Today is the official one-year anniversary of the 2016 general election, and a year after Trump’s victory, the night still resonates in the national psyche—painfully, for many. It’s the kind of transformative event whose implications are so broad that we’re often forced to reduce it to personal terms in order to confront it with any success. The long-term significance of Trump’s win is still unclear—the political fights in our country rage on, and as last night’s results demonstrate, a definitive resolution may be years or decades away. What we have, in the absence of certainty, is memory—our personal stories of where we were, what we did, and how we reacted to the most shocking presidential election of our lifetimes. These are Paste’s stories.
I had to get up at 4 in the morning after an evening spent standing in my living room, staring at the TV while attempting to pack, knowing that on maybe the one day last year when I’d most want to be with my wife and family, I instead had to fly to Mexico for a film festival. On most years, and in practically any other situation, I’d take any chance I could get to leave Portland’s dun November dampness for brighter climes, but the sense of dislocation doubled and tripled the further away I got, to the point that I sat in complete silence, doing nothing for every flight, unsure to an existential degree with what I should be occupying all those hours.
Sitting next to me on one of those flights, a distributor or financier or somebody also heading to the festival told me that Robert Pattinson was once attached to Swiss Army Man back when they first saw the script, and the bit of trivia enraged me because this guy didn’t even once try to share in or at the very least acknowledge what felt clearly like this massive communal grief that everybody should be feeling. Maybe he was just trying to avoid feeling anything at all. Or maybe the results of the election actually didn’t affect him. I was embarrassed for him, and for me, and for our country, which I was representing, albeit poorly, with little more than grief, which I quickly realized amounts to little more than nothing.
I unfortunately relive my Election Night 2016 memory daily. I spent the whole lead-up to the vote nervous but confident that Clinton would nab it in the end. Once Florida and other states started rolling in differently, I spent the rest of the night depressed and glued to a CNN YouTube stream. I think I finally accepted doom around 2:30 a.m. and e-mailed my day-job bosses to say I wouldn’t be in the next day (more than half of my department stayed home, and our division head let it slide without mention). At some point, I put my clear-framed glasses on my mattress and went about my nightly skincare routine. When I wandered back to bed, still in a depressed fugue state, my knee came down on the glasses and severely bent the frames. I was able to bend them back to (mostly) normal, but the hinges have been loose ever since, and offer a daily, depressing reminder of one of the worst nights of my lifetime.
It was a Tuesday night, obviously. I’d gotten my vote-casting out of the way first thing in the morning, and was happy enough to put the election as far out of mind as I could for the work day. But every Tuesday night, my group of friends do the same thing: Bar trivia.
Yeah, we do trivia. We’re sort of a dynasty at this point, actually. Other teams sometimes pop up with names that are parodies of our own, and they say that imitation, along with raucous hooting and occasional boos, are the sincerest form of flattery. But that was obviously a difficult night to focus on comic book trivia.
As the first state returns began to come in, I remember being surprised to see our current president having built any kind of early lead. What a novelty, I thought—the only time tonight you’d be able to look at the election results and see more red than blue. We were clearly seeing the first early returns from rust belt rural communities whose depressed economic environments made voting for the Republican—any Republican candidate, regardless of anything he might say—an immutable force of habit. But within an hour or two, things would work themselves out. The Democrat in the race had a near statistical lock on things—she only needed to win one or two of numerous swing states to put the whole race comfortably out of reach. The math assured us that there was no reason to be worried.
But as trivia dragged on, that statistical correction failed to happen. If anything, the gulf seemed to be widening. Every swing state was flipping red. Narrowly, yes, but the margin of victory doesn’t matter. All that matters is the victory. That’s what you tell yourself when you win a trivia match by a single point, after all. Nobody cares about #2.
By the time trivia was over, it was clear that something unexpected and terrible was happening in this country. A joke of a candidate, someone who had never even attempted to hold any kind of public office or community leadership role at any point in his life, suddenly stood a realistic chance of being handed the keys to an atomic stockpile. A man who had never, at any point in 70 years of life, tried to help anyone less fortunate than himself was now supposed to do so for an entire country of 323 million people.
I went to sleep before anything was made final. Rather than stay up to see such horror confirmed, I was willing to simply wish for the fact that it wasn’t. I went to sleep with a prayer and a hope that when I woke up, the world would somehow have righted itself.
A year later, everything is still overturned.
The election took place a couple of weeks before I moved to Atlanta to start working for Paste and I happened to be visiting the city to find an apartment. I had voted early in Florida, and in between starting my first salaried job, moving to a new city, and saying goodbye to my hometown, Election Night 2016 had taken a backseat. I was absolutely certain Hillary would win, and felt like I had more important things to focus on that day. It wasn’t until late Tuesday night, sitting at Brewhouse in Little Five Points in a dense fog of cigarette smoke (you can still smoke at bars indoors in Georgia, believe it or not) that I realized the grave mistake our country had made. I remember the pit in my stomach, that uncontrollable feeling of anxiety, anger and complete disbelief. What had we done, America? Hadn’t we learned anything?
Election night was a weird time as a couple for me and my now-husband Alex. He was confident that Hillary would win. I knew she wouldn’t. By that point, GamerGate had already been going on for two years. All the writers at my last publication were doxed, my life had been threatened, my colleagues deeply rattled. I’d already watched as the nation ignored our pleas for help, and then equally ignored our warnings about Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulous, and the like. We were the canary in a coal mine, and by November, I had already accepted what was about to happen. My husband, on the other hand, was optimistic, to an extent that almost annoyed me. He had had a first row seat to the hell my life had been the past two years, how could he have any confidence that this nightmare was over? My father, too, was too assured of the outcome, and I wondered, briefly, if anyone in my family really understood my life at all.
Of course, once the results came back, I felt justified. But not smug, or happy. Alex was devastated, and in shock. He looked at me and said, I have no idea what we do now. And I said, well I do—you’re gonna put on your big boy britches and realize that you’re only in shock because you’re finally figuring out what life is like for the rest of us in America—and then you’re going to go out and do what every marginalized person around us has done, and you’re going to rally your community together, you’re going to endure, you’re going to find ways to enjoy your life despite this political tragedy, and you’re going to fight for the people you love. The next day we started financially supporting the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law, and a local charity for trans teens, and developed a strategy plan in case one of us gets arrested while protesting.
My first kid turned 18 last October; we were both excited that her first experience would involve voting for a woman for president. Taking her to the poll felt like the perfect way to commemorate an historic moment in our nation. That night I went to a friend’s house to watch the returns. He’d voted for a Democrat for President for the first time in his life since Donald Trump was the only realistic alternative. I knew quite a few people who were either crossing the aisle or writing in some other Republican rather than see a pathological liar like Trump win. That certainly boosted my confidence as results started coming in. But things started going badly pretty quickly. Most of us at the watching party went home early, no longer in the mood to be around people. I stayed up late watching the nightmare unfold and could barely sleep once I’d finally turned off the TV. I knew my daughter was going to wake up to find out that instead of voting for a woman, American had just elected a man who bragged about sexual assault.
I had a party at my house, and my wife and I printed out a giant electoral map that our guests could fill in as the state results came in—just as we had done in 2012. For a long time, I’d had the nagging feeling that the entire election cycle was playing out like a nightmare, and no matter what logic we applied to the situation, it would end as all nightmares end, with a terrifying outcome. I didn’t like the situation facing me that night—as a Sanders supporter, I wasn’t excited about Clinton, and had only voted for her reluctantly. The idea that the night could only end in tepid relief or total dread sucked some of the joy out. But I’d been consoled by the polls, by the pundits, by the alcohol I had stockpiled on the kitchen table, by everything. As the night played out, though, the initial sense of horror returned. Most of my friends saw the writing on the wall and left, disgusted and upset. To the ones who remained, I summoned my last ounce of sangfroid and told them it might be best to end the party and be on their way. My wife and I held out hope for a while, watching alone, but the hope was misplaced.
When it became obvious what was happening, we shut off the television and took a midnight walk. She cried, but I retreated into the pit of my stomach, overcome with anxiety and fearing a panic attack. I went back and forth between thinking we should plan to leave the country, and then thinking that I was being hysterical. I failed to sleep that night, and was wracked by anxiety for the next three days. Finally, on the fourth day, I threw out the electoral map—never filled in—drank the unopened champagne bottle in my fridge, and began to reckon honestly with a changed world. In the ensuing year, I’ve felt joy, and promise, and hope, but always in the background is the lingering sense that the thing we lost that night is never coming back.
We were in London the day of the election. We joked that if Trump won we’d just stay there, but we were actually on a plane on the way back when the returns started to come in. The flight had free live streams of CNN, and at first it felt almost like a party on the plane. The drinks were free and almost every headrest TV was tuned to one of the news channels. After about an hour the first real fear of Clinton not winning started to creep in, and those free drinks went from a fun celebration to vital stress relief and self-care. We landed around 9:30 PM ET that night, and my anxious wife couldn’t stand to listen to election results on the radio, so on the hour-long drive home I kept bouncing back and forth on my phone between a half-dozen news sites. I’m pretty sure I killed a six-pack alone after getting home and wound up working from home the next day. The next four years would be hell, and I was clearly turning into an alcoholic.
I’m writing this as the orange man is presumably saying words about North Korea on my TV. I muted it the moment he came on, because we have to take back some measure of power in this new world where facts don’t matter. Last year at this same time, I waltzed out of work in Boston’s financial district, then hopped on the green line to begin my trek to Fenway so I could catch a bus to go back home. I was in a good mood as I passed what I call the Vatican for baseball nerds.
Like most people in the political world, I never saw Trump coming. I wrote the day before the election that Nate Silver’s skepticism was wrong, and the people saying that Hillary Clinton was about a 4-1 or 5-1 favorite were correct. Frankly, I was more concerned with some of the local initiatives on the ballot—like charter schools and legalizing marijuana. Paying homage to the latter, I decided to smoke a bowl before walking down to my polling station (I have now voted to legalize marijuana in two states, then moved before it was implemented—if three’s a charm, you’re in luck, Georgia).
It was the only time at any point last year that I can remember feeling genuinely excited to vote for Hillary Clinton. The realization that I was finally voting for our first (elected) woman president (I see you, Edith Wilson) hit me as I walked into the polling station down the street. I filled in the box next to her name, felt a wave of emotion wash over me, then I continued my tradition of writing in “Tim Tebow” instead of voting for one of the seemingly infinite number of Democrats running unopposed in Boston. I walked back to my apartment, sat down on my couch, then didn’t move much for the rest of the night—save for a few sporadic bouts of anger and/or maniacal laughter (on a certain detached level, this is empirically hilarious—it’s the most stereotypical American thing that has ever happened). I passed out at some point after I saw that Michigan was in trouble.
I rolled off the couch the next morning, printed out my Nate Silver Is Wrong column, then set it on fire in my driveway. This year’s election night was much better.
I was one of those people who was confident Trump would not win. I had even reassured a normally even-keeled buddy earlier that day. It wasn’t about poll-reading or “temperature of the electorate” or “x campaign employed better strategies than y campaign”—I just assumed Trump’s diverse array of horrible, no-good traits were so evident, that no decent human being would vote for him. And it had nothing to do with the politics. From the first time I’d become aware of him in the 1980s, it was just clear he was a pretty horrible human being—all bluff and bluster and prone to the type of cowardly bullying that gives ACTUAL bullies a bad name. I remember thinking The Apprentice was a good ceiling for how sympathetically his brand could be presented, since otherwise, in every word spoken, gesture made and action, he was clearly the type of person you avoid in personal and business relationships.
The lead-up to election night gave me no reason to think differently—by then he had attacked pretty much every demographic you could, and done so in a dependably cowardly, hypocritical manner. Military families. The disabled. Women. Basically, humans. Meanwhile, his lies were so short-lived they often expired as they left his mouth. No, as much as was working to get him this far—he was basically a Bizarro version of Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers’ character in Being There)—I had faith in the basic decency and intelligence of the electorate to not choose a guy who was basically a caricature of a human being.
Then he won. Since then, I’ve had to reconsider my opinion of the electorate. My buddy reminds me near-daily how wrong I was. (It’s not gloating—he just resents the false solace I provided.) As for Trump, nothing surprises me—he’s exactly who I thought he was.
My ten year old had a ballet class so the 14 year old and I were sitting at the bar of a nearby restaurant having a snack and doing homework. The bartender had the TV on and some early numbers were coming in. things looked a little weird. I told my older daughter to ignore it. “There’s no way,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “Still.”
Camille’s ballet class ended and we decided to grab a pizza. Our local pizza place also had the news running. Camille announced “You know, Trump is the American Hitler.”
I was about to say something about why it might not be totally ok to say that when Grace interjected. “Don’t be ridiculous, Trump’s not the American Hitler,” she said scathingly. “He’s the American Caligula.”
I found I was having a hard time disagreeing with that. Grace turned to me and added “If he makes his nine-iron a Senator can we move to Ireland?”
“I said of course, but it isn’t going to happen. There is balance in the Universe and there is no way it’s going that far.” I have some staunch Republicans in my family and even they wouldn’t be caught dead voting for that guy. It wasn’t about economic philosophies anymore.
By the time we got home, the numbers were starting to look really weird. Camille wasn’t all that interested; Grace was getting nervous. I turned the TV off. In the morning I remember saying “Look, school’s going to be weird today. He won.”
“Very funny, Mom.”
“I’m awake, you can stop that.”
“Grace. He won.”
For this all-female household it was not really about electing a woman president, and what happened never seemed like it was abut misogyny (I still don’t believe it was the actual underlier though of course many disagree). It was about… monstrosity.
Grace said, “We just elected a President who hates Mexicans, Black people and women and thinks climate change is a hoax?”
“It appears so.”
“That sucks,” she said, reaching for her jeans. “But to be honest that isn’t the part that’s bothering me.”
“What’s bothering me is that I know more about the Constitution and the Electoral college and foreign policy than Donald Trump AND I’M IN FRICKING EIGHTH GRADE!”
Camille walked in from the other room, yawning. “Why are you yelling?”
“She’s not joking, Camille. Get dressed OK?”
“Someone made a mistake,” Camille said.
“A few million someones made a mistake,” I said.
“No,” Camille insisted. “Something went wrong. Something broke. This isn’t right.”
“A few million somethings,” Grace said. “Is Ireland still an option?”