The U.S. Holds Its Breath


Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Polls are open, people are lining up, absentee and mail-in ballots are being counted. It’s election day and the country is holding its breath. Trump has barricaded himself behind a fence in the White House. Law enforcement is preparing itself to deal with widespread violence. People are voting and we’re all waiting to see what happens. There’s a sense among some people that we’re careening towards unrest, regardless of what happens. Some experts think we’re already experiencing the beginnings of a new civil war

Police, politicians, and the public are all expecting some kind of chaos on election day or immediately after it. 

On Sunday’s This American Life, a sedate public radio program that’s been running for 25 years, contributor Lilly Sullivan interviewed first time gun owners. “It’s the underlying fear. And I don’t know who I’m afraid of,” Nancy, a first time gun owner in Wisconsin told Sullivan as she struggled to explain why she’d purchased a gun. “That’s upsetting too. I don’t know who I’m afraid of…it’s the world in general that scares me.”

Gun sales have remained steady in the last few months. The FBI processed almost 4 million background checks for firearms in March and the number has hovered around 3 million since. In October, the FBI processed 3.3 million background checks. It processed 1.6 million in October ahead of the 2012 election.

On Friday, Walmart announced it was pulling guns and ammunition from store shelves out of an abundance of caution. Customers could still buy them, but they had to ask for them specifically. “We have seen some isolated civil unrest and as we have done on several occasions over the last few years, we have moved our firearms and ammunition off the sales floor as a precaution for the safety of our associates and customers,” Walmart told the press.

Later that same day, Walmart reversed its decision. “As the current incidents have remained geographically isolated, we have made the decision to begin returning these products to the sales floor today,” the company said.

Last night, a fence went up around the White House. The fence is “non-scalable” and will surround the Ellipse and Lafayette Square. “It is widely believed that there will be civil unrest after the November election regardless of who wins,” D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said in October, according to The Washington Post. The D.C. police have spent $130,000 on tear gas and non-lethal ammo in preparation. The U.S. Marshals and the Bureau of Prisons have a 110 person roster ready to deploy to the streets of Washington. Businesses and homeowners in the area are boarding up their windows, not just in D.C. but across the country.

Downtown Raleigh, North Carolina is boarded up. The major streets of San Francisco and New York are full of plywood in windows. The businesses of Downtown Dallas have covered their windows to avoid possible destruction. In Portland, where protesters have hit the streets for more than 100 days, businesses have repeatedly prepared for civil disturbances.

Police across the country are preparing for more than just violence in the streets. They’re keeping their eyes open for bad actors and domestic terror attacks. “When you look at previous elections, there’s always been the concern when you have large crowds . . . we know [that] can be a target for someone who has an agenda,” Andrew Walsh, deputy police chief of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department told The Washington Post.

It’s been a big year for far-right groups such as the Three Percenters and accelerationists like The Base. These groups are small, but the election day is a powder keg and experts are worried these groups could use it as cover for wider violence. In Alamance County, North Carolina local militias and leftists groups are already squaring off.

Trump supporters fighting with their political opponents has become a common sight across the country. Texas made national news on Friday when a caravan of flag festooned trucks surrounded a Biden campaign bus while it traveled down I-35 just south of Austin. There was a minor fender bender, the Biden campaign cancelled its planned event, and the FBI is investigating the incident. Trump told them not to bother. “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong,” he said in a tweet. Parades of cars and trucks bearing MAGA and Trump flags have been a regular sight in many battleground states; shouting matches between random passersby and people hanging out their truck windows have become commonplace.

And yet, amid all of this fear, people are voting. And they’re voting in huge numbers. The same day the MAGA caravan surrounded the Biden bus, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen ruled that an attempt by the Texas GOP to prevent the counting of 127,000 votes in Harris County—the Houston area—was invalid. Avowedly progressive politicians are overseeing the Harris County election and they’ve dramatically expanded access to voting in the region. By October 29, 1.4 million votes had been cast in Harris County, the highest voter turnout ever recorded there.

 Another sign that things might be OK is the faltering of poll watchers. Both Trump and his son, Donald Jr., have called for “every able-bodied man and woman to join the army for Trump’s election security operation.” This army hasn’t manifested. While there’s been some signs of Trump-aligned poll watchers, early voting has largely occurred without violence or the threat of violence. “It was just a really long day,” one poll watcher in Michigan told ProPublica. “All I saw was people voting.”

Boring is today’s best case scenario, just a day of long lines and people voting undisturbed while an increasingly irrelevant man tweets into the darkness.