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The tainted elections totems of 2016

People who experienced shock and trauma during the 2016 election will actively avoid the things that remind them of that night.

A Hillary Clinton staffer reacts to Clinton’s loss in 2016.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

For four years Tim Fitzgerald, a PR coordinator, has locked away a pair of Saint-Laurent sneakers — silver, with red stars and a blue heel tab — in the deepest, darkest part of his closet. He was an intern and working at YSL in 2016 and decided to don the pair on Election Day. Fitzgerald wore them all day, including to vote for Hillary Clinton for president.

“We all thought it was cute. I voted that night and then it all happened,” Fitzgerald told me. The “it all” Fitzgerald is referring to is Clinton’s Electoral College collapse and loss to Donald Trump.

“I think the next morning I put them back in their box and just put them back in the closet and just never thought about them again. I’m not superstitious, but they just felt tainted and brought back the trauma of that night,” Fitzgerald told me.

Many Americans who voted Democrat that night have their own tainted election totems, versions of Fitzgerald’s festive sneakers of doom. Author Lindsey Kelk swore off making gingerbread cookies for at least the next four years. Jon Collins, a reality television producer, still can’t fathom eating monkey bread. And Khalid El Khatib, a proud Midwesterner, hasn’t had a taste of his home region’s vaunted delicacy known as French onion dip.

“There’s a picture from the night where it was clear Clinton would lose: I’m looking at the TV horrified, dipping a chip,” he told me. “I haven’t touched the stuff since. While I’m going into tonight optimistic, don’t let it ruin any food for you. Pretend like you’re sick; eat bland.”

Others told me their cursed 2016 items are a specific bar or place they won’t go to anymore, an outfit they locked up or gave away, even yellow roses. Clinton voters went into the evening with high hopes and dreams, and ended up with traumatic items they never want to see again — especially now, four years later.

And these learned aversions to monkey bread, gingerbread cookies, bars, and restaurants are, according to our human brains and the people who study them, completely normal. In fact, they’re actually part of our brains that help keep us safe.

“Human beings have these brains that have a profound dislike of uncertainty and of helplessness,” Alexandra Solomon, a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychology at Northwestern University and licensed clinical psychologist, told me. “We use ritual to bind anxiety, which is, you know, we see ritual all the time.”

Solomon explained that rituals, like LeBron James tossing chalk into the air before a game, are visible ways to keep that uncertainty at bay. Fitzgerald stashing shoes or Collins staying away from monkey bread on election night 2020 could be seen as ritual or superstitions to keep away that intense uncertainty and helplessness those items remind them of.

But these items sometimes represent much more than ritual and something more serious than what they appear on the surface: They’re embodiments of trauma.

As Solomon explains, it’s tricky to talk about trauma because it varies from person to person. Sometimes the word is used casually or facetiously (not unlike “depressed”) as an exaggeration; sometimes, however, trauma is minimized because we have a high bar for what we’re willing to consider genuine trauma.

“One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is avoidance of things that trigger memories of the traumatic event,” Solomon told me. “For people who occupy marginalized identities, 2016 was actually an uppercase ‘T’ trauma, because ‘trauma’ is defined as an event that threatens your life or your integrity, your sense of wholeness and safety in the world. It’s not too strong to say that for many, many people, it was a trauma.”

Adding to that trauma and its aversion repercussions is the shock — Clinton was seen as the frontrunner — and uncertainty of the entire situation. As silly or superstitious as these gestures may seem, it’s all part of our brains’ design to keep us safe and away from what it perceives as harm or what it perceived as harm in 2016.

I asked Solomon if it was possible to unlearn these aversions should a better outcome happen for Democrats in 2020. Would El Khatib once again be able to eat French onion dip? Could Fitzgerald put on his flag-inspired shoes again? Could Kelk and Collins come to terms with gingerbread and monkey bread?

While Solomon mentioned that there could possibly be a reclamation or redemption to these items, she mentioned that another possible outcome could be even more shock — even if the results are what Democrats are hoping for.

“There are actually parts of our brain that get activated around strong emotion, but those parts don’t know how to discern between strong joyful emotions and strong terror emotions,” she told me. “It might be thrilling and terrifying. So it may be that tonight, if there is this really obvious win for Biden, it may feel uncomfortable” — even, she says, for his supporters. “I suspect it will take a while to integrate and process and actually truly exhale.”

Fitzgerald told me that if Joe Biden wins the election, he may dig the shoes out from the shadows.

“A hundred percent,” he told me. “Democracy will live to see another day, and so will my shoes.”