Democratic voters are still waiting to un-clench
By Maura Judkis,
Holly Pickett for The Washington Post
The Great Unclenching commenced on Nov. 7, a Saturday, shortly after 11 a.m. Eastern time. The networks called the presidential race for Joe Biden, and Democrats and assorted others across the country, for the first time in months, began to feel something.
Their shoulders loosened. Their brows unfurrowed. The tension left their jaws.
“It’s like a gasp of air after you’ve been holding your breath for a very long time,” says Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, deputy vice president of policy and advocacy for UnidosUS, a Latino advocacy group.
Martínez-de-Castro was on the network Telemundo, providing commentary about the election, when she heard the call. It brought tears to her eyes. “So many people have been going through so much,” she says. “At least people were able to take that deep breath.”
Have nearly 80 million Americans been holding their breath for four years? Maybe every news alert brought on a tightness in the chest, until news of an impending Biden victory rattled America’s phones Saturday morning. In cities, people took to the streets to celebrate. Online, doomscrolling, the neologism for endlessly surveying waterfalls of ominous news, became “gleefreshing.”
“I spent the past week before that — and probably the past four years, really — just kind of with my jaw clenched, just always on edge. You just never knew what was coming up next,” says Tiffany Aldinger, 40, of Great Falls, Mont. “And that kind of went away Saturday.”
She spent the day celebrating, marveling at the feeling of wellness she was experiencing anew: “I’m not grinding my teeth, and my shoulders were just not as tight, not as hunched over.” And then she spent most of Sunday sleeping — the first good sleep she had in ages, which she attributed to “that feeling of letting it all go.”
for The Washington Post
A Brooklyn resident dances during an impromptu celebration of Joe Biden’s victory over President Trump.
Then President Trump refused to concede. Then his allies encouraged him to fight to overturn the results of the election. Then the coronavirus, to which the Trump administration has conceded, surged across the country.
The Great Unclenching was aborted mid-clench.
“I don’t think I will feel totally at ease until January,” Aldinger says.
One day. That was the window for exhaling, give or take. The re-clenching began on Sunday, when it became clear that Trump officials were going to go down fighting, even if they took democracy down with them. Maybe it began Saturday morning, when President Trump tweeted, “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!”
We saw that coming, didn’t we? The president is a misinformation superspreader, as The Washington Post and others have documented, and loath to admit defeat. Maybe that’s why even the initial joy in Democratic quarters about the election outcome was laced with unease; on Twitter, a pair of astute observers coined a term for “tentative relief without joy”: “Bidenfreude.”
Jenna Struble, 48, of Dallas, got the news of Trump’s reelection loss in the car. “I expected to be relieved, happy, joyful,” she says, “but that’s definitely not what happened.” Instead, she sat there and cried, unsure of what would happen next.
What happened next was that Trump’s government refused to begin the normal process of handing the reins to the incoming Biden administration. A few days later, Struble saw that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said, “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
“There’s definitely that panicky feeling in my chest,” she says.
The anti-Trump coalition has entered its own period of transition. Overall, liberals are doing better after the election than they were before, says Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida. Westgate has been surveying people’s emotions related to the election, asking them to report their current level of anxiety, sadness, happiness and fear. Her data has found that Biden supporters’ anxiety shot up the day after the election, when it was still undecided, and then dropped slightly below its pre-Election Day level after networks made the call for Biden.
But they stopped taking data after that, leaving unanswered the question of whether the re-clench has throttled those emotional gains.
“I think there may be more uncertainty, ironically, today,” she says.
A supporter of President Trump keeps a hand on his gun at a “Stop the Steal” rally in Minnesota. It appears that Trump and his fans aren’t going to disappear quietly.
What could a version of Trump who no longer feels accountable to voters be capable of? “Part of the anxiety at the moment is what damage can be done in the next couple of months,” says Martínez-de-Castro, the advocate for Latino issues. “Are you going to have an outgoing administration that seeks to inflict the maximum pain and chaos they can with the time they have left?”
There is a robust body of scholarship exploring the connection between politics and stress. Researchers have found that so-called “Trump Depression” among liberals after the 2016 election was exaggerated, despite the sadness and anger that many of them felt. But the daily grind of the last four years of politics is a different story.
“It’s essentially becoming a form of chronic stress,” says Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who has studied emotions and politics. “It’s not just an acute thing that happens every four years.” She’s found that to be true for both conservatives and liberals. It’s no surprise that its effects can linger.
“It helps a little bit when we can have moments of pleasure and joy to offset the unpleasant emotions,” says Ford. “But when those unpleasant emotions are still so dominant — the anxiety, the outrage, the worry — they’re going to be a powerful force in our minds and in our bodies.”
That’s even more true for people who have found themselves imperiled no matter which party is in charge. Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, sees the celebrations “as a disconnect from the real lived experiences of folk targeted by the Trump administration who also suffered under the Obama administration. Undocumented folk, Black trans folk, folks with disabilities are all unsure of their future.”
What would it take for people who see the Trump presidency as an American tragedy to feel like they can take that deep breath without interruption?
For Struble, it would be the president admitting defeat. “When Trump concedes, I will feel that joy that I thought I should have felt,” she says.
A concession won’t be enough for Harry Jean, 31, of New York.
“You’ve got half of the country that hates the other half of the country,” says Jean. His Great Unclenching will occur if the Georgia runoff elections, on Jan. 5, result in Democratic control of the Senate.
He has plenty of other things to worry about in the meantime, like the swift uptick of covid cases, which seems to be lower on the president’s priority list than contesting the election results. “There’s nothing coming until January,” in terms of relief, says Jean. “It’s just terrifying.”
Also terrifying: What if the president-elect were to catch the virus?
“I am afraid of the fighting that that void would cause,” says Jean. “I try not to think about it, I would spiral too much.”
Colleen Hommel, 61, of Greenbelt, Md., has her eye on a specific date: Jan. 20. Once President-elect Biden’s hand touches that Bible for his swearing-in ceremony, she’ll be ready to let her guard down — and not a minute before.
“Knowing that it’s finally done, I think I will totally be able to release all that tension,” she says.
She is looking forward to a future when she will be able to pay less attention to the news. “I’ll have space to just focus on . . . just living my life without having that dark cloud of menacing fear hanging over everybody.”
That’s the other question: Once that Oh-God-what’s-he-done-now dread departs, what will rush into the gap? Hobbies? Poetry? Long-forgotten childhood trauma?
But later for all that. For now, anti-Trumpers are trying to breathe — if not deeply, then normally.
After the networks projected a Biden win, Madi Winger, 28, of Phoenix, went on a hike. She was in a good mood, and everyone she encountered seemed in good spirits, too — or maybe that was just in her head, but why undermine it?
“I know that stuff could go weird over the next couple of months,” she says. “But, you know, let’s just let ourselves have this.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Tiffany Aldinger’s age. She is 40.