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How election night went sideways

How election night went sideways
Democratic strategist James Carville and Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace were both surprised by the sudden turn of election night 2016. (Heidi Gutman/NBC)

Even in as strange and gaudy a cycle as this one, modern political moments tend to announce themselves well in advance. The expected train arrives in the station, the tracks lead to the next scheduled stop.

Tuesday was a different, twistier trip.

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Like all election days, it was a long haul on television, starting slow, with cable news on the job long before there was anything to know. Though everyone was careful not to predict a winner, discussions took place against a backdrop of polls that indicated Hillary Clinton would be elected president. The stunning lack of support for Donald Trump by the elders and organs of his own party was duly noted, his surrogates treated with a solicitous sympathy. "Don't forget to enjoy the moment, whatever it is," MSNBC's Chuck Todd would say to Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, when it still seemed as likely as not that the moment he referred to would constitute a loss.

Early coverage was filled with pictures of people in line to vote, scattered reports of malfunctioning machines. If you surfed away from the main event, you could see judge Gloria Sturman spar with lawyers for Trump in a Las Vegas courtroom; a Los Angeles City Council meeting that ended with a speech to adjourn in the memory of the late Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and the benediction, "Go vote. Be safe."  C-SPAN ran Ross Perot's cheery, inspirational 1992 concession speech, in which he encouraged his followers to work with the new Clinton administration: "As long as we're together nationwide … you will be a force for good for our country and our children."

And for something completely different there was the Weather Channel, located conveniently next to the cable news outlets, which branded itself as the place to "Escape the Election." Flute music accompanied pictures of a waterfall, a rainbow, a dandelion shivering in the wind, elk touching noses, a duck on a pond, amber waves of grain, purple mountains: the things that might survive us.

Early exit polls, lacking votes to count, concentrated on general questions about feelings toward the candidates and the issues, while on-screen countdown clocks marked the time until polls closed and reporters could start coloring in their maps. "We have some real numbers," MSNBC's Brian Williams cried like a kid on Christmas, adding: "They aren't predictive and they don't mean anything." On CNN, the easily excited Wolf Blitzer would announce, "We have a key race alert!"  whenever new figures came down the pipeline, or sometimes just to say that a race was too early to call. John King, speed-talking, made early runs on his "Magic Board," digging deep into maps of states and counties to pull out a profusion of numbers that   swamped any attempt to get hold of  them.

In other words, business as usual, more or less.

And then, slowly, the world turned upside down. States expected to turn blue instead turned red. With growing unease and puzzlement, commentators began discussing what they'd gotten wrong. As the evening wore on, the question of whether Trump would concede slowly gave way to questions about when Clinton would.

The mood among the panelists, even on Fox News, turned reflective, somber, confused and oddly congenial, like strangers who found themselves stranded in a lifeboat might behave, before the supplies ran out.

"You only have one president at a time," former Barack Obama strategist and CNN commentator David Axelrod said when the result became clear. "And you have to try to make it work."

Glenn Beck, the formerly fringe-baiting conservative commentator, told NBC's Lester Holt: "If this is what being a conservative or a Republican is, I don't want any part of that… The people are entering a time, as we've seen tonight, beyond reason." His new goal, he said was "to meet with the people I disagree with the most… I just want to listen."

On a live edition of "The Daily Show," host Trevor Noah spoke sharply. "I don't know if you came to the right place for jokes tonight," he said. "I genuinely don't know how America can be this disorganized or this hateful." Stephen Colbert was similarly unguarded and direct on his own election night special on Showtime.

But on news networks, for reasons of delicacy or decorum or perhaps because it no longer seemed to be the point, the racism, sexism and nativism associated with the Trump campaign were generally soft-pedaled. Early on, because attention was focused on the counting, and the likely conclusion; later, perhaps, because the cognitive dissonance was just too deafening.

There were brief skirmishes. On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews got testy with one another over what Matthews characterized as Clinton's failure to reach out to the disgruntled masses who only wanted a good job, a secure border and no more war.

"What she didn't say was build a wall," Matthews said. "I never heard her come out against illegal immigration." Maddow protested that she had a well-developed immigration policy.

"Trump took advantage of it, and I don't think it was racism. The way he did it was."

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" 'The way he did it was,' " Maddow repeated, in apparent amazement.

It was CNN commentator Van Jones, dispensing with niceties, who finally pointed to the elephant in the room: "It's hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us. You tell your kids don't be a bully. You tell your kids don't be a bigot. You tell your kids do your homework and be prepared. Then you have this outcome.

"We've talked about everything about race tonight… This was a white-lash against a changing country, it was a white-lash against a black president in part…. And Donald Trump has a responsibility tonight, to come out and reassure people that he is going to be the president of all the people who he insulted and offended and brushed aside." (The next morning, in a piece for cnn.com, Jones was cautiously optimistic, noting that Trump's acceptance speech "immediately struck an unexpected note of grace and reconciliation.")

The counting went on long into the night. Scenes from the Trump and Clinton gatherings showed the mood lifting in the former hall and flat-lining at the other. ("It really is like covering a wake," said a reporter from ABC News 24 covering the Clinton event.) Eventually, the news went out that the Democratic candidate had conceded to the Republican by telephone, and the cameras all settled in among the crowd to await the victor.

After awhile, the next president arrived to address them.

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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