At first, the crowd outside the White House was there to cheer on Hillary Clinton, to celebrate the first female president of the United States. But as the results rolled in from across the country, and Clinton kept losing in key states, her supporters grew quieter and more desperate.
Slowly at first, then faster, those who backed Donald Trump began to make their presence known.
Austin Daily, a 20-year old from Troy, N.Y., who is a sophomore at Catholic University stood amid a group of friends before midnight, reading the latest projections from his cellphone.
He voted for the first time this year, casting a ballot for Donald Trump. As the billionaire won Florida and North Carolina and stayed ahead in Michigan and Wisconsin, it began to seem as if his candidate would soon take over the Oval Office.
Daily was stunned. He had come to the White House in a blazer and tie prepared to protest a Clinton victory. Now he was getting ready to celebrate.
“Every poll showed a victory for Clinton,” Daily said. “Not one poll showed a Trump victory. Not even Fox News.”
Daily supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the primary. He acknowledged Trump’s flaws, but was convinced the businessman was better suited to lead the country than the former New York senator and secretary of state.
“The corruption of Hillary Clinton has kind of disqualified her for president,” Daily said. “I see Clinton as, if you’re playing Russian roulette, there are six bullets in the revolver. With Trump, it’s more like three.”
Staffers from Avaaz, a globally minded civic organization for progressive causes such as climate change and the Syrian refugee crisis, had also come to the White House, planning to stage a choral performance outside the presidential mansion for at a rally that was aimed against Trump.
Its members prepared the stage and carried signs that spelled out “We are better than bigotry.”
By 10 p.m., Avaaz leader Andrew Nazdin said he was nervously realizing that his group may be about to host “the first protest of the Trump administration.”
He, and others who were staunch opponents of the Republican nominee and his divisive rhetoric, described a slowly engulfing fear.
“There has been a rise of hate-filled right wing politics all over the world,” Nazdin said.
Naja Nelson, a George Washington University student, suddenly felt voiceless. In addition to the White House, the GOP appeared to have captured both chambers of Congress, putting in peril the major policy initiatives President Obama championed during his two terms.
She wondered whether her vote for Clinton mattered. She wonders whether the efforts made to make women’s and black lives matter mattered.
“I’m starting to question everything,” the 18-year-old said. “I’m afraid things will go back to the way it was years ago. Racism has never gone away, but now those racists feel like they can step it up. . . . I mean, the KKK endorsed [Trump]. I don’t know what’s happening.”
Howard University sophomore Kaylin Young said she could not “even begin to describe” how different it would be to go from a President Obama to a President Trump.
“It’s scary being a minority right now,” Young said. “The things that he said about minorities, the things that he said about people of different colors, of different nationalities, has been incredibly hurtful.”
Not everyone who came to the White House was strongly partisan. Catholic University students Elizabeth Rich, Irene Wilson and Amanda Martin said they thought it was important to show awareness and to be present during their first presidential election while living in D.C.
Rich said she grudgingly cast her California absentee ballot for Trump because he is antiabortion, like her. But as a self-described feminist, she said the prospect of Trump winning does not excite her.
“I hate him as a human being and I get offended every time he speaks,” Rich said. “I just wish there was a better candidate. I think it’s pathetic that as a nation we’re choosing the person we hate less.”
Wilson, 18, said she planned to write in John Kasich, but her absentee ballot didn’t arrive from Michigan on time. “I would have chosen Hillary, but because I am strongly pro-life, that was a difficult thing to put myself behind,” she said.
Martin, who cast an absentee ballot for Trump in Pennsylvania, said she was nevertheless worried about the prospect of his victory because she thinks it may damage the country’s international image.
Minister Carol Kelly, 64, and seminary student Bettina Hindes came to Lafayette Square to help sing in what they thought would be a new Democratic regime. Their excitement over Clinton, however, quickly turned into depression about Trump.
They sang along with the Avaaz activists — songs like “God Bless America.” The hymns sounded more funereal than celebratory.
Kelly, who is from College Park, said she had expected to “put this polarizing election behind us and move toward progress” after the voting.
“But I’m concerned if Trump is president we won’t get that. He’s so divisive,” Kelly said. “It is so disheartening. . . . It’s time to head home.”
After midnight, the crowd had grown to well over than 1,000 and was increasingly more vocal. Both Trump and Clinton supporters climbed trees to get a better view of the gathering, which seemed heavily dominated by college students.
Around 1 a.m., a group of Latino activists called United We Dream arrived with a big white sign that said: “Donald Trump is a racist.”
As the clock passed 2 a.m., and the race still hadn’t been called, people began to pace aimlessly. The United We Dream group chanted “Racism! Shut it down!”
Every so often, the Clinton crowd called out “F-- Trump!,” and sometimes a separate cluster of Trump supporters started its own chant in response:
“Build that wall! Build that wall!”
At one point, they were drowned out by the Clinton die-hards.
“I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!”
By the time Trump was declared the winner and addressed jubilant supporters in New York, only a few hundred people were left. Most were Trump opponents. One burned a Trump hat. Someone burned a small American flag.
A small circle of people near the north entrance to the White House chanted “Black Lives Matter,” “si se puede,” and “no justice, no peace.”
But many more stood in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue NW, trying to make sense of what had just happened as they scrolled down their Twitter feeds.