Under eight years of President Obama, gun owners worried about a gutted Second Amendment stocked up on millions of firearms. By contrast, many women felt protected, with the Obama administration going so far as to take on Catholic nuns at the Supreme Court to ensure broad access to contraception.
Today, stock prices for firearms manufacturers are down 20 percent as gun owners no longer feel threatened and compelled to buy more. Meanwhile, demand for long-term birth control devices like IUDs have gone up 16-fold, according to Planned Parenthood, amid fears that President-elect Donald Trump will retrench the reproductive rights of women.
In the past few weeks, the script has flipped for many Americans.
Conservatives who once felt embattled and overlooked have now given Republicans control over the White House and Congress, while liberals who had hoped to cement Obamacare and tackle college debt are now openly worried about the rights of women and minorities like Latinos, Muslims, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
The flip has created curious echoes, with Mr. Trump appropriating the language of the campus left in tweeting that the theater should be a safe space for Vice President-elect Mike Pence to watch “Hamilton” without being heckled. Meanwhile, liberal activists are calling for a recount of election results in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, despite lambasting Trump during the final days of the campaign when he refused to say he would accept the election results if he lost. Trump himself pointed out the contradiction in a series of tweets Sunday, before claiming, without citing evidence, that he would have won the popular vote were it not for “millions' of illegal voters.
In some ways, experts say, such tidal shifts are a natural outcome of one of the bitterest presidential campaigns in recent history. A sense of mounting dread among some Americans about the looming Trump presidency has been met with retorts that this was how many conservatives felt during the eight years of Obama – when legal marijuana took root, same-sex weddings were given equal legal status as heterosexual marriages, and the Affordable Care Act, with its individual mandate, became the law of the land.
Mix in a sense of uncertainty – about the man, his agenda, and how much what he said on the campaign trail means – and these weeks of transition have become explosive.
“For the four previous presidential elections, there’s been a pretty good sense of what the winning candidate was going to do as far as a broad policy agenda, but it’s hard to get a good read on President-elect Trump,” says Christopher Larimer, a University of Northern Iowa professor in Cedar Falls, who studies political behavior. “Yes, he’s criticized immigration policies, but on the domestic front it’s been a little more uncertain.”
“Add to that rhetoric that was more extreme than other recent presidential elections, and it’s making it harder for voters to figure out and understand what, exactly, [government is going to do] for the next four years,” he adds.
The transition from Obama’s presidency to one that was built on restoring a nostalgic sense of glory would alone have been a tremendous political and cultural shock to the nation. But trends among American voters have given it even more intensity.
More Americans afraid of the 'other' party
Americans now view members of the opposite political party more negatively than they have at any time since the Pew Research Center started keeping data. In 1994, for example, 21 percent of Republicans had a very unfavorable view of Democrats; today the number is 58 percent. The same is true for Democrats, with 55 percent now having very unfavorable views of Republicans – up from 17 percent in 1994.
The trends are even more pronounced among the politically engaged Americans who largely drive the country’s political conversation. Some 62 percent of highly politically engaged Republicans said they are actually afraid of Democrats, according to Pew. For highly-engaged Democrats, 70 percent are afraid of Republicans.
That suggests that tensions would be high even in a “normal” election. But Trump has broken all political conventions, fueling a sense that the guardrails of traditional party politics have been removed.
“Those protections of political party are not there,” says Erin O’Brien, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “This guy does not seem to be bowing to the position at all, so that’s part of this fear, because it feels different.”
As a result, there has been a surge in sign-ups for Obamacare, with more than 1 million people signing up for insurance on Healthcare.gov in the days immediately after the election. And at least in part, that anxiety seems to be driving calls for a recount in three crucial Rust Belt states. The concerns are founded on the analysis of two computer scientists at the University of Michigan, who noticed that, in Wisconsin, Hillary Clinton received 7 percent fewer votes in counties that used electronic-voting machines compared with counties that used other methods. If that discrepancy is an error, Mrs. Clinton could win the state.
But even that would not win Clinton the Electoral College, and there’s no evidence of similar discrepancies in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Even one of the University of Michigan researchers said: “Were this year’s deviations from pre-election polls the results of a cyberattack? Probably not.”
The left-leaning Daily Beast went further, saying in a headline: “Sorry, Hillary Clinton Fans. There’s ‘Zero Evidence’ of Election Hacking.”
Likewise, advocates for women’s issues are seeking to calm women who are going out and stocking up on birth control, fearing the worst.
“It was really interesting how that took hold in the atmosphere, this kind of panic,” says Heather Boonstra of the Guttmacher Institute, an advocacy group for women’s reproductive rights. “But I don’t think there’s a reason to panic quite yet.”
'I hope it's just a lot of talk'
Admittedly, Trump has presented a moving target for those hoping to read meaning into his most inflammatory campaign statements. Officials seeking cabinet positions have advocated restarting a registry for Muslims in America, but Trump has also backed off promises to deport all unauthorized immigrants or wholly repeal the Affordable Care Act. Last week, for example, he told The New York Times that he may rethink his vow to torture captured terrorists.
“I hope it’s just a lot of talk,” says Erica Moore, a 20-something mortgage lender in Oakland, Calif., who is particularly worried about women’s issues. “Some of the things he said, he said to get a rise and to get people. Once he actually gets into office, he’ll realize a lot of people will not want Planned Parenthood defunded.”
And that might be the greatest counterweight to any political swing: Americans themselves. Polls consistently show that majorities of Americans support gay marriage, women's reproductive rights, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and marijuana legalization, suggesting that Washington may have limited room to maneuver.