I saw the world as we know it upended in the ballroom of the Forsyth Country Club in Winston-Salem on election night.
The contrast between the press corps and the GOP revelers became increasingly apparent as the results rolled in, with print reporters and TV news reporters toiling over laptops along a long, narrow table behind the camera riser, while party activists huddled around bar tables, high-fiving, hugging and handing out drinks.
For many of us in the media, for pundits, for Democrats, for progressives, the story was supposed to be about a Republican Party in disarray and about a Democratic wave to repudiate Trump, potentially delivering both the White House and the Senate to the party of Obama and the Clintons while punishing state-level officials for HB 2. And while it wasn’t a complete Republican rout — a backlash against HB 2 would become apparent later with what appears to be the narrowest of defeats for Gov. Pat McCrory — it sure felt like it from about 10:30 p.m. on.
Among many surreal aspects of the night was witnessing a political revolution supposedly on behalf of “the forgotten men and women of our country” from within the swank confines of a genteel country club, but then again we’re talking about a new president who is likely to make Trump Tower his second White House and substitute Mar-a-Lago for Camp David.
At least two Trump supporters who I interviewed on the campaign trail came up to me, and exultantly reminded me that they predicted their man would win, but I also know many of the party activists in that room didn’t vote for Trump in the primary; Forsyth County went for Ted Cruz. Still, winning has a way of bringing people together. When everything you hear leading up to Election Day reinforces a message that your party is on the rocks, and then you pull out convincing wins in one crucial swing state after another, it feels pretty good and makes you prone to forget past squabbles.
If all they got was a victory speech from Sen. Richard Burr, who prevailed over his Democratic challenger in a race that wasn’t even close, the Forsyth Republicans would be feeling pretty good. But they also got to rub shoulders with Dale Folwell, who received a hero’s welcome after winning election as state treasurer, and Mark Johnson, who ousted Democrat June Atkinson as state superintendent of public instruction. The best, however, was yet to come.
The worrisome signs were evident by 9:30 p.m. when a tweet by journalist Joe Scarborough reporting that the campaigns were anticipating that Trump would win Michigan began circulating through the room. When Ohio was called for Trump around 10:30, the first nail went into the Clinton campaign’s coffin. A man with a bear-like physique clutching a wine glass in the ballroom at the Forsyth Country Club began bellowing, “Cut the music!” while gesturing at the mounted television, where Megyn Kelly and her cohorts at Fox News were discussing the results. Before the hour was out, Trump had also grabbed the crucial prize of Florida, and the excitement mounted.
The press row looked sullen. Even if professional decorum required that they conceal their feelings about the unfolding outcome, the exhaustion of the work and stress of filing on deadline was showing. The trifecta was completed by 11:14 with the announcement that North Carolina — the GOP regulars’ home state, no less — had been delivered into Trump’s column. The room went nuts. Two middle-aged women leapt on to chairs and hugged each other, rocking each other back and forth in disbelief.
With the suspense by now eliminated, the partisans began to settle back in their chairs, watching with satisfaction as Utah and Georgia predictably fell into Trump’s hands. One of the revelers locked eyes with a television producer and called across the room. “Hey mainstream media,” he said. “You don’t seem that happy.”
“I’m just ready for this to be over so I can go home,” a TV news producer replied.
The ribbing struck me as more humorous than mean-spirited, but I wanted to call back, “Hey, these are the forgotten men and women of America.”
For my part, I was up at 6:30 a.m. to see the first voters lined up to cast their ballots at Western Guilford High School, and I blanketed precincts across two counties to interview voters throughout the day. After the polls closed, I swung over to the Forsyth County Board of Elections to observe the mechanics of tallying the results. At 9 p.m., I still had yet to get a photo of Burr and grab string from his victory speech for my colleague back in Greensboro, or file my own story. It was a privilege.