MAPLEWOOD, New Jersey – A late-morning stillness had settled over a November Saturday in a cozy blanket of suburban serenity. Suddenly, at stadium-level blast, there came the shattering rock ’n’ roll roar of victory:
We will, we will rock you
We will, we will rock you
The sounds of something unleashed — banging pots, honking horns, primal shouts — burst from all directions in Maplewood, New Jersey. And as another Queen song boomed from the muscular loudspeakers in his garage, Zack Kurland stood at the edge of his driveway, arms raised like Rocky.
We are the champions
We are the champions
His wife, Neena Kumar, came running and leapt into his arms. News had just arrived that Joe Biden had been declared the winner of the presidential election of 2020, and now the two were twirling in an impromptu public dance of triumph.
The moment evoked an iconic American image: A World War II sailor spontaneously kissing a woman in a nurse’s uniform in Times Square after the news of victory in Europe. Only instead of V-E Day, this was V-B Day: Victory for Biden.
But not everyone was dancing. Triumph in a foreign war unifies a country; triumph in an election has the lurking potential to further divide. And by Sunday morning, some of the celebration and grieving had melted away to expose a difficult question for divided families and a divided nation: Now what?
True, a record number of more than 75 million Americans had voted for Biden, the Democratic challenger, and his running mate, Kamala Harris, the first woman elected as vice president. Also true was that more than 71 million others now had to grapple with the concept that their candidate — Donald Trump, the Republican incumbent — would most likely be branded by his own worst epithet: loser.
If Trump loyalists were honking their horns at all Saturday, it was probably to clear rejoicing Biden supporters from the streets. And the only hope being offered by their leader was a vow to challenge in the courts what he asserted, without evidence, was a fraudulent election.
By refusing, for now, to publicly accept the election results, Trump was all but inviting dance-interrupting discord. And some accepted his invitation.
Trump supporters held “Stop the Steal” rallies outside state capitols across the country, though their cries of electoral corruption sometimes came as news of Biden’s declared victory was lighting up smartphones everywhere.
In Sacramento, California, videos captured confrontations that devolved into physical assaults; some in the scrum wore the black-and-yellow polo shirts often associated with the Proud Boys, a far-right, pro-Trump group not unfamiliar with violence. Another video, from Salem, Oregon, showed a man in Proud Boys apparel discharging what appeared to be pepper spray, after which a crowd battered a vehicle with fists and a baseball bat.
These small moments reflect the sizable fissure in the collective American psyche that Biden sought to begin closing in his speech Saturday night. With a stand of American flags behind him, he said the time had come to restore the nation’s soul, to embrace the first three words of the Constitution: “We the people.”
Biden knows from experience how difficult such simple sentiments are to attain. Another historic moment not long ago — the 2008 election of the country’s first Black president, Barack Obama, with Biden as his vice president — also prompted dancing in the streets. And it, too, was framed as a moment of healing unification. The feeling did not last.
But Biden still recognized a need to sound the call, once again, for the nation to come together. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric,” he said. “To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again.”
His words seemed directed as much to the individual American as to the nation at large, as if to recognize the gaping rifts created over the four tumultuous years since Trump was elected.
Friendships have fractured. Workplace relationships have cooled. Family gatherings have been altered by fears that a request to pass the salt might somehow lead to a political brawl.
In Trump-solid Mercer County, Pennsylvania, a retired special education teacher named Beverly Graham, a Democrat, celebrated the big news Saturday by pouring a glass of honey whiskey. She drank it in quiet toast, then tackled the chore of cleaning the bathrooms.
It has been a hard four years for Graham, with various political disagreements, including with sons who went from supporting Obama to supporting Trump. Especially difficult was the brutal mocking of Democrats — in other words, people like her — on social media by members of her church. Their disdain was so vitriolic that she had trouble attending Sunday services.
That is, when people used to go to church. Before the coronavirus.
“I just don’t think it’s ever going to be the same,” Graham, 65, said. “Because I felt like it was beyond political. It was personal.”
On the other side of Pennsylvania, 300 miles to the east in Monroe County, a cellphone salesman named Austin Garone said he was exhausted by the thought of telling an ex-girlfriend which way he had voted.
They had broken up in 2016 over politics, mostly, after he voted for Trump — a choice, he said, she found incomprehensible. This time around, she had been calling, texting and sending long Facebook missives, all to persuade him not to vote for Trump again.
“People just hate Trump so much,” Garone, 26, said. “It’s an emotional reaction, and they lose their sense of reason.”
He said he had told his ex-girlfriend, still a close friend, that he would not vote for Trump if she could demonstrate that he had infringed upon her rights as a bisexual woman.
Garone ultimately decided that the president had not done so. But he is not volunteering that he voted for Trump in 2020.
“If she asks, I’ll tell her,” he said. “But if not, I won’t mention it.”
And in Louisville, Kentucky, a lawyer named Dustin Meek said that she had spent considerable time trying to navigate the political schism between herself, a self-described progressive Democrat, and her family in her Trump-supporting hometown of Ashland, 190 miles to the east.
“We’ll start out the evening saying, OK, no discussion of politics,” Meek, 54, said. “But inevitably, a joke will be thrown, or something will come up, and people will poke, and honestly, I have to say, it has strained the relationships. It’s hard.”
She and her family members cannot seem to even agree on what constitutes “fact,” she said. They follow right-wing news websites, while she favors more traditional news sources that Trump has encouraged his followers to distrust.
Meek expressed hope that the less inflammatory rhetoric of a new president would ease things. And she said that she would not allow politics to get in the way of attending future family gatherings.
“Whether certain of my family members will elect to not attend certain events because my husband and I are there — that’s possible,” she said.
By Sunday morning, a semblance of serenity had returned to Maplewood. Kurland, a digital designer and a musician whose garage loudspeakers had rocked his neighborhood, mowed the lawn. His wife, Kumar, a psychologist, walked the family’s two black Labradors.
That the president of the United States was tweeting again about a stolen election did not perturb them. They had already danced for joy in their driveway.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
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