What was the nadir of election night 2016? In fairness, the evening of Nov. 8 and the cratered-out dawn of Nov. 9 were more like a chain of nadirs strung together. Cast your mind back to John Podesta’s speech to the heartbroken stragglers in New York City’s Javits Center a few minutes after 2 a.m. Hillary Clinton would not be coming to the stage, Podesta said, as chyrons touted Trump’s latest victories: Wisconsin, Iowa, Georgia. (Pennsylvania, the nail in the coffin, had yet to be called.) “Listen, everybody should head home and get some sleep.”
His voice tinny with hope that at that point had only been 98 percent crushed, Podesta added, addressing all Hillary supporters: “Your voices and your enthusiasm mean so much to her and to Tim”—remember Tim?—“and to all of us. We are so proud of you.” Ugh.
How does watching Trump’s victory in 2017 compare to the original experience? How does it look and sound and feel when you know who is going to lose and—God help us—who is going to win? That’s a bit like asking which sucks more: burning to death in a pit of flaming garbage or suffocating to death in a pit stuffed to the brim with wet garbage. Still, the exercise offers the intrepid time traveler an object lesson in dramatic irony, the literary device that awards to audience members a perspective the characters in a story don’t possess. We have the opportunity, now, to become spectators of our own tragedy. We can measure how far the country has moved, how much we’ve absorbed and normalized, and (in my case, thanks to this assignment) how much our editors hate us.
YouTube was the starship that zoomed me back to the giddy anticipation of Nov. 8, 2016, circa 7 p.m. Eastern. As the networks unveiled their neat tricks—MSNBC’s twin towers of red and blue light; CNN’s enchanted touchscreen, which revealed ever more granular returns when John King swiped at it—I felt a flicker of last year’s anxiety and expectation. The polls had all anointed Clinton as the next president of the United States. On MSNBC, Nicolle Wallace predicted “a very rough night at Trump Tower” and floated the possibility of “a fully blue Eastern seaboard.” Her interlocutors, including Chris Matthews and Brian Williams, declared the GOP’s campaign strategy—briefly, racism—a “recipe for failure.” Meanwhile, Fox’s Megyn Kelly seemed to be just humoring viewers as she ran through Trump’s unlikely path to victory, which involved piercing a Game of Thrones–sounding stronghold called the Blue Wall.
This was fun to revisit, and then it very quickly wasn’t. The cable shows dutifully converted an unfolding catastrophe into an entertainment spectacular. They chirped phrases like margin, exit poll, and change agent; updated us endlessly on which states remained “in play”; and spewed forth the kind of color commentary that transforms a looming political apocalypse into “an exclamation point.” A little after 9 p.m., a handful of states that everyone had placed in the Hillary column remained too close to call. The night graduated to “a nail biter.” MSNBC’s Steve Schmidt speculated, his own forehead dry, that “there is a lot of sweat on the brow of the Clinton campaign right now.”
By this stage, I’d figured out that there is a right way and a wrong way to relive election night 2016 (or maybe a wrong way and a wronger way). The wrongest way is to focus on the plot. How Ohio was lost, and then North Carolina, and then Florida. How the Blue Wall crumbled and a Red Wall rose like Saturn. This wrongest way places Clinton’s undoing in chronological order, crafting a clear and digestible narrative that for all its twists and turns matters not a whit. By the time the various onscreen clocks read 10 p.m., I had absolved my brain of the obligation to pass through the bargaining phase—to process the increasingly tenuous “inside straights” that would reverse the tide and net Clinton the election. I was just absorbing the emotional arc.
Make that arcs. On Fox, a panel that started the night projecting buttoned-up competence and (fake) objectivity began to slip into something a little more comfortable. As the results tilted toward Trump, the hosts snuck in commentary about how Barack Obama had transformed the country without voters’ permission and then rubbed our noses in it. If (if!) the Republican nominee was grabbing more counties than expected, perhaps (perhaps!) we were all witnessing a referendum on the president. Monica Crowley pointed to the “existential threat of Islamic terror” as a key factor pushing the electorate toward Trump and celebrated how the Republican nominee “forged an emotional bond with voters, which is something money cannot buy—sorry Hillary.” An hour later, Crowley proclaimed herself the “happiest woman in America,” even happier than Ann Coulter, and Kelly bantered with Bret Baier over whether Sarah Palin would join Trump’s Cabinet. Any second, you expected a champagne cork to pop.
On CNN, CBS, and MSNBC, meanwhile, the vibe shifted from nerdy (fake) objectivity to a creeping worry to utter hallucinatory despair. Steve Kornacki, MSNBC’s data guy, kept re-consulting the numbers as if to make absolutely sure they hadn’t lied to him the first time. “You tell your kids, ‘don’t be a bully,’ ” said Van Jones on CNN. “You tell your kids, ‘don’t be a bigot.’ You tell your kids, ‘do your homework and be prepared.’ And then you have this outcome, and you have people putting children to bed tonight, and they’re afraid of breakfast. … How do I explain this to my children?”
From my perch in the present, I felt bad for these poor people. I felt bad for Van Jones’ children. They were all so deluded and naïve. And it was awful to think back on the first time I entered a now-familiar room, one full of shock, disillusionment, and dread.
When I closed the YouTube tab at last, I felt drained. I had seen Podesta’s pathetic speech. I had watched MSNBC’s Schmidt, possibly addressing a raven on the cameraman’s shoulder, say, “The hour is drawing close where Donald J. Trump will be president-elect of the United States.” I had sat through a Fox split-screen of the Javits Center (grim) and Trump Tower (jubilant), as if enduring a sermon about the diverging fortunes of the blessed and the damned on Judgment Day I resented the reminder that we had once lived in Barack Obama’s American pastoral. I wanted to forget our fall from grace.
But with the tab closed and the pundits’ mouths sealed shut, I thought about the people and institutions that have stuck it to Trump in the past 12 months. I remembered the lines from Blake’s Songs of Experience, after the good angel flees: “I dried my tears, and armed my fears/ With ten thousand shields and spears.”
On Tuesday evening, Twitter was waiting for me with happier tidings—of Ralph Northam’s landslide victory, a Liberian refugee elected mayor in Montana, and an openly transgender legislator in Virginia. I got a text from a friend: “God I’m so relieved and happy tonight.” What a message to receive! It was a shaft of light in dystopia—every bit as disorienting as living in an alternate universe in which the 45th president of the United States did not yet exist.