A psychologist explains how emotional memories of Trump’s victory will divide Americans for years to come

Emotion becomes entangled with fact when we form flashbulb memories.
Emotion becomes entangled with fact when we form flashbulb memories.
Image: AP Photo/John Loche
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Where were you when you learned that Donald J. Trump had been elected president of the United States? Some of us were watching the news at a bar or a friend’s house. Others woke up in the morning to a stream of text messages, or heard shouts of jubilation down the street.

No matter their political persuasion, Americans will most likely have formed what psychologists refer to as a flashbulb memory—which is an extremely vivid, emotional, detailed memory—about the circumstances under which they learned of Trump’s election. Flashbulb memories are fairly rare and reserved for emotionally charged conditions. Most Americans of a certain generation, for instance, remember where they were when they learned of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. All but the youngest Americans remember where they were when they learned of the 9/11 attacks. And many Americans remember where they were when learning of the election results that put Barack Obama, the first African-American president, in the White House.

In effect, flashbulb memories exist as a marker or mental badge of membership within a community. What makes flashbulb memories important is that they mark occasions when people feel their personal lives become aligned with the history of an affected community—they felt as if they were there. In this way, flashbulb memories are not just individual autobiographical memories, but memories by which individuals identify themselves as members of an extended community.

For example, black Americans report possessing a flashbulb memory of the assassination of Malcolm X, whereas their white American counterparts do not. Britons have a flashbulb memory for the death of Princess Diana, whereas Italians do not. When Americans report their memory of the circumstances in which they learned of the 9/11 attacks—or for the election of Trump—they are likewise subconsciously making a claim about their identity as Americans.

In the years to come, Americans of all political persuasions will not only remember facts about the 2016 presidential election—they will also recall the location or situation in which they learned them. More importantly, they will remember how they felt when they learned of the final outcome, though not necessarily accurately. Because of this, emotional memories about election results will blend with our memories of the facts. And whatever memory ends up locked in our minds will shape how we identify as a member of the country that elected Donald Trump.

This has big implications for the politically divided US. As long as Americans’ flashbulb memories of this historical moment remain vivid, they will continue to fuel the discrepant partisan ideologies shaping Americans’ sense of political and national identity. The possible consequences of this mingling of emotions and fact will make it even more difficult for many Americans to reach across the political divide—a divide that the recent anti-Trump demonstrations make palpably present. Reconciliation between parties (both figuratively and literally) may be aided by waiting until the initial memories fade.

But given the strength and tenacity of flashbulb memories, this will be a daunting task. For many years to come, they will continue to be a reference point from which Americans can explain their current attitudes. We see this with 9/11: People continue to refer to the intermingling of fact and emotion in their flashbulb memories to account for, at least in part, their current views toward terrorism. In a similar manner, in the next four years, many Americans might reinforce their attitudes towards Trump and his policies by referring to how they felt upon hearing the news of his election.

As is often the case when memories come to the fore, the present and the future will be shaped by the past.