The memory of election night 2016—watching the delegate count climb, slowly realizing what was happening, and finally seeing Donald Trump take the stage in the early hours of Nov. 9—is burned so firmly into the collective consciousness that we hardly need to be reminded of it. And yet popular culture has insisted on doing just that, returning to that evening again and again as if it might begin to explain everything that has happened since.
Fictional recreations began to appear almost immediately, spanning styles and genres, from horror to comedy to animation. Broad City’s “Witches”—in which Ilana looks back, realizing the extent of the trauma the date caused her—is the latest in this string of Election Day remembrances. A planned South Park episode called “The Very First Gentleman” scheduled to be broadcast the following evening was quickly rewritten to account for Mr. Garrison’s victory, including a stunned town viewing party. (The replacement episode was titled “Oh, Jeez.”) Saturday Night Live followed up with an election night sketch in which Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock attend a results party populated by overconfident white liberals, who are shocked at the revelation of an America their black friends already know exists. American Horror Story’s new season opened with a similar scene, split between a freaked-out white liberal and an aroused MAGA-head. Other shows have hinted at the unforgettable night without directly revisiting it: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s latest season included a depressing joke about Hillary victory balloons still being in the ceiling at the Javits Center.
Has any other event been so quickly and repeatedly mirrored in pop culture? While Obama’s 2008 election was historic, the shock of Trump’s upset victory makes it especially evocative fodder for our left-leaning pop culture. There seems to have been an immediate need to memorialize it, even as its consequences are still playing out. And these depictions are still rolling in—while South Park and Saturday Night Live were able to recreate the moment almost immediately, shows with longer production timelines are only now getting around to it. But why are we even still interested in reliving the election?
Perhaps we’re still struggling to come to terms with that sudden, dramatic shift in reality. In “Witches,” Broad City reinforces the idea of election night as the switch from one reality to another by making it the moment that the usually highly sexual Ilana began having trouble orgasming—although it’s only when 2017 Ilana visits a sex therapist that she realizes exactly when it began. “I have dead pussy,” she says, and as “dead pussy” begins to echo, first in Ilana’s voice, then Trump’s, a calendar appears before her eyes, scrolling quickly back to a dramatically circled Nov. 8. “It’s essentially dead,” says Trump, as the camera zooms in on the traumatic date. The electoral map comes next, elephants and donkeys falling into place as terrifying, eerie music creeps in: There are explosions, a mocking Trump, Trump/Pence signs being waved, and a shot of an electronic billboard showing the delegate count with a checked box under Trump’s name. (For anyone around midtown Manhattan in the early hours of Nov. 9, it was these electronic signs that made the new America feel especially dystopic.) More shots of Trump follow before we zoom back out on the horrific date. “Oh my god,” screams Ilana. “Gameshow president [bleep]-in-chief, I haven’t come since the election!”
Maps and delegate counts are used to similar effect in the opening scene of American Horror Story: Cult. Unlike Ilana, the anxious Ally (Sarah Paulson) is experiencing the election result in real time. Her friends and family are gathered in her living room around a TV showing a very red-looking electoral map, but Ally refuses to believe the unbelievable graphic before her. “That’s bullshit,” she says. “I won’t believe it until I hear Rachel Maddow say it. She’s the only one I trust.” The election, traumatic for so many, is literally triggering for Ally. As things get worse, she can only stare wide-eyed, open-mouthed at the screen, crying silent tears, until Pence introduces the new president-elect at which point she covers her mouth with her hands and starts to wail.
These fictional recreations are dramatic renderings of the shock that, for much of their left-leaning audience, still hasn’t gone away. But unlike many other national calamities, the Nov. 8 incident is not one that the country experienced uniformly; as Slate’s Andrew Kahn pointed out in a piece on late-night’s response to the result, 11/8 is not an “objective catastrophe” in the same way as 9/11.* In fact, liberals’ distress was intensified by the realization that their values weren’t as dominant as they thought, and that many of their fellow citizens were celebrating an outcome that they mourned. Following the result, many media outlets tried to amplify the voices of the white working class, the “forgotten” Trump voters whose marginalization had allowed things to get to this point, causing those on the losing side to feel even more alienated. Liberal retellings of election night allow liberal viewers to feel part of a community of mourners, reflecting their experience back at them and reminding them that they were far from alone in their distress.
In South Park’s quickly thrown-together election night episode, the mood at the South Park Community Center’s viewing party is one of astonishment and disgust. The townsfolk stare wide-eyed at the balloon-adorned screen: In distinctly South Park–style markers of distress, one man vomits on the ground and another shoots himself in the head. “What have you done? You maniacs!” screams Randy Marsh in despair. Though South Park was more often anti-politics than anti-Trump in the lead-up to the election (in South Park’s recycled “Giant Douche-vs-Turd Sandwich” political metaphor, Clinton was the sandwich), the scene spoke to disturbed anti-Trump Americans (whether they enthusiastically or reluctantly voted for the sandwich), reassuring them that there were millions whose visceral trauma resembled their own. It was a bonding experience liberals shared, whether they were at the Javits Center or a small-town viewing party. American Horror Story, South Park, and SNL’s election night scenes also spoke to the incredulity and denial many felt on the night, which even now feels like a dream, or a nightmare. “The world is in a bit of a shock,” says the South Park anchor. “We’re sure this is for real, right?” “I just don’t know what’s real anymore,” says Billie Lourd’s AHS character. “She was supposed to win.” As foolish as liberals may feel for their naïve overconfidence, their failure to see it coming, at least they were in good company.
Dr. Brett Litz, a professor in the psychology at Boston University and an expert in trauma, posits that such works help viewers grappling with what was a “serious national stressor” feel less alone. “People want to be in like-minded communities,” says Brett Litz, “like those who go to MSNBC. It validates them.”
We are also keen to imbue the night with meaning. “Humans are meaning-making machines,” says Litz, when asked why people might return to a moment of trauma. He hypothesizes that part of the reason we keep reliving that night is because we have a need to “metabolize it psychologically, correct it, find messages that help us make sense of it.” The night that launched a thousand thinkpieces still seems impossible to digest, no more comprehensible than the instant it unfolded. He suggests that artists who work with trauma are not just trying to heal their viewers; they are often trying to heal themselves.
But what good does watching people freak out over the result all over again actually do? Many of us continue to wallow, returning to the moment that it all went wrong, instead of confronting the reality around us. As Kahn pointed out, left-leaning late-night hosts had to be careful not to overindulge their feelings (and those of a large part of their audience) the following day. These fictionalized accounts seem to do exactly that, affirming for their liberal audience that their reaction was the correct one—the only person celebrating Trump’s victory in any of these scenes is the cartoonishly evil Kai of American Horror Story, who covers his face in Cheeto dust.
If Nov. 8 was a wake-up call, a major challenge to many liberals’ understanding of the country, the scenes they have been fed since allow them to minimize that challenge, reflecting their “like-minded communities” back at them even as the night’s ongoing repercussions demand they face up to the existence of an America they—like Ally, like Randy, like SNL’s oblivious white liberals—missed. If television wanted to show us something truly eye-opening, it could start by showing us a room full of struggling Trump supporters, toasting to what they foolishly hoped was going to be a new beginning, and why.
*Correction, Nov. 7, 2017: This post originally misspelled Andrew Kahn’s last name.