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The Emotional Toll Of Election 2016

Viewers react as they watch Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second Presidential debate at a watch party at the University of Cincinnati, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (John Minchillo/AP)
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Viewers react as they watch Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the second Presidential debate at a watch party at the University of Cincinnati, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (John Minchillo/AP)
COMMENTARY

As a kid growing up in the 1980s and '90s, I dreamed of the day a woman might be elected president. I imagined it’d be a heralded event, not unlike the election of Barack Obama, when, at least in those first few months, there was a visceral feeling the country had taken an important step in addressing our racist legacy.

But no one is talking about the historic nature of this election. Except for a news cycle around the Democratic National Convention in July, the only remarkable thing about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is the headwind of sexism she’s faced on all fronts: Bernie Brospolitical commentators, the “likeability” wars. My recent favorite is NBC News’s Chuck Todd calling Clinton “overprepared” after the first debate. Maybe it means the country is so ready to be led by a woman we don’t need to remark on it, but it still feels awful. (And no, I don’t buy that people would be more excited if only it was a different woman.)

I can’t sleep at night. I’m having nightmares. I’ve been drinking too much wine. I can’t concentrate at work.

My high expectations for this moment versus what this election has become — a reality TV show featuring American society’s virulent strains of sexism, racism and nativism — is making me anxious and depressed.

I can’t sleep at night. I’m having nightmares. I’ve been drinking too much wine. I can’t concentrate at work. It’s different than the partisan angst among people of my political persuasion who fear for the end of the Republic and quip about moving to Canada. It’s more personal than the battle for our nation’s soul Steve Almond wrote about earlier this week.

I’ve been walking around feeling like an endangered species. My husband, also a Clinton supporter, tells me to relax. Donald Trump’s campaign in a disgraceful flat spin is terrific news, he says. But no amount of good poll results help. I even find Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump hard to laugh at, because it’s so horrifyingly accurate. This election season, one in which the words “Aleppo moment” have become a callous phrase to characterize a political misstep, has denigrated women, people of color, Islam, immigrants and more — has also left me humorless.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, right, speaks as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (Rick T. Wilking/AP)
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, right, speaks as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016. (Rick T. Wilking/AP)

Trump's hot mic controversy is just the latest in series of episodes that would have disqualified anyone else for the office of president. And yet, top elected officials in the Republican Party continue to stand by him. Forty percent of voters would presumably support him no matter what.

I am fortunate to have nothing so traumatic as sexual assault in my history, but these days even lesser offenses feel menacing: being interrupted by my male coworkers or honked at by a truck on a recent jog in my neighborhood. Trump triggers memories of being bullied by boys for getting my period and of obsessing over my weight in eighth grade, when I took care to eat only the jelly part of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I’m certain none of the men in my life think of women the way Trump does, but I can’t help but look at men I don’t know — at Dunkin' Donuts, in the deli line at the grocery store — and wonder. And feel a flick of fear. (Remember, Trump won the GOP primary in Massachusetts by 30 percent last March.) All this “locker room” rationalizing is a terrible reminder of society’s blithe acceptance of the ways we continue to dehumanize women when we chuckle and say, “oh, boys will be boys.”

Trump’s candidacy has also made me even more aware of my own privilege as a white, well-educated woman. If I’m feeling anxious and suspicious, how must entire swaths of the population Trump uses as target practice feel?

But this election season has mostly reminded me how far we still have to go.

I felt sick watching Clinton on the town hall debate stage in St. Louis. I never worried that she’d freeze up or forget her point. I worried because I knew she had to withstand Trump’s violent spew of humiliation with a smile, or face the wrath of pundits calling her weak and shrill. I gritted my teeth as he stalked her around the stage. I haven’t been nearly as strong as Hillary has in my encounters with bullies — I’ve mostly absorbed their aggression, condescension and rudeness in silence and confusion. So, watching her deflect and defend herself against that boor with serene confidence is also a reminder of my own shame.

Clinton was voted “most likely to succeed” by her high school classmates in 1965. Decades later, in interviews for Frontline's "The Choice: 2016," classmates recalled thinking she was so smart she might marry a U.S. senator. That was the most they could imagine.

When she wins on Nov. 8, I’m sure I’ll feel a tremendous sense of pride and relief for my daughters and my country. But this election season has mostly reminded me how far we still have to go.

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Cloe Axelson Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Cloe Axelson works for an education-focused nonprofit.

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