It began, as all good 2020 capers do, with a tweet from the president of the United States. It ended with his personal lawyer in the parking lot of a landscaping company, struggling to be heard over a man in his underpants shouting about George Soros.
They say a star burns brightest just before it dies, and this was the Trump presidency in all its flaming glory.
For five straight days, the world had waited for news, any news, from Pennsylvania, which for all of that time had been expected to imminently decide the winner of a bitter election. The president had spent much of the intervening period making grave and entirely unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud, but even so he was unusually quiet.
"Lawyers Press Conference at Four Seasons, Philadelphia. 11:00 A.M," he wrote to his 88 million followers on Saturday morning.
Journalists from around the world who had gathered in Philadelphia, most of whom had spent the last four days transfixed by moving maps on CNN, were eager for stimulation, and perhaps as a side note to see evidence of massive election fraud the president and his lawyers had alleged.
I sprang into action immediately, gathered my things, and was heading out of the door towards the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Philadelphia when the next tweet came.
“Big press conference today in Philadelphia at Four Seasons Total Landscaping — 11:30am!”
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Some mistake, I thought. A presidential typo? We’d seen worse over the last four years. Remember Covfefe?
I did a quick Google search. There was indeed a place called Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia, but it was a small business in a drab industrial area on the edge of town. I struggled to think of any reason why the president’s lawyers would hold their press conference here, at this establishment, with its 3.1 star rating on Google reviews.
I decided to call the Four Seasons Hotel, from whom I was sure I would get confirmation that this press conference was indeed being held on their premises — perhaps in a grand ballroom or conference room.
A woman answered — she was primed: I was obviously not the first person to call.
“Yes there has been some confusion about this,” she said politely. “The press conference is not taking place here, it is taking place at Four Seasons Total Landscaping.”
It’s hard to explain the confusion I experienced as I sped along the highway out of downtown Philadelphia towards Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Was this one last act of revenge by the president against the lying fake news media while he still had our enrapt attention? Was it a ruse to get all the journalists out of town for when the results were announced?
Truth be told, it didn’t matter. However this turned out, Four Seasons Total Landscaping was the story now.
I arrived to see a media scrum around a chain link fence that led into the parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping. The building itself was one-storey, with a neat lawn and a row of hedges at the front. It was in that part of town that every town has, where businesses which have no right being grouped together nonetheless gather due to one reason or another — usually the cheap rent. Across the street from Four Seasons Total Landscaping was a crematorium. Next door to it was an adult book store with a bright yellow sign that displayed its offerings: DVDs and lotions, novelty gifts, viewing booths. It was called Fantasy Island. In retrospect, it was an omen of what was to come.
The media was told to line up outside while the press conference was prepared. Journalists from Japan, Germany and Britain took their place as a crowd of Trump supporters gathered around them.
I approached a man named Ron, who held a sign that read: “Biden Laptop Matters.” Since we were about to hear from the president’s lawyers about how this election was stolen, I wanted to hear what he thought about the process.
“What they did is they got ‘em fearful with corona, and once they got them in a fearful state, they suppressed them, they funelled all the ballots through mail-in, where they controlled that process, they can manipulate better,” he said.
As we waited outside Four Seasons Total Landscaping, we began to wonder what had led us to this point. Had a Trump campaign staffer booked the wrong Four Seasons and diverted to the landscaping company as a quick fix? Was the owner of the business a witness to this massive voter fraud the president had alleged?
One journalist remarked that the entire episode was beginning to acquire a Muammar Gaddafi flavour to it. When Nato powers bombed Tripoli in support of Libyan rebels during the country’s civil war, and it appeared the leader was on his last legs, he emerged briefly from hiding, riding a golf cart and holding an oversized umbrella. It was intended to project perseverance and strength — it had the opposite effect.
Private security guards hired by the president’s lawyers began to call media outlets into the parking lot. When the names were called, gathered Trump supporters booed those which they felt had been unfair to the president. “Washington Post”.. “Boooo.” “Fox News”.... “Boooooo!” “CNN” “BOOOOOOOO!”
This was an American pantomime.
Inside Four Seasons Total Landscaping, the cameras were assembled, the sound levels checked, the pens were poised and the gates were closed. The world’s press waited for the evidence that would blow this big scam wide open. The sun shone brightly.
Then, out of nowhere, a journalist with a European accent announced the news: “CNN called the presidency for Biden!”
The assembled journalists were paralysed for a moment. Phones started to ring and calls were made. Some were given instructions to leave and started to do so.
Soon after, the sound of car horns honking and cheers in the street began to drift into the backlot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping.
A car with a young Black woman named Jada Carter stopped in front of the Trump supporters. She screamed at the top of her lungs: “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” A flag with a picture of Donald Trump’s head superimposed onto the body of Rocky Balboa fluttered in the wind as she cried out.
Just a few minutes later, Rudy Giuliani appeared. This was the second press conference Mr Giuliani had called in Philadelphia in a matter of days, both to make unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud. The first took place at an airport hangar.
The president’s personal lawyer was serious and solemn as he took his place at the podium, in front of a garage door covered with Trump campaign posters and a bright yellow hose pipe attached to the wall.
“I’m here to describe to you the first part of a situation that is very troubling,” he began. He went on to claim that dead people were still voting in Philadelphia.
“Joe Frazier is still voting here. Also, Will Smith’s father voted here twice since he died.”
He said he had brought with him a number of poll watchers who claimed they had been blocked from monitoring the vote count. When they spoke, however, their complaint appeared to centre around how far they had been asked to stand away from the counting process. Not the evidence of massive fraud Mr Giuliani or the president had promised.
Amid all the drama of the preceding 30 minutes, no one had told him that Joe Biden had been projected the winner of the presidential election. A member of the press asked Mr Giuliani how his lawsuits could overturn the call for the former vice president.
“Who was it called by?”
“All of them,” came the response.
Mr Giuliani took a moment before erupting in mock incredulity: “All the networks? Wow! All the networks!” He raised out his arms and looked to the sky, for a moment looking and sounding like Larry David doing a bit. But the wind had been sucked out of him. The smile had gone.
I walked out onto the street, where more Biden supporters had gathered across the road. A Trump supporter in his underwear and a Biden mask pulled up over his head (who appeared to be dressed as an embodiment of Trump’s insult “Sleepy Joe Biden”) shouted: “Who pays for all that? Who pays for it all. George Soros! George Soros! Tell your daughter who George Soros is hun! Give her a real education. Look it up!”
The view from the other side of the road. pic.twitter.com/WD7gywso9s
— Richard Hall (@_RichardHall) November 7, 2020
Next to him, a man wearing an American flag suit and hat, and a full Donald Trump mask, stood silently and still. Even the mask seemed to wear a dejected expression.
Across the road, Kelisha Carter was jubilant. She had come down with two of her daughters and a giant Biden flag to soak up the atmosphere.
“Relief! There’s some hope coming. God, I prayed for this,” she said, when asked how she felt about the victory.
“It’s not even that I don’t like that man, I just don’t like his tactics,” she said of Mr Trump. “He just divides everybody. He brings the racists out of the closet. It’s scary for Black people, it’s scary for a lot of people. I have daughters and I have a husband that goes out every day and I want him to come home at night.”
Her daughter Jada, who had earlier argued with the Trump supporters from her car, was too excited to stand still. She performed a backflip in the middle of the road.
The owner of the Fantasy Island adult book store had come out onto his porch to watch the circus. He stood and stared in disbelief until a customer jolted him awake again.
“Are you open?”
“Yes,” he said, before following him inside.
It felt like an ending.