On the eve of a momentous election, a deeply divided nation is on the edge as it plunges deeper into a pandemic and unemployment rages. The country holds its breath in anticipation of what some fear could be a potential breakdown of law and order or democracy depending on what happens Tuesday.
Downtown Washington felt like a city preparing for a siege Monday as the normally bustling streets of the capital were turned into a plywood ghost town of boarded-up storefronts and windswept sidewalks.
"We do not advise parking or driving downtown," Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a news conference last week.
Empty tour buses trundled by. Necklaces had been removed from the displays of jewelry store windows. And racks of T-shirts supporting either President Donald Trump or Joe Biden sat unsold in a souvenir shop with a large sign over the boarded-up windows letting passersby know "We are open!"
Alex Quintero, who was working to board up an office building, said that in his 30 years in construction in the Washington area, he had never seen so much plywood on downtown facades. "Sometimes we have a problem finding it in the stores," he said. "There's a lot of work to do."
And it's not just Washington. The top-rising election-related Google search term Monday was "cities boarding up for election," while "election day riots" was also in the top 10. Polls show that 6 in 10 voters say the country is on the wrong track, and a growing number are concerned about being laid off, while the economy continues to struggle and the number of people seeking unemployment benefits remains historically high.
Jon Stokes, the deputy editor at ThePrepared.com, a website to help people prepare for emergencies, said he's seen increased interest as the election nears and Covid-19 case numbers rise.
"There is a very serious uptick in anxiety around everything," he said.
The site had a massive surge in traffic in the early days of the pandemic, when people were looking for information about stockpiling food and supplies, but the recent spike also included interest in home defense and firearms. "I think the firearms stuff is related to political events," he said.
Firearms sales have been through the roof for months. The latest FBI data show 3.3 million presale firearm background checks in October, up from an average of 2.16 million for the same month in the previous five years.
Laurie Paul, a psychologist who practices in the Washington area, said she has seen a major rise in anxiety around the election and strained relationships in politically mixed families.
"Big time," she said. "They've talked about how they're feeling jittery or anxious and how it's hard to concentrate on work."
The election is coinciding with a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases and cooling weather, which will make it harder for people to see family and friends, and it follows months of racial reckoning that Paul and other psychologists call a "triple pandemic" of stress — the virus, the election and racial reckoning — especially for people of color.
Stephen Stein, a practicing psychologist who is past president of the D.C. Psychological Association, said he's been getting calls from people he hasn't worked with in 20 years.
"All three of these things are melding together and producing a synergistic sense of dread and isolation," he said.
Recent research by the American Psychological Association found that 68 percent of Americans say the election is a significant source of stress in their lives — a sizable increase from the 52 percent who said the same in 2016. And the feeling is across the political divide, with 76 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of independents reporting election-related stress.
"This has been a year unlike any other in living memory," said Arthur Evans Jr., the association's CEO.
Researchers with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project and MilitiaWatch released a joint report last week warning of "increased militia activity in the election and post-election period" across the country.
And left-wing anti-fascist and anti-racist groups are preparing, as well, with one organizing a large rally near the White House on election night, saying it's "ready to do whatever it takes to Defend Democracy."
Around the country, anxiety and fear are rampant, especially among Democrats still scarred by their surprise loss in 2016 who now fear that Trump and his supporters may use violence or other extralegal means to cling to power.
Beth DeBruyn, 54, a mother of two from Delaware County, Pennsylvania, said Friday that she thought Biden needed an "undeniable victory" for things to end smoothly.
"I've never experienced this feeling around an election," she said. "It's been stressful. I can't wait for the election to get here."
Dave Litko, 61, of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, who didn't vote in 2016, said he decided to vote for Biden this year because he said he was "afraid that Trump was trending toward wanting to become president for life."
Kenneth Barton Jr., 70, a retired engineer from Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb north of Atlanta, said that no matter who wins, it will take years to "get away from" the racial tensions that have exploded into view during the Trump administration.
"It's no surprise to me that there's people like the Proud Boys out there," Barton, who is Black and supports Biden, said of the far-right extremist group. "What is a surprise to me is how many of them there are."
Multiple states have tapped National Guard troops to help poll workers backstop police in the event of massive protests. And cities like Denver have urged businesses to prepare for civil unrest.
Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, said last week that it was pulling guns and ammunition from its shelves, but it reversed the decision Friday, saying it expected any unrest to be geographically isolated.
The International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that typically works in developing countries and global hot zones, warned in a recent report that "the ingredients for unrest are present."
"The electorate is polarized, both sides frame the stakes as existential, violent actors could disrupt the process and protracted contestation is possible. President Donald Trump's often incendiary rhetoric suggests he will more likely stoke than calm tensions," the group warned in a report.
But for Trump supporters, the prevailing anxiety was that Democrats would lead the country down a road to socialism or communism, despite Biden's four-decade record as a moderate.
"I think communism is a serpent that's underlying a lot of politics today, usually the Democratic side," said Michael Bieda, 53, an Arizonan wearing blue sunglasses and a "Socialism Distancing" shirt, who attended a Trump rally in the Phoenix area.
Paul, the psychologist, said that while she usually works with anxious clients to put their tendency to fear catastrophes in context, it's harder to do so now when a breakdown in society seems less far-fetched.
"I feel like a lot of these worries are realistic, so it's really had to shift my strategy," she said.
When a client said he would make sure to fill up the gas tank in his car before election night, just in case, she thought to herself that it wasn't a bad idea and that she might do the same herself.
CORRECTION (Nov. 2, 2020, 9:30 p.m. ET): A photo caption in a previous version of this article misstated when the presidential election will occur. Election Day is Tuesday, not next week.