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722: The Unreality of Now

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Hey, there, America. Can we just get this election over with already? We've had enough excitement, right? More than enough plot twists. The president getting coronavirus, Ruth Bader Ginsburg dying, that whole first debate, the alleged contents of Hunter Biden's hard drive-- which are either totally unconvincing or deeply, urgently important, depending on your point of view.

We finally got to see the president's tax records after all these years. That barely seemed to make a dent in anything. Militia plotted to kidnap the governor of Michigan. And then after that, the president's followers chanted, "Lock her up." The president joking, not joking, told his supporters in North Carolina to go out and try to vote twice. And then after that, the attorney general declared on CNN to Wolf Blitzer that voting twice might actually be legal.

William Barr

I don't know what the law in that particular state says.

Wolf Blitzer

You can't vote twice.

William Barr

Well, I don't know what the law in that particular state says. And when that vote becomes final--

Wolf Blitzer

Is there any state that says you could vote twice?

William Barr

Well, there's some maybe that you can change your vote up to a particular time. I don't know what the law is, so I'm not going to offer.

Ira Glass

Attorney General William Barr looks amazingly relaxed as he says all this. Calm, like nothing's out of the ordinary. Nothing to see here, officer. Watching him, it's hard not to think, is this really happening?

I got that same feeling looking at photos of the president's rallies where, even now, he's packing people in. Tons of people with no masks, not following CDC guidelines. He's doing this even after he, his wife, his son, his press secretary, his campaign manager, the chair of the Republican National Committee, White House housekeeping and military staff, members of the vice president's staff, Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway, and Hope Hicks all got coronavirus. Even though cases are at an all-time high and on the rise. Looking at the not socially distanced crowds, it's like, is this really happening?

And now, coming up, this coming Tuesday, we're either going to have an election with a clear winner or, apparently, the vote will be contested. A contested election seems so possible because the president keeps saying over and over that he's way ahead in the polls, and those polls that we are always seeing on the news saying that he's way behind, those are fake. And so if he loses, he says, there's only one possible explanation.

Donald Trump

The only way we can lose, in my opinion, is massive fraud. And that's what's happening, because all over the country, you're seeing it, thousands and thousands of ballots.

Ira Glass

That was Monday in Allentown. Here he is in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Donald Trump

Because the only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that. It's the only way we're going to lose this election. And we can't let that happen.

Ira Glass

There is no evidence for any massive fraud like he's talking about. When he talks about mail-in ballots being a problem-- which he does nearly everywhere-- there's no evidence for that either. Lots more Democrats than Republicans are voting with mail-in ballots this year. Here's the president on Sunday in New Hampshire, calling those ballots into question.

Donald Trump

The other way, they said millions of ballots. We don't know who's sending them. We don't know where they're going. We don't know who's bringing them back. We don't know who's signed them. And it shouldn't be allowed. And the Democrats know it's a hoax. And we shouldn't let it happen.

Ira Glass

So, this Tuesday, he may fight those ballots. And we might find ourselves in a big, no-holds-barred season finale, contested election, constitutional national meltdown, with both sides arguing over whether to count mail-in ballots and ballots that arrive after November 3. And if that happens, people on both sides will probably take to the streets to protest, and who knows where that might lead?

And then, of course, there are the scenarios where the whole thing gets thrown to Congress or the Supreme Court to decide. So many different ways this could play out, where, whichever side loses, red or blue, they'll probably never be able to see the final decision as fair and legitimate. So one half of the country will not accept who the other half puts into office.

Or maybe that won't happen. Maybe somebody is going to win decisively. That's where we are. Our world is either about to slip into utter chaos or the election will go just fine, and things will be fine. That's the unreality of now. There are so many things right now that make it feel like the ground underneath us is thin as a cracker with molten lava underneath. So many things, it's hard to understand. This is real. This is really happening.

And today on our program, we have people trying to get their minds around that. I have to say that is so much of the mood as we head into the Simpsons Halloween Special of an election day. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Would You Like to Come Up to First Class?

Ira Glass

Act One, Would You Like to Come Up to First Class? So the journalist E. Jean Carroll has been in the news this week when a federal judge ruled that the president can be sued by Caroll. Caroll says that back in the 1990s, Donald Trump raped her in a dressing room in the department store at Bergdorf Goodman. He says she's lying. She's suing him for defamation. She's one of dozens of women who've accused the president of sexual assault and harassment. The president denies all of their allegations.

These stories have been so widely covered and everybody is so used to them. But to Caroll, it felt like, at this point, they were just being ignored, which seemed kind of incredible to her. Our program today is about people feeling like, is this is really happening? And she definitely felt that about this. It killed her that these stories just somehow didn't seem to matter.

And this summer, she decided to try to do something about it. She had a bunch of conversations with other women who have accused the president and published them in a series of stories in The Atlantic. And her idea was, most people only have a vague sense of these stories and don't have much of a sense of what these women say actually happened. And by diving into the details of these stories, she'd restore them to human size, in full color.

She's adapted one of the articles that she wrote for us. It's with one of the president's accusers named Jessica Leeds. A warning about content before we start-- this is a frank conversation about sexual assault. Here's E. Jean Caroll.

E. Jean Carroll

Let me set the scene-- midsummer twilight, and Jessica Leeds and I are letting down what's left of our hair. Jessica's in her elegant crib in the Blue Ridge mountains. I'm in my little shack just off the Appalachian Trail. And we're Zooming like two old screech owls, discovering how much we had in common, which includes our love for Mr. Paul Newman, our age, and our height.

E. Jean Carroll

How tall are you now?

Jessica Leeds

Well, I'm 5' 7" now. I was 5' 9" at the-- I've lost two inches.

E. Jean Carroll

Me, too. I've lost two inches.

Jessica Leeds

I don't know where they've gone, but I've lost them. I love being tall. When I was working, I was always so thankful--

E. Jean Carroll

Yeah, me, too.

Jessica Leeds

--that I was tall.

E. Jean Carroll

About 40 years ago, when Jessica was working as a salesperson for a company that sold newsprint to publications like the Washington Post, she sat down next to Donald Trump on an airplane.

Let me just say that if you have never Zoomed with a silver-haired, soigné 78-year-old woman who describes what it's like being strapped in a seat on a Braniff Airlines flight with a future president of the United States trying to fasten his lips on her like a 6' 2" suckfish-- well, in my opinion, you have not lived, let alone Zoomed, at all.

But before we board that flight, a refresher. Jessica was one of the first women to publicly accuse Trump of sexual assault in 2016. It was on the front page of The New York Times.

Jessica Leeds

I knew if the story did get any attention, that the first thing Trump would say is that I wasn't pretty enough.

E. Jean Carroll

Right.

Jessica Leeds

I knew instinctively that that's what he was going to say.

E. Jean Carroll

How did Jessica know? Because Jessica is an old bat. Old bats are the best, even better than screech owls. I'm an old bat myself. We old bats don't kid ourselves. And, in fact, one day after The New York Times published the story about what happened to Jessica on that plane in 1980, Trump yammered about her accusations at a rally.

Donald Trump

Oh, I was with Donald Trump in 1980. I was sitting with him on an airplane. And he went after me on the plane. Yeah, I'm going to go after-- believe me, she would not be my first choice, that I can tell you. You don't know. That would not be my first choice.

E. Jean Carroll

I told Jessica the same thing happened to me.

E. Jean Carroll

I knew it was coming, too. I knew it, of course. And then he said it about me. She's not my type. Because they're running pictures of me when I'm 75 years old. And it's not fair. If they had run pictures of me as I looked-- you and I caught tons of shit because we're older women.

For the honor of Jessica Leeds and old bats everywhere, Jessica is a beauty now, and she was a beauty 40 years ago when she got on that flight to New York. And as she remembers it, it was a Braniff flight. Braniff was the chic airline. Her seat would have been full grain leather. Her flight attendant would have been clad in Halston. And her plane, it would have been painted in Perseus Green, Mercury Blue, or Sparkling Burgundy.

E. Jean Carroll

And so what were you wearing? Do you remember, when you got on that plane?

Jessica Leeds

Yep. I had my best suit, was a brown tweed. Oh, I love that suit. And it was jacket and a skirt. It was a fabulous outfit. It really was. I never wore it again after that day, though. I hung on to it for quite a while, but I never wore it again.

E. Jean Carroll

I know exactly what she means. It was the same for me with the dress I had on at Bergdorf's.

E. Jean Carroll

I didn't want to throw it away because it was a beautiful Donna Karan. I would never throw it away. But I couldn't put it on because bad things happened in that dress.

Jessica Leeds

Yeah, exactly.

E. Jean Carroll

OK, so isn't that interesting? We have so much in common. So, all right. So you were-- now tell me what happened. You get on the plane.

Jessica Leeds

I get on the plane, and I was sitting in the back. And I remember watching the stewardess come walking down the aisle. And she saw me, and she said, would you like to come up to first class? We have space. Never occurred to me not to say yes. And I gathered my purse, and I went up to first class. That had happened before.

E. Jean Carroll

Yeah, it's happened to me, too.

Jessica Leeds

Yeah, I kind of accepted the fact that it was entertainment for the big honchos up in first class.

E. Jean Carroll

Now I don't understand if people understand what we're talking about, but that's what they did. They chose the best looking, best dressed people, and put them up in first.

Jessica Leeds

That's right.

E. Jean Carroll

What we're talking about is how things used to be-- buying a ticket, putting on our best clothes, hopping on a cocktail party, heading for New York or Chicago or Miami or any jazzy city, USA. And this party lacked zip unless somebody very rich or very pretty was present.

Men in first class would size up the female passengers before boarding and hold a brief conference with the check-in crew. Or, alternatively, a helpful flight attendant would simply stand in the aisle, waving people away and rearranging the seating chart so that an extremely tall chap, for instance, with black hair like greased felt could have the spot by me, which is what I told Jessica had happened on a jumbo jet to LA.

After the plane took off, following the meal, the chap shows me a photo of his private plane. Then he shows me a photo of his Rolls Royce. Then he shows me his erection.

E. Jean Carroll

It would never have occurred to me to call anybody and say anything! We grew up expecting men to make a pass at-- I was not surprised. I expected it from men. Jessica, you and I were born during the Second World War. We did not report. We expected it, and we laughed. But we were wrong. We were wrong. We should have spoken up, like they're doing now.

Jessica Leeds

Well, we were so thankful, though, to have--

E. Jean Carroll

Oh, I know, to have the fucking job.

Jessica Leeds

Yep. Oh, absolutely.

E. Jean Carroll

Oh my lord.

The flight attendant escorts Jessica to the front of the plane. She sits down in the aisle seat beside Donald Trump.

Jessica Leeds

As I recall, he introduced himself. The name meant nothing to me.

E. Jean Carroll

It wouldn't have. This was 1979, 1980. Jessica wasn't a native New Yorker. And she was not yet aware of all the levels, the ranks, the spheres of New York society that Trump, a young rat out of Queens, was chewing his way through.

E. Jean Carroll

He was very good looking in 1980, do you agree?

Jessica Leeds

Well--

E. Jean Carroll

I found him very attractive in 1996. He was very pretty.

Jessica Leeds

Yeah, I guess. I--

E. Jean Carroll

He was not ugly.

Jessica Leeds

I can remember-- I don't remember my reaction. He was perfectly reasonable when I first sat down. I mean, he was blonde, tall, good-sized man, that sort of stuff. But I don't remember being overwhelmed by his looks or--

E. Jean Carroll

Did he ask you about yourself?

Jessica Leeds

What did we talk about? We talked about him. I remember we took off, and they served this wonderful meal. And then they came, and they picked up everything. And within a short amount of time, all of a sudden, he's on me like a wet blanket.

E. Jean Carroll

Did he try to kiss you first?

Jessica Leeds

Yes. Yes.

E. Jean Carroll

She glances away from the screen with a revolted wince.

Jessica Leeds

It was such a shock. It was like, all of a sudden, he's on me.

E. Jean Carroll

Jessica is ladylike. Therefore, allow me-- for I have experience with Trump-- to say in plain English what I believe Trump is about to do. I believe he will go straight for the crotch, just like he brags on the Access Hollywood tape. This man who today claims that he has never kissed or groped a woman without consent.

Jessica Leeds

It's like he's got four extra hands, because he's grabbing my breasts, he's trying to kiss me. I'm trying to get his hands off of me. And this kind of struggle went on for a little while. And then, it's when he started to put his hand up my skirt that I got a jolt of strength and managed to wiggle myself out of the seat.

E. Jean Carroll

Jessica grabs her purse and storms to the back of the plane.

E. Jean Carroll

Now wait-- so did he make it all the way to your panties or not?

Jessica Leeds

No. No.

E. Jean Carroll

Because you had, by that time, started to stand up, right?

Jessica Leeds

Right.

E. Jean Carroll

Was there anybody else?

Jessica Leeds

Yeah, there was the guy across the aisle whose eyes were about the size of a saucer. And I kept thinking--

E. Jean Carroll

Ah!

Jessica Leeds

--why don't you say something? Or where is the stewardess on this whole thing? Why doesn't somebody come and rescue me? And that's when I realized, there was only me that was going to rescue me. So that's when I--

E. Jean Carroll

Well, I'm glad you thought of-- see, some women freeze in this situation.

Jessica Leeds

Yes. Yes, I know.

E. Jean Carroll

You didn't freeze.

Jessica Leeds

No. No. But I certainly didn't say anything.

E. Jean Carroll

I didn't say anything either! I didn't scream! I didn't do shit. I laughed. Did you laugh?

Jessica Leeds

Yeah. No, I don't recall laughing. No. I took it seriously. I mean, this was a real physical attack. And--

E. Jean Carroll

Oh, I know it's an attack, an assault.

Jessica Leeds

Yeah.

E. Jean Carroll

Although we talk about Trump groping women, most people don't understand how brazen Trump really is because no one knows what groping means. It's one of the reasons I wanted to talk to the Trump accusers. Who knows what the heck Trump is actually doing or on what part of the female body he is doing it?

One of Trump's accusers described for me Trump putting his hand up her skirt and onto her vulva. And she used the plain English. "It was like a squish," she said. "A squeeze." And she made a motion with her hand like squeezing a rubber duck. That is groping.

So why does Trump do it? Jessica and I ponder.

E. Jean Carroll

Let's try to figure this out. The main question is, he knows he's not going to be able to have intercourse with you on the plane. He knows this. Why does he do this? What did he think he was going to gain? Was it sexual? Were you turning him on to such an extent that he couldn't stand it? What was it?

Jessica Leeds

Well, personally, I can't-- I thought he was bored.

E. Jean Carroll

Oh.

Jessica Leeds

Nothing happening, so let's grab a little pussy here, you know.

E. Jean Carroll

This is such an insight to me! This is such an insight. Got it.

Jessica Leeds

But it goes along with his Hollywood tape.

E. Jean Carroll

And he has no attention span.

Jessica Leeds

No, no.

E. Jean Carroll

Was he reading at all beforehand?

Jessica Leeds

No.

E. Jean Carroll

Didn't he have a book?

Jessica Leeds

No.

E. Jean Carroll

Newspaper?

Jessica Leeds

Nope.

E. Jean Carroll

Who'd get on a plane in 1980 without a ton of magazines, newspapers, or The Wall Street Journal?

Jessica Leeds

Exactly.

E. Jean Carroll

And he had nothing to read?

Jessica Leeds

Nope.

E. Jean Carroll

You said he was bored. That is an insight that I think-- it really sends it home. Because some people have claimed he does it for power. I don't think it has anything to do with power.

Jessica Leeds

Well, it could be. But I really kind of just chalked it off to him being bored.

E. Jean Carroll

So Trump grabs one woman. Then he grabs the next woman and the next woman. And pretty soon, we start thinking Trump grabbing women is normal. Then Trump grabbing women becomes so normal, it's boring.

Jessica Leeds

It is old news, and there's so much that he's done.

E. Jean Carroll

But Jessica, it's not old news. We're the most current thing. We tried to warn people. We tried to warn America this is who he was. And so now we seem to have been forgotten. We've been pushed-- well, we've been ignored. And this drives me crazy. This is why we're doing this. We're doing it between now and the election. That is our duty to once again tell America what this man is like.

Well, some people may have forgotten us, but you know who has not forgotten us? The men who are voting for Trump because he grabbed us, because he is macho, because Trump proved he can paw any woman he wants. And you know who else has not forgotten? Women like Jessica and I. We'll never forget.

E. Jean Carroll

How often did you think about this between then and 2015, when he came to the fore again, you know?

Jessica Leeds

I probably would not have had it so emblazoned in my mind if it hadn't been for the gala at Saks Fifth Avenue.

E. Jean Carroll

The gala at Saks Fifth Avenue. This is a year or two after the flight, and it's a benefit for the Humane Society of New York and a few other charities. Jessica is the assistant to the president of the Humane Society and is handing out table assignments.

Jessica Leeds

I had this fabulous dress.

E. Jean Carroll

Oh, what was it? Let me hear.

Jessica Leeds

Mary McFadden--

E. Jean Carroll

Oh, I love Mary McFadden.

Jessica Leeds

--pleated, all these little pleats in a taxicab yellow. And I show up at Saks, and I've got this great dress on. And I'm doing my thing. And I'm meeting Geoffrey Beene. I'm meeting Bill Blass. I'm meeting all of these designers for this party. And in fact, Mary McFadden came up and looked at me and said, that's my dress. And I said, yes, it is. So it was really a fabulous evening.

And then Trump with his wife, Ivana, came up. She was pregnant, very pregnant. And he looked at me when I handed him his table assignment. And I'm looking at him, thinking, you're the asshole from the airplane. I remember you.

E. Jean Carroll

The future president of the United States remembers Jessica, too.

Jessica Leeds

And he looked at me, and he said, "I remember you. You're the cunt from the airplane."

Ira Glass

E. Jean Carroll, she's a journalist and the author of the memoir, What Do We Need Men For, her series of conversations with women who accuse Donald Trump of sexual assault. It's available at theatlantic.com.

[MUSIC - "DAREDEVIL" BY FIONA APPLE]

Coming up, seeing people fight over corn dogs in a grocery store leads one woman to do something that she has avoided for years. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: The Gun Reality of Now

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, The Unreality of Now. As we approach this historic and momentous election day, we have stories of people trying to get their heads around and adapt to this strange time we are living through. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, The Gun Reality of Now.

One sign of how shaken up people are in our country right now-- gun sales. They're going nuts. A record year, according to the FBI. The FBI is doing twice the number of background checks they did last year. A survey of gun store owners by an industry trade group estimates that something like 40% of their sales are to first-time gun buyers-- 40% to people who've never owned a gun. Lilly Sullivan talked to some of them, and it was like a tour of different fears that people have about this country right now.

Lilly Sullivan

The thing I wanted to know was, why now? What's the thing that made you want a gun? Brian told me he was around guns some when he was growing up. He'd sometimes do target practice or go shooting. When he was 16, he was hunting with his family, and he killed a deer. It made him really sad. So he never bought a gun.

Now he's 52 and lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. It's in the mountains, kind of a ski town in the winter. He just bought a gun the day I talked to him, a Glock 9 millimeter. The thing that made him want one? The first presidential debate, the one where there was so much yelling.

Brian

After watching that debate, I laughed out loud multiple times, but at the same time, I was horrified.

Lilly Sullivan

What was it about the debate?

Brian

Oh, I think it was just the non-civility. It wasn't civil. I mean, Biden was trying to be civil. But the leader of our country was not trying to be civil. I mean, whoever thought our country would come to this to where it almost seems like it-- I mean, I don't know if it's leading towards a civil war, but it's not-- it doesn't seem civil.

Everybody on my side, we're mad. Everybody on that side, they're mad. I mean, it's-- I don't know after the election if-- if the Republicans are going to take this very well if they lose. Trump's already saying that-- he hasn't said he's going to accept any kind of-- I mean, it's going to be challenged. And then you get-- I think there's going to be-- I mean, there's going to be people protesting.

Lilly Sullivan

Protesting the election, you mean?

Brian

Yeah, the results. And I mean, it's just-- and you know what? And those people that are going to be protesting the results-- I mean, I hope they don't become violent. But they're all Second Amendment, gun-toting Americans, you know?

And I don't know. And I think I'm fine in my small little town that I live in. But I mean, you just never know. I actually went and looked at guns at one gun shop on the Thursday after the debate. And they were out. They were out of guns. They were out of ammo.

I get online, and I looked at stores in Denver and stuff like that even. Sold out, sold out, sold out, sold out, sold out, sold out. Unbelievable.

And so then I found another place. It's like an hour from home. And they had guns. It's a weird thing because I feel like I go to the gun counter. And first off, there's the whole mask, non-masked libtard thing. So yeah, it felt weird, because you're talking to a bunch of gun-toting Republicans trying to buy a gun off of them. So then I'm there in cut-off sweatpants and a hoodie, wearing a mask. And so, yeah, it's a little bit--

Lilly Sullivan

You said "libtard?"

Brian

Oh, I've heard that so much. And I went into my local gun shop, where masks should be required, according to the ordinances. And I was in there talking to the kid. He had a pistol on his side. It looked like he was definitely not voting for the same person I'm voting for. And he did not have a mask on. And his dad who owned the shop did not have a mask on.

Then the kid's-- after I'm in there for a couple minutes, he's like, you don't have to wear your mask. And I'm like, uh, yeah, I'll go ahead and just keep my mask on if you don't mind. And he kind of paused, and he got choked up on, like, he was going to say some stuff. And I was finally like, no, we don't need to discuss it. I just have some questions about these guns. And he kind of wasn't as nice to me after that.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, really? You think you maybe irritated him a little or something.

Brian

Yeah, like, because I was a libtard in his store looking at guns. So I guess now I'm a gun-toting libtard.

Lilly Sullivan

For DeJonae, the moment she decided to buy a gun happened in March. She's a nurse in San Bernardino County, outside of LA. DeJonae has an aunt who wanted her to get a gun for years. Her aunt owns a gun store. It's actually the only Black-owned gun store on the West Coast, where she trains women to shoot. DeJonae is pretty, her aunt told me. She worries about her niece dating and living alone. DeJonae had even had a stalker once.

But the thing that flipped DeJonae wasn't the stalker. She was in the grocery store after work one day. The pandemic had just arrived.

Dejonae

I've never seen the grocery store look the way that it looked-- lines wrapped around the building, people beating people up for their groceries or for their baskets because there were none. Everywhere. And it was just like complete pandemonium.

Lilly Sullivan

Did you say beating people up? Like, fighting?

Dejonae

Yeah, people were getting into fights-- physical fights.

Lilly Sullivan

So wait, what were people fighting about?

Dejonae

The last sanitizer. I mean, but there's not-- it wasn't just one. There were a couple of them. People were fighting over the last pack of tissue, literally the last pack of frozen corn dogs. Everyone was buying everything that they could put their hands on. And I just remember looking at all these people, and it just made me scared. I said, wow, I'm scared.

So I called my aunt, and I said, hey, I need to buy a gun. And she started laughing. And I said, what do you have? And then I sent her the money right there. And--

Lilly Sullivan

Like, online?

Dejonae

Yeah, I Zelled it to her. I Zelled her the money. And I'm like, I already paid for it. This is mine. Put it aside.

Lilly Sullivan

A lot of first-time gun owners I talked to explain their reason this way. They had started to feel something weird in the air, a kind of amorphous anxiety.

Shane is 49. He has a house in the hills in Northern California. So in addition to all the coronavirus strangeness, they've also had wildfires and rolling blackouts. One day, a few months ago, the power went out. And it didn't come back for 14 days, which meant no internet. And then the cell towers stopped working.

Shane

So things started getting weird. That's the best way that we can put it, is things started getting weird. People would drive right up to the grocery store. Not park, just literally drive right up and nose first, right in front of the doors for the grocery store, and get out and just leave their car there.

Lilly Sullivan

You mean those sliding doors?

Shane

Yeah. So there was, like, fraying. There was just a feeling. There was just a feeling in the air that was not a good feeling. You could pick up that things were getting kind of weird and were going to get weirder if the power didn't come on soon.

Lilly Sullivan

I asked Shane and everyone else, when you think about needing a gun, what do you picture? Is there a scene that plays in your mind? Nearly everyone said it's night. They're sleeping, and someone dangerous shows up.

Shane's version is people wandering to his house in a disaster, finding it in the woods through the smoke, and trying to take his family's supplies, their food, their generator, the things they need to survive. There's something pre-apocalyptic about it. He's on his own, protecting his home from marauders.

This is stuff he doesn't think will happen. But at the same time, for months, they've been surrounded by fires, smoke so thick that it can look like dusk in the middle of the day. So somehow, it does seem possible to him. All kinds of things do.

Shane

I wonder if there are people who-- in our community, who resent us because we're successful or for whatever reason, because we're Jews or because we're gay and-- you know. We do have a growing neo-Nazi threat in this country. It's our biggest internal security danger, is the growth of neo-Nazis. And those people know how to use firearms.

So but my feeling is, if you're on the left or even a moderate, you should be doing the same thing to protect yourself. My husband's been a little out of control with the ammunition. He's purchased, like, 1,600 rounds.

And I said, Glenn, after a gun battle involving 1,600 rounds, your gun, A, would melt because the barrel would get so hot, you'd have to stop firing after a certain point. And I said our house would probably collapse. It'd look like Swiss cheese. The walls would collapse inward on themselves.

But he's like, it's just hard to find ammunition for this gun. And I'm like, I'm fine with about 75 rounds. I don't feel like I need 1,600 rounds of ammunition. And I actually asked him to please stop buying ammunition, but--

Lilly Sullivan

Oh my gosh.

Shane

--he did really stock up. [LAUGHS]

Lilly Sullivan

OK, I'm trying to picture 1,600 rounds. Is that, like, a shoe box full of bullets?

Shane

We actually did buy some Gucci flats. And that box was filled up with bullets. It's kind of an incongruous look, the Gucci shoe box with the 22 bullets. That's a gay male way of doing it.

Lilly Sullivan

Nancy bought her pistol around Mother's Day. She send me a photo of herself on Mother's Day, dressed in a Lilly Pulitzer blouse and pale blue cardigan, holding a Smith and Wesson 380 EZ. She's 53. She owns a small business making luggage tags. She's also worked as a nurse a lot in hospice.

She lives with her family just outside of Appleton, Wisconsin. She described her town to me as your typical, don't-have-to-lock-your-door suburb. Before this year, she'd never even held a gun. It was actually kind of hard for her to explain why it felt so urgent.

Nancy

It's kind of like a nameless, faceless feeling that I have, almost like the earthquake that the world had where everything shifted. And the normal that we knew is no longer there. It's like the axis. The world fell off its axis.

Lilly Sullivan

Since the pandemic, she says, her world has suddenly shrunken to just her family and her home.

Nancy

That was all you had. And so if someone was going to come into your house and take that away, as everything else had been taken away, that was not OK.

Lilly Sullivan

Nancy lives two hours north of Kenosha, Wisconsin, where there were big protests after the shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers. Some demonstrators set cars and buildings on fire. The National Guard was called in. A teenager, a Trump supporter who came to the protests in support of Blue Lives Matter, shot three people, killing two of them. There have been protests in Appleton near where Nancy lives.

Nancy

It's this small town. Nothing happens. Nothing goes on. We don't have any murderers, but we had rioters here in Appleton. So we've got kind of a small town taste of people being upset and being-- the tension.

Lilly Sullivan

The police in Appleton don't use the word "riot" to describe what happened there. One man was assaulted, but there were no fires, no vandalism. And when Nancy and I talked about it more, she agreed that riot wasn't the right word.

Nancy already owned her gun by the time this happened, but a lot of gun store owners have said that customers point to the protests as one of the reasons they felt so worried.

Nancy

I don't want to sound like a privileged white woman, that I'm living in this la-la land, which is really mostly white people here. I mean, this is almost Utah white. It's white, white here. But there has been more racial tension and more people coming in. And I don't know. I think it's the underlying fear. And I don't know who I'm afraid of. That's also kind of upsetting, too, is, I don't really know who am I afraid of. Who am I worried about?

Lilly Sullivan

Tell me more about that. What do you mean?

Nancy

I don't know. Is there somebody that's going to be coming for revenge because I'm Caucasian? Is there somebody that's coming for my property? Is there someone coming just because they feel like it?

Lilly Sullivan

So when you're thinking about just the unrest, are you picturing Black people? Because I also know that in Kenosha, it was a white teenager who killed two people. So I'm just kind of curious. Is it Black people? Is it white people?

Nancy

Honestly, if I had to say what I was worried about is-- and this is going to sound truly awful, but I don't think it's so much a matter of a color of a skin, but more of a socioeconomic level of someone that's so desperate that-- things are so bad and people losing their job and people are unable to make their rent.

And I think that's what makes me more nervous than particular Black Lives Matter or African-Americans or anything like that. I think it's more just the desperation of people. So the protests and stuff like that doesn't scare me. I think it's more just the world in general that scares me and the unrest and the uneasy feeling than anything else.

Lilly Sullivan

One more person. Elsa lives in a small town in North Carolina. Growing up, no one around her had guns. She grew up in Kenya, moved to the US over 30 years ago. That nightmare scenario that nearly everyone talked about of being woken up in the night by intruders, asleep and helpless, it actually happened to Elsa a couple of years ago.

The intruders fled before hurting anyone, but it was terrifying. She thought about getting a gun. But she didn't until this year, when COVID hit and when police violence set off protests around the country.

Elsa

I worry not about the Black Lives Matter. I worry about the crazies that are out there that are against the Black Lives Matter movement that could target someone like me just because of the color of my skin. For one, I'm mixed. And my daughter is pale, very, very-- she's got her complexion. She's got Caucasian complexion because, well, my ex-husband was white. And like I said, he's my ex-husband.

So my current husband is a Black man. Yeah, so Black woman, white child is an issue. And even worse, I feel worse for my husband because there are a lot of times that he goes out with my daughter. And my daughter is-- well, aside from her nose, she could pass for white. So him walking out with her, I can see someone trying something crazy, you know?

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah.

Elsa

I worry in part because of the rhetoric that I see, number one, coming from the White House. It scares me. And more and more as we're getting closer to the election, I'm more and more scared. And I've become so aware now. Everywhere I go, I make sure I have my weapon on me.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh wow.

Elsa

So I came from a third world country. Never expected the environment here to be this thick. I feel so much tension. And I fear so much. There's a lot of fear. You've got the extremists. And you don't know who they are. You don't know who they are. But it's gotten a lot worse during Trump.

There are a lot of people that all along have tried to blend in, right?

Lilly Sullivan

Yeah.

Elsa

Trump came along, and a lot of the people that used to kind of try to blend in and not bring out their true feelings are now bringing out their true feelings. And they feel like they can get away with it. Whereas, before, that wasn't there.

Lilly Sullivan

Do you feel like you can see things changing around you, people coming out, kind of?

Elsa

Yeah, well, when you start seeing the Confederate flag all over you, all over around you, that's a big sign, you know? I saw one that was right on the side of the highway that didn't used to be there.

Lilly Sullivan

How does your husband feel about the decision to buy a gun?

Elsa

Uh--

[LAUGHTER]

He is completely against it.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, really?

Elsa

Yeah. Yeah, he's like-- I had to kind of ease it in. Yeah, 'cause he was not for it at all.

Lilly Sullivan

Why not?

Elsa

He is completely against them. He is completely against guns. So I think he's kind of warming up to the fact that I have a couple. But yeah, he's not comfortable-- put it that way. Even when I'm cleaning it, I try not to clean it when he's around because he's just not comfortable.

Lilly Sullivan

The last question I had for everyone-- now that people have their guns, does it help? Do you feel better?

Dejonae

100%. 100%.

Lilly Sullivan

Again, here's DeJonae, who bought her gun when she saw people fighting over corn dogs.

Dejonae

I feel so much better. I could go to bed--

Lilly Sullivan

Really?

Dejonae

--at night. Yes, 100%. You have something to protect yourself. I mean, I live alone, but I still sleep with my bedroom door closed and locked. And so--

Lilly Sullivan

Really? Huh.

Dejonae

Yes, yeah, I do. Just in case, to give me a couple of extra seconds, I guess. That's how I see it. So now I'm fine.

Lilly Sullivan

Again, here's Nancy from Wisconsin.

Nancy

Oh gosh, yes. Just having it next to the bed. Yep, just having it next to the bed.

Shane

Yeah, there's no doubt about it.

Lilly Sullivan

Here's Shane, who worried about marauders and neo-Nazis.

Shane

Being powerless is not a good place to be. It does make you feel more secure. If things really start going downhill, you're like, we can handle this. I don't worry about that anymore, which is nice.

Lilly Sullivan

And finally, Brian, who had so much trouble finding a gun. He finally picked one up the day I talked to him.

Lilly Sullivan

Does it make you feel safer?

Brian

No, not yet. No. No. That's an interesting question because there's a gun sitting on my counter, and I got ammo next to it. And I don't know where to put it.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, really?

Brian

And I'll tell you, I'm not-- let's just say the ammo is still in the ammo boxes. And the gun's still in the gun case. I'm not in a hurry to put the ammo in the-- what do they call that thing? The-- they call it something, the ammo goes in. It's-- I don't know what it's called. Because it'll hold so many bullets in it. I forget what that thing's called, but I'm just not in a hurry to put any bullets in it. I mean--

Lilly Sullivan

Got it.

Brian

Yeah. I mean, I-- honestly, I really don't want one.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, you don't?

Brian

I mean, I don't. I just-- I almost feel like I just had to get one.

Lilly Sullivan

Oh, interesting. Does it kind of suck to have one?

Brian

Yeah, I don't like it. I wish I didn't think-- I wish I didn't think I needed one.

Lilly Sullivan

Brian told me he grew up with guns. But they were for hunting and target practice, for fun. He says nobody talked about self-defense. Nobody talked about shooting other people. But that's all anybody talks about today. That's one thing that unites us. We're united in fear of each other.

Ira Glass

Lilly Sullivan is a producer on our program. Noor Gil helped her with additional reporting.

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Act Three: Second Time’s the Charm

Ira Glass

Act Three, Second Time's the Charm. So maybe you've heard we're trying to hold an election this year with a possible record-breaking turnout that is also during a pandemic, which has led us into a vast territory of, who knows if this is going to work? Reporter Johnny Kauffman has been embedded with the election staff in Fulton County, Georgia. That's the county with the most people in the state and with the city of Atlanta.

For months, Johnny's been given unusual access to the election staff, the people who are responsible for handling the mail-in ballots and the voting machines and all that stuff. He was interested in seeing how things would go this November, partly because they went so badly when they tried to hold the primary during the pandemic back in June. Here's Johnny Kauffman.

Johnny Kauffman

The primary election here was a mess. Some voters asked for mail-in ballots, but never got them. Then people who wanted to vote in person waited and waited in line.

Woman

People shouldn't have to wait three hours to vote. This is beyond ridiculous.

Johnny Kauffman

One guy famously started his cell phone timer running. And by the time he voted, it was 1:00 in the morning. He'd been there almost eight hours and watched all of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 8 on his phone. The front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution said, "Complete Meltdown."

The state government was pretty clear whose fault they thought all this was. Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state, said, quote, "This all lays on Fulton County." He launched an investigation into the county and asked for a new law that would let him take over county election departments if needed. The guy whose job he'd take over if he did that, the man currently running the Fulton County Elections Department, is Rick Barron.

Rick Barron

Whatever Secretary Raffensperger's opinion is, it's his opinion. It's his opinion alone. And I disagree with him.

Johnny Kauffman

It's worth pointing out Raffensperger and the state government are Republican. Fulton County and Atlanta are controlled by Democrats. Rick started working in elections after he quit his job as a middle manager at a bank. He told me he wanted to contribute to, quote, "the betterment of man or something," end quote.

Rick has this quality that I think lots of people might like to see in the guy who runs their elections. He's measured and kind of boring in public. Like at press conferences, he'll just rattle off stat after stat. But during the primary, beneath that public face, Rick was full of dread.

Rick Barron

I just was constantly-- I've had this constant feeling of stress and that I was failing at my job. And it didn't seem like anything we did, uh, helped.

Johnny Kauffman

One of the things that went wrong in June is that Fulton had these new touchscreen voting computers that were imposed on them by the state. And there wasn't enough time to train poll workers properly.

But Rick and the Fulton staff say most of the troubles in their primary were really about the pandemic. So many applications for mail-in ballots came in, the email system crashed. And then some of the staff got COVID. It slowed their operations, and they had to close the elections office to disinfect it.

Then, close to primary election day, dozens of poll workers quit, scared about the virus. Polling places like churches decided they didn't want to be polling places anymore. Tim Cummings is a manager at the warehouse where the county stores its election equipment. He told me at the last minute the Fulton staff thought about just pitching a tent in the middle of an Atlanta park.

Tim Cummings

Get people to vote there. Yeah, I mean, 'cause we were like drowning men grabbing for straws. We got to find somewhere for this to be.

Johnny Kauffman

In the middle of all this, a beloved longtime employee named Beverly Walker died. Everyone had to cope with that. She was 62 and worked in the department for 14 years. Even after she retired, she would come back to help as a temp. Here's Tim Cummings again.

Tim Cummings

I knew Beverly. We all did. We worked with her because they're here every election. There's a picture of her on the wall in my cubicle right now. They went through a lot.

Staff

And Ralph got sick, too. I didn't realize that.

Tim Cummings

Yeah, he was sick, too. We were worried about whether or not he was going to make it. We still had to get a job done. It wasn't easy. And some days, people were just pissed. But they came in, and they did the job.

Caryn Ficklin

I don't really know how to say it. It's a really bad time to make any mistake, because people right now are really unforgiving of anything.

Johnny Kauffman

This is Caryn Ficklin. She runs the mail-in ballot operation for Fulton County.

Caryn Ficklin

They don't care what you're going through, how you're feeling, what's happening with you or anything. It's just like-- you know. Yeah, I guess it is what it is. It's the beast that we have to deal with right now.

Johnny Kauffman

In the lead-up to the general election, the county made a bunch of changes in hopes of avoiding another meltdown like the primary. For starters, 91 more polling places on Election Day, with more training on the touchscreen voting computers for all the poll workers. Nonprofits gave them millions of dollars to help pay for all that.

But the thing they're really hoping will make this different than last time is that they're trying to get people to vote now in person or in the mail. Rick will tell any reporter who gets within two feet of him that he wants as many people as possible to vote before Election Day. 80% is his goal.

So a couple of weeks ago, early voting began in Georgia. Rick and his team had been working nonstop through the weekends, right up till the midnight before the polls opened, to make sure the machines would work without a hitch, and the lines would move quickly. When I saw Rick, he was often harried, messy hair, hopping between meetings.

On Monday morning, October 12, the first day of early voting, I went to the largest polling place in the county. It's actually the giant arena where the Atlanta Hawks play. The team offered it up after what happened during the primary. I wanted to see how things would go.

Johnny Kauffman

Hey, how's it going? I'm trying to meet up with the Fulton County elections director, who's inside. Gate 2?

When I get there around 8:00, hundreds of people were already lined up, and TV crews were camped out. I tracked down Rick near some closed concession stands.

Rick Barron

Wow, you see how many people are out there?

Johnny Kauffman

Yeah.

Rick Barron

That's really like-- hold on.

Johnny Kauffman

Rick takes a call, talking through a black mask with "Vote" written on it in bold white print. He's more put together than usual-- clean shaven, wearing a dark blue suit. It's a big day. Then, an election worker comes up to him. People are trying to vote, but an error keeps popping up-- "Session ID invalid."

Rick Barron

They aren't working? What, on all of them?

Johnny Kauffman

They have over 300 voting computers at the arena. Apparently, none of them are working. Rick hurries down some stairs, past empty seats, to the floor of the arena where the voting computers are set up, a jumbotron overhead. Lines fill the hallways of the arena.

Staff 1

Rick, is that you?

Rick Barron

Uh-huh.

Staff 2

Yeah, so the first two people that came down both did not make it through. And so that's when-- and then we stopped people from coming.

Staff 1

I've already got a call into Nadine as we speak.

Johnny Kauffman

A Hawks employee comes up to Rick and is like, what are we supposed to tell the people in line?

Staff 2

From what I understand, the lines are rapidly, rapidly growing.

Staff 3

We stopped processing across the building.

Rick Barron

OK.

Johnny Kauffman

Rick is on the phone basically this whole time. I've seen him in situations like this before. Everyone around him is wound up, and he sort of slows down.

Rick Barron

I mean, we've tested all these poll pads so I just don't understand how this-- what the [BLEEP] is going on. [SIGHS]

Johnny Kauffman

He runs up the stairs, breathing hard because of his mask, looking for a county IT employee. Then the CEO of the Hawks, Steve Koonin, comes up to him. This is not the public relations win Koonin was hoping for when he offered up his team's arena.

Steve Koonin

We should not have been put in this position one hour in, where I have to stand in front of the press and tell them why people can't vote.

Rick Barron

Yeah, I know. Well, we'll get it. We'll get it squared away here. These two guys right now are resetting poll pads, so we're going to be able to get--

Steve Koonin

Right, but they have to do 60 manually.

Rick Barron

Yeah.

Steve Koonin

And that's not fast. And they don't seem to be-- I mean, that's a voter that is literally--

Johnny Kauffman

Rick and the Fulton staff finally figure out a fix. They have to update a file and reset the iPads used to check people in. The lines start moving. People can vote.

[CHEERING]

It was a small win for Rick and the Fulton staff. Later, the Hawks CEO, Koonin, came up to Rick again. An hour made a big difference. Everyone's pumped up, except for Rick. Listen to this exchange. Koonin's beaming, and Rick is like, this was awful.

Steve Koonin

Well, I will say our recovery actually was faster than it felt.

Rick Barron

All right, well, it just felt like a nightmare.

Steve Koonin

A nightmare?

Rick Barron

I mean--

Steve Koonin

Why don't we just go proactively talk to the press and knock it out and fix it?

Rick Barron

Yeah, that would be good.

Steve Koonin

I think it's the smartest thing we can do.

Rob Pitts

Everyone ready? Everybody ready? All right, well, good morning. I'm Rob Pitts. I'm chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Fulton County.

Johnny Kauffman

Pitts tells the reporters and TV cameras how great things are going. Then Rick gets the job of explaining what went wrong.

Rick Barron

An issue I don't know the cause of it yet. There's something with the database on the poll pads that was here. So we apologize to all of the voters and to the Hawks and Mr. Koonin.

Johnny Kauffman

Afterward, Rick walks to the floor of the arena and pauses, just for a moment. It's serene, watching the people quietly vote. Then he heads to his car. It's around noon, but he seems tired.

Rick Barron

I was feeling so comfortable, and I'm watching people coming in, streaming into the building. And I was like-- I was excited. I thought, oh, wow, this is going to be so good. And then that. What a morning. But I don't understand. I mean, some people are complaining that, wow, this is-- I heard somebody say we've got June all over again this morning at these early voting sites. And it's like, we got 32 sites open. In June, it was five.

Johnny Kauffman

There were snags in those first days. Lines did get long sometimes. But Rick felt like things were under control. But Tuesday night, I got an email from Rick's assistant with some scary news. One of the election staff tested positive for the virus, just like during the primary. I called Rick the next day. By then, even more people had tested positive.

Rick Barron

I'm doing a press conference at 2:00. I don't know if you got it, but I've got 13 infections at the warehouse.

Johnny Kauffman

The warehouse is where the county keeps all the printers and voting computers. They've always been worried about the virus spreading there because it's so full of equipment, and it's hard to stay six feet apart. People do wear masks. And one manager even had a barrier in her office so that people couldn't get close. But she still got sick.

Rick Barron

I just don't want anybody to die out of this or be one of those long haulers where they are just sick forever. Hopefully they'll get over it quick. But we've got a couple guys that are sick that are seniors. I don't know. [SIGHS] Kind of a-- I mean, this going to end up being a national story, probably, when you've got this many in an elections warehouse. This isn't like one or two. This is a full-blown outbreak.

Johnny Kauffman

By Monday, two days later, the total was 23 cases. At least one person was in the hospital. All the workers at the warehouse were sent home, except for a few who hadn't tested positive.

Tim Cummings

I'm at the warehouse. I'll be here for a minute. Hold on for a second. I got a call coming through.

Johnny Kauffman

I called Tim Cummings one night. He's the manager at the warehouse who you heard earlier.

Johnny Kauffman

Are you worried about getting sick?

Tim Cummings

Yeah, I been worried about getting sick since March. A lot of my crew scared, but we come in, we do what we gotta do. We're worried about making sure this election happens successfully. So we're doing everything we can to get it done.

Johnny Kauffman

What are you most worried about right now, in terms of pulling off the election?

Tim Cummings

Getting it all done in time. 'Cause right now, one of the reasons I stay so late is I'm like, if I can make everything that they need to do the L&A and program the machines--

Johnny Kauffman

He's talking about getting the voting computers all ready for testing and then delivered to polling places by Election Day.

Tim Cummings

If I can get all of that prepared before something happens-- before I full out test positive or whatever, everything will be fine. 'Cause somebody else can step in at that point. My worry is not getting that complete. Hoping I can hold out till everybody else comes back, or somebody gets back.

Johnny Kauffman

All over the country, people are freaking out about the election, worried about hacking, violence and intimidation, the supposed voter fraud President Trump keeps talking about. But none of that has been a big problem for Rick and the Fulton staff. Their problem is something bigger.

Rick Barron

Yeah, the virus has been the disruption. I mean, I heard somebody yesterday say, oh, I've lived through the decades of the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, oughts and the teens, and now I've also lived through every month of 2020. You know, it's like-- it's almost like its own decade in itself. And yeah, I mean, this has been the weirdest year of my life.

Johnny Kauffman

The county hired some outside help. Rick says the plan right now is just for everyone to work really long days.

Ira Glass

Johnny Kauffman is a reporter with Atlanta's public radio station, WABE. His reporting at the Fulton County Elections Department is possible thanks to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism and the Abrams Foundation. As I'm recording this, the total number of election workers in Fulton County that have tested positive for COVID is 25. Two people are in the ICU. Some others have returned to work.

[MUSIC - "UNREAL REALITY" BY THE KINKS]

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien and Susan Burton. The people who put our program together today include Bim Adewunmi, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Hilary Elkins, Noor Gill, Damien Grave, Michelle Harris, Chana Joffe-Walt, Seth Lind, Miki Meek, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks to Chris Haxel, Emma Hurt, Mate Halmos, Mikaela Robertson, Anna Luhrmann, John Carey, Geneva Solomon and Redstone Firearms, Laurie Abraham, and Katherine Wells.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He was invited to a party this week. He dressed for Halloween as Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf. When he got there, he realized it was a fundraising gala, black tie.

Brian

I'm there in cut-off sweatpants and a hoodie, wearing a mask.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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