Outside a packed conference room next to Sydney’s glittering Darling Harbour, Jim Sternhell provided a long list of the things he believed were fake.
Climate change was “bull”, mainstream news was “fake” and the Covid-19 pandemic was “a lie”.
Wearing an Uncle Sam costume that he bought from a costume store in Newtown, in the city’s inner-west, the one thing Sternhell seemed positive wasn’t made up was the widespread voter fraud that the US president, Donald Trump, had spent the lead up to the election hyping.
“The voting machines are run by George Soros,” he told Guardian Australia on Wednesday.
Sternhell was attending the second annual Conservative Political Action Conference (Cpac) in Sydney on Wednesday at which there was a strange mix of triumphalism and despair.
On the one hand, as votes from states including Florida and North Carolina gave Republicans an early boost, the 300-strong crowd seemed to believe Trump had secured a second term in the White House.
“It’s already over, the journos are an hour behind,” one attendee said to a friend. “Forget the journos, he’s already won.”
Daniel Wild, a researcher from the conservative Institute of Public Affairs, was similarly bullish.
“Trump is going to win 2020 and it’s just the beginning,” he told the crowd. “There will be Trump, and then there will be Trumpism which will go on, and it will be a great realignment for the western world for a generation, just like the one ushered in by Thatcher and by Reagan.”
And yet, through it all, a deeper sense of pessimism seemed to pervade the room. The former Liberal party MP and Sky News presenter Ross Cameron started the day off with a gloomy prediction that Australia had “a 5% chance” of surviving a broad and apparently unspecified decay.
“If we are brutally honest with each other, we would say our culture is in decline,” Cameron warned. “We would probably say our culture is in terminal decline. If we look at the birth rates, we’re now down to 1.5% … I would give Australia about a 5% chance.”
Cameron never really articulated the threat he foresaw, and what birth rates had to do with it, but there was no shortage of speakers willing to give their bleakest assessment of the world for conservatives in 2020.
Alan Jones, the Sydney radio shock-jock turned Sky News TV presenter, told the audience that a “significant indoctrination of our schools” was under way. The political left, he said, was “on the march”.
“At the moment we’re only being hit by a bus [but] there’s a concrete truck coming down the road,” he warned.
Alex Antic, a Liberal party senator, told the crowd that a “silent majority” of people believed “that it is not reasonable to run around tearing statues down”, a reference to protests against monuments honouring racist figures. They wanted to be able to watch Chris Lilley programs on streaming services, he told the crowd.
“If we lose the culture war arguments we lose the whole lot,” Antic said.
The threats, it seemed, were everywhere. When a single protester stood outside with a sign saying “Trump failed 230,000+ Americans dead”, one of the event’s volunteers stood nearby and filmed himself calling him a “coward”, though not loud enough for the protester to hear.
“The communists are most likely to be triggered, and most likely cowards when they’re on their own and not in packs … They are actually a bunch of lowest scums of the earth,” the volunteer said.
“Remember ladies and gentlemen, when you see a communist, take them down and make them wet their pants.”
With the result of the presidential election still unknown late in the afternoon, the mood remained cautious. Though confident of a Trump victory, Sternhell remained worried.
“It all depends on the fraud,” he told Guardian Australia. “If it’s free and fair and they can stop the fraud, Trump will win.”
Almost 17,000km from Washington DC, a few dozen Joe Biden voters clustered around televisions to watch the results at an official Democrats Abroad event at the Gilbert Street Hotel in Adelaide.
The Democrats Abroad Australia chair, Kent Getsinger, said Trump’s attempt to undermine confidence in the validity of mail-in voting wasn’t just an affront to democracy, but the months of work the Kentucky native had put in encouraging his fellow Australia-based US citizens to vote.
Getsinger and his team helped voters navigate the byzantine absentee ballot systems of American states.
“We’ve hit the phones hard since August, somewhere between 15,000 to 20,000 calls,” he told Guardian Australia. “It is hard enough to vote from overseas as it is even without Trump’s attacks, with some states using mail, some email, and others still using fax machines. [If Biden wins] we are hoping for voting reform.”
At another Democrats Abroad event in Sydney, supporters of Biden were anxious all day.
“This is about climate, this is about the world, it’s about how we move forward,” Alex Dengate told Guardian Australia. “Not just the USA but everyone. We need a leader who will work with the world to combat our challenges.”
“Looking at the votes now, I thought we’d have more blue states, I thought we’d have a blue wave. It’s scary to think that after all the devastation of Covid people still didn’t come out and vote.”
– additional reporting by Max Opray and Mostafa Rachwani