Trump's Victory Changed My Entire Life
Five people share what it's like to be at the center of a suddenly chaotic political world.
A Trump supporter in November 2016. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty
On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump won the presidential election. For many, the world itself seemed to change overnight. The old rules and certainties of politics were revealed as worthless; a sensation that anything could happen—for better or for worse—struck the entire country. The experts who so confidently predicted a Hillary Clinton victory looked like failures. The media gadflies in the alt-right gained new prominence and power, with some eventually getting White House press passes. And a crew of crony capitalists would soon assemble to advise the new president.
But even as Trump's supporters celebrated, the opposition became energized as well. Protests were organized, anti-Trump groups manifested seemingly out of nowhere, and hundreds of Democrats signed up to run for office. The political landscape is still undergoing the tectonic shift that began on Election Night, and no one is sure what it will look like once the shaking stops.
To be sure, Trump's victory affected some more than others. A year after the election changed everything, we talked to five people whose lives were transformed by Trump: an opposition activist, a Republican strategist, a Trump-loving social media maven, a college student running for office, and a racial justice advocate. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Leah Greenberg, co-executive director, Indivisible
After the election, Greenberg and her husband Ezra Levin, both former congressional staffers, became central figures in the opposition to the Trump administration when they published the Indivisible Guide.
My husband and I had organized a trip of about 15 people up to Pennsylvania to knock on doors for Hillary the week before [the election]. We came back from that trip and planned a party to celebrate. So we had about 40 people at our house, and the mood started off celebratory and got increasingly grim over the course of the night. It was a pretty tough night for everybody.
Immediately afterward, we were really alarmed by what we were hearing in Washington in meetings with progressives. There was this current of, Well we lost, we're going to have to cut some deals and accept that they're coming in and they're going to have their priorities. People sort of took for granted that the Affordable Care Act was lost already. Me and my husband Ezra, we were like, The incoming administration has some people who are talking about internment camps. Why would you be talking about deals on infrastructure?
Simultaneously, we were seeing this surge in energy from people who had not previously been politically engaged. We were meeting up with a college friend of ours who was running a Facebook group for people in the Austin area dedicated to resisting the Trump agenda. It was 3,000 people. It was called Dumbledore's Army. What she said was that people in her Facebook group were getting frustrated and felt like they were hitting a wall. They didn't really understand what any of their actions were adding up to, and they just didn't feel like local action was useful.
Ezra and I worked on the Hill during the rise of the Tea Party, and we knew that local action could be really, really successful because we had seen it used against us. So we had this idea that our contribution to this wave of energy would be to write this simple action manual about how to replicate some of the successes that we saw the Tea Party have in doing local, defensively-oriented congressional advocacy.
We launched this guide in mid-December, and we were promptly totally bowled over by the enthusiasm and energy that came back to us—people forming groups all over the country to put it into action. We pulled together a bunch of our friends and colleagues to start responding and basically built this big volunteer team of about 150 people who were working wildly unsustainable hours trying to build up what we could to respond to this wave of energy. I quit my job in mid-March and came on full-time.
I am simultaneously really alarmed by how much damage they have been able to do—the cabinet officials and the executive branch have really been wreaking havoc on a range of issues from voter rights and police brutality to, obviously, immigration to the environment to education and civil rights protections—and also the past year has borne out our original thesis that really determined congressional advocacy could change what was politically possible. This administration still has not passed any significant legislation. I'm hopeful that we are moving toward midterms in which Democrats are able to reclaim the House, and I think what we're seeing is there's a lot of energy and enthusiasm that's showing up in local elections and special elections. So I'm very hopeful that we'll see that next November.
Rick Wilson, Republican political strategist and media consultant
After nearly 30 years helping to run Republican campaigns, Wilson became a prominent voice of the Never Trump camp in 2016, supporting the independent candidacy of Evan McMullin. He's continued to be an anti-Trump voice on cable news and Twitter.
I've never been a fan of the Clintons. I didn't go into election night thinking, This is so fabulous, and it's going to be really great to have Hillary Clinton as president. In fact, I was trying to race ahead a little bit and figure out how to rebuild the Republican Party and get it back on track to where it can effectively counter a Hillary Clinton presidency, because it's going to be a statist nightmare. I fucking loathed the woman. She's a terrible, monstrous human being.
My critique of Donald Trump from the start was from the right. I believe in limited government. He does not. I believe in the rule of law. He obviously, obviously does not. All these differences about what I thought Trump's risk factors were between myself and the bulk of my Republican friends, it's a pretty sharp dividing line. And I felt that dividing line Election Night pretty strongly. I try not to say this flippantly, because I think it underplays it if you're flippant about it: I truly believe Donald Trump has a mental disease or disorder that puts this country at tremendous risk.
Being a defrocked priest in the Republican Party is kind of a fun job in some ways. I've done a lot more writing. I had to sort of reconfigure some of my business model, because the Trump people are very big on scorekeeping and big on calling your clients and saying, "He doesn't believe in MAGA—you better not work with him anymore." But, ironically, I've also sort of become this confessor for a lot of Republican members, a lot of Republican leaders, who now call me up, even guys I didn't work with before, they call me up and they're like, "Oh my fucking god. I had to vote for this thing, I had to say this about him, can you fucking believe this guy?" This is every damn day.
"A person who you would absolutely know in national politics told me, 'I eat Ambien like it's candy every day because I have to pretend that this isn't really happening.'"
I've got some political clients that are starting to pop back on the radar too, which is interesting. Right now, I'm very quietly working on a political committee for a statewide candidate who is a rabid pro-Trumper on paper. He's only doing it because he's in a multiway Republican primary and recognizes that he has to play in a primary where the Republicans love Donald Trump right now. But he wants me around in the background to help to make the turn back to—as he put it to me—"back to sanity when I win the primary."
One of the great things is I sleep fine at night. A person who you would absolutely know in national politics told me, "I eat Ambien like it's candy every day because I have to pretend that this isn't really happening, and I have to pretend it's all OK, and I have to pretend we have an agenda, and I have to pretend that he's not crazy." A lot of people are taking Xanie bars, put it that way.
I'm working on a documentary right now called Everything Trump Touches Dies. That's been a blast. What we've learned is traditional political tools, ads, policies, they may have been superseded by social media chaos, celebrity, wit, skill, timing. There's a possibility I can make a bigger difference clarifying the way people really see Trump at the end of the day by being an advocate and an activist, and by being a filmmaker and a writer.
Bushra Amiwala, college sophomore and politician
Since last year's election, people from all over the country have decided to run for office for the first time. Among them is Amiwala, a sophomore at DePaul University who hopes to be elected to the Cook County Board next year in Illinois.
During the summer of 2016, I was an intern for then-Republican Senator Mark Kirk. The reason behind that was I had a lot of friends who expressed interest in voting for Donald Trump to be our president. To me, it just seemed very odd for them to have a Muslim friend and to still want to vote for someone who spreads bigotry and used such harsh, racist language. So I was like, Let's take a first-hand look at what the Republican Party really entails, what they really care about. We had to go door-to-door or make a phone call and ask five questions. The only one I distinctly remember is I would have to ask the voter, "On a scale of one to five, how fearful are you of an Islamic terrorist attack happening on US soil?" Being a Muslim who wears a hijab, and was also wearing a shirt that says Mark Kirk on it, standing in front of a Republican voter's door asking her this question, I'm pretty sure she looked both ways looking for a camera.
On the night of Election Day I was in my house, and my older sister and my mom were actually in Pakistan. My mom was frantically texting me, saying, Who's winning? Who's ahead? And my dad and I, we were sitting in front of the TV, just watching the numbers go up and the states one by one turn red. I'm like, "Dad, what is going on?" It was scary. I woke up the next morning and my mom was like, "You need to not wear the hijab tomorrow." I was like, "I can't just stop wearing it." It had become part of my identity. I just didn't feel comfortable walking out of the house without it. The day after the election, in class, my English teacher pulls me aside. She's like, "How are you? Are you OK? Has anything happened yet?" The way that my mom feared for my safety is the way that a lot of people were fearing for my safety. It was scary. I don't think any of us have seen our country in this state before.
I think seeing [Trump's election] shed light on my dedication to politics a bit more. My parents and everyone were like, As a Muslim woman you should not be involved in politics. You should quote-unquote "know your place" and step back and not be so outspoken. It just comes with the fear that we don't deserve to speak out against the things we disagree with because we should just be grateful to even be living in this country. Even during one of the most intensely Islamophobic periods in our nation, I'm still doing this. It's a way to show others that they have no reason to hold back either, because our lack of engagement with the system has led us to this point.
Regardless of whether I get elected or not, I hope something my candidacy does is help inspire a new generation of politicians. Not just young people but women and people of color—now is the time when we have to reclaim what it means to be a politician in the United States.
Jack Posobiec, pro-Trump political operative
A former naval intelligence officer and Republican political staffer, Posobiec helped organize the "DeploraBall" to celebrate Trump's election and was one of the pro-Trump figures who popularized the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory. He's often identified as a prominent member of the alt-right, but he insists that's inaccurate, instead identifying with the terms "new right" or "Trump right."
[Years ago] I had done some work as a political staffer for Republicans. We would win elections, and we won the House back in 2010, we did well at least congressionally in 2012, so we would rack up these victories, and nothing would ever change. None of our policy changes would get implemented.
During the election, I was operating with Citizens for Trump in a volunteer capacity. Around 3 PM, 4 PM I realized that the numbers in Philadelphia were nowhere near what they were during the Obama elections. I was hearing information from western Pennsylvania, central Pennsylvania—massive turnout. And if Trump wins Pennsylvania—ooh. I went over to 30th Street Station and bought a ticket and zipped up to New York and went to the actual victory party.
"Trump is basically just a pre-1990s Democrat."
After that, I noticed my public image really rising and my name getting out there a lot. I spoke at the DeploraBall, and immediately after that I started getting a lot of phone calls from people [in conservative media] saying, "Hey, I liked what you had to say. We want you to come in and do this or do that."
I would say 90 percent of the Trump movement is really more of a pullback from some of the polarization and some of the far-left policies that happened during the Obama administration. A lot of people say, and I kind of believe this too, that Trump is basically just a pre-1990s Democrat. He obviously takes a hard line on controversial issues like immigration, but on other economic and social issues he's quite moderate. And that's something I've even had to come to terms with because I am conservative, but am I going to support a guy who is more moderate?
And I decided that I would because I got sick of losing, quite honestly. I got sick of losing in the policy arena, I got sick of losing elections, and I thought it was a time to get back to centrism as a way first, and then if we can win on some other things let's push for that too.
My wife is an immigrant herself so I definitely can understand both sides of the coin. When I say our immigration system needs reform I mean there are people that want to come in that would be model immigrants, people that we want for our country and that we should be helping, and yet our system is just so stupid at times that you go in for in interview and you get denied for the dumbest reasons. Her family couldn't even come to our wedding. They were all denied visas.
I would say on a daily basis I'm [most] focused on kind of countering the mainstream media in a lot of ways, calling them out when they get something wrong, calling them out when there is a narrative focus issue that they're pushing and so they're only showing one side of the argument.
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director, Highlander Research and Education Center
Henderson is a progressive southern organizer and a leader within the Movement for Black Lives. In February, she became co-executive director of the Highlander Center, which has been supporting racial, economic, and environmental justice movements in the South for 85 years.
On election night I was in Atlanta, Georgia, for the Facing Race conference. Several of us from the Movement for Black Lives decided we were going to crew up in a hotel room and watch as the results came in. I remember a comrade from the movement turned around and looked at me and said, "What's the first thing you would want to hear from a leader you trusted after this news dropped?" and feeling like there was nothing that a leader that I trusted could say to make me feel better about this. I was really frustrated that people, white-led movements of faith in particular, had really conceded the territory of the church, conceded the territory of rural white people, to the right.
"Fannie Lou Hamer said a long time ago that none of us are free until all of us are free, and I think we got a real taste of it after November."
We had already been thinking about strategies to protect and defend our communities, to build a new economy, to build a democratic participatory governance process. [After the election] we went into, OK let's implement this plan we've developed, that we spent like four years developing. The timeline on figuring out how to work in practices of solidarity really increased dramatically in those first few months. Fannie Lou Hamer said a long time ago that none of us are free until all of us are free, and I think we got a real taste of it after November.
We've seen huge surges in support for Highlander. The other piece of it is that we get requests for support, like hundreds of emails a day at least, from people saying, "Hey, can you get us in touch with other people that are fighting deportation and detention? Can you get us in touch with people that are trying to end police brutality and misconduct? Can you get us in touch with people who are trying to build worker-centered movements for people to get fair wages?" It's on and on and on.
What I'm seeing every day in my work isn't just a tragic story of the harm in our communities. That happens, no lie. Unite the Right 3.0 [a recent white nationalist rally] happened in my state, so I know all too well the response of white supremacists and white nationalists to this election. I see that every day. But on the days when it feels the worst, I see that the Southern Freedom Movement and the Black Liberation Movement have always resisted, and we've always won. And these responses are a sign that the people that feel threatened by that are doing everything in their power to consolidate their wealth and power, to keep us from doing it. And I believe with every inch of me, down to my bones, that we will win.
I think some folks feel like they went to sleep and they woke up and a terrible thing had happened, and they're like jerking awake. That happens. And then get involved with some of these organizations that have been on the ground doing this work for a really long time. If we do that, and especially if we center the South and center black people specifically, but people of color in general, I think we'll save this country.
Follow Livia Gershon on Twitter.