This was a front page of USA Today about three years ago:
That lead story lives online under a different headline, one that foregrounds the USA Today/Suffolk University poll’s principal finding: Clinton builds lead in divided nation worried about Election Day violence. That lead was “formidable,” the paper reported, nearly ten points over Trump. But more than half of those surveyed “expressed concern about the possibility of violence on election day,” with one in five “very concerned”; just 40 percent told the pollsters they were “very confident the election would end in a peaceful transfer of power.” The contours of the potential violence were clear, with more than four in ten Trump supporters saying they wouldn’t recognize the legitimacy of a Clinton presidency because “she wouldn’t have won fair and square.”
“Since the polls are starting to shift quite a bit towards Hillary Clinton, I’ve been buying a lot more ammunition,” one of these supporters told pollsters in a follow-up interview. “It’s so unpredictable. The country is so divided. I’m going to be prepared. If it all falls apart, I’m going to be ready if I have to be. I’m going to be a good Boy Scout.”
I was a Boy Scout, so I recognized the reference to the Scout motto, if not the suggestion that this ever-readiness should extend to stockpiling bullets for a possible civil war. To read this now is to read backwards from a world where the president retweets a preacher’s warning of a “civil war-like fracture” if he’s impeached. But on the morning of Oct. 27, 2016, 12 days before the election, this was unnerving in a different way. Trump’s tweet is a thug’s threat. This was us talking about us, and it felt much worse.
And so I took that photograph, at 9:21 am, in the vestibule of a diner in Tusayan, Arizona. I’d been up for hours. My friend Anders was visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time, and he wanted to see the sunrise over the South Rim. That turned out to be just the second greatest spectacle we had witnessed that morning. Before dawn, as we drove into the park, a huge blue fireball sundered the darkness, the largest, lowest meteor I’d ever seen.
We’d been traveling for two and a half weeks. Our trip was somehow connected with a book I was supposed to be writing, something about accountability and the American character. It was more directly related to Anders’ commission from the Oslo daily Klassekampen (could any country but Norway still sustain a newspaper called The Class Struggle?) to cover the American landscape in the lead up to the election. Anders loves Steinbeck, so with a mixture of laziness and literary nostalgia we had basically plagiarized our route from the one Steinbeck and his pedigreed French poodle traveled the fall before Kennedy defeated Nixon. Our one innovation was to replace Charley with an unkempt, affable Scandinavian journalist.
That part of the plan, at least, worked perfectly. We’d roll into a town, Anders would wander off and nose around, and soon we’d be having conversations I never would have been invited into on my own. In Green Bay, Wisconsin, for instance, I spent a Trump rally being cheerfully jeered in the journalists’ pen. Anders, denied a press credential, waited in line with the people and drifted through the ballroom during the speeches, disarming anyone who accused him of being a Hillary spy with a simple, “No, I’m Norwegian.” We drank afterwards for hours with a couple he had charmed in this way: Ann, a single mother who had worked her way through Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Phoenix University, and George, a substitute teacher for children with special needs. They were two of the most decent, hilarious, persevering, generous people you’d ever want to meet, and they were unshakeable Trump supporters.
This kind of thing was still fresh in Green Bay, but 3,500 miles later, we were tired: tired of the campaign and its daily degradations on both sides, tired of each other, tired of a country that threw vast empty landscapes in front of us day after day and filled the airwaves above them with anxiety and rage. Why the fuck are we so angry? I’d ask every afternoon as the AM talk radio stations played. Of course we’re unhappy and life is unfair and lonely and very, very often hard. Has more caustic fury ever been spun from more unremarkable stuff?I wanted him to hit me so that process could begin. Take a shot, Motherfucker: I’d become him. Which is how I knew for sure that he was serious about his plans.
That morning had been a respite; the Grand Canyon teaches nothing if not “this, too, shall pass.” I missed the meteor, of course, but I took 34 pictures of the sun reaching above the rim and running its fingers down into the gorges, and of our own two-mile dash down Bright Angel Trail. Breakfast was delicious. There was just this one copy of USA Today left in the rack as we were leaving. I took my 35th and last picture of the day, and left it there.
We drove. It’s eight hours from Tusayan to Albuquerque, the route a carousel of classic Route 66 slides. Flagstaff’s ponderosa pines. Meteor crater. Navajo country, Painted Desert. Malpais lava barrens. Acoma, lifted on its mesa to the last of the sunlight, and finally, at dusk, Albuquerque unfolding in the palm of the Rio Grande Rift.
The radio played. The Cubs beat Cleveland the night before, tying the World Series at a game apiece, so Rush Limbaugh led with sports. He knew why viewership for the series was up 30 percent, while ratings for football were falling. “The people tuning in know they’re not gonna watch the players during the pregame introductions lay down, sit down, take a knee,” he explained. He talked polls, which showed Hillary’s lead slipping; “My headline today,” he kept repeating, “is you never know.” He talked a lot about a document Wikileaks released that morning from the Podesta email hack, a debate prep sheet from the Clinton campaign outlining questions she might face about sexual misconduct by her husband. He hammered, as an example, “How is what Bill Clinton did different from what Bill Cosby did?”
Limbaugh gave way to Hannity, who opened with more polls: Investors Business Daily had Hillary up two points, Rasmusson up one; the Los Angeles Times had the two dead even. He sampled what he called “the smoking gun” of that week’s Wikileaks dumps, a 12-page memo from a Clinton Foundation consultant that included the memorable coinage “Bill Clinton, Inc.”—a document once again proving Hillary “is the biggest liar, the single most dishonest, the most corrupt person on earth.”
Hannity faded, replaced by Michael Savage. “Mexico warns of cholera spread as Haitian and African nationals move north,” the Savage Nation host ranted, reading a Breitbart headline from that morning. “WAVES of Africans and Haitians have been MUTILATING Mexico’s immigration system in order to get into Mexico,” he riffed, and once they’re at our border, “because of MALBAMA, they request refugee status, and bingo, here comes the infected Africans and the infected Haitians.”
And then it got bad. “I asked you in the last hour, what are your contingency plans if God forbid she should win?” Savage repeated, pivoting to a Newsmax report citing a New York Times article that was also reporting “there’s going to be a riot and revolution amongst Trump supporters if he loses the election.” He was winding up now: “Of course they’re smearing us, they’re trying to make us into vigilante Nazis, while in fact, if you look at the violence in America that’s ongoing right now, it’s all coming from the Obama-supported left, Black Lives Matter—shall I name all of the groups that conduct the actual violence?”
He doesn’t. He names Bill Ayers instead, reciting a fable about the Weather Underground’s plans to exterminate 50 million Americans to ensure the success of their Communist Revolution. “Who are the 50 million people that they think they’re going to exterminate?” he asked.
I’m talking to you, Eddie. You, the cracker with the pickup truck, Eddie, you with the gun, Eddie, you who can still saw a piece of wood, Eddie, you who can still drive a nail, Eddie, you who can still turn a screw—it’s a family show, or I would continue with that theme for a moment—YOU’RE the ones they want to exterminate. They’ve exterminated you politically. They’ve already exterminated you socially. They’ve already replaced you with an entire population from south of the border. And why do you think they’re exterminating you, Eddie? Can you figure it out? Why the Bill Ayerses, the acolytes behind Obama and Hillary, want you gone, White Man? And why they say you will conduct violence if she wins?
We stayed the night in the Holiday Inn Express Albuquerque North, just off I-25 and across the parking lot from the windowless Fantasy World Adult Mall and Totally Nude Review. We were exhausted and utterly drained of conversation. Like most Norwegians, Anders had never visited a strip club, and strips clubs are good places to avoid talking. Our night might have ended at Fantasy World, if only Fantasy World served beer.
Instead, we ended up in the lobby bar. All seven stools were taken, two by women, five by men. Three or four were locals; three or four were motel guests. They parted amiably so we could order, resuming their conversation unselfconsciously when we settled at a table a decent distance away. Cable news was playing on the two screens behind the bar.
Six months in the future, at a Women for Women International event in New York City, Hillary Clinton would tell Christiane Amanpour, “If the election had been held on October 27, I would be your president.” Nobody at the bar that night would have argued with her. Everyone was backing Trump, and everyone knew he was going to lose. The machinery of his loss, they agreed, was already in motion. One of the women had talked to her mother, who’s over in Texas, that morning, and her mother’s hairdresser told her she had cast her ballot yesterday in early voting, and leaving the polling station she discovered her vote had been switched from Trump to Hillary. Someone else knew someone who had experienced or witnessed or heard about the same kind of thing.
Anders shook his head in wonder: Tomorrow one of the others would be recounting how a friend’s mother had her vote stolen down in Texas, the hairdresser dropping out of the story to maintain the same degree of separation. Anders had learned this from Jan Harold Brunvand, the American folklorist and child of Norwegian immigrants. Brunvand’s books were big in Norway, it seemed.
I hesitated to go to the bar for another round, but it didn’t matter: again our presence registered when I was standing there, but as soon as I returned to our table we were forgotten. We sat there eavesdropping, stirring ourselves now and then to comment, another 20 minutes or so. We came to know one of the characters better than the others, a man of course, a middle-aged, soft-bellied Texan in a yellow polo and khakis.
Yellowshirt, we learned, owned 97 guns. He had a three-car garage, where he kept his treadmill. The treadmill was there because he liked to smoke a cigar while he exercised. He wore sweatpants when he walked on his treadmill, his Glock tucked in the waistband. He’d almost had to use it once, when an intruder almost breached the garage while he was in there working out. The intruder was young, a teenager, and by obvious intimation, not white. He chased the kid, he lamented, but couldn’t manage a clean shot.
I don’t know what prompted this man to share such things with one or two business colleagues and a half a dozen strangers in a bar. In effect, though, the information served as a vivid backdrop to what he had to say about the election: that if Hillary wins, it will spark a revolution. There will be a revolution because if Hillary wins it will mean the election was stolen, and there will be no choice but to march to Washington and storm the White House and take the country back. Plans were being made, and he was going. “I won’t fire the first shot,” he wanted it to be known, “but I’m damn sure ready to fire the second.”
Anders sighed, reaching, as it were, for his Charley suit. This had been the morning’s headline, after all; here was the voice he was supposed to deliver to his readers. Anders smiled his way across the room. Sit this one out, I told myself. Don’t move.
He dove right in: Excuse me, Norwegian journalist, couldn’t help overhearing. Yellowshirt bought him a beer. They settled at a table, and soon Anders was asking, “Do you really think there will be violence after the election?” Yellowshirt did not flinch or retreat. “I don’t think. I know,” he answered.
“How long do you think it will be, if she wins, before this happens?”
“Eight months,” he estimated.
That was it. I was across the room and standing over him, demanding clarification. So I have this straight, I was saying: Eight months from now you’ll be out on the streets of D.C. shooting at your fellow citizens? Because they voted for Hillary? Is THAT what you’re saying? He started again with the business about not firing the first shot. Yeah, yeah, I interrupted. Because to be clear, what you’re saying is you’ll be out there shooting at ME—
Yellowshirt shoved his chair back and stepped toward me. “You sonuvabitch, I know all about you,” he was yelling. He kept repeating that, calling me a liberal, a communist, and adding at one point, “I worked in Hollywood for five years, I know all about you.” Because I’d lived in LA for 12 years, and because I’m not Jewish, this didn’t register immediately as anti-Semitic, but as condemnation for being one of those Coastal Elites. I kept screaming back, Tell me, Tell me who I am, goading myself with thoughts of my family in Minneapolis and St. Louis. I stepped forward, set.
I’ve never punched anyone. Not once. Twice in my life I’ve taken a fist in the face; both times I just stood there, gazing so stupidly even my assailant lost track of what to do. This doesn’t make me a saint; nor, I believe, does it mean I’m a coward. There were moments of real rage in the house I grew up in, where the violence, mostly verbal, could be extreme. I’ve always known I’m capable of murderous feeling, and known that I’m fully able, physically, to murder. I just never felt strongly stirred to move my fists to action.
But there was murder in me in that moment. I wanted him to hit me so that process could begin. Take a shot, Motherfucker: I’d become him. Which is how I knew for sure that he was serious about his plans.
In the end, Yellowshirt declined to tell me who I am, mostly because Anders and a few others from the bar had moved to intervene, and maybe also because he couldn’t bring himself to declare his anti-Semitism before a group. He picked up his drink and made his way to the elevators. Anders stood there looking me over, trying to make sense of me. I couldn’t help; I was too busy trying to make sense of myself.
At the bar a little later, one of the women half-apologized on Yellowshirt’s account; he was way too drunk, she said. But something was happening with this election, she insisted. She repeated her story about the hairdresser’s switched vote, only this time the hairdresser was a full degree of separation closer.
She was one of several professional women we’d met on the trip whose support for Trump seemed far-fetched, especially after the Access Hollywood tape and Trump’s weird, lurking performance in the second presidential debate. She was an accountant who traveled eastern New Mexico auditing books for the oil fields, we learned; surely she had met and taken the measure of Trumpian men. And yet when we asked, she, too, swore she could never vote for Hillary. Why not? we pressed.
“Because the murders!” she said, as if we were simpletons.
Back in the room Anders, who had done far more homework than I to prepare for our trip, pointed me to a Reddit post listing 47 men and women the Clintons had either killed with their own hands or had killed. With just a little searching, I learned this mythology went back thirteen years, to a 1993 article by the right-wing conspiracist Linda Thompson titled “The Clinton Body Count: Coincidence or the Kiss of Death?” I learned that Laura Ingraham had promoted the meme two days before with a Halloween-themed video on her Lifezette site called “Skeletons in the Clintons’ Closet.” I also learned Linda Thompson lost her life in 2009, not at the hands of the Clintons, but because of an overdose of painkillers following a long and brutal illness.
We were maybe an hour down the road the next morning when we heard that James Comey had delivered a letter to Congress concerning the Hillary Clinton email investigation. We heard this first from Rush Limbaugh, who learned it from a tweet from Jason Chaffetz, who was then the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee. The tweet read, “FBI director just informed me the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation. Case reopened.”
We drove in silence. Our destination that day was the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico. At 12:52, coming up a rise on Highway 285, we happened on John Cerney’s roadside installation “Cowboy Ruckus.” I snapped these, the first photos of the day, and the first I’d taken since Tusayan, Arizona: