Brains encode traumatic memories in vivid, highly emotional, sometimes disorganized detail. When someone is confronted with sensory stimuli that recall a disturbing event, she may relive the terror or anxiety she felt at the time. This is how I explain the fact that my stomach constricts whenever I hear about an event going on at the Javits Center, the site of Hillary Clinton’s “victory party.” I spent the night of Nov. 8, 2016, there, covering what was supposed to be the coronation of the first female president of the United States. As the evening progressed in a direction neither I nor the hundreds of journalists around me had expected, I reacted as if I were in physical danger: bursts of adrenaline, ringing ears, tingling extremities. What the cable news panels digested as a political horse race, my body processed as trauma.
That trauma may explain why I remember every word of the conversation I had with the Duane Reade cashier while buying earplugs in the wee hours of Nov. 9, 2016. Forever lodged in my memory—indelible in the hippocampus, you might say—are the clothes I was wearing (a white button-down crop top), the music that was playing (the Hillary Clinton theme song, Sara Bareilles’ “Brave”), and what I was eating (cashews) when Trump won the presidency. All of them still remind me of that singularly terrible night.
I’m not alone in this. While Trump fans might cherish the MAGA hats they wore to 2016’s election watch parties, a friend of mine went so far as to throw out the outfit she was wearing the night Trump was elected. My colleague Josh Keating had recently moved to a new neighborhood as of Election Day 2016, and he and his wife were eating takeout from a new-to-them Indian restaurant while they watched the results come in. “We have never eaten there again,” he said. “Can’t separate that night from the taste of mediocre saag paneer.” Brendan Leonard, a 34-year-old university employee in New York City, used to love making a particular pulled pork recipe in his crockpot. He was eating it over nachos when Trump won the election. “I haven’t made it since and refuse to—at least until the results on Tuesday,” he said. “I want to say that if the Dems take the House, I’ll be able to make pulled pork again, but I’m still very anxious about the whole thing. Maybe if the Dems take the House and Steve King loses, then I can return to making that dish. Or maybe I’ll wait two more years.”
Trump’s election did more than ruin pork and spinach dishes for an unlucky few. For some, the event was upsetting enough to ruin entire people. Oxford Kondō, a 30-year-old New York City writer and podcaster, watched the returns at the house of a cousin’s friend, a guy he didn’t know too well. “After that, I never wanted to see that acquaintance again and have tried to avoid him as much as possible,” Kondō said. Some people told me on Twitter that they’d avoid watching this year’s returns with friends they’d hung out with in 2016, lest they jinx the results. Two 42-year-old journalists in Boston, Rebecca Knight and Alison Babka—both Democrats—have a long history of coming together to witness undesirable election outcomes. They watched George W. Bush win from New York and watched him get re-elected from London. They were apart for both of Barack Obama’s wins, but decided it was safe to get together in 2016. “We have now, obviously, decided to never spend another election night together again,” Beard said.
Conventional wisdom would have it that misery loves company—that even if a few people are banned from your watch party due to associations with bad election memories, it’s better to be surrounded by like-minded friends than waiting it out alone. Not so, according to several people who told me they’re committed to spending the night with no friends, no sparkling wine, and, in one case, “no merriment.” I asked Staff Sgt. Victoria Chamberlin, a 34-year-old active-duty Army service member, why she decided to spend this year’s election night alone after hosting an elaborate party in 2016, complete with “Make America Grape Again” and “Blue Pantsuit” signature cocktails. “I think it felt worse because we really expected a different outcome,” she said. Chamberlin and a few of her party’s attendees do work that supports sexual assault survivors in the Army; they were sure a man who’d bragged about abusing women wouldn’t survive a general election. “As it became more and more clear that we were wrong, the mood became very somber and my living room was filled with balloons and profoundly sad people,” Chamberlin said. “I don’t really want to see that again.”
One man I spoke with had a different regret about 2016: He was sad he didn’t have any liquor handy to dull his pain when Trump won. He’s stocking up for Tuesday just in case his favored Democrats lose. Others had prepared for a Clinton victory by chilling bottles of prosecco or Champagne; this year, they’re not making space in the fridge for celebratory beverages. Slate writer Ben Mathis-Lilley had saved exactly one serving of bourbon in his freezer in 2016, in anticipation of the Manhattan he’d planned to make when Trump lost. It’s still there, and Mathis-Lilley won’t drink it until “the very second” Trump leaves office.
Jared Matas, a 42-year-old teacher in Boston, has celebrated major life events with Crown Royal ever since his grandfather set aside a bottle for his family to drink during his own shiva. When Matas’ parents visited him for the 2016 election, they brought a bottle of the Canadian whisky to make “mazel tov cocktails”—a riff on a gaffe a Trump surrogate made on the campaign trail—to toast the election of the first female president. Matas spent the first weeks after the election turning to the Crown Royal in moments of despair, then decided to save it for the midterms, “when the blue wave will hopefully flip Congress and hold [Trump] accountable,” Matas said. He keeps the bottle in his kitchen cabinet and sees it every day as he grabs plates. It’s an encouraging reminder that a change in political leadership could be nigh.
Even though Democrats look set to retake the House, some left-leaning voters are already preparing for defeat, determined to avoid a nasty shock à la 2016. Clint Worthington of Chicago had planned to bake a Smitten Kitchen s’mores cake on election night when Clinton won; when she didn’t, he invited friends over the next night for a belated slice of cake and a trashy movie marathon. He plans to do the same if Republicans come out on top this time around. Lauren Mikiten, a 28-year-old graphic designer in Texas, has gone so far as to make three “protocol” documents for herself, mapping out what she’ll do in a worst-case scenario, a best-case scenario, and one of “moderate success.” Each one contains lists of actions she’ll take as soon as results come in, the day after the election, later that week, and sometime after that. “I wasn’t prepared for every outcome in 2016, and I didn’t deal with it well,” Mikiten said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was depressed in the weeks after, maybe even months.”
Mikiten supports Erin Zwiener, a Democratic Texas House candidate attempting to flip a red district, and she’s been volunteering for Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign for more than a year. If both those candidates lose, and Democrats fail to win both the Senate and the House, Mikiten will immediately follow the instructions on her worst-case document: “Get [husband] to change your Twitter, Facebook & Instagram passwords. Set an out-of-office on your Gmail for one week. Drink a gigantic glass of water. Hug [husband] and each of your cats. Cry, if you’re ready. Tell yourself it is okay to feel sad.” With document in hand, Mikiten hopes to forestall some of the hopelessness and self-reinforcing spirals of social media misery that might otherwise creep in if the election doesn’t go her way.
If Mikiten never has to open that worst-case document, she might have one Washington, D.C. friend group to thank. The most elaborate post-2016 superstition I’ve heard comes from Tracy Davis, a 46-year-old anti-poverty lawyer who has big plans with four friends for election night. The five watched Trump win in 2016, but were also together when they cheered their soccer team, France, to victory in the 2018 World Cup. On Tuesday, they’ll do none of the things they did during Trump’s election, plus all the things they did for the final World Cup match. They’ll shout the Greek Orthodox chants favored by the two members of the group who were raised in that tradition. They’ll burn some incense. (“We might be increasing the incense burning to include several days leading up to Election Day,” Davis said.) Someone will wear a French soccer jersey; Davis will not wear the squirrel shirt she wore in 2016. They’ll eat World Cup croissants, not election night tacos. “We have also contemplated staying the heck away from each other in case it is the gathering of us together that is a curse,” Davis said. “But our hope is that our World Cup victory broke any curse.”
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