Biden might not have been the candidate of my dreams, but as I scrolled through videos of people celebrating his victory on Saturday, the spring that had remained tightly coiled in my stomach for the past four years nonetheless began to unwind. That night, it unwound further as I sobbed listening to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris describing the need to address the pandemic, systemic racism, and climate change — validating the very problems the Trump administration had so vehemently denied.
Since then, though, the spring in my stomach has coiled back on itself as Trump refuses to concede defeat, and our country’s unsurprising yet still disappointing failure to repudiate him reminds me of all the work we need to do. Trump has lost, but I still can’t chill.
Although headlines have largely painted Biden’s victory as an opportunity for us to breathe a collective sigh of relief, not all of us can completely let go. Some of us marginalized people have steeled ourselves for attacks on our rights as Trump casts doubt on the election results. Others worry about the loss of momentum in the long-term fight to dismantle systems of oppression, anticipating that the short-term win of a Biden presidency will lull many into complacency. And the Trump presidency has conditioned many of us to expect, well, pretty much anything.
Robyn Ayers, a 25-year-old artist and activist in Harlem who is Black and queer, describes the day Biden was announced President-elect as “beautiful and very confusing and riddled with paradox.” They had to hold space for the relief over the diminished threat of at least overt harm toward marginalized people, as well as “the deep-seated fear that we were going to lose a lot of momentum.” As they rallied with their community, they saw a mostly white crowd drunkenly celebrating and holding signs declaring, “Look what we accomplished.”
“No, that’s not your labor to claim,” says Ayers, who runs the Frontline Queers Instagram account. “We are here because of the labor of Black women, the labor of Black trans women first and foremost.” The scene seemed to confirm their fears of white allies no longer resisting now that Trump had lost — as if to say, “phew, glad that’s over”— leaving the marginalized communities still fighting for their freedom in the dust.
“It’s just incredibly isolating when my daily reality is something that others need to take a break from,” they say. Although the Trump administration gaslit Ayers and many others, being surrounded by people who seemed so utterly oblivious had the same effect. It seemed to communicate that marginalized people should just celebrate and “accept the crumbs,” they say.
Ayers tells me they’ve had trouble sleeping since the Sunday before the election. Their appetite has vanished, and they’ve noticed more gaps in their memory as their mind dissociates. Seeing white liberals respond to a Trump loss just as they’d expected has also brought grief.
Cuahuctemoc Salinas, a 28-year-old queer undocumented activist in Oakland, California, has found it “easier to breathe," yet he, too, still sleeps little and is "always wondering what's going to happen." Every two years, he needs to renew his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) application, which grants him a work permit and protection from deportation — a “very emotional” process. He feels a sense of urgency to create a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients like himself, as well as other undocumented immigrants who don’t have DACA.
That Trump didn’t lose by a landslide scares Salinas, who adds that many members of his own Latinx community voted for Trump. “That was just really, again, anxiety provoking. Who could I trust within our own communities?” Although he acknowledges the work of Latinx voters in places like Arizona, he commends the Black women and Indigenous voters who stepped up.
I can relate. The anxiety I experienced in November 2016 stemmed from the messages that the election of a racist President unabashedly conveyed: “White lives matter more than yours.” “We don’t want you here.” I feel that same anxiety now, but muted, the initial shock dulled, tinged with disappointment that the four-year shitshow didn’t change as many minds as I’d hoped, even if it’s what I expected. Knowing that many members of my own Asian American community voted for Trump has only further deepened my anxiety around white supremacy, powerful enough to convince us to vote against our own interests, not to mention those of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people.
And like Ayers, I can't help but resent those who consider voting out Trump as the finish line. I can’t help but remember that Biden and Harris have both contributed to the mass incarceration of Black and brown people. The failure to recognize the privilege in feeling like we can “go back to brunch,” as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, is maddening, and another reminder of how far we have to go to dismantle white supremacy.
Konrad Juengling, a 33-year-old LGBTQ rights activist in Boise, Idaho, is deeply unsettled by what he sees as Trump’s denial of his defeat (a.k.a., reality) in order to promote the narrative his base wants. “I’m very anxious because I think Trump will go to any lengths to stay in power,” he says. “He’s challenging the elections in court. He’s doing a disinformation campaign. He’s having a lot of right-wingers glom onto his conspiracy theories that he’s the winner.”
He says his initial relief over the election results was short-lived. Although he's happy with the outcome, his anxiety has grown as he sees more and more Republicans claim that the election was stolen. His chest tightens, and repetitive thoughts swirl through his mind. His gay identity has made it hard not to worry. “During [Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s] nomination process, I had a discussion with my husband that if marriage equality comes before the Supreme Court again, what are we going to do?”
He added that the past four years taught him to stay on high alert, impairing his ability to relax now. “It’s scary because you never know what’s going to happen with Trump,” he says. “It does make me very anxious because he can say whatever he wants, and Republicans seemingly back him up in public.”
Generalized anxiety disorder has already primed my brain to anticipate danger, which the recklessness of Trump’s presidency only reinforced. Like Juengling, I have a hard time allowing myself to relax, because I’ve learned to expect Trump to gaslight us. I’ve learned to expect him to legitimize racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of dehumanization. Even if the immediate threat of Trump appears to be fading, I can’t shake this hypervigilance.
But as hard as it is, I’m trying to allow for both: relief over the end of a Trump presidency, and awareness that the fight to dismantle the systems of oppression that helped bring him to power is far from over. As Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors and other organizers have pointed out, the rest is part of the work, if we don't want to burn out. We can commit to taking care of ourselves while also committing to resist. We have to.