I think, at least once a day, about the 2016 election. It’s not something I want to do; I wish I could stop. But it’s a near-impossible topic to avoid. It’s there when I scroll through Facebook, in a comment left on a post by someone I’d long since cut ties with. It’s there when I’m at the gym, staring as I jog on the treadmill at a wall-mounted TV blaring 24-hour analysis of Donald Trump’s every action. It’s there whenever I walk past my neighbor’s pickup truck, which still proudly sports several “Hillary for Prison” bumper stickers.
Whenever it happens, I relive the worst moments, both personal and observational, from that election cycle. Screaming fights, “lock her up” chants, Twitter mobs, pussy-grabbing confessions, riots at caucuses, death threats to female reporters, the time Trump physically menaced Clinton onstage to a point that Clinton later said made her “skin crawl.” All of those moments are still locked within me, ready to erupt and overwhelm me if I make one wrong move. It’s not memory. It’s trauma.
“I’m terrified because I feel like it is all about to start over again.”
I am not uniquely fragile. One 2017 study, published in the Journal of American College Health, found that following the 2016 election, 25% of students developed PTSD-like symptoms and suffered “clinically significant” levels of stress comparable to people who had witnessed a mass shooting. Female students in particular were 45% more likely to report trauma symptoms — a risk that was heightened for black and Latina women. Women processed the misogyny of the 2016 election as if it were aimed at us, because, well, it was. But to truly understand women’s anxiety, we need more than data and research. We need to hear from them directly.
“I can very precisely trace a shift in myself to the spring of 2016,” says Sarah Wingo, 34. “For the last three years I have experienced levels of anxiety in ways I never have before. Right now I’m terrified because I feel like it is all about to start over again, and I am only just now starting to feel like myself.”
The 2016 election slashed through her support network, creating rifts among family and friends. “One of the things that really broke me in 2016 was the absolutely heinous things my mother started saying about Clinton,” Wingo says. “My dad has always been a lost cause when it comes to conservative bigotry, but my mom was the reasonable one. Suddenly not only could I not talk to her about politics, but there are normal topics I can’t even talk to her about anymore without getting a very Fox News response.”
It wasn’t just conservative friends and relatives that women had to contend with. Aisha, 32 (who asked that her last name be withheld), was a far-left organizer in New York for years before the 2016 election. She says that when she declared her support for Hillary Clinton, her career and social life fell apart.
“My ‘comrades’ were incredibly angry at me,” she says. “All of a sudden, none of the work I had done personally or by their sides mattered. I was a shill, a sellout, a neoliberal. Even a person I had personally mentored in political organizing sent me messages asking how I could possibly justify my support for her, but didn’t care to hear my reasoning. I lost a number of friends; while some people have reached out since, most have not.”
“I don’t think I’ll see a female president in the U.S. in my lifetime.”
Following the election, Aisha took a corporate job and disengaged from her political life. Her political engagement now is a shell of what it was: “I’m going to help put on some volunteer parties for Warren and do what I can,” she says, “but honestly, I don’t think I’ll see a female president in the U.S. in my lifetime.” These feelings of isolation should come as no shock. In the wake of Trump’s victory, many women poured their pain into constructive activism, like the Women’s March.
But others have responded in ways that are equally characteristic of trauma: by withdrawing, silencing themselves, and trying to avoid anything that brings back painful memories. We’ve never fully processed the psychological toll of 2016, but it’s shaping our current political reality, as women who were formerly passionate about politics are now feeling too burned to fully engage. Many women — including the same boomer women who were Hillary Clinton’s most passionate supporters — now believe it is irresponsible to support female candidates for president. We have more female candidates than ever before, but we also have fewer women willing to support them.
Support for Democratic nominee Joe Biden is fueled, according to Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel, by “middle-aged women [who believe] 2016 showed that voters won’t elect a female president.” NBC News’s Lauren Egan recently spoke with some of these women, who confessed to speculating whether it was worth “putting their hope of electing the first woman president on hold” in order to throw their support behind a candidate they believe has the best chance of beating Trump in 2020.
For those who feel otherwise — that the 2020 election shouldn’t mean having to choose between male candidates — engaging with political life feels riskier than ever. Though Wingo likes both Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, she fears voicing her support. “I’m constantly dodging political conversations, even with people I generally tend to agree with,” she says. “The closer we get to the primary, the more supporting a female candidate is going to make me want to hide under a rock.”