Carl Lankowski and Cate Toups Atkinson
The frenzy and hyperbole that surround a presidential election agitate and mobilize, effects that are magnified in the political hub of Washington DC, where policy, politics and diplomacy constitute its main business. In light of the actual results of the election in Chevy Chase DC and the city as a whole, it is therefore especially remarkable that the usual campaign paraphernalia was largely absent at the presidential level—practically no yard signs in the neighborhood and only one or two for presidential candidates outside polling places.
Chevy Chase DC’s central precincts reported a range of support for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton of 85-90 percent of the vote, just marginally behind her showing in DC as a whole. The absence of the usual signs is attributable probably to at least three sentiments widespread in the community. The first was the perception of the Republican standard-bearer and eventual winner, Donald J. Trump. To many residents of Chevy Chase DC, his bombastic style and many of his utterances seemed too awful to merit anything but astonishment and indignation.
Secondly, the utterly unconventional campaign techniques deployed by the Republican candidate were written off as amateurish. The thought was that even if he could energize a base, he could never get voters to the polls to cast a ballot. The contrast with cautious Hillary Clinton’s methodical and well-financed campaign could not have been more stark. Chevy Chase DC is also home to political operatives who are campaign professionals.
And thirdly, like millions of U.S. citizens across the land, ChevyChasers underestimated the forces animating the nation that made Trump’s populist appeal attractive to working-class people clustered in rust-belt states.
These were the states decisive in his victory: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Trends at work from the 1980s came to a head in the once-in-a-century financial and economic crisis of 2008-2012, when millions lost their jobs and their homes while Wall Street was bailed out. Chevy Chasers probably belong to that segment of the population that suffered least from rising inequality and the consequences of the financial meltdown. Warnings such as that by J.D. Vance, who had published Hillbilly Elegy in 2016 – a New York Times bestseller – were read sympathetically in the community, but evidently did not alter the opinion of many who deduced Trump’s un-electability from his campaign. Most observers in Northwest DC were probably more focused on the successful crisis response of the Obama administration: the stimulus package, TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), Dodd-Frank financial legislation, and the Affordable Care Act, which extended healthcare coverage to an estimated 20 million citizens who otherwise would not have it. Indeed, many of us contributed to that response. We Chevy Chasers also likely bought into the premise of the Obama administration’s economic strategy, which embraced a liberal, global trade and investment regime that promised a future of incremental progress. Globalization losers in the heartland did not have this luxury. The 2016 election result is the proverbial second shoe that dropped after the crisis. Their response was a cri de coeur for direct aid, and if any were aware of Voltaire’s greatest work, they would probably find candidate Clinton’s approach a Panglossian extension of the Obama years. In sum, on both moral and substantive grounds, Chevy Chase DC likely firmly believed that a populist demagogue could not possibly be elected president.
Therefore, we turned out on Election Day to cast our ballots convinced that the outcome would be favorable and we would be celebrating the election of the first woman president.
Polling supported this supposition, despite the October surprise administered by FBI director Comey nine days ahead of the election. Clinton’s lead waxed and waned, especially large after her compelling performances in the three presidential debates, but narrowing in the days after Comey’s intervention and the continual release of hacked internal correspondence of the Clinton campaign by Wikileaks, which the three main U.S. intelligence agencies attributed to Russian state agents. Clinton did win a plurality of the popular vote by a margin close to three million ballots over Trump, so the headline figures were in that sense accurate. But she lost by a combined total of about 80,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan and lost the contest in the electoral college. Neighbors like American University professor Alan Lichtman, who predicted a Trump win in June 2016, based not on polls but on economic data and incumbency, were dismissed out of hand.
Excitement and anticipation were palpable on Election Day in Chevy Chase DC. Moms could be overheard chatting with their daughters while walking through the neighborhood about the momentous event that was about to unfold. Chevy Chasers such as one of the authors of this article organized election parties, hoping to crown the exercise of the franchise with a victory celebration. All but one of the guests at this party were Clinton supporters. Their occupations included a university professor, a think-tank director, at least half a dozen federal employees from the departments of State and Commerce and the Smithsonian, a DC school teacher, a small-business advocate, head of a marketing agency, director of an international student exchange network, and more. The hosts’ daughter, a veteran campaign volunteer for Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 and 2012, drove six hours from Chapel Hill, N.C., to be there for the occasion. Food and drink were laid out. The room was adorned with life-sized cardboard likenesses of Clinton, Obama…and Trump. There were party favors, containers of mints bearing the overscript: “National Embarrassmints” in the case of Trump; and “Hillary for Peppermint” for Clinton.
The party started in an upbeat mood; the expectation was that Clinton would win quickly. After the networks declared Trump the victor in North Carolina and Florida, the mood turned serious. Some party-goers left. Consternation spread among those who remained as the electoral map turned red in states within the vaunted Clinton firewall.
This was a bonfire of the verities. Chevy Chase awoke to a new world. The mood in the neighborhood on Nov. 9 was incredulity. And apprehension. Trump’s personal behavior was as nasty as his policy positions—whether on trade, taxes, borders and immigration, cutting and dispersing the federal workforce, and many more. Nor was there magnanimity in victory, or even civility in many instances in the president-elect’s tweet-storms sometimes gratuitously targeted individuals. The meanness persisted over the entire transition; one minute after he was sworn in, under the baleful influence of self-described economic nationalist Stephen Bannon, Trump delivered perhaps the darkest, meanest inaugural speech in the history of the republic. This was followed by a blizzard of proclamations and executive orders designed to demonstrate the sharpest possible break with the Obama administration.
According to the Washington Post, “It was the worst showing for a Republican presidential candidate in the city in decades.” Against this background, life in this neighborhood was challenged by developments connected to the election result. We explore three of them here.
Fake News and Comet Ping Pong
The first election-related event that drew national media to Chevy Chase erupted in early November with word that Comet Ping Pong, a locally popular pizzeria on Connecticut Avenue, was the target of fake news articles on Facebook and alt-right websites such as Vigilante Citizen and The New Nationalist. These sites claimed that Clinton and her campaign chief — the “Occult Elite” according to one alt-right headline — were running a child sex ring in the Comet Ping Pong backrooms. As off-base as that seemed to locals, hordes on social media were duped by the story and lobbed hateful, harassing emails and death threats at employees of Comet and nearby businesses.
Even more incredible to locals, on Dec. 4 — weeks after the story had been widely debunked by the police on national television and in newspapers – one would-be cowboy vigilante strode into Comet Ping Pong with a military-style assault rifle and a handgun, which emptied out the place. He said he was there to “self-investigate” and tried to shoot open a locked backroom door to take a look around. A large police response followed and the alleged gunman, 28-year-old Edgar M. Welch of Salisbury, N.C., was arrested, having found no children being tortured on the premises. He faces 35 years in prison on federal and DC charges.
The story, local to us but covered internationally, highlighted the increasing problem of fake stories becoming real news. The Guardian found teenagers pumping out the stuff in Macedonia, and National Public Radio broadcast an exposé of a Democrat in Los Angeles raising two kids off the profits of fabricating stories – he called them “red meat” — for a pro-Trump audience. The Comet Ping Pong fiasco was traced to hacked emails from Clinton aide John Podesta that were published by WikiLeaks. They include discussions of a Clinton fund-raiser with James Alefantis, Comet’s owner who was once in a relationship with David Brock, a former right-wing-journalist-turned-Clinton supporter. The bulletin board 4Chan, picking up on many references in the emails to “pizza” – a supposed pedophilia term for “girls” — spun out a conspiracy theory that went viral and became known as #pizzagate. It fueled so many vicious hate emails, nasty calls, and threatening Instagram messages that Alefantis hired extra security and desperately appealed to police and the FBI. He asked YouTube, Facebook, Reddit and Twitter to remove the articles that he said were generating five tweets every minute, according to a Nov. 20 New York Times story. A GoFundMe appeal for $28,000 to pay for extra security and lost wages was broadcast.
The media firestorm following the fake sex-ring story was international in scope (LexisNexis shows 1,800 stories covering this topic) and painfully personal to Chevy Chasers. They responded as stalwart patrons, showing support by filling the tables at Comet Ping Pong as well as other businesses on the block and posting handmade signs of support. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3/4G passed a resolution on Dec. 12 supporting Comet Ping Pong and other businesses. ANC Chairman Randy Speck condemned the actions of Welch as well as the “national politicians” who failed to “forcefully and immediately repudiate” the falsehood, allowing it to morph into “conspiracy rumors and malicious lies about family-friendly businesses that make significant contributions to the vibrancy and vitality of our community.”
The topic consumed hundreds of Chevy Chase Community Listserv postings, the first of which was on Nov. 22. The writer pointed to that day’s New York Times article about a pizzeria in our neighborhood having “endured waves of internet abuse.” The message recommended neighbors “go order a pizza there and tell them we have their back.” “It sounds like a joke, but it is not,” wrote another Listserv contributor that same day. “The police are aware of the threat, but I think the neighborhood needs to stand up as well. In this political climate, we need to all move from being bystanders to upstanders.” Others called for more police presence, worrying that violence could erupt, which is what happened two weeks later.
As the #pizzagate conspiracy spread, Listserv messages increasingly expressed outrage over the attacks on local businesses. It is rare when the local and national issues in Chevy Chase intersect, and the threads on the Chevy Chase Community Listserv went full-bore into the topic. Besta Pizzaria’s owner worried about being forced into closing his doors, and the Terasol restaurant across the street was inundated by vindictive Facebook posts. The Listserv decried the craziness of it and condemned Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn for having tweeted out links to the fake story. “Inciting incidents such as the (vigilante shooter) should disqualify the Lt. General from such a crucial post,” noted one message in early December. Two months later Flynn was ousted anyway after he failed to come clean to about discussions with a Russian diplomat.
One Listserver post appealed for mercy for Welch, described by the media as aimless. “Had his beliefs been true, he would have been a hero … he too is a victim.” But that was not an argument others rushed to defend. Gullible maybe, but no victim, wrote another resident. “This man’s gullibility and vigilantism led him to bring guns into our community and terrorize our neighbors. He victimized us.” Said another: “Comet has been the victim of a horrific hoax. They were also the victim of a very sick individual who had an assault rifle. This person is, in no way himself a victim, unless we consider that his inability to discern fact from fiction makes him one. He drove hours on his ridiculous pursuit and endangered everyone in that restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. We are fortunate to have Comet and the other businesses that surround it in our neighborhood, and it was wonderful to see so many people patronize those businesses this weekend. No business should have to endure what they have.”
As disturbing a the incident was, the owners of Politics & Prose on the same block as Comet Ping Pong found something positive to say in a Listserve message. “It also revealed something important for those of us who live, work, and shop in our neighborhood: We all experienced an overwhelming sense of solidarity as a community. Yes, several businesses and individuals in particular have been the main targets of the fake stories, but it was our community that responded as a whole.”
Sieg Heil at Maggiano’s Little Italy
The second national spotlight flashed on Chevy Chase on Nov. 18 when Maggiano’s Little Italy on Wisconsin Avenue hosted a private banquet for the alt-right National Policy Institute celebrating its Trump victory. The group, led by supremacist Richard Spencer, had booked at the last minute and under an assumed name after NPI had been canceled by at least one other restaurant, the Hamilton. The party was well underway when about 30 anti-fascism protestors clambered up to the second-floor dining room but were blocked by staff and police. Reporters flocked to the scene and social media started lighting up with retweets from NPI revelers beaming “Sieg Heil” salutes in souvenir photos. This sent the Chevy Chase Community Listserv into spasms of indignation, and coverage of the event ballooned with more than 100 articles carried by local and national outlets.
Maggiano’s initially expressed regret that they did not realize beforehand who was coming but said they would not discriminate in whom they served. Three days later, after being berated by neighbors and social media, Maggiano’s parent company apologized for hosting the group and vowed to send $10,000 in profits from the event to the DC chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.
More than a few Chevy Chase residents are lawyers, which was evident in the legal wrangling in the Listserv over how absolute the protection of free speech should be. But much of it was emotional as well. “I hope people will contact Maggiano’s by Facebook, Twitter, email or phone, and inform them that it is not acceptable for them to host such groups,” urged one resident. “Why not let them compete in the intellectual marketplace,” countered another. “Surely there is nothing to fear from an open debate on the views that they hold. It is precisely because we are a community that values tolerance and diversity that we should have faith in our fellow man’s ability to judge for himself good principles from bad. I don’t like censorship.”
Media of all stripes wrote the story, most noting that NPI has grown bolder in the wake of Trump’s victory, appearing more comfortable in delivering its anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, racist desire for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” Dozens of Chevy Chasers weighed in on the Listserv, suggesting picketing, email campaigns, and a local boycott of the restaurant. Subsequent messages parsed the more subtle legal issues of how to deal with the fact that “hate speech is being normalized in the public domain” and whether meeting space should be granted to groups that advocate harmful acts. “Maggiano’s has the right and in my mind the moral duty not to serve the people in question – just as I have the right, if someone comes into my… studio wearing a swastika or says “Heil Hitler” (or Heil anyone) … to throw them out,” wrote a resident at Brandywine and Connecticut.
“Ideology and speech are not acts. In this country, we do not sanction “thought crimes,” countered one resident of Stephenson Place. Likewise, a resident of 33rd street said the incident at Maggiano’s was shameful only in the sense that its owners ultimately apologized for hosting NPI. “The fact that Maggiano’s is part of a moneyed enterprise does not make me proud that the public extorted from them any sum of money to assuage some imagined offense. We should take pride in protecting democratic principles, including the rights of free assembly and free speech, not in making the other guy relinquish his/her freedoms because we seem to have the power to intimidate … which is the sort of tyranny that groups like NPI threaten.”
Rainbow Flags for Pence
The third wave of national news relating to Chevy Chase DC came just before Thanksgiving when residents learned then-Vice President-Elect Mike Pence moved into a house on Tennyson Street, in a precinct in which 85 percent of his new neighbors voted Democratic. Rather than roll out the red carpet, Chevy Chase staked flags – rainbow ones – to remind Pence that his strident anti-gay stance does not fly here. Urban Turf, a DC real estate blog, found the juxtaposition interesting. “While Urban Turf usually tries to avoid political scrums, it was pretty hard to ignore the reception Vice President-elect Mike Pence got from his new neighbors last month,” the publication wrote on Dec. 21.
Joanna Pratt and Stephen Samuels, who live across the street from Pence’s temporary abode, were the first to hang a gay pride rainbow flag in solidarity with the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community. “When a dozen of our immediate neighbors said they would join us, we knew we were on to something,” they posted on the Listserv. “But little did we realize that our little demonstration would soon go viral, with numerous stories appearing on-line, in the written press, and on broadcast media — locally, nationally, and even internationally.”
Chevy Chase’s million-dollar bungalows with pride flags fluttering made good copy and filled the evening news. A CNN story reportedly received more than 2.2 million views on Facebook. LexisNexis shows more than 250 articles on the topic were published. By mid-January, the couple that started the campaign counted more than 285 rainbow flags in the Chevy Chase/Barnaby Woods vicinity. Also visible were banners and yard signs stating “This Neighborhood Trusts Women,” “Hate Has No Home Here,” and “I Stand with Planned Parenthood.”
Not everyone agreed with the symbolic greeting. Some Listserv posters urged respect for elected officials and pride in being selected as a place a vice president would want to live. “I would hope he and his family could be welcomed or at least left alone, rather than be bombarded with symbols opposing his views,” wrote a frequent Listserv commentator who lives on 31st Street. Another chimed in, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if neighbors would respect the man, the office he has been elected to, and … welcome his family rather than hurt them by displaying rainbow flags … we should put aside political views and welcome him as a human being.”
That kind of talk unleashed a small storm on the Listserv.
“I’d be happy to be neighborly towards him once he no longer feels people like me should be eradicated from the Earth,” messaged one resident. Another responded with this: “I have to wonder why Pence has chosen to live in the neighborhood … he arrives with his brand of negativity and we have to tolerate his temporary residency. However, we do not have to welcome it. I do not see anything cool about having a bigot, a misogynist, and a homophobe entering the neighborhood.”
Others questioned how flying a flag that stands for multiculturalism could be construed as harassment. “We’re flying the pride flag because Mr. Pence’s views on homosexuality aren’t just about a policy issue over which people can politely agree. They are no different from racism or sexism … If David Duke moved to our corner of the city, I expect few would suggest” that he be treated neighborly, posted another resident.
Shortly before his Secret Service team pulled up stakes for 1 Observatory Circle, Pence was treated to a “Queer Dance Party,” in which 200 protesters danced, tossed glitter, and waved glow sticks at the intersection of Western and Tennyson, as close to Pence’s house as protestors were allowed. “I love this,” 76-year-old Mary Carmody who lives in the neighborhood and was quoted in the Washington Post. “It’s wonderful to see people on the street like this. We’re lucky we can do this.”
Post-Inaugural Life in Chevy Chase
Inauguration weekend is normally a festive moment in the Nation’s Capital and our locality normally embraces the festivities. Though not nearly as large as the turnout for Barak Obama’s inaugurations in 2009 and 2013, the turnout for President Trump was respectable, numbering in the tens of thousands. But few Chevy Chasers could be seen leaving the neighborhood the morning of Jan. 20 for the event. Indeed, the streets, Connecticut Avenue included, were unusually quiet, almost deserted.
This was in stark contrast to the scene in the neighborhood the next morning, when a steady stream of neighbors made its way to transit routes for the Women’s March on Washington, many participants identifiable by the pink hats with cat ears. The event involved policy, basic duty, and style, alike. A unifying theme was rejection of the Trump campaign’s gratuitous misogyny. The pink hats with “ears” were a reference to one of Trump’s more egregious admissions involving the leveraging of his position of power and celebrity to grope women. Attracting many tens of thousands of participants—some estimated up to 500,000—the demonstration was only one of many dozens around the country and internationally (e.g., Paris, London, Frankfurt) The mood in the neighborhood could not have been more different than it was on Inauguration Day.
The new president signaled a sharp rupture with the previous administration in personnel policy, forcing the immediate resignation of almost all political appointees—ambassadors abroad as well as the top levels of the federal agencies. By the end of Donald Trump’s second week in office, only five of about 20 cabinet positions and virtually none of the nearly 700 second-tier appointments had even been announced, much less confirmed by the U.S. Senate or at work. Such an abrupt departure refocused the president’s decision-making in the White House staff and the new vice-president. The inexperience showed in the mistakes and miscalculations attaching to the welter of executive orders Trump rolled out in a series of photo-ops in the executive mansion.
In his first week, the president signed an order imposing a sweeping hiring freeze for federal employees, with the stated aim of shrinking the federal workforce. If you were being hired at a federal agency, but did not report to work before Jan. 22, you could not be taken on board. At the beginning of the second week of the Trump administration, an order was signed banning refugees and travelers from seven countries of the greater Middle East into the United States with immediate effect. Thousands of travelers were stranded abroad. Lawyers assisting some of them were able to obtain a stop order from a federal district judge in Washington State, which was soon upheld by a federal appellate decision.
Meanwhile, before the new Secretary of State could be confirmed and start working, nearly 1,000 State Department employees, probably including Chevy Chase neighbors, added their signatures to a comprehensive critique of the ban through that agency’s internal dissent channel. In response to a question relating to the memo in the daily press briefing, the White House spokesman said “I think they should either get with the program or they can go.”
Another executive order reorganized the National Security Council expressly to provide access to the Principals Committee for Trump right-wing strategist, Steve Bannon. Others rolled back Obama-era policies in energy, environment, health-care targeting the Affordable Care Act and abortion.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Congress weighed in with intimations of policy changes that could have far-reaching effects for all DC citizens, including Chevy Chasers. Washington DC was created as a federal enclave in part to insulate the federal government from protesters. For roughly two-thirds of its existence, the District was governed by presidential appointees and a committee of Congress. Despite the introduction of home rule by an act of Congress in December 1973, that committee can override local legislation adopted by the DC City Council. During the transition, Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is reported to have plans for canceling or substituting his preferences for those of the City Council in at least three cases: DC laws concerning physician-assisted suicide, marijuana use, and gun control.
[i] Precinct 51 (Lafayette School) gave the Republican ticket 8.61% of its votes, versus 85.75% for the Democrats; turnout was 78.06%. The results were similar in the other two precincts that lie entirely within the generally accepted boundaries of Chevy Chase DC: Precinct 52 (St. John’s College High School) had 79.39% turnout, with 6.06% for Trump/Pence and 89.01% for Clinton/Kaine; and in Precinct 50 (Chevy Chase Community Center) the turnout was 76.8%, with 8.11% for the Republican ticket and 86.23% for the Democrats.
A small portion of Chevy Chase DC – the area of about 20 blocks between Connecticut Avenue and Reno Road, from Nebraska Avenue to Western Avenue – constitutes a part of Precinct 32 (Wesley Methodist Church). That precinct as a whole had a similar voting pattern: 77.13% turnout, with 6.49% for Trump/Pence and 88.55% for Clinton/Kaine.
Citywide, turnout was 65.3%, with 90.48% for Clinton and 4.07% for Trump.Aggregating the three precincts that are solely Chevy Chase DC’s, the turnout figure is 77.90%, with 7.97% of the votes going to Trump/Pence and 86.25% to Clinton/Kaine.
Postscript May 2, 2019: The following is a letter by Politics & Prose owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine to bookstore customers following an April 27, 2019, protest by a small band of White Nationalists. The group interrupted an author talk with a megaphone, standing in front of author Jonathan M. Metzl and shouting, “This land is our land.” Metzl was discussing his book, “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland.”
We are deeply grateful that so many people in our community appreciate the important role that bookstores like ours play in creating safe spaces for the exchange of ideas and constructive dialogue about the most challenging issues of the day. Indeed, independent bookstores have long been, and remain, a pillar of civic life and democracy throughout the United States. Today, in troubling times, we believe that bookstores are more essential than ever.
Each year, Politics and Prose hosts more than 1,000 authors speaking about a range of topics and ideas. Our events draw people from across the community who value the opportunity to engage with authors and their fellow citizens. To enhance the discourse, events are structured so that audience members have an opportunity to pose questions and challenge the opinions of authors. Spirited discussions often take place. Our hope is that these exchanges remain civil, respectful, and tolerant of diverse and divergent points of view.
Hate speech is never welcome in any of our stores.
Only a handful of events at Politics and Prose over the years have been interrupted by protesters seeking to disrupt an author or silence his or her ideas. The most recent occurred on April 27—Independent Bookstore Day—when a group of self-described white nationalists entered Politics and Prose on Connecticut Avenue NW, paraded to the back of the store, shouted a white supremacist message, and left. The event resumed, and the author led a substantive conversation about his book.
Attempts to silence authors at Politics and Prose violate our spirit and mission. Such incidents have not deterred, and will not deter, us from bringing books, authors, ideas, and constructive dialogue to our community.
The safety and security of those who enter our doors remains a top priority. Recognizing that incivility, intolerance, and hate too often define the political discourse in America today, we have taken, and will continue to take, measures to ensure that all visitors—from authors to audience members—can enjoy Politics and Prose and its programs without risk or threat to any person’s freedom and safety.
We would like to commend our staff for their grace, poise, and professionalism and for their unwavering dedication to cultivating community and managing so many literary and cultural activities. Together they and all of you who support Politics and Prose will help ensure more great book events in the years ahead. — Brad and Lissa