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The Celebration That Wasn’t

Inside the grim scene of Hillary Clinton’s defused victory party

Getty Images
Getty Images

With three or four states called, and Hillary Clinton’s electoral tally in the single digits, there was a misunderstanding at the Javits Center. An older woman, whose grasp of neither English nor the Electoral College proved to be extraordinarily strong, looked up suddenly from her phone at the sound of cheers. “She won?”

She didn’t. Clinton lost disastrously, weeks of near-unanimous gilding at the top of the polls washing away Tuesday night in a torrent of unexpected support for her opponent — by women, by college-educated whites, by people who said they were going to vote differently, by people who were never asked — and failures to rally the constituencies that she had sworn to. It was a historic shellacking set up by a historic race: the woman who was meant to be the nation’s first female president; the real estate mogul and reality TV sensation who vowed to ride into Washington and burn it all down.

But on Tuesday, until a certain time of night, the stakes at what was meant to be Clinton’s victory party felt low. The funny thing about big events in New York City is that they so rarely demonstrably affect the ebb and flow of daily life. The NFL was so scandalized by New York’s shrug at the Meadowlands-based Super Bowl in 2014 that it decreed that future host cities would be more tangibly ensnared in them: In February, giant “50” statues were installed across San Francisco to make sure that the metro area paid its dues to the week’s marquee event. But Election Day in New York felt, more or less, normal. Despite two presidential candidates holding two election night rallies scarcely two miles from each other, the commuters still hurried, the slice places still hummed, the subway still rumbled. There were occasional hints of the nearby pageantry — a man in a robin’s-egg-blue Revolutionary War outfit stood outside, squinting at passersby — but mostly people at the Javits Center seemed like they might have been going for brunch and simply took a wrong turn. They chattered. They waited in line at the food trucks. They had a nice time.

Linda was different. The 50-something New Yorker wore her enthusiasm on, as it were, her sleeve: Her oversized campaign button announced the forthcoming Madam President; her yellow T-shirt declared YAAAAS, HILLARY! In a mostly muted crowd, she proved to be — present company not, obviously, excluded — an inexhaustible temptation to passing reporters and photographers, for whom she thoughtfully expounded one by one on her enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket and her confidence in what was to come. Asked early on what she would do if Donald Trump won, she refused even to answer. Her mouth puckered. How sour. How nasty.

Somewhere in there, things started to go wrong. A man shuffled by, staring into his phone. “He’s winning Michigan,” he said.

“I can’t believe it,” said Linda.

People started leaving the Javits Center long before it was a sure thing. And why not: Whatever the result, they could watch it from someplace warmer, someplace with comfortable places to sit and cheap booze. At the block party set up outside the convention center, a host of Clinton surrogates took the stage. A newly re-elected Senator Chuck Schumer ended up with the unenviable task of trying to whip up a crowd suddenly aware of its own futility. “I believe that she will win!” he called. “I believe that she will win,” the audience mumbled back.

Here is what Clinton’s supporters did at the Javits Center. They looked up at the big screen showing network coverage of the race and the occasional Clinton ad. They blanched. They stood like this, mostly in silence, their phones glowing blue in their hands, flashing updates confirming that the country they thought they would live in — the country they thought they did live in — was not to be.

The block party, originally a shoulder-to-shoulder affair, was nearly empty by 1 a.m., the point at which even Cher gave up hope. A young woman raced from group to group of visibly queasy supporters, boisterously demanding their plans for tomorrow and offering her suggestions. (Mourn, briefly, and then check out the local school board. “It’s what Hillary would do.”) People sat down on the asphalt, clumps of young people leaning into one another’s arms as photographers roved between them, shutters clicking. After Florida was called for Trump, Linda left, shaking her head slowly as she walked out.

By the end, even cops stood bunched together, leaning over their phones and discussing how the polls got it so wrong. One stopped to take a picture of two of his colleagues facing the emptying Javits Center. Just a fraction of the supporters were left inside.