A republic? I’m no long sure we can keep it after an excruciating Election Night that devolved after midnight into a strange, inert uncertainty. But the things that seem pretty clear on Wednesday morning are terrible enough. Despite an Electoral College map that leans ever so slightly in Joe Biden’s direction, millions of votes remain to be counted, President Trump is (so predictably) falsely claiming victory, and GOP election-law lawyers are out there shopping for friendly judges. Even worse, if Biden jumps these hurdles and becomes 46th president, he seems all but certain to face a GOP Senate that will block any meaningful reforms. So ... good morning, America!

PS: An earlier version of this column ran online at Inquirer.com on Tuesday night and in Wednesday’s paper, but for newsletter subscribers, I’ve updated it here, with more analysis, more worry, and more thoughts about the future of America. Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, because you and I have a lot of work to do to survive these next four years. It begins today.

A surprisingly smooth Election Day was a glide path to America’s crash landing

For months, the 2020 election has been spun — and rightfully so — as more than a choice between two candidates, but as a battle for the soul of America.

Nobody said this was going to be easy. As a bright November sun finally rose Wednesday morning, a bleary-eyed nation fitfully woke up just as divided and, arguably, just as broken as when we finally went to sleep hours earlier.

An Electoral College map that still looks winnable for Joe Biden — thanks to his strength with suburban voters in Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin and here in Pennsylvania — still faces a 1970s' arcade game worth of pop-up highway obstacles to navigate, starting with President Trump’s all-too-predictable 2 a.m. declarations of victory and non-existent Democratic fraud. Unfortunately, Trump and the GOP’s button-down lawyers may have days to press these bogus claims, as the predicted slow vote count — including right here in Philadelphia — was on a pace to last through this week, and possibly beyond.

But — and I hate to sound so deflated and cynical, especially as some of you are drinking your late-morning coffee — the coming days of vote-counting chaos, punctuated by protests, probably isn’t the worst of it. For one thing, although a few races are yet to be called, it looks very likely that Mitch McConnell and a GOP Senate will remain in power, meaning that even if Biden can pry Trump away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the nation faces bitter gridlock, with serious action on climate change, health-care reform and a makeover of the Trump/McConnell extreme right-wing, white-male judiciary now dead on arrival.

If this was the battle for America’s soul, then the United States looks to be on the brink of eternal, or at least long-term, damnation. The country had four years to digest Donald Trump’s thousands of blatant lies, his embrace of white supremacy, his family’s financial corruption, and his rejection of science and his incompetence that led to tens of thousands of needless, excess deaths from the coronavirus, and yet more folks lined up to vote for him on Tuesday than in 2016. Our country is governed by 18th century rules that created a presidency where it’s a mountain for the candidate with the most votes to win, a Senate that enshrines minority rule, and a retrograde judiciary that is locked in for decades. Toss in a riled-up public where 75 million angry Americans vote revenge over policy, celebrity over sanity, and hate over hope — and the 2020s look like a potentially lost decade.

That grim portrait of a divided nation emerged after what felt like the longest Election Day in American history. It started before the sun even rose, as voters in all 50 states lined up in the dawn gloaming and stiff November gales to cast their ballots as soon as the polls opened — as if they were fearful the vagaries of 2020 would crash down on them if they waited any later.

Midmorning, I hopped in my car and headed to St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church in the heart of South Philadelphia, after I’d seen a photo of shivering masses of voters lined up for two blocks. The church is just a stone’s throw from South Street, where the CVS and Whole Foods were covered in plywood, the stress wall of a national nervous breakdown.

But when I arrived at 11:30 a.m., the lines had dissipated, the sun was poking through, and I ran into something I never expected at the end of such a fraught election: Unbridled joy, coursing through the narrow canyon of Ellsworth Street. That came courtesy of the nine superheroes of the Sun Ra Arkestra — in trippy costumes, like Mummers from outer space — and their patrons, the nonpartisan Election Defenders and their pro-democracy celebration called Joy to the Polls.

“We’re just keeping it safe and joyful in the lines,” the Election Defenders' Sarah Sophie Flicker told me, adding “we want to make the day as festive as possible in an attempt to push back on voter suppression.” The brightly attired Flicker gyrated to the existential jazz, while her colleagues doled out slices of pizza or bottled water. They catered to some voters who seemed too anxious to leave, as if their votes might disappear if they left the scene.

“I’ve been in line to vote for four years,” a man with graying hair and a Members Only jacket who’d only give his name as Frank, because he works for the U.S. Postal Service, told me. In reality, he’d been at St. Maron since he arrived there to cast his ballot for Biden at 6:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the polls opened. “I’m sick of hearing the same catchphrases,” he said. “The president doesn’t have to be in the news every day.”

Nearby was Heathyr McNiece, a 35-year-old project manager who’s voted Republican her entire life — until Tuesday. “The country is so divided now and I think we need a president who’ll work to unite us and get everybody on the same page again instead of fighting each other,” she said. Did she feel hopeful? “I feel nervous.”

Despite America’s deep divisions, there was an oddly Y2K kind of feel about Election Day — at least in the daylight hours — as all the dire predictions about what could possibly go wrong ... didn’t go wrong. There was no horrific violence, and few if any reports of alleged voter intimidation. Trump’s supposed “army” of 50,000 election observers seems to have melted into the jungle like the Viet Cong. The overall vote count could reach 160 million, shattering records. On Tuesday, we were able to at least trust the process of democracy.

But as they used to say at the dawn of the Computer Age...garbage in, garbage out. Trying to gauge the mood of America from one polling place in one increasingly liberal and cosmopolitan city is, in the end, blind-man-and-the-elephant journalism. A smooth Election Day and the lack of violence just made it easier for other sections of the American elephant — from Pennsylvania Amish country to the steep hollers of Kentucky to the mountains of Idaho — to cast their ballot for the orange man who drives the libs and the eggheads and the snowflakes so crazy.

I headed up to Independence Hall — the place where this all began — and the streets were quiet, despite reports that Biden was coming to the neighborhood in his final whirlwind tour of Pennsylvania. “I feel a lot of pressure,” 27-year-old Alice Gallagher, who’d already voted near Graduate Hospital and was looking for Biden, told me, adding: “Even if Biden wins, which is what I want, we have so much to still deal with.”

Behind Gallagher stood the iconic spire of the building where the Founders worked mightily to hash out the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — and probably never imagined a president like Donald Trump, a day like this one, or how their carefully crafted system would start to rust so quickly after two centuries. As she spoke, a low afternoon sun labored to break through thick gray clouds of another Election Day that America will never forget.

Inquirer reading list

About 100 Trump supporters, inluding Kevin Maitland, gathered at the intersection of Knolton Road and Rt. 452 in Aston, Delaware County, PA on Nov. 3, 2020.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
About 100 Trump supporters, inluding Kevin Maitland, gathered at the intersection of Knolton Road and Rt. 452 in Aston, Delaware County, PA on Nov. 3, 2020.

You know who had a great Election Night? The hard-working journalists of The Philadelphia Inquirer. As the fate of the nation comes down to Pennsylvania, as many predicted, the state’s largest paper is all over the story. A few highlights for your day-after reading:

  • The Inquirer’s live election blog is up-and-running, and it’s where you’ll find the very latest on Pennsylvania’s slow-motion vote counting, GOP legal challenges, and much more.
  • The overall mood of Pennsylvanians, as nailed by Jonathan Tamari and Andrew Seidman? Please God, let this election be over. (Narrator voice: It wasn’t over.)
  • Tamari (who’s been a journalism break-out star this election season), also gives us four takeaways from Pennsylvania, including a Biden bounceback around his hometown of Scranton and Trump’s enduring rural strength.
  • Some Pennsylvania counties gave voters a chance to fix their flawed mail-in ballots. Seems fair, no? Not to Republican election lawyers.
  • My friend and colleague Maria Panaritis cruised from the suburbs out to a very Trump-y Lancaster County, looking for green shoots of hope on Election Day. She found paranoia and division instead.
  • No, the Inquirer Editorial Board doesn’t know who won, either. But they want you to stay calm.
  • Hey, I also want you to stay informed on the state that is deciding the state of the union, my own Pennsylvania. The Inquirer will have the vote counts, the legal challenges, the protests and whatever else before anybody else does, which makes this the perfect time to subscribe. Sign up today!