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Commentary: Trump’s America runs on adrenaline. No wonder we can’t handle vote count purgatory

ABC's David Muir, left, George Stephanopoulos and Linsey Davis.
(Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC)

2020 isn’t done with us yet. The cruelest year’s new diabolical twist: election purgatory.

Intellectually, most of us knew that the presidential race would likely stretch well past Nov. 3. We were warned by polling wonks and political pundits, by Fox News and Trevor Noah. But that hasn’t stopped the hours since the end of election day proper from feeling like we’re trapped at the scene of an off-road accident, hanging upside down in our car, teetering on a cliff’s edge, engines revving, waiting for help to arrive.

Pennsylvania, Nevada, North Carolina and Georgia were still too close or early to call by Wednesday afternoon, though the president had already tried to claim victory and threatened to take his case to the Supreme Court.

The high-speed highway that led to this sudden state of suspended animation is paved with 1,460 days of political chaos, 24/7 manic media coverage and “conclusive” news developments approximately every 12 minutes. Staying informed during the presidency of Donald Trump has turned many of us into stimuli junkies who expect — and even crave — mayhem.

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You know who you are. Your friends and family turn to you for the latest because they can’t bear to look anymore. You obsessively check newsfeeds, cable and Twitter. Political and opinion poll analysis sites like FiveThirtyEight were your pre-election addiction.

Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence faced off Wednesday in the 2020 vice presidential debate. And Harris refused, winningly, to be talked over.

John King in the CNN newsroom goes over the electoral map for the 2016 presidential election.
(CNN)

I’m jonesing for something, anything, to bolster my hope, stave off my breaking news withdrawal and ensure me that the sun will still rise tomorrow — if a giant meteorite doesn’t get us first. But democracy-in-action has rightfully tripped the pause button. Tom Petty apparently foresaw this moment when he wrote “The Waiting,” but my mind is going to much darker, more aggressive strains of death metal as a soundtrack for Wednesday’s holding pattern, which may yet stretch to the end of the week and beyond.

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It feels like another layer of shutdown as we huddle in our homes, waiting for word of what comes next. And like much of the nation, I’m miserable, no matter how much residual Halloween candy I consume in lieu of actual meals, how many times I break the rules and let the pit bulls on the bed, or how many times I try and distract myself with second and third viewings of “The Vow.” Understanding the psychology of cult indoctrination feels particularly important right about now.

Anchors, guest panels and on-screen analysts are clearly stuck in the same lack-of-new-information limbo about the election results, but they’re struggling to cope with the dead air on air. Fox personalities such as Neil Cavuto spoke of this “crisis, or whatever you want to call it” on Wednesday and continued to defer to the network’s exhausted decision desk while CNN focused on Trump’s “saber-rattling” as its anchors stalled for time between results.

Here at home I tried to move things along the best way I know — by shouting at all my open screens: Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, stop toying with us! But each state’s election officials, those patient and determined workers responsible for making sure every ballot counts, were too busy following the democratic process to listen.

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Flipping between the New York Times’ election “needle” and the electoral maps of Steve Kornacki (MSNBC) and John King (CNN) has become election junkies’ new Pavlovian circuit, but it has provided little in the way of reward or relief.

Thanks to the surprise results of the 2016 election, 2020’s number-crunchers are enjoying an outsized role in television’s round-the-clock coverage of the voting outcome. Tuesday night’s competitive races found MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow angling for snippets of screen time in between Kornacki’s prognostications, while Kornacki was running against King in an unofficial map-master popularity contest breaking out on social media.

Stylistically, those cable news touch screens may be a far cry from Tim Russert’s white board in 2000, which preceded a protracted Florida recount that was ultimately settled in the Supreme Court. But the underlying expectation created by television — that a winner will be declared soon after the final polls close so we can all get on with our lives the next morning — is as potent, and problematic, as ever. After all, “Election Night” might sell ad spots, but it’s not a phrase you find in the Constitution.

In truth, CNN’s election panel began running out of things to say as the numbers coming out of still-undecided swing states slowed to an injured crawl just before midnight Pacific on Tuesday. King has since been burdened with carrying the meat of the network’s coverage. For viewers, the complexity of tracking all the narrow paths to victory via countless maps, graphs and pixelated shades of blue, red, and toss-up yellow only adds to the profound feeling of dread that this damn election will, like 2020, never let up.

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One day in the Trump news cycle may equal one year in normal times, but now that we’ve reached election purgatory, time has stopped altogether.


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