That’s the right word to describe the surreal 30-hour experience of attending a Hillary Clinton lovefest on Independence Mall in Philadelphia on Monday, then witnessing Donald Trump’s raucous victory celebration inside the Hilton ballroom in midtown Manhattan on election night.
Like a crash test dummy, America’s collective cranium was flung violently back and forth upon impact with the most shocking presidential election outcome of modern times.
President Donald J. Trump. First Lady Melania Trump. The White House redecorated to resemble Versailles. The spray-tanned leader of the free world tweeting from the Oval Office about Miss Universe contestants or his pal Vladimir Putin. Yes, the gusher of material for “Saturday Night Live” is going to flow for four more years. And yes, democratic values such as decency, fairness, opportunity and civil rights are going to be dismantled and replaced by a con man’s platform of xenophobia, resentment, greed and incivility.
President Obama compared Trump’s provocative, preposterous, polarizing campaign to a “parody of a reality show.” But this is actually happening: On Jan. 20, the first African-American president will hand the keys not to the first female American president, but to the first celebrity real estate mogul American president with a brand name.
“It’s going to be a beautiful thing,” Trump said of his administration.
“USA! USA! USA!” Trump supporters chanted at 3 a.m. Tuesday when returns confirmed what few had imagined 17 months ago as Trump squared off against 16 Republican rivals in what seemed to be another compulsive publicity stunt. He had defeated Clinton in swing state after swing state, including Florida.
His loyalists, wearing red “Make America Great Again” caps and pink “Hot Chicks For Trump” buttons, whooped, high-fived, clinked Heineken bottles and waved “Hispanics For Trump,” “Bikers For Trump,” “Silent Majority For Trump” and “Deplorable Lives Matter” signs. The tone was more hostile than exuberant, as if everybody was itching to extract revenge. They posed for photos next to a large cake baked as a bust of Trump, and it was difficult to tell which was more lifelike — Trump’s hair or the elaborately coiffed frosting.
As the crowd swayed and bounced, a few of us in the journalists’ pen noticed an obese red-hatted man groping the rear end of a woman in front of him. When she turned to see who was emulating our new president, we identified the groper to a cop, who escorted him out of the ballroom.
Two proudly conservative college students rejoiced as Trump spoke from the stage. As for Trump’s vulgar, misogynistic comments about women, “Oh, that’s just locker room talk,” said Mark Pawelec, 19. “All guys say stuff like that.”
Former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer waved her hand when asked about the women who accused Trump of sexual assault.
“So long ago,” she said. But what about his rants against Muslims and Mexicans, his mocking of people with disabilities? Brewer smiled. “This is a movement. This is Reaganesque.”
“LOCK HER UP!” people shouted as Fox News flashed a photo of Clinton and a commentator spat out the idea that her loss represented “a big F-you to popular culture” and pro-Hillary stars like uppity Beyonce. There were hints of the ugliness that erupted at those disturbing, barnstorming campaign rallies, where Trump stoked believers who wore “Trump that Bitch” T-shirts --but this was a suit-and-tie and designer high-heels crowd. What would those small-town folks think if they could see Trump mingling with his VIP insiders?
Cheers rose as Trump drove home his central point.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no more,” he said.
Trump’s words rang true with Pax Dickinson, a 43-year-old college dropout and son of hippies who is CTO of a startup website and lives in rural northeast Pennsylvania, the battleground state that helped clinch victory for Trump.
Dickinson showed five men in his town how to register to vote. They had never voted in their lives.
“They never had a candidate who spoke to them, so they never bothered to vote,” Dickinson said as the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” played over loudspeakers.
Those men, most of them unemployed, alienated and angry, are the forgotten Americans Trump marshalled to his side.
“The elites and the media in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco live in a bubble and have no idea what real America is about,” Dickinson said. “They don’t even like real America. Real America didn’t go to an Ivy League school and doesn’t commute on the subway. Real America is out there in the fly-over zone. A massive number of people have lost their jobs and given up finding another one. Immigrants don’t get jobs as lawyers or Wall Street brokers so they are not a threat to the elites.”
But isn’t Trump the epitome of elite, the billionaire son of privilege born and still residing in a gilded Manhattan penthouse? Isn’t Clinton the daughter of working-class parents, and didn’t she choose to represent the poor and neglected in her early career? Weren’t Bill Clinton and Barack Obama raised by single mothers?
“We’ve had Republicans and Democrats in the White House and people are not better off,” Dickinson said. “Trump was the only one who said something new. This was about change.”
Trump, his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, possible Interior Secretary Sarah “Drill, Baby, Drill” Palin and possible Attorney General Rudy Giuliani waded through the crowd shaking hands. When asked how the mainstream polls could be so wrong, Conway replied: “Mine weren’t. I’ve been talking about the closet Trump vote for months.”
How did this happen? Flint filmmaker Michael Moore warned that “Rust Belt Brexit” and the “Jesse Ventura Effect” would put Trump over the top. The smug scene inside Trump headquarters proved he was right. White males who hated having a black man in charge couldn’t stomach the idea of a woman and then, what’s next, a gay president? Fed-up Americans voted for scam artist Trump the same way they voted for a professional wrestler to be governor of Minnesota -- to thumb their noses at the political establishment.
Trump once gave me a tour of the Mar-a-Lago mansion during an interview, pointing out the ornate flourishes of the “very, very first-class” refurbishment he had overseen. In person, he wasn’t the same cartoonish actor he is on stage. He had a self-deprecating sense of humor. He wanted to be liked. I asked him about his golf resorts and why he was such an avid player of the game. “I like to win,” he said, in a sort of summation of his reason for being. “Losers don’t know how to win.”
Here I was, observing his ultimate victory. I had gone down a rabbit hole to the alternate universe of Trumpland, where the next president of the world’s most powerful nation is a tax-dodger endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
Less than two miles away at the glass-ceilinged Javits Center, stunned and tearful Clinton supporters departed what was supposed to be a historic party. The Empire State Building, lit up in red, white and blue, went dark.
“Trump’s success reveals how deep the strain of venomous bigotry runs in our society,” said Clayton Cameron of Harlem. “Trumpists are voting for a person who builds country clubs that exclude them. I feel like I’m stuck in a Franz Kafka novel, or the 1960s when I was taking acid trips. It’s like these people are on acid!”
The previous night I had found myself awash in good vibrations at the rally in Philly, where there was a buoyant sense that a Clinton triumph was a foregone conclusion. With Independence Hall as backdrop, Clinton supporters sang, danced and waved “Stronger Together” signs as Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen performed — and urged them to vote Democrat.
Bill and Chelsea Clinton spoke of Hillary’s devotion to others. Barack and Michelle Obama gave stirring speeches about Hillary’s qualifications, compassion and never-quit commitment to her country.
“We deserve a leader who sees our diversity not as a threat but as a blessing,” Michelle said. “You can say that this country has always been great, a country where a girl like me from the South Side of Chicago, whose great, great grandfather was a slave, can go to some to the finest universities on earth, where a woman determined to do all the good she can can break the highest, hardest glass ceiling and become president.”
Emotion was palpable as the world’s coolest First Couple said farewell and prepared to pass the torch.
“I am betting you will reject fear and choose hope,” said Obama, praising Clinton’s resilience against “vicious, crazy attacks and double-standards.”
Clinton was hoarse but inspiring.
“I regret how angry the tone of the campaign became,” she said as an audience member shouted, “Not your fault!” “The real question is what we want to be and what kind of future we want to build for our children.”
Thirty thousand rapturously confident Clinton fans left the mall walking on air.
On Wednesday in New York, the morning after was gray compared to the golden autumn glow of Election Day. At Public School 166 on the Upper West Side, where voters had chatted excitedly while waiting in line to cast votes on Tuesday, glum parents dropped off their kids, then hugged each other as if in mourning. Moms who had planned on electing the first mother to the White House were sad and incredulous.
“I’m numb,” said one.
“Horrifying for New York,” said another.
“We’ve got to keep fighting,” said another. “Stay strong.”
On Fifth Avenue at Trump Tower, a protest was mushrooming. A woman wearing a “Trump Will Never Be My President” sign talked heatedly with a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” button about abortion, the Supreme Court, gay marriage, gun control, mass deportations, police brutality, climate change, tax cuts for the super rich. People held up posters: “Black Lives Matter,” “LGBT Rights Are Human Rights,” “Orange Is NOT The New Black,” “Keep Your Small Hands Off Me.”
“Don’t make America hate again,” a young man yelled.
New York’s ubiquitous Naked Cowboy, a muscular dude in tighty-whities and cowboy boots, strummed his support for Trump on his guitar.
It struck me that many Americans voted as if they were watching a reality show, and now we’re stuck in one until at least 2020.
Around the corner at the Peninsula Hotel, Clinton practiced her moving concession speech. It’s become fashionable to label her a “flawed candidate” (as if anyone isn’t?) and blame her for botching the election, just as she’s been blamed for everything from Vince Foster’s suicide to the creation of ISIS. But the truth is, she won the popular vote by a quarter million ballots. The smarter, tougher and more empathetic leader wasn’t doomed by Trump’s revolution but by indifferent turnout in key precincts.
On the front page of the New York Daily News the headline “House of Horrors” was superimposed over a photo of the White House.
Back home in Miami, my daughters -- whom I had planned to take to Inauguration Day -- were distraught. A kid whose parents voted for Trump had shouted “Heil Hitler!” in the hallway of their high school, where 90 percent of the students are Hispanic or black.
A jogger from the Netherlands asked me how to find Strawberry Fields in Central Park. She wanted to go contemplate John Lennon’s song “Imagine” and “say a little prayer for the United States.”
“The same thing is happening in Europe, and it’s scary,” she said. “Angry white men. Brexit. Border fences. Extremists.”
Where were you when Donald Trump was elected president? I was surrounded by mad red-hatters. I wanted to witness history in New York, and I did. Just not the kind most of us were expecting.