“You see it coming toward land, and that intensity is growing.”
She is a former mayor and regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. She has grappled in real time with major emergencies at both the state and federal levels, and she has strategized long-term to preserve an endangered planet. She knows anxiety.
“And I’ve never had the anxiety I have right now,” says Toney, the national field director for Moms Clean Air Force. “Because there’s such a convergence of issues that I feel both as a climate activist and as a Black woman. And all of these things come together on November 3.”
The past 45 months have been all plot and no climax. Now we have, a mere five weeks away, a presidential referendum that many anxious Americans are counting on to provide catharsis — relief from a bad dream, or at least the affirmation of a waking nightmare. Instead, we may have a Dark November: disbelief, ambiguity, rage, resistance, depression. A contested election piled on to economic and racial turmoil, destruction and trauma from epic wildfires out West, and a possible third wave of the coronavirus — all while colder weather traps us in our homes and shorter days rob us of light and warmth.
Daylight saving time ends Nov. 1, two days before the final wave of Americans cast their ballots.
Are we falling backward or stumbling ahead? Orrin G. Hatch, who has been alive for every crisis since the Great Depression, says he has never seen national tumult like 2020’s. Since retiring from the U.S. Senate early last year, he has been home in Salt Lake City, tending to his foundation. He has also been pushing Congress to make daylight saving time permanent. Every November when we turn back the clock, he says, crime rates and seasonal depression go up while consumer spending and retail sales go down.
“It’s the very definition of a self-own,” Hatch, 86, says in an email interview. “So I found myself asking: Why do we do this to ourselves every year? And why, especially, would we do this to ourselves now — in the middle of a global pandemic when the economy is on the ropes and our collective mental health is crumbling. Sounds like a terrible idea.”
Will Stancil feels a terrible tension between the stasis of quarantine and the metastasis of politics. From the third floor of a brownstone in uptown Minneapolis, Stancil watched some of his city burn earlier this year after George Floyd died under a policeman’s knee. Stancil, a lawyer and researcher, is working from home to remedy long-term racial inequality in schools and housing — as President Trump is now promising to essentially segregate the suburbs.
“When you’re just in this bubble, it’s like time isn’t passing,” Stancil says, “And outside, you get the sense there is this collapse of norms, and it’s terrifying to witness and you just think: At some point, these two things will have to converge in some way. Everything will come to a head on Election Day. It’s almost like we’ve built it into a narrative climax. As we get closer to it, things get crazier.”
Ben Wikler was chasing his 2-year-old son through a grove of oak trees in Madison, Wis., when things got crazier. His phone buzzed with a push alert: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. He gasped so loudly his family gathering froze, then quickly disbanded.
“I think as Americans we have a tendency to go through life with a conviction that everything will work out for the best,” says Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “And that conviction has been stripped away by reality in the course of the last four years and especially the last six months. When faced with intense bleakness, you have to decide whether to give up or lean into the fight.”
Outside the Supreme Court last week, two Tibetan Buddhist monks surveyed the flowers and messages for Ginsburg. “When people are consumed by fear, it gives rise to anger,” says Miranda Coates, who is affiliated with a temple in Poolesville, Md. “We need to be respectful but courageous. Everybody’s truth is shattered right now. It’s like the ground has been taken away from you. Where do you find refuge? You must come to your heart, your moral code.”
Maria Birnbaum, in tune with her moral code, prayed for Ginsburg’s family just as she prays for Trump’s reelection. Birnbaum is a Catholic antiabortion activist who lives outside Phoenix. Polls are favoring Joe Biden, and pundits are shading Arizona a bluer purple, but Birnbaum knows God is in charge. When she thinks of November, Birnbaum doesn’t see darkness. She sees light.
“I have people working corner to corner of Maricopa County, and I’ve been to just about every neighborhood, from Scottsdale, Sun City, Gilbert, Mesa, Tempe — and I see tons of Trump flags, tons of Trump signs,” says Birnbaum, Arizona field director for the Susan B. Anthony List. “I really feel like the energy is growing. We’re very aware of what could be, with California right next door. It’s not hard to drive over there and see the tents everywhere, to see the chaos. On the TV, too, you look at the cities that are burning, the cities that are in chaos, and people are making the connection: Those are Democrat governors, Democrat mayors, Democrat police chiefs. I think a lot of people are realizing there’s a lot at stake, especially for the unborn.”
About 83 percent of Americans — a 14-point jump from two years ago — say the future of the country is a significant source of stress, according to a survey conducted in May and June by the American Psychological Association. With covid-19, the economic collapse and traumatic events related to systemic racism, “the collective mental health of the American public has endured one devastating blow after another, the long-term effects of which many people will struggle for years to come,” says the association’s chief executive, Arthur C. Evans Jr., in a statement this summer.
There is data on how a pandemic causes post-traumatic stress, but there isn’t data on what happens to a populace that is enduring multiple seismic crises like these, says Lynn Bufka, a licensed clinical psychologist in Maryland. But it’s all, clearly, a little much. By May of this year, a third of Americans were showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression, according to Census Bureau data.
If you have anxiety or depression, “it’s easy to go down these paths of ‘everything is horrible and negative,’ and now we’re living in a world where, gosh, this virus is horrible,” Bufka says. “So your path of negative thinking has been reinforced because, in reality, there is more negative stuff out there.”
Marianne Williamson might have put her finger on it when — during a debate last year for the Democratic nomination for president — she referred to a “dark psychic force” that had permeated the country during the Trump presidency. But Williamson, a spiritual guru and self-help author, has no patience for the anticipatory doom of November.
“We need to identify with the problem-solvers in our past,” she says. “Abolitionists felt foreboding, too. Women suffragettes felt foreboding, too. Civil rights workers felt foreboding, too. Because they were living amidst the horror. But they didn’t acquiesce. They displayed a courage, a devotion, a love of this country, a dedication to the possibility of American democracy. They were willing to sacrifice.”
Are we reliving the 1850s and bound for schism? Are we reliving the election of 1920, which came on the heels of a pandemic and centered on questions of what does it mean to be an American and what is America’s place in the world? Are we reliving the 1930s and bound for fascism? Are we reliving the 1960s, where great violence dovetailed with great progress?
“This is one of the few times in my life, as a historian, that I can say: I don’t know what’s going to happen by looking back at history,” says Vincent J. Intondi, a history professor at Montgomery College. “We’re in such an unprecedented time that I can’t definitely say we’re going to have a fair election, or the president is definitely going to leave office without the military police. Students are looking to me constantly for hope and reassurance. But these 18- and 19-year-old kids are worried about themselves. They can’t pay the Internet bill, can’t pay for food, or are in an abusive situation and can’t leave their house anymore, and they want to know it’s going to be all right.”
We are creatures of habit besieged by unpredictability, with little faith in our leaders and institutions to fall back on. Since 2004, the percentage of Americans expressing great confidence in Congress has dropped 17 points, according to Gallup. For the police, a drop of 16 points. For banks, 15 points. For the presidency, 13 points. A sacred collective routine, our elections, has been slandered by the person in our highest office; ballots will probably be rejected at higher rates, given the hasty changes in voting procedures to adapt to the pandemic, according to Lonna Atkeson, director of the Center for the Study of Voting Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico.
“Basically, both sides are ready to cry foul,” says Atkeson in a phone interview from Santa Fe. “They’ve set everything up to create a post-election crisis.” She has no prediction for November, other than it might be a month of additional litigation; 250 election lawsuits (related to covid-19 alone) have been filed this year across 45 states, the District and Puerto Rico, according to Justin Levitt, professor of law at Loyola Marymount University.
The election might proceed smoothly, of course. Biden might win a resounding and immediate victory. Or Trump could shock everyone again.
“We’ve talked a bit about contingencies for our family and what we would do in a world where Trump gets reelected and the U.S. takes a dark turn,” says Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist in Oakland, Calif., which has been baked by extreme heat and cloaked in smoke. Perhaps they’d try to move to Norway for four years, where Hausfather was considering a job, or New Zealand, where his wife has business connections.
“But there’s a case to be made that, if the country goes in a dark direction, we need people to stay here and try to make it better,” Hausfather says. “Most of the scientific agencies outside of the EPA and the Department of Interior have remained mostly unscathed, in terms of their independence and quality and direction of their scientific research. There’s a real risk that could change in a second Trump term: more appointees taking direct control over scientific orgs like NASA and NOAA and pushing the research in partisan directions.”
At her home in Bowie, Md., Ashaki Robinson is working on contract negotiations with the government on behalf of the American Federation of Government Employees. Over the course of Trump’s first term, she has watched talent drain out of the cabinet-level federal agency where she works. If there’s a second term, she might follow suit.
“I find comfort in knowing what’s coming next,” Robinson, a social science analyst, says. “I find comfort in laws, in regulations, because then you know exactly what you’re getting. I feel this administration is trying to create these gray areas: who’s right, who’s wrong, what’s legal or illegal.”
A year ago, America was talking about impeachment. Now, we are talking about mere survival. When will we go back to school, to our jobs, to any sense of normalcy? How do we keep it together until there’s a vaccine?
Michael Osterholm foresees a large peak in covid-19 cases this autumn and a country unprepared to navigate it.
“There are days where it feels like trying to run a marathon with a rock in your shoe, with a severe lightning storm all around you,” says Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. “It’s tough. It’s tough. And people are done running, yet we’re not close to the finish line.”
It’s easy to look at November as a finish line of its own, but Doug Sosnik thinks we’re actually in the middle of a journey. We are locked in a cycle of intense dismay with leaders. Both Trump and Biden have net unfavorability ratings, according to an August poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News. They are elderly men delivered to their stations by thinning demographics and antiquated systems, running campaigns of nostalgia and staving off the inevitable.
“My long view is we’re going to get out of this but only when the country is so fed up they start punishing everyone in office,” Sosnik says. “I don’t think that’s for another five or 10 years. The baby boomers will get kicked aside, and the millennials will come in. There is no question where we’re headed. It’s just a matter of when we get there. And it’s not going to be in November.”
The 39,000 students enrolled at the University of Georgia populate a microcosm of what’s beyond November. Tensions are high on campus, where there have been die-ins to demand greater coronavirus safety protocols, an uproar over a briefly shuttered campus polling site and a skirmish over casual racism in Greek life. Georgia may go red in November, but it is slowly trending blue. What’s happening now is a realignment of our world that necessitates a realignment of our minds, says Cheryl Kwapong, vice president of the university’s student government association.
“The craziness that is our lives now — the way I’ve been dealing with it is finally realizing this is normal now,” says Kwapong. “Life looks like masks, like social distancing, like having conversations about police brutality. It looks like dealing with microaggressions in predominantly White spaces. I think that coming to terms, instead of trying to go back to how things were before, is best way to deal with it.”
Back in Oxford, with her 4-year-old tiring of “Henry Hugglemonster,” Heather McTeer Toney stares down the rest of this year by parceling into small achievements.
“I’m trying to control what I can control and — yes Devin, what’s wrong?” Toney says, interrupting a phone call about the Coming Darkness to address her crying son. “C’mere buddy, what’s wrong? You want a fruit snack? No? What do you need the scissors for? Hold on.”
A pause, then:
“He does not like his clothes to have tags. So I can control that. I can cut out the tags. If something as simple as cutting the tags out of his clothes can create quiet, then all is well with the world.”