Lexicon Valley

The Triumphant Tweeting and Freaked-Out Facebooking of Election Day

We’ve got this! Don’t we? Yes! We think.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Here we all are, fellow Americans. On the internet. Where so much of this interminable election has played out. Reading, refreshing, typing things, reading the things we typed, trying to project sanity. On this final day (please, let it be the final day), we come to social media like great herds of deer converging on a watering hole, skittish and desperate, lapping at drops.

What’s it like signing onto Twitter or Facebook on the most important date for American democracy in recent memory? If you follow the people I follow, most of whom support Hillary Clinton, it’s a master class on how the human psyche responds to stress and uncertainty. I’m seeing two strands of coping with the tantalizing dream of a Hillary presidency, the unlikely-yet-still-flickering prospect of a Trump regime. The first: triumphalism. Celebration. These are the friends uploading photos of themselves in pantsuits, applying lipstick or tugging on heels. Let’s smash the glass ceiling! They write. Let’s watch the shards fall! Some people are posting elated images of themselves outside polling stations or in phone bank offices. They’re “so inspired.” They’re baking Hillary-themed cupcakes. They’re swinging at Trump-shaped piñatas. They’re sharing giddy articles about the glorious stirrings in the soil of American politics and culture, the magnificent, progressive, human rights–revering beanstalk about to erupt and carry us into the sky.

I love these posts! I could spend all day reading them (and probably will). They are invigorating suggestions that Clinton’s victory is essentially a sure thing; they nod to the historicity of the moment. Their encapsulating gesture is the Hillary Shoulder Shimmy, a roguishly confident expression of delight in the successes ahead. I scroll through, and sisterhood blooms in me like a flower, and the future looks bright and verdant and full of promise, and …

My hands are shaking. I just thought you should know that. I was typing that utopian dawn-of-justice stuff and my hands were literally shaking. That’s because all this cheerful, can-do rationalism disguises the roiling dread that many Americans might be able to force down but not extinguish. Trump, relegated to the fever swamps of the repressed unconscious, keeps rattling the bars of his cage.

Sometimes he even escapes. For every two or three jubilant “Let’s do this!” posts in my feed, there’s an urgent entreaty stressing the stakes of the election and imploring readers to vote or else. For every service-y reminder on how to find your local polling station, there is a plainspoken, earnest effort to convey—at last, for perhaps you had not understood it until just now—the true depths of Trump’s intolerability.

The complicated tango of uplift, patriotic pride, and soul-curdling dread unfolding on my Facebook feed right now might be summed up by one friend’s blithe posting of a sunrise, with the caption: “Morning has broken, and today we elect the first female president of the United States!” High five! I watched the “likes” gather in real time—ding, ding, ding, like a stairway to heaven. Then a comment: Please be right. Then another comment: What’s the best website for up-to-date results?

On Twitter, too, our forced rhapsodies may conceal how we’re all freaking the hell out inside. When we’re not shooing each other toward “election detox” content (like this photo essay of children reading to lonely shelter dogs, you’re welcome!) or cracking wise about our apprehension, we’re nervously reiterating the various institutions and ideals that hang in the balance. We’ve greeted Election Day with weariness and grim resolve and philosophical solemnity and abstract impatience. Now we’re casting ballots for the children we were and the children we have or want. Our every choice drips with meaning, purpose: We are exercising our voting rights for our grandmothers, in suffragette white, and we are doing it draped in our mothers’ jewelry. Once we get our stickers, though, we feel unmoored again, so we tell our friends and followers what we’ve done and why we’ve done it and what we think will happen next. We are like sharks that might die if they stop swimming, except that in this case the swimming is scrolling and clicking and ruminating and stress-eating and polysyndeton.

Perhaps it is the give-and-take of such an asymmetrical contest: On one hand, Clinton’s qualifications and temperament so outshine Trump’s that her victory feels relatively assured. On the other hand, Trump’s staggering unfitness for the presidency means that even the slightest hint of a GOP win provokes extreme amounts of anxiety. The superego soothes and celebrates; the id cringes with terror. Reason obviously prevails, except I still can’t stop biting my nails and I’ve remade my ponytail four times in the past 30 minutes. If Facebook and Twitter are any indication, we’ll all be toggling between those two poles for the next six or seven hours, leaving scrips and scraps of verbiage in our distracted wake. Are you ready? Me too! Hurrah! Gulp.

See more Slate coverage of the election.