In the months that followed, as her mother’s dementia worsened, Russell had to tell her again and again.
“She would see him on TV and be like, ‘Who is this?’ And I would be like, ‘Mom, that’s the president,’” said Russell, now 66, a retired public health official who lives in Orlando and heads the Florida Democratic Senior Caucus.
“And she goes: ‘The president of what? The president of this country?’ And I would say: ‘Yeah, Mom, the president of this country.’ And she would say: ‘How did that happen? How did that happen?’ ”
“She was horrified every time,” Russell said.
Trump’s victory in 2016 unleashed gleeful joy among Americans who voted for him and stunned the larger group that voted for Hillary Clinton.
For some, Trump’s win was disorienting, challenging what they thought they knew about this country and their fellow Americans. For others, it was a sad confirmation of what they had long felt or suspected. For many, it was traumatic and life-altering, provoking everything from activism to disdain for the political system.
In the days after the election, there was a rush of sick days, therapy sessions, social media rants and tear-filled huddles that often involved comfort food or alcohol. Some mosques and Islamic community centers encouraged members to gather and openly share their fears. School counselors watched for students who might be struggling, especially those from immigrant families. Pastors who typically never touched politics in their sermons grappled with how to address the election.
Democrats in states that unexpectedly voted for Trump scoured precinct-by-precinct results, trying to answer the question so many were asking: What happened? For many of those who felt targeted by Trump during his campaign, the question was more dire: What could happen?
The trauma of that night has hung over the party. Many Democrats say they will not allow themselves to become too optimistic this year, even with some promising signs: Sweeping successes in the 2018 midterm elections, Joe Biden’s narrow polling advantages, a rush of liberal activism, long lines at early voting locations and a palpable sense of energy in many cities and suburban neighborhoods.
So many are afraid they could be wrong again, and this election alone won’t erase that fear.
“There are a lot of things that I’m afraid of in this election that I was not afraid of in 2016,” said Liliana “Lily” Bollinger, 22, who graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in June. “If Americans were reasonable, it would be apparent that Biden was going to win. . . . I am not staking my sanity on whether Biden wins or not because that’s a big gamble.”
Four years ago, she and her friends went to an election night party featuring cocktails with politics-themed names like “Sexism on the Beach.” When they saw where the results were headed, they returned to their dorm, where it was “utter chaos.”
“People were crying. We’re Gen Z. We don’t really remember 9/11, but I feel like this must have been what it was like. People were just crying in the open hallways, people were sobbing,” Bollinger said. “We were so afraid and filled with dread.”
Later in the night, she and others rushed into the streets, marching and yelling. Some of her classes the next day were canceled, and she doesn’t remember the others.
Across the country that night, Democratic gatherings grew quieter instead of louder. Bottles of champagne sat unopened in melting ice, noisemakers sat mute and balloons remained clustered beneath ceilings, undropped. At Clinton’s party under the glass ceiling at the Javits Center in New York City, supporters held one another and cried as cameras snapped.
At the Trevor Project’s 24-hour crisis hotline for LGBTQ youth, including those contemplating suicide, the phones began to ring, the number of calls at least doubling normal levels.
“We got so many calls from people who were just scared and uncertain and surprised and shocked,” said Paloma Woo, the senior crisis services manager. “It was a wide range of emotions. . . . Anxiety and sadness, I think there was anger, too, and frustration, and general uncertainty about the future.”
In the Phoenix area, Diego Acevedo watched the election returns with his parents and older sister. He was 13 and enrolled at a predominantly White private middle school, thanks to a scholarship. He didn’t tell anyone that he was undocumented, fearful that being open about his status would hurt his family.
“I was numb. I really didn’t know how to process it all. It felt like a nightmare,” Acevedo, now 17, said. “It’s one of the nights that makes up my childhood.”
The next day at school, many of his conservative classmates were celebrating. He tried to act like everything was okay, fearful they “would see my weakness and see who I really was.” He worried Trump would quickly start his promised mass deportations.
“Inside I was screaming, and I was crying, and I was yelling,” he said, “but outside I was just numb and with a straight face, just trying to get through the day.”
Nearly a year later, the Trump administration stopped taking new applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that was started by President Barack Obama. For years, Acevedo and his sister had looked forward to being old enough to apply, considering it “a beam of light” in their future. But now that option was gone, complicating their college applications and probably limiting their future job opportunities. His sister was two months away from being eligible.
In early November 2016 in the Portland area, Kimberly Phillips didn’t think she could feel any more hopeless. A few weeks earlier, her appendix had ruptured, and as the doctors tried to save her life, she lost an early pregnancy.
Her husband had brought her mail-in ballot to the hospital so she could vote for Clinton. She was excited for the United States to elect a female president and didn’t think it was possible for Trump to win after the country heard his comments about women on an “Access Hollywood” hot mic.
On election night, her parents and husband were in her hospital room for what was supposed to be a celebration amid so much suffering and heartbreak. Instead, they watched in growing dread. Phillips remembers vomiting at some point. She was alone when a text alert arrived early the next morning announcing Trump’s victory.
It immediately changed the way she thought about her country, as she saw Trump’s election partly fueled by a pocket of people who didn’t like that a Black man was president and did not want a woman holding the position.
On the other side of the country in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Jacqueline Grazette awoke the morning after the election and saw her husband standing over the bed, looking as if someone had died. He told her that Trump had won.
“I was like: ‘What are you talking about? I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ . . . I could not believe it,” Grazette, now 60, said. “I started moaning, and I covered my head . . . I just couldn’t deal with it.”
Eight years earlier, she hadn’t thought it was possible for Obama to be elected president, as she doubted that enough White voters would back him. At the time, she was a government teacher at Georgetown Day School, where most of her students enthusiastically supported Obama, though she kept her support for him secret. The morning after that election, her students came into her classroom excitedly shouting: “He won! He won! He won!”
“I burst into tears,” she said. “It just hit me what had happened.”
That gave Grazette hope that a woman could also be elected, and she campaigned for Clinton. She went to bed early on election night confident that she had nothing to worry about.
Trump’s win confirmed the feelings she had before Obama was elected. For weeks, she felt like she was in a fog. The day after Trump’s inauguration, she headed to the Women’s March on the Mall and remembers being surrounded by “women from everywhere.” Every car on the Metro was filled with women who shared their hopes for the day and for the country. She felt the fog lifting.
“It reminded me,” she said, “that there is a large number of people — not just in the United States but around the world — who know this isn’t right.”
The health of Russell’s mother began to fail in March 2017, and she died that June. Russell is convinced Trump’s presidency exacerbated her mother’s decline.
“I think she just thought: This is it. People have lost their minds,” Russell said.
For months, several polls in her home state of Florida have shown Biden beating Trump there. But Russell is skeptical.
“I don’t believe anything that anyone says — I have been sucker-punched. I have PTSD,” she said. “I am not going to let that happen to me again.”
In Southern California, Bollinger — the recent UCLA graduate — is worried her mail-in ballot won’t be counted, as her signature doesn’t exactly match the one on her driver’s license.
“I tried to correct it and now it looks fake, and I am in this spiral of, ‘Oh my God, I need my vote to count,’” she said. “I’ve never been so paranoid about making sure my vote counted. I’ve never been this afraid that it won’t be counted.”
In the Phoenix area, Acevedo — the undocumented high school senior — has spent months helping young Latinos register to vote and prepare to cast their ballots. He now talks openly about his status, finding that advocacy work is the best way to calm his anxieties.
Soon after the DACA program stopped taking new applications, his mother took him to hear undocumented immigrants and members of mixed-status families share their stories, which were so similar to his own. He decided there could be security in being vocal rather than silent.
He’s hopeful about Tuesday but also fearful.
“These past elections and news about things like DACA have taught me not to get excited,” he said. “I try a lot to not think about the outcome.”
In the Portland area, Phillips has found herself wondering: “What else could go wrong?” This year has brought a deadly pandemic, a spate of police shootings of people of color and protests over them that have occasionally become violent. The West Coast has gone up in flames, at one point making the sky in her neighborhood look like “Dante’s inferno.”
But there has been a burst of good news, too: She’s pregnant and due around Inauguration Day.
There are so many parallels between 2016 and now. She tries to be hopeful, but she remembers what happened then.
“I think we all got pretty scarred from 2016,” she said.
In Maryland, Grazette — the teacher who is now a college admissions adviser — draws hope from the students she works with, nearly all of whom wrote their college admissions essays about racism. The tide has changed in the country, she said, and she hopes it’s enough for Trump to be defeated. She doesn’t know what she will do if he is reelected.
“The Black woman in me says: You always get up and put one foot in front of the other, and you just keep marching and walking, because that’s what we’ve done for centuries,” she said. “But the human in me says: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”