Amid all the spectacles of the years since 2016, the sight of a downtown DC chain pharmacy putting boards over its storefront on a quiet late-October afternoon does not seem particularly grotesque.
As a country, we’ve seen images of children in cages, white supremacists with torches, and a naval hospital ship sailing into locked-down, Covid-stricken New York. As a city, we’ve witnessed military vehicles take up positions at major intersections, seen the White House recede behind vast new blocks of fencing, and watched as federal authorities tear-gassed peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to enable the president to pose with a Bible.
And yet there is something uniquely heartbreaking about these scattered scenes of boarding-up four days before a presidential election—a feeling that, for people raised with a basic faith in the United States and democracy, seems utterly alien, a world knocked off its axis. People board up for hurricanes and riots, for acts of God and acts of vandals. It’s fundamentally disorienting to find that citizens of the world’s oldest democracy are reduced to doing so in preparation for a quadrennial ritual dating back to 1788.
What it isn’t, though, is illogical. There is a not-zero chance that the 2020 election could spiral in a terrible direction. It’s been a season of open voter suppression and willful inaction by a judicial system meant to protect our rights. We’re in a looking-glass moment in which a United States senator can openly disdain democracy. Is it that weird to imagine that other aspects of foreign failed states—like street battles over allegedly stolen elections—could come here as well? If I owned a CVS, I’d be mitigating the risk by ordering plywood, too.
The good news is that the plywood probably won’t be needed. Not all of downtown is boarded. Odds are we’ll have an election, someone will win, the boards will come off the windows, and the locals will go back to buying razor blades or energy drinks or Lipitor or whatever it is they were buying at the drugstore. But the reason the spectacle is so discomfiting is that it’s hard to imagine things going quite back to normal. You can’t unsee certain things. For me, those things include boards placed over windows because my own country may not actually be able to peacefully stage a democratic election.
I hope the election is fair. I hope it is peaceful. I hope it is definitive. I hope that the selection of the next president will not have to be a function of who controls the courts or the streets or the security services. And I fervently hope that there is no violence, and that the capital emerges from this terrible fall unscarred by whatever happens around the 3rd of November.
But even if there are no scars on the cityscape, that won’t mean that there’s no wound. The very fact of those plywood boards, the very knowledge that they reveal, is an injury. So I also hope, if things go well, we’ll come out of it not quite the same—a bit more appreciative of the fragility of our democracy, a bit less sanguine about the people who would poison it. In the meantime, we can quietly ponder those covered storefronts and what they mean about us.