On the day after the presidential election, teenagers, almost all Hillary Clinton supporters, said they felt “terrified,” “drained,” “anxious,” “scared,” “betrayed,” and “helpless.” And yet, even though none supported president-elect Donald Trump, some of the teens said they were “optimistic,” “motivated,” and “proud.”
Nearly 25 high school students in grades 10 through 12 gathered at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield on Nov. 9 to discuss their reaction to the election results, their experiences in school, their feelings, and where to go from here. Their rabbi, Steven Kushner, facilitated the conversation with some help from congregant and clinical psychologist Dr. David Appelbaum.
It was a uniformly dejected crowd, reflective of the (largely) liberal Montclair families who belong to the Reform synagogue. At least a handful had canvassed for Clinton with their parents, or made phone calls on her behalf. Few if any were old enough to vote; though many, especially the girls, described accompanying their parents to the polls, jubilantly taking part in what they thought would result in a historic breaking of the glass ceiling.
Many of the girls articulated their fear that, just as they are turning their thoughts to college, the president and vice president would follow through with their campaign pledge to overturn Roe v. Wade. Maya Gelsi said, “I don’t know if I will ever need an abortion — God forbid — I don’t know what the future holds, but not having the power of choice is scary.” She added that she was “disappointed that the country is not ready for a woman president.”
Some described the flip-flop of emotions they experienced over a short period of time. After canvassing just before the election, Sophie Plaut described feeling particularly hopeful.
“I felt like we touched people and made a difference,” she said. Watching as Clinton unexpectedly lost the electoral vote in Pennsylvania was, Sophie said, “so heartbreaking. I had a feeling of helplessness and a feeling that so much of what was happening was out of my control.”
Others described a feeling that they had lost their innocence, in a way, experiencing life when it doesn’t follow the storybook tropes.
“I felt like I was standing in history. I remember thinking, democracy is working and we’re about to push out this person spreading fear and hate,” Kaya Adleman said. “I was so sure this was going to happen. As soon as more and more states were going his way, I felt betrayed…. We’ve always been taught that bullies never win. I don’t know how to explain this.”
Other students focused on perspectives they find difficult to embrace. Ben Stagoff-Belfort expressed his disbelief that Vice President-elect Mike Pence has advocated providing federal funds to “institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior,” otherwise known as gay conversion therapy. “Oh my God,” Ben said, “we are going to have a vice president who believes in conversion therapy. That’s a paradigm shift that makes me feel angry.” The controversial “treatment” has been found ineffective and has been banned in five states, including New Jersey.
Eli Frank, who is of Asian descent, said he was “fearful” of Trump’s harsh rhetoric toward minorities and foreigners during the presidential campaign. “As a minority in Montclair I’ve always felt safe and welcomed. But other parts of the country don’t feel the same. That is daunting.”
A few students described the experience of being the rare Clinton supporter in a class full of pro-Trump students who were celebrating the day after the election. Julie Steckel said that by the end of the day, she was studiously avoiding any discussion of politics and felt “completely drained.”
But most of the students attend Montclair High School, where the majority of students preferred Clinton, and they described the atmosphere at school where post-election sadness ruled the day, a somber quiet taking the place of moments usually filled with chatter, with teachers trying to help the students process the election results.
A few had begun to consider how they would move forward.
Nate Perlmeter said that during election night, “I was ranting and raving” about how Americans “must be dumb or evil.” But he said he had calmed down in the intervening hours, as he began to consider who would have voted for Trump: not people who didn’t share his values of “a woman’s right to choose” and that “immigrants are not a curse,” but those who must have prioritized values different from his. He realized, he said, that it started with “economic devastation and the fact that the Democratic Party was not there for them,” referring to Trump supporters. “Of course your mind goes to the Doomsday scenario. But there’s an America to build, which starts with having conversations with people we disagree with.”
Despite the melancholy mood among most of the teens, a theme of optimism returned repeatedly as they grappled with how they would shape their own future, slowly coming around to the idea that they would reject the hatred toward Trump supporters. “People say they all agree with this, or they are all for this. In general, we have to see all people as real people, who do not want terrible things to happen to our country,” said Julia Colen, whose grandfather supported Trump. “I really disagree with my grandpa’s politics, but I don’t think he wants to hurt this country or my generation.”
The teens rejected the idea of unfriending people with differing viewpoints on Facebook; and while some wondered how they might interact with a Trump supporter, Ari Westreich described the one peer in a particular class who was in favor of the president-elect. Because most of the other students are liberal, Ari said, that student was widely ostracized by peers. Ultimately, though, Ari reached out and listened to the student’s perspective. They’ve since become friends.
And Julia described what a teacher had said earlier in the day. “I feel like a beast has been released — a good beast — and that something will come out of this generation.” She herself was feeling motivated, she said. “This is our generation’s call to action.”