As the long autumn night descended upon across Manhattan last November 8, 2016, Brendan McGinn was certain of two things. Hillary Clinton was about to become the first female president of the United States, and this evening was going to be the best birthday that McGinn (who celebrates his 40th this Wednesday) was ever going to have. That’s because he and his girlfriend had scored the most sought-after tickets in New York, to watch the live broadcast of Stephen Colbert’s HBO Election Night special that was bound to be both celebratory and hilarious.
But the couple still had to wait on a long line outside the Ed Sullivan Theater to be seated, and it was during those moments that everything that McGinn thought he knew about the U.S. of A. changed forever. Almost everyone on the line seemed to be constantly re-loading an election tracker from the website FiveThirtyEight.com on their phones, and nobody could believe what they were seeing. Donald Trump had a 30 percent chance of winning, then suddenly a 40 percent chance. “This is not good,” his girlfriend whispered. “Trump’s gonna win.”
By the time the two reached the head of the line, Trump’s odds were 91 percent and they had no interest in sitting inside a theater and pretending to laugh at Colbert. They instead headed for a nearby bar where McGinn “pounded” a couple of Guinness pints. That was just the beginning. “It was the rest of the week though that sticks with me, the absolute silence in the city,” McGinn — who lives in Astoria, Queens — told me by email. “Trains full of people, nobody making a noise. Discarded ‘I voted’ stickers littered everywhere. And women every morning the rest of that week, crying in public on their commute to the city.”
Welcome back, my friends, to a uniquely American nightmare that never ends. Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the most stunning — and without question the most meaningful — presidential election upset in our nation’s 241-year history. This week, there’ll surely be a lot of TV talking-head chatter about how we’ve changed as country since the night that some, of course, celebrate but that at least 65 million of us might instead call “the unfortunate events of 11/8.” As a columnist, my life for the last year has been devoted to chronicling the practically radioactive fallout from what happened on that brisk fall night — the non-stop lying from the presidential podium; the epic levels of corruption at the top of the U.S. government; and the bullying and threats against a free press, an impartial system of justice, and the other democratic norms that once sustained the American Experiment.
But there’s something else about November 8, 2016, that still fascinates one year later: An obsession — at least among the not-always-silent majority who strongly disapprove of Trump and his presidency — with re-living that night: Where we were and who we were with, the exact moment that an early sunset’s firm if not totally unwavering confidence of the Clinton victory (as predicted by every pollster and seemingly credible pundit) morphed into the dark realization of Trump’s victory, the various stages of denial, grief and not-exactly acceptance.
It may seem silly and even highly inappropriate to some, but for a lot of citizens, what happened on November 8, 2016, reminded them painfully of the sadness and emotions they felt on September 11, 2001 or November 22, 1963, the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Of course, no one died an unnatural death on Election Night 2016 — despite the many heart palpitations — and unlike the 2001 terror attack, this was like an emotional neutron bomb that only devastated half of the nation. Yet those three epic dates in modern American history share one common bond. People went to bed on those nights with the gut-wrenching feeling that things in the United States — important things, fundamental things — were not what we thought they were when we had arisen that morning.
That was especially true for journalists, so certain were we in our smug belief (backed by every poll, but still …) of a Clinton victory. I still remember a Daily News meeting the Thursday before where we debated whether to even bother preparing “Trump wins” material in advance (we did, thankfully); a rushed trip that gray Tuesday afternoon to the leafy Woodlands Cemetery in Southwest Philly to find women leaving notes on the grave of suffragette Mary Grew to mark the anticipated victory for a woman president, and finally the moment around 8:45 p.m. when — struggling with the dissonance of the “Clinton wins” column I was writing and the actual results coming into my headphones from CNN on my laptop — I ripped off the earbuds and turned to see 40 Philadelphia journalists staring at a newsroom TV, jaws dropped, in total, stunned silence.
The neutron bomb did not hit everyone equally. For most journalists or political insiders, the biggest blow that night was that sudden loss in confidence that we even understood the country we get paid to write about or analyze. And make no mistake, for many among the 62-million-member minority who voted for Trump, that comeuppance for arrogant elites is why they still celebrate November 8, 2016, even as their resentful chants of “CNN sucks” continue to bounce off arena walls. This week, to mark the one-year anniversary, Esquire published a remarkable oral history that focuses heavily on how the night felt for top campaign officials and Beltway journalists. “I was thinking everything from, ‘I’m gonna have to rewrite my piece’ to, ‘Can we stay in the U.S.?’ the author Rebecca Traister told Esquire. “I texted my husband, ‘Tell Rosie [her young daughter] to go to bed. I don’t want her to watch.’”
But here’s the thing: Whatever the privileged folks felt that night, it pales to the emotions that raced through the marginalized — many immigrants, including and especially those here legally, openly wondered if they could stay here after Trump’s xenophobic build-the-wall vow — and others who’d been deeply insulted and disrespected by the Republican’s bombastic and sometimes racist campaign. That was especially true for the women (not all women, as Trump won a narrow majority of white females) and their male allies who couldn’t believe that America could elect a president after he’d been caught on tape bragging about his groping of female body parts.
“How are you supposed to reconcile your own values with the 46 percent who were okay voting for a man accused of sexual assault a dozen times?” the New Yorker McGinn asked — the most common refrain among those who still remain most devastated over Trump’s election.
“It wasn’t so much Trump that did it — we all knew he was terrible,” J.B. Yelsky, who lives in the Ohio suburb of Moreland Hills and helps run family gravel and construction businesses in the Midwest, told me in an email. “It was those nice normal people that I’ve known my whole life, that I thought cared about social justice as it applied to just the basics: food, shelter … medicine” — and yet they voted for Trump. Also deeply troubled by The Donald’s racist appeals against Mexicans and African-Americans, Yelsky said he went to bed “depressed, sad, scared” and woke up on November 9, 2016 pouring some Crown Maple into his morning coffee.
“I think there’s a way that we connect with others through our pain,” George James, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Council for Relationships and program director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program at Thomas Jefferson University, told me when I called to ask why so many people cling to their bitter memories of last November. In other words, he said, it’s human nature to seek out others for the comfort of those who shared the same feelings and emotions, no matter how terrible those emotions were.
What’s more, he said that clinging to memories of how it felt in the deadness of night, when Donald Trump was declared the victor, can be a motivator to stay focused on positive change, whether that meant voting in this week’s local elections or taking part in other political activities. There are some people, James noted, who hold on to a terrible report card or a job rejection letter for motivation, as way of saying, “This is reality. This happened. What am I going to do about it?”
I felt a shock of personal recognition from that last point. My other unerasable memory — technically it was from November 9 — was finally leaving the newsroom around 1:30 in the morning, arriving home just in time to see the chyron across the bottom of my TV screen: “Donald Trump Elected President of the United States.” I briefly thought to take out my phone and take a picture — but I didn’t need to because that moment, which felt like the end of one thing and the beginning of something else, has never left me. That feeling has fueled me to never stop writing about the clear and present danger, no matter how hard Trump and his minions have tried to exhaust me and you and every other American with their non-stop lies and corruption. And it’s a something of a relief to know that many positive things — the Women’s March, or the citizen resistance that so far has saved Obamacare — were born from that same despair.
It’s not at all a bad thing that so many of us can’t stop thinking and talking about how low we felt on November 8, 2016. What would be truly terrible is if we forgot.