A few days before the presidential election, Sheeta Verma, 21, received an unexpected letter. Inside an envelope with her full name and address, a handwritten note warned, “You should convert to Christianity to free your sins.” Verma, a marketer from Boston who had been staying with her parents in the San Francisco Bay area, was shocked, but her parents brushed it off — this was normal, they said, until the election was over.
But then Verma asked her neighbors whether they had also received a letter. She said she learned that every person of color who wasn’t Christian had — but her White neighbors hadn’t. “For someone to take the time to write handwritten letters to all of us … that really tore me,” Verma said. “That’s when I realized that I really need to stay inside.”
Worried about the election sparking violence and racist acts, Verma and her parents made a large grocery order from Instacart and resolved to hunker down until they felt safe — and though Joe Biden, their chosen candidate, has been declared president-elect, they’re still waiting.
The announcement of Biden’s win functioned, for some, as a release valve for stress that had been building over the past week, year and even since 2016, when Donald Trump was elected. Across the country, people popped champagne, danced in the streets and cheered from windows in celebration. But for some women, the relief felt fleeting or absent, tempered by fears of a shaky transition of power on the left and the Biden administration on the right. And, across both sides of the aisle, fears of each other.
In the lead-up to Election Day at Slate magazine, for example, someone at the company created a Slack channel called “Spiraling” for people to share their campaign anxiety, as “What Next” host Mary Harris shared on an episode of the podcast last week. The channel was archived Saturday only to be unarchived a few days later, when Trump amped up his claims of voter fraud, which have not been substantiated. “It began to feel like maybe we should start worrying again about how all this is going to play out,” Harris said on the show.
Verma has similarly been worrying the past few weeks about how all this will play out. Specifically, she worries that Trump voters will react explosively once the president has to leave office on Jan. 20, and once his lawsuits contesting the election results do not pan out. “I do worry Trump might not leave office, but my bigger worry is … how are people going to react,” she said. “It’s almost like people are waiting for the storm to come.”
Sue McCallum, a 46-year-old who voted for Trump, is waiting for a storm, too. McCallum, a paraprofessional who works in the school district of Whitman, Mass., worries that a Biden administration will bring stronger lockdown measures. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my job,” McCallum said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, McCallum picked up a second job at a grocery store. She said she doesn’t know anyone who has contracted the coronavirus there, and she worries that stricter pandemic restrictions would be unnecessary. If even more people were to lose their jobs, she said, it potentially could lead to unrest and even violence.
“Is it going to be a free-for-all and I have to protect my house and my kids?” McCallum said. “Should I pull my money out of the bank … that way if the banks fall at least I have my money? Should I buy a gun? What’s going to happen?”
Riya Shirur, 21, a senior at Indiana University in Bloomington, also hesitates to feel complete relief after Biden’s win, but for a different reason. “It’s a step in the right direction [to move our] leadership from a place that has been so overtly xenophobic and so racist,” Shirur said. But “by no means is Joe Biden a perfect candidate.”
Specifically, Shirur said, she worries that Biden will be met with a lot of conflict: “Especially with young Democrats who don’t feel identified within the party anymore, we’re seeing the shift toward more liberal ideology with support for candidates” such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), said Shirur, a liberal Democrat.
In the lead-up to the election, Shirur, like Verma, worried about the potential for political unrest and, with that, racially motivated incidents. She channeled her anxiety by being as prepared as possible and shared an anti-racist group’s “Safety Checklist for November” on social media. The checklist included packing a “go-bag” (with snacks, water, medication, etc.), stocking up on a week’s worth of groceries and supplies at home, and, if planning to attend a protest, reading up on de-escalation and safety resources.
Shirur said that as a woman of color, she has felt safer in her hometown of San Ramon, Calif., where she is taking remote classes, than she would have on campus, where political tensions are often high. She remembered students wearing Brett M. Kavanaugh sweatshirts during the Supreme Court justice’s confirmation. “It felt almost suffocating being in a space where being a woman of the color wasn’t the norm,” she said.
While Shirur said people in San Ramon generally share the same political perspectives, she was taken aback when there was a “Trump Train” nearby before the election. Worried that a Trump rally could turn violent (as in D.C. this past weekend, when Trump supporters clashed with counterprotesters), Shirur has decided to minimize her outings.
In a suburb of Kansas City, Kan., Anne Serrano, 49, is particularly worried about the federal government’s response to the pandemic. “I am one of those nervous moms,” she said as she waited in a school parking lot to pick up her youngest son, who is in high school. “When there are people affiliated with the president-elect who talk about shutting down for four to six weeks — that makes me nervous,” she said, referring to a suggestion that a coronavirus adviser to Biden recently made, a comment that he later walked back. (The president-elect’s team has also said they are not calling for a national lockdown.)
A lifelong Democrat, Serrano, who notes her family of six is mixed racially and politically, has felt torn all election season. Unable to bring herself to vote for Biden or Trump, she chose Jo Jorgensen, the libertarian candidate, whose votes she watched minimally tick up on election night as her family, each experiencing their own waves of emotion, flipped between CNN, Fox, PBS and their local news station until 1 a.m.
“You want to move on and embrace whatever the result is,” Serrano said. But she can’t stop thinking of the toll online learning had on her high-schooler, her two college-age children and her adult daughter, who then worked in education, back in the spring. She worries that the Biden administration would move toward reversing the school’s hybrid model.
In other circumstances, all four women may have found solace in the persistent election anxiety they share. “The thing everybody has in common is we all want to be happy and healthy,” Serrano said. “Another thing we have in common is you do get anxious and worried.”
And yet much of these women’s apprehension is rooted in what their fellow citizens could do. This wariness has become common: According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 64 percent of people believe that Americans’ trust in one another is shrinking, a decline in part attributed to political partisanship.
Judging from the ongoing anxiety, Biden’s win has yet to fully restore that faith in one another — and, moreover, in political institutions. McCallum’s anxiety about the future is compounded by her anger at the present: She believes Trump got cheated out of winning because of fraudulent votes or uncounted ballots. (Election officials have found no evidence of voter fraud that affected the outcome.)
McCallum doesn’t intend to protest the election results, but she has talked about her concerns with her family. To manage her stress, she said, sometimes she just has to shut off the television and walk away.
Shirur also has found turning off the television and, for a time, deleting her Twitter helped ease her lingering anxiety. “I used to be on every single social media platform following the election,” she said. “But I think being able to take a break from politics all together and create time to do nothing — taking a long shower, walking my dog — is really important, too.”
There is one thing about this election that has brought Shirur some sustaining relief — her entire family was able to vote in a presidential election for the first time, having emigrated from India in 2000 and become U.S. citizens 16 years later. On Saturday morning, Shirur knew Biden had won when her mom, who had been keeping the news on 24/7, started cheering. The dog began barking. “It was a surreal moment recognizing there was some political change happening … [even though] there was a long way to go,” Shirur said.