“The Death of the Optimism of an Entire Generation”: College Students React to Trump’s Election

Millennials—who overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton—had a range of reactions, from despair to defiance.

Olivia Adams November 17, 2016

If no one but millennials had voted in the 2016 election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would have won in a landslide. (Theresa Thompson / Flickr)

Like each new Amer­i­can pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, this one was the longest in his­to­ry. Elec­tion Day was the cul­mi­na­tion of 17 months’ worth of anx­i­ety, all com­pressed into six hours of pun­dit­ry, memes and math. Less than two hours after Mid­west polls closed, Pantsuit Nation began to con­vulse. This wasn’t sup­posed to happen.

"I just think that this whole apocalyptic mood is ensuring that nothing is going to change, and that's what I fear the most."

A Sur­vey Mon­key inter­ac­tive map showed Hillary Clin­ton as the over­whelm­ing­ly pre­ferred can­di­date for reg­is­tered Mil­len­ni­al vot­ers (18 to 34 years old). The map, based on online polling from Oct. 25 to Nov. 7, showed that had only Mil­len­ni­als vot­ed, the elec­tion would have been a blowout: Clin­ton with 473 elec­toral votes, Don­ald Trump with 32. Accord­ing to the New York Times exit polls, Clin­ton beat Trump among vot­ers 30-years-old and younger by 18 points — 55 per­cent to 37 percent.

Inter­views con­duct­ed by In These Times with stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, and with two addi­tion­al col­lege-age vot­ers from Ohio and Indi­ana, reflect­ed that strong sup­port for Clin­ton among young peo­ple. The out­come inspired intense fear that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion will repeal Oba­macare and gut poli­cies and Supreme Court deci­sions that pro­tect against dis­crim­i­na­tion and ensure the right to abor­tion. How­ev­er, as the ini­tial shock wears off, opti­mism is ris­ing for some, based on the con­crete vic­to­ries achieved — the elec­tion of sev­er­al women of col­or to state and fed­er­al posi­tions, for exam­ple — and the poten­tial for hold­ing con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­cy-mak­ers account­able in the 2018 midterm elections.

Gabi Mul­der, a 21-year-old senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and a Clin­ton vot­er, describes an Elec­tion Night gath­er­ing that mor­phed from fes­tive to somber.

As it became clear that Trump was ahead by so much and real­ly close to get­ting 270,” says Mul­der, it was all just peo­ple sit­ting around in silence, try­ing to com­fort those who looked shell-shocked, or sit­ting there not want­i­ng to go to bed yet because we were too upset.”

Dis­crim­i­na­tion and hate speech against minor­i­ty groups, on the rise since the elec­tion, are a par­tic­u­lar source of anx­i­ety for women of col­or and those who iden­ti­fy as LGBTQ, as Mul­der does.

Tuyaa Mont­gomery, a Siber­ian indige­nous woman and 20-year-old junior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, is a woman of col­or whose moth­er is an immi­grant. I’m scared about the aggres­sive rise in white suprema­cy and nation­al­ism that I think has always exist­ed in our coun­try, but Trump gave them some­one to ral­ly behind,” she says. Trump and Mike Pence’s pol­i­cy on Planned Par­ent­hood and repro­duc­tive rights are abysmal. I’m wor­ried about my repro­duc­tive rights in this coun­try as well as my racial iden­ti­ty.” Mont­gomery vot­ed for Clin­ton but was a Bernie Sanders sup­port­er in the primaries.

Here are reac­tions from oth­er students.

Austin Brown, 21-year-old senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, Clin­ton voter.

The day after [the elec­tion], I went to [see] my friend who works at Har­ris Café and she came out from behind the counter and hugged me and start­ed cry­ing. I did­n’t expect it, but in hind­sight, I also wasn’t sur­prised. And then lat­er, there were so many moments of sol­i­dar­i­ty, but also feel­ings of tragedy being instan­ti­at­ed everywhere.” 

Isa­iah New­man, 20-year-old junior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, Clin­ton voter.

Tues­day night felt to me like — and I know this is being over­dra­mat­ic — but in a lot of ways Tues­day night felt to me like the death of the opti­mism of an entire gen­er­a­tion. I know that’s not real­ly true, I know there are plen­ty of peo­ple who are still opti­mistic, I know there are plen­ty of peo­ple in our gen­er­a­tion who vot­ed for Trump. … And their opti­mism isn’t dead.”

Daniel Schwartz, 20-year-old junior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, Clin­ton voter.

Rel­a­tive­ly opti­mistic. Not that I think Trump is going to be a good pres­i­dent or any­thing, but just com­pared to every­one else around me — com­plete despair, thought it was the end of the world. … You know, it’s obvi­ous­ly not good, but I think that most of what he would do would be reversible in a decade. I guess the only thing that I’m still con­cerned about is the environment.”

Sam­mie Tay­lor, 21-year-old March Super­mar­ket employ­ee in Indi­ana, Trump voter.

I think ini­tial­ly, I was quite hon­est­ly kind of excit­ed because, until Tues­day, I had nev­er vot­ed before and I had nev­er watched the elec­tion results come in before, so I was kind of like that lit­tle kid on Christ­mas Eve. … And then, a few min­utes lat­er, I don’t know whether to call it in shock or in awe, but I was kind of a lit­tle — I didn’t have any words for a lit­tle bit. … I bet I would feel the same way if Hillary was elect­ed. I bet I would feel the same way if John­son was elect­ed. I don’t want to call it relief, I wasn’t griev­ing. I was just like, Ok, Don­ald Trump’s our president.’”

Dylan, whose last name is with­held as he is a ser­vice mem­ber, 22-year-old, Ohio, Clin­ton voter.

First thing that came with it was numb­ness. I hon­est­ly couldn’t believe it. I had been mon­i­tor­ing FiveThir­tyEight, Nate Silver’s pro­jec­tions, for a while, and he was show­ing a much clos­er race than any of the oth­er polls. But I didn’t expect it.”

Willam­i­na Groething, 21-year-old senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, Clin­ton voter.

There have been a sur­pris­ing num­ber of hate crimes report­ed in the last 24 to 48 hours, which I did not expect so abrupt­ly or so brazen­ly. And while I am not a minor­i­ty, I am a woman, and see­ing some­body who has been accused by women in the dou­ble dig­its of sex­u­al assault, and who is going to tri­al for child rape in I think less than a month, it just feels like … not that I have no auton­o­my over my body, but that there’s no recourse if some­one were to vio­late that. And that’s very scary.”

Kather­ine Ordóez, 21-year-old senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, Clin­ton voter.

Cer­tain­ly, as the night went on — I should say dragged on — the ini­tial wave of opti­mism grew calmer and calmer. As the elec­tion was draw­ing to a close, there was cer­tain­ly a lot more pan­ic in the air, there was scream­ing at some point, lots of cry­ing. It had felt like, I had to imag­ine, learn­ing that your pres­i­dent had been shot. Some­thing like that.”

Charis­sa Newkirk, 21-year-old senior at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, Clin­ton voter.

I guess I had already kind of pre­pared myself for when [Clin­ton] final­ly con­ced­ed and they called it. Just because they had the elec­toral map up, all these states were pulling red, I just kind of knew that it was going to hap­pen. But when I final­ly had the alert that she had con­ced­ed, I felt a lit­tle bit defeat­ed. But at least I pre­pared myself for that point. I didn’t burst into tears or any­thing, just defeated.”

All ten of the inter­vie­wees here were first-time vot­ers (for a pres­i­den­tial bal­lot) in 2016. Sev­en of the ten respon­dents did not vote in the pri­maries. The major­i­ty note that before 2012, they had not fol­lowed or vol­un­teered in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. In some sense, this elec­tion was a dou­ble first for them: the first time as active, vot­ing par­tic­i­pants — and the first time los­ing (all but one vot­ed for Hillary Clin­ton). Many agree that the fear this elec­tion has pro­duced also feels new.

I was very fear­ful,” says Newkirk, a mixed-race per­son of col­or. I was fear­ful for my reac­tion, pos­si­bly, if I saw some­one who had Trump signs or some­thing. I hon­est­ly felt fear of how peo­ple were view­ing me as a black per­son. And I hadn’t felt that in a very long time.”

Dylan, a self-described Eisen­how­er Repub­li­can,” says he is unable to sup­port the cur­rent Repub­li­can Par­ty. If it con­tin­ues to uphold poli­cies that threat­en women’s auton­o­my and nor­mal­ize dis­crim­i­na­tion against peo­ple of col­or and LGBTQ-iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ple, he says, he will con­tin­ue to cast lib­er­al votes. Dylan vot­ed for John Kasich in the Ohio primaries.

A lot of [Trump sup­port­ers] just felt extreme­ly dis­en­fran­chised, and they can see where I’m com­ing from,” he says. On the oth­er hand, there are quite a few who look at me as a trai­tor. Who believe I’m a clos­et lib­er­al, and that I am a Repub­li­can in name only. I’ve nev­er real­ly been referred to as a RINO before, I usu­al­ly reserve that for the Tea Par­ty [laughs]. So it’s been a mix of both good and bad from the Trump camp.”

Both Newkirk and Schwartz have seen a sim­i­lar dynam­ic with­in the pre­dom­i­nate­ly lib­er­al Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go cam­pus. They see the polit­i­cal bub­ble as both a bar­ri­er to progress and as an ampli­fi­ca­tion of the emo­tion­al reac­tion from Clin­ton voters.

Peo­ple blew a lot of this out of pro­por­tion. … Now I see a bunch of peo­ple who want to punch Trump sup­port­ers,” Newkirk says. We do have polit­i­cal lead­ers that are will­ing to stand by POC, women. That’s why we have lob­by­ists, spe­cial inter­est groups. … I just think that this whole apoc­a­lyp­tic mood is ensur­ing that noth­ing is going to change, and that’s what I fear the most.”

Tay­lor, a Trump vot­er but unaf­fil­i­at­ed with any polit­i­cal par­ty, was not enthu­si­as­tic about either can­di­date. She notes that, as a rape sur­vivor, it was dif­fi­cult to fill in one bub­ble over the oth­er,” due to Trump’s com­ments about women. But Clinton’s han­dling of the pri­vate email scan­dal and the Beng­hazi attacks helped con­vince her to vote Trump. She also feels that it’s time for anoth­er point of view” in the White House. Tay­lor doesn’t believe Trump will gain a sec­ond term, and because of that, she expects lit­tle to come from his pres­i­den­cy in terms of pol­i­cy changes.

By the time any­thing that Don­ald Trump does while he’s in office actu­al­ly comes into effect, and you can see that he did any­thing, the next four years are gonna be done.”

While he does not share Taylor’s expec­ta­tion that Trump’s pres­i­den­cy will not result in any sig­nif­i­cant pol­i­cy changes, Schwartz says that he looks to the 2018 midterm elec­tions as a source of optimism.

It’s scary that he and the Repub­li­cans hold all of the branch­es of gov­ern­ment now, but in a cou­ple of years, with the midterm elec­tions, hope­ful­ly peo­ple will turn out to vote,” Schwartz says. And if Trump is as awful as peo­ple expect him to be, or 50 per­cent as awful as peo­ple expect him to be, there will be a lot of turnover in Con­gress and then, at least, his reign of ter­ror will be stopped.”

Oth­ers have looked at ways of voic­ing their oppo­si­tion by sup­port­ing orga­ni­za­tions they see as threat­ened by a Trump pres­i­den­cy. A Google doc­u­ment com­piled by attor­ney Kara Hurvitz con­tain­ing legal advice on immi­gra­tion, dis­abil­i­ty rights, LGBTQ rights and more has cir­cu­lat­ed on social media in the wake of the elec­tion. Mul­der is look­ing into donat­ing to orga­ni­za­tions com­mit­ted to immi­grant rights, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, among oth­ers. She’s also inter­est­ed in apply­ing for an intern­ship with the ACLU. Sev­er­al of the indi­vid­u­als inter­viewed here plan to attend protests, but have not done so yet.

In the days fol­low­ing the elec­tion, there are also threads of opti­mism and accep­tance mixed in with the anx­i­ety. Ordóñez, a les­bian Lati­na and first gen­er­a­tion Cuban-Amer­i­can, notes that Don­ald Trump isn’t a text­book Repub­li­can, and not all of his poli­cies would be con­sid­ered con­ser­v­a­tive. And that both­ers a lot of Repub­li­cans. That being said, it’s not your grand­fa­ther’s GOP. I think there’s been slow but real progress in bring­ing the GOP to the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, and more aligned with things that most vot­ers want.”

Oth­ers have cit­ed a num­ber of races as sources of com­fort and opti­mism: The elec­tions of vet­er­an and woman of col­or Tam­my Duck­worth (D‑IL) to the Sen­ate; the first Soma­li-Amer­i­can, Ilhan Omar, to the Min­neso­ta House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives; and Kamala Har­ris, the sec­ond African-Amer­i­can woman elect­ed to the Sen­ate, pro­vide some con­so­la­tion to those with deep con­cerns over the elec­tion results.

The path, how­ev­er, is still uncer­tain. Some col­lege-age vot­ers refuse to accept the Repub­li­can can­di­date as pres­i­dent, while oth­ers are reluc­tant to say the words Pres­i­dent-elect Trump.” It doesn’t sound right just yet. 

It took Groething eight sec­onds to respond when asked, Do you accept Don­ald Trump as pres­i­dent?” Ulti­mate­ly, she said yes.

The word accept is dif­fi­cult, because I can accept the num­bers that tell me that the Elec­toral Col­lege should allo­cate enough del­e­gates to Don­ald Trump to afford him the pres­i­den­cy of the Unit­ed States. How­ev­er, it’s very dif­fi­cult to accept that per­son as a leader, and as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of my coun­try on an inter­na­tion­al stage. So, I think at this point, I intel­lec­tu­al­ly accept, or rather acknowl­edge, the results of the elec­tion. But I am hav­ing a very dif­fi­cult time emo­tion­al­ly accept­ing the results.”

Olivia Adams is a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and was an In These Times 2016 sum­mer edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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