at least four years. The upbeat conversation turned to silence as the unthinkable upset victory of Donald Trump became more and more likely. We weren’t so much watching the TV as we were giving in to observing the car wreck unfolding on the screen. We were dreading every coming minute, every coming announcement, and every update on the electoral map more than the last.

In the end, the grotesque circus that has been the presidential race saved its most disgusting act for the 11th hour. When we turned off the TV, the reality that there would be no happy ending still hadn’t fully sunk in. – Graham Winfrey

READ MORE: The Orchard’s ’11/8/16′ Is the Most Ambitious Election Day Documentary in History

The Party’s Over

Watching the 2016 presidential election was an American tragedy incomparable to anything previously seen on television. Considering the multitude of horrific events captured by cameras over just the last two decades, this statement may seem superfluous. But anyone who didn’t realize the long-term ramifications, the catastrophic implications and the global embarrassment that occurred in the final hours of November 8 didn’t sit across from any women who witnessed the absolute decimation of their dreams.

Played out in agonizing slow motion that made “The Walking Dead’s” season premiere look forgiving (and the mere mention of such insignificant entertainment absolutely reductive), the night’s broadcast and cable news networks gave in to the darkest timeline at intervals separated by excruciating degrees. My small party of friends had the television tuned to NBC, trusting Lester Holt, Tom Brokaw, Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd to spread the good news. But one major news outlet wasn’t enough, even before the night broke bad. One friend had the New York Times consistently refreshing and the other relied on Google News to confirm what was happening on TV.

The combined melee of predictions, projections and mathematics led to more than just confusion; denial prevailed. When NBC had Hillary Clinton at 200-plus electoral college votes, we’d stare in bewilderment at online projections that put her far below that threshold. We held onto hope that the Democratic nominee held a lead, even when the prognosticators put her chance of winning at 40, 20 and 5 percent. Clinging to the finale we were promised by weeks if not months of unbiased polling, Election Night painfully turned desperate, confounding and depressing.

In the end, all that was left were tears. Never will I forget the sudden breakdowns of my typically unflappable female friends, justifiably shaken by a slap in the face from the ruthless and unreasonable American majority; denied the hope assured by logic, evaluation and basic human compassion. Their emotions and mine were pushed and pulled — through no fault of the media — for too long to remain tolerable, resulting in unprecedented shock at a finale unimaginable only hours prior.

I — a brother and son who couldn’t imagine how his sister and mother moved on from this moment — had to step outside for our President-elect’s victory speech. But even from the front steps, the throes of grief could be heard from within. Not overly emphatic, nor ashamed to be heard, this private, primal mourning transcended a single voter. It reflected a tragedy for us all, while conveying “her” pain in a way incomprehensible to the rest of us. – Ben Travers


Us vs. Them

The streets is Brooklyn were eerily quiet on Election Night as I biked from headquarters of the “Tramps Against Trump” movement, a group of young activists who sent personal nudes in return for proof of voting, to a friend’s more somber living room. The group had work to do, and the results were less important than the radical task at hand. I arrived at my second location when Hillary’s path was growing murky but still strong, and stayed long past Van Jones’ poetic rallying cry shone a little light on the knot in the pit of my stomach. The energy was heavy, anxious and gnawing. We knew not what to say to comfort each other, because nothing much is clear but the fact that the ever-widening divide between US and THEM blinded us from reality. This country showed its true Stars and Stripes, and they are not gallantly streaming. – Jude Dry

Election 2016

The Bubble Bursts

This morning I decided that after Hillary won Florida I’d walk down to the corner of Clinton & President streets for the impromptu street party I was certain Brooklyn would break into after we’d finally freed ourselves of Trump.

At 1:30 a.m., when I took this photo on an empty and silent street corner, I was completely disconnected from the person I was when I woke up. Quiet and disconnected.

If I am honest, the part of my celebration that I was most looking forward to was the moment of reckoning for all the intellectually dishonest and morally bankrupt hucksters who enabled this disgusting man to even get to the point he was a major party’s presidential nominee. I was certain in the inevitability of that brief, shining moment, careful to avoid evidence or reasons to believe the alternative was possible.

And yes, it’s very easy to transfer those feelings to blame — anger at the media, dishonest conservatives, sexist males and ignorant whites — but there was something about standing on that corner in shock that my emotions had become drained. I just felt disconnected.

Is this feeling of disconnect similar in some way to how Trump voters feel about our country? Is this what they were desperate for people like me to feel and understand?

I then wandered down the street to the public housing development where I have worked with some kids and whose families I’ve gotten to know well through various community and art projects. It too was empty, so I opened Facebook to see how they were reacting. One of the boys I’ve gotten to know particularly well (if I get his permission, I’ll embed the excellent documentary I helped him make), who through his art has expressed a sense of a world where his life didn’t matter — having lost relatives and friends to gun violence while his neighborhood completely gentrified around him. He turned 18 a few weeks ago and we had discussed him voting. He wrote on Facebook that he voted specifically because he wanted to make sure his relatives weren’t deported.

When I read that I started to cry uncontrollably, something that caught me completely off guard. Intellectually, I was well aware what life was like for the kids I’d worked with, but I think last night was the first time I actually gained some emotional understanding of what it must have felt like when your country devalues your existence.

The bubble I have been living in popped last night, as I’m sure it did for many of you as well. I’m nervous about the world I’m going to wake up to. Chris O’Falt

READ MORE: Election Season Panic: How Film Festival Films Are Reflecting Fear of Trump’s America

What Will We Lose?

As usual, indie producer Dan Lupovitz hosted a dinner buffet at his mid-Wilshire apartment on Election Night attended by liberal Democrats and a smattering of folks in Los Angeles for the American Film Market. We circled the television, grimly switching for hours between MSNBC and CNN, in search of any upbeat news as the map projections bled red and the House and even the Senate went Republican.

As the night’s WTF trajectory became undeniable and global financial markets plummeted, the TV pundits tried to explain how Donald Trump could emerge triumphant and started to describe what a Trump administration would look like. Rachel Maddow turned pale and lost her smile. We speculated: Would Trump ditch Paul Ryan? Build his wall with taxpayer money? Install Newt Gingrich as Secretary of State? Rudy Giuliani as Attorney General? What would we lose? Abortion rights? Gay marriage? The Affordable Care Act?

We talked about how lucky we were to live in California and how much we would need legalized marijuana to get through the next four years. Could we secede? – Anne Thompson

Donald Trump supporters

Donald Trump supporters

Charles Krupa/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The Rise of Hate

I don’t think a lot matters about what I did on Election Night. I left work early, but I stayed up late past 2:30 a.m. I went to watch results at a bar, but I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol. I had CNN on, but I looked at multiple other reports too, including Fox News. I went out to be among friends, but I went home early to be alone. I voted for Hillary Clinton to be the first female POTUS, but I got Donald Trump instead.

What does matter is the massive amounts of fear and despair that others who voted as I did feel now. I fear for the rise of hate crimes that will come if Brexit is any indication of how bigoted people will now feel validated. I fear mass deportations will destroy families. I fear sexual assaults on women will rise. I fear for the increased closing of American borders and minds. I fear that my five-year-old black nephew in Texas, who dressed as a Pokemon trainer for Halloween, won’t be safe to catch ‘em all in his own front yard. I fear fascism and war.

But you know what? Fuck fear. And fuck hate for that matter.

The idea that anyone who was so excited to vote #ImWithHer now wants to escape to Canada or have the West Coast secede makes me furious at what the bullies have accomplished. Yes, I think that the threats are real, but the popular vote is real too. That means a majority of the country wanted the same things I did.

So I’m going to let shock, disillusionment, finger-pointing and anger play out, probably by going to the gym or finally learning to meditate. And then I’m going figure out what I — as a minority female immigrant with a job in the so-called “lying” media — can do to help others and mitigate harm. Yeah, I voted, but apparently that wasn’t enough now. – Hanh Nguyen

READ MORE: Taking Down Trump: Documentarians Profile Courageous ‘Local Voices’

Make Your Voice Heard

As the dozen or so of us sat around our living room, watching things unfold in relative silence, there was some anger, some disbelief. Some stray reassuring hugs. These people gathered together, sitting on couches and pacing up and down hallways, include some of the most talented stage actors I know. They’ve built their lives around speaking the words of others, using their gifts to help audiences around Los Angeles and around the world understand what life is like for people different than them. They’re on the verge of making choices that will solidify their own lives and the people they love the most. This group has committed couples, eternal optimists and engaged citizens. They’re people I love dearly. And none of them wanted this.

Once the evening’s fate had been confirmed, we started trying to figure out what to do next. For them and for us, there’s nothing left to do but to amplify the voices of those affected most by this collective decision, to champion the work and the stories of those people whose next four years now seem the most uncertain. Listen to the people who wake up to a different country. Channel that frustration into something that ensures that the path forward doesn’t follow a downward spiral. Right now is a confusing time with a confusing future, but the events of last night come with them a vital charge: We need to take care of each other in whatever way we can. – Steve Greene

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