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In the Room Where It Happened

img_1016Pachelbel’s Canon was playing on a gentle loop in the series of suites that abutted the Grand Ballroom on the third floor of the Midtown Hilton, as organizers were getting ready for a Trump Victory Event that looked more than dubious when I first arrived Tuesday afternoon.

Event coordinators were busy tweaking the levels of flaxen light projecting stars on the ceilings and glittering candelabra. The tables were teeming with every color of Make America Great Again merch, and on each wall at least one HDTV was blasting the same network: Fox News. The first polls closed in a little over two hours. The anchors betrayed the same tense, staccato energy evinced by both those working the event and the journalists covering it: a day-long fever of hurry-up-and-wait that was due to break with history being made one way or the other.

Upon arriving at work that morning I had been greeted by a Washington Examiner report of GOP insiders lamenting the Trump camp’s abysmal voter turnout organization. It read like the sort of leak-fueled story you see during a failed campaign’s postmortem, after every staffer licks their wounds by dishing the goods to hungry reporters. It added a splash more ink to the writing on the wall Tuesday morning, already well covered by the NYT’s Upshot odds, which pegged Trump’s victory at a 16% chance, as well as the eminent Nate Silver, who had fought back criticisms that he was tipping the scales for Trump, only to come back into the fold of consensus and give the mogul less than a one-third shot at victory.

When I arrived at the Midtown Hilton shortly after 3 p.m., the line for credentialed reporters was already several dozen deep, coiling itself around the escalator leading up to the second-floor lobby and back again. “I got here and was like, is this a joke?” said one reporter. “So poorly organized.”
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Two guys wearing Hillary pins, which on closer inspection had prison bars worked into the design, cut through the line and made their way to the VIP entrance. Among the reporters they slid past was a woman wearing a backpack with the names Martin, Rosa, Coretta, Frederick, Bayard, Bette, and others bordering a larger text: “Because of Them We Can.”

Past the security screening, I ascended to the third floor of the hotel and met Moishe, one of five Orthodox Jews who boasted “Volunteer” badges as they moved boxes around. When I asked him if he was a Trump supporter, he sighed a bit, and said he’s a “Republican supporter,” but that the alternative is far worse. Moishe laughed off the notion that Trump was an anti-Semite and assured me that there was nobody in the New York Jewish community who truly believed that. When the media put out that story, he said, that’s when he and his friends knew that Trump’s assertion that the media was crooked against him was true.

Another guest, a retiree, lifelong Republican and New Yorker named John A., told me he boarded the Trump Train the moment the mogul descended down his escalator in June of last year and vowed to build a wall. Immigration (“keeping those illegals out”) was John’s number-one issue. “I wasn’t happy with everything he said” since then, he added, “some of the comments he’s made. But overall, I think he’s the best man.”

John said he couldn’t “put too much faith” in the dozen-odd women who had stepped forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault. “What’s worse, what someone accused him of doing, or what Bill Clinton actually did?” he asked.

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Another Jewish guest (who asked to be identified only as a “Jewish guest” — I’ll call him “Luke”) boasted a bright red yarmulke inscribed with the slogan: “Make America Great Again.” He became a volunteer with the campaign after Trump fell under criticism for re-tweeting what many perceived as a Star of David in an anti-Semitic context — a charge Luke said was “nonsense.” After Trump’s son-in-law and owner of the Observer Jared Kushner published an op-ed responding to the controversy, Luke contacted the campaign to register his support and had been involved ever since. He was invited to the event.

(The op-ed Luke referred to was written in response to one of Kushner’s employees at the Observer, arts and entertainment writer Dana Schwartz, who wrote an open letter to her boss, saying in part: “Please do not condescend to me and pretend you don’t understand the imagery of a six-sided star when juxtaposed with money and accusations of financial dishonesty.” Luke said he couldn’t remember the details of what Schwartz wrote, but he knew it “wasn’t true.”)

Trump is “no anti-Semite, he’s a huge friend to Israel, huge friend to the Jews,” Luke said. Kushner was a philanthropist and titan in the New York Jewish community, he told me, and his close ties to the campaign affirmed Luke’s conviction that reports of Trump’s support from white nationalists and neo-Nazis were inflated or invented.

It was at this point that one of the event staff members told me that press were forbidden from hanging out in the vestibule area where guests first entered. A few minutes later we were asked to leave the foyer outside the Grand Ballroom as well. Standard-tier guests, like Luke and John, were allowed to mingle in the foyer, where a cash bar set to work selling $7 sodas and $11 beers. Inside the Grand Ballroom, where the stage was decked with American flags and flanked by giant televisions broadcasting Fox, VIPs, campaign staff, and their families circulated under three sets of risers where the networks had set up their cameras. Press were relegated to “everything you see that’s barricaded,” one staffer said. (Overheard in the media pen: “Who’s in charge here?”)

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More guests trickled in: well-dressed, well-made up, a hobnob of good old boys and former prom queens, punctuated with a smattering of non-white faces, holding “Hispanics for Trump” or “Blacks for Trump” signs, which were in abundance in piles by the door. The floor erupted in applause when Trump carved out his first victories: in solidly red Kentucky and Indiana. And as the night wore on, tossups like Florida and North Carolina teetered on a knife’s edge for hours, while chinks in Clinton’s firewall of blue blossomed into ruptures that gushed red across the electoral map.

In the press filing room down the hall, reporters sat stone faced and grim, refreshing their pages and pounding out copy. I brushed past Buzzfeed‘s McKay Coppins, who in July published a piece grappling with Trump’s admission that he had only run for office to spite his critics (prominent among them Coppins). He walked briskly, his eyes trained urgently ahead of him.

Back in the ballroom, someone from one of the broadcast networks said, “It’s history in the making.” After a brief pause, he added, “I’m not sure it’s a history I want to see.”Another reporter told me she had become an American citizen in May. “This is my first election,” she said.

By the early hours of Wednesday morning, Trump held a solid 250-odd electoral advantage. More spirits in plastic cups flowed, more beers were toasted, more and more of the supporters donned red Make America Great hats, as the undeniable reality took hold among the press and the Trump supporters on the other side of the barrier: that what was once thought impossible was becoming possible before everyone’s eyes.

When Fox brought in the feed from the Javits Center, with John Podesta addressing a sea of sullen faces barely two miles away, the Trump crowd was whipped into a frenzy of boos, chanting familiar refrains like “Lock her up!” and some new ones like “Call it!”

There would be no concession speech before sunrise, but the crowd would get their victory. The luminaries in Trump’s orbit began to circulate the room with greater speed and intention: Sen. Jeff Sessions, former Rep. Jack Kingston, Omarosa, Sarah Palin, Betsy McCaughey, among others flew past me, a flurry of surrogates and supporters who had for months made Trump’s case, and defended him, on TV to often incredulous news anchors and co-panelists.

It was just after 2:30 when Mike Pence took the stage to welcome the “President-Elect,” who concluded the campaign with choreography similar to the way he started it: arriving with a flourish on a mezzanine on the stage-left wall of the ballroom, waving, flanked by his children, campaign staffers, aides, and surrogates, as he descended to the stage to take the podium.

In his victory speech Trump was less the primary firebrand than he was the restrained, teleprompter-friendly candidate, with his carefully calibrated flashes of something like statesmanship, who emerged in the campaign’s final weeks to seal the deal. He talks about unity, he says nice things about Clinton, he thanks his bested rivals, he hugs it out with Reince Preibus. “We’re going to get to work immediately for the American people. And we’re going to be doing a job that hopefully you will be so proud of your president. You’ll be so proud,” he said at the conclusion.

It was past 3 a.m. when I left the ballroom, crossed the polished granite floors of the Midtown Hilton, and walked past the lines of barricades, satellite vans, and ecstatic supporters flanking the entrance. (“Is President Trump still up there?” one asked me.)

Just beyond the final police checkpoint, the 53rd and 6th Halal Guys cart was still serving their patented gyro, chicken, and rice combo platter to voracious MAGAists. Halal Guys, by the way, are about as New York as you can get, and as American. Their dish is a messy, much beloved institution of Gotham, and a testament to the city’s grungy hustle and multicultural influences. The business was started by three immigrants from Egypt who built it from a single Midtown food cart to a global empire.

I walked past the Halal Guys and purchased a juice from Mojeb, who manned a coffee cart on 51st. He told me he immigrated from Afghanistan in 1997, is a Muslim, and likes Donald Trump (though he didn’t vote). “He is honest,” Mojeb told me. When asked if he thought Trump was going to make it more difficult for Muslims and immigrants like himself to live in this county, he said no.

Mojeb told me, “He’s not going to do all the things he says.”

[photos and videos courtesy of the author]

Sam Reisman (@thericeman) is a staff editor at Mediaite.

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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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