It was 5 p.m. on Nov. 8. In the lobby of Wallis Annenberg Hall at USC, Hillary Clinton supporters roared with excitement as the Associated Press projected that the Democratic candidate would win in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Months of campaigning, spirited debate on social media, and tension across ideological lines had built up to this moment. Clinton, by nearly every projection, would win the presidency on this night.
Sophomore business major Matt Ross was in the room then, watching election coverage on the screens in the lobby. Ross voted for Republican Donald Trump, and in that moment, he said, he was surrounded by supporters of Clinton who cheered whenever she was in the lead.
"You couldn't yell in support of Trump or you'd be booed by everybody around you," Ross said, "so it was a pretty rough environment for Trump supporters."
But, of course, Clinton did not win on Nov. 8, and Trump's victory took many by surprise.
"Everyone was planning for a very different outcome, even most Republicans and many in the Trump campaign," said Nick Fiorillo, president of USC College Democrats. "It was just absolute shock and a real, very genuine feeling of concern and fear."
As students across USC were reeling from the results, Mariel Salem left her sorority sisters and went to bed. The sophomore felt out of place in her sorority house, where she said many of her sisters were "mourning" Clinton's loss. But Salem didn't vote for Clinton, and she felt uncomfortable.
"The fact that I was so afraid of people in my own sorority that I went to bed before the election was called speaks for itself," said Salem, who voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson.
The 2016 election was more contentious than most, and research indicates that across ideological lines, Americans are beginning to live in different realities. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that among Trump supporters, 81 percent felt that life is worse now for them than it was 50 years ago. Among Clinton supporters, the number was nearly reversed, with 77 percent of respondents saying life is now better or the same.
That polarization is felt far and wide, including at USC. In Greek organizations, in classrooms, in clubs, and more, the political divide between groups of students has influenced the way they interact, whom they befriend and connect with, and how they spend their time. And students we spoke with feared that now that the divide exists, it's hard to go back.
DISCONNECT & TOXICITY:
Savannah Sinfield spent election night reporting downtown with other Annenberg students. By the time she returned home, the sophomore journalism major said the campaign and election had taken a toll on her sorority.
"I came back to the house and there was not one person downstairs," Sinfield said. "Everyone had gone up to their rooms. Girls were crying in their rooms. And if girls voted for Trump, they stayed completely silent."
That silence could be explained by the proportion of Trump and Clinton voters in the house, and at college campuses in general, which tend to be liberal. Research published in Econ Journal Watch found USC to be the 12th most liberal "leading" university, with 26 tenure-track professors registered as Democrat for every one registered Republican. USC tied with UC Davis and the University of Maryland on that ranking.
The researchers felt that ideological diversity is important. As paraphrased by the Washington Post in reporting about the study, "There's the risk that hiring like-minded people could lead to group-think, where collective pressures result in faulty decisions."
It seems likely that kind of group-think contributed to the unexpectedness of November's election results, after most reputable polls predicted a Clinton victory.
At USC, it's not unheard of for students who didn't vote for Trump to never come in contact with someone who did. Several people interviewed for this story expressed that concern, including Owen Slyman, a sophomore public policy student.
"I personally don't have any acquaintances or friends here that I know supported Trump. And I think that's another matter of self-segregation where we tend to kind of just naturally gravitate toward people who have similar views," he said. "So I haven't had a conversation on campus with anyone who is a fervent Trump supporter. I would certainly welcome the chance to."
USC Annenberg professor Geoffrey Cowan began a class this semester to reflect on the election, which he felt would have gone differently if Americans were able to connect more with people different from themselves. More empathy would have helped everyone understand each other, he said.
"If you tend not to be on Trump's side, you don't notice [all of the negative media commentary]," Cowan said, "so you should ask the Trump people, 'How do you feel?'"
Ross said that being surrounded by left-leaning individuals at USC has been difficult for him and other Trump voters. Being associated with the president means Ross is associated with what many have called racism, xenophobia and homophobia, terms that he feels don't represent his beliefs and depict him unfairly.
"I don't perceive different kinds of people as being inferior because of their race or anything," Ross said, "and you shouldn't be able to imply that about me from who I support or who I listen to. Sadly a lot of people do make those associations and that kind of spills over onto my character. And that's when it becomes really bad and really painful for Trump supporters too.
"I think a lot of other people at USC have experienced that, where they're stuck with the stigma of being racist or misogynist or whatever because of who they support and who they listen to. And to me that's just totally wrong, and you should be able to separate one's character from their political beliefs."
Salem said Trump makes "all Americans view Republicans in a worse light."
"I personally, as a registered Republican who does not support Trump, and who has not voted or ever supported him, I feel almost discouraged by it," Salem said. "I just don't think he's a very good representation of what the majority of us believe."
In USC's Greek community, the divide in political discourse turned several organizations, which aim to be unified, into tense places where many felt uncomfortable.
"I would say it was around the time of the election very tense, very silent, very hostile, because people didn't feel necessarily inclined to openly express their opinions because of fear of any sort of backlash it would cause," Sinfield said.
Once a sorority member's political opinion was identifiable, she said, it became hard for them to bond with members who had differing beliefs. Sinfield said that at the beginning of the school year, when many members her sorority were forming friendships with each other, politics posed a barrier to potential connections.
"In any sorority there's anywhere from 200 to 275 girls. You're not going to get to know everyone that well. It's not like everyone's best friends, especially towards the beginning of the year," she said. "So a lot of times it wasn't like two friends who got driven apart. It was like one girl who didn't know another girl very well at all and was just forming a new opinion of her is now dissuaded from being her friend, whereas otherwise she would have been her friend, due to her political opinion."
Salem tended to be in the minority opinion in her sorority and in her classes. And when political conversations got heated, she stayed quiet.
"I've definitely had a couple of experiences where people will … explain their opinions in a way that makes it seem like there's no other honorable option than to believe what they believe," she said. "I like to take a step back and keep quiet because I like to avoid conflict. And I do think there are still some times where I do feel uncomfortable, and I do feel targeted, but those are normally times when people aren't really aware of what I do view. I just kind of take a step back, keep my mouth shut and roll with the punches."
The disconnect between students with differing political opinions is made even more serious by how closely held those beliefs are to their hearts.
"I think in an ideal world we would be able to have discussion, but the opinionated nature of some people and their tendency to be very strong in their opinion was making a lot of people feel unaccepted," Sinfield said.
A 2016 study led by the USC Dornsife Brain and Creativity Institute found that challenges to one's political beliefs activate the same neural pathways as challenges to their religious beliefs or personal identity.
"These areas of the brain have been linked to thinking about who we are, and with the kind of rumination or deep thinking that takes us away from the here and now," said Jonah Kaplan, an assistant professor at the institute and the lead author of the study, in a USC news release. "To consider an alternative view, you would have to consider an alternative version of yourself."
Because political ideology is so intrinsic to identity, perceived attacks to that ideology can feel personal. That tension has driven groups apart when differences arise.
"A lot of people on campus now are so attached to their candidate and so fiercely devoted to their ideology that it becomes part of who they are and they can't have a reasonable discussion about it without criticizing the other person's character," Ross said.
"It's hard to look past someone's decision if the decision directly makes an impact on our country," Sinfield said. "So I think a lot of people find it hard to forgive and look past a person's decision at the person themselves."
Fear of expression. Tension. Disconnect. These have divided students in the past year, but it's not clear how to remedy such fears and move forward.
One path is to move away from labels and instead make an effort to understand individuals' unique beliefs.
"You can't just judge a Trump voter based on the candidate himself," Ross said. "You have to talk with them or discuss their positions and why they believe what they do and why they voted for Trump."
Slyman said that a good first step to bridging the political divide is to look at common ground, including "the hopes we had for our country."
"The one thing you should take away from this is to be more open-minded and have productive discussions with people on the other end of the political spectrum," Slyman said. "Identifying the aims and the reasons why people supported and voted for their candidates, I think that's an important first step."
Cowan, who teaches the election course, hopes that teaching empathy in a controlled setting can make a difference.
"In the academic world, I think it should be a safe space, whatever your views are," he said. "They have to be legitimate in the classroom, because you have to understand each other. That's part of why you want people of all different backgrounds in the classroom—racial backgrounds, parts of the country people are from, or the world they're from. That includes people of different political views. To me, that's an essential thing to have."
In Cowan's course, students role-play political figures across the ideological spectrum in an effort to create a sense of understanding. The emotional distance that role play creates makes having political debate easier, he said.
"The notion is it creates a fair and open conversation. You bring the topics out without people feeling like they have to expose themselves," Cowan said. "A role-playing class forces you to have empathy. You gotta say, 'Oh, how are these people feeling?'"
When that empathy is there, college can be a place where students learn from each other and accept differing views. Zeno Turchetti, a sophomore aerospace engineering major, said that through discussions with other students he's become less conservative since arriving at USC. He voted for Clinton in November.
"The place you're at kind of molds you, and maybe you just experience different things and you realize that things are different," Turchetti said. "But it's not something bad. If you are changing your views, it just means you review what you believe in."
In the Greek houses, tensions have died down. But in the aftermath of the 2016 election, things may never return to the way they were.
"I think that people are kind of more quiet about it because it's been so bad, and [Trump has] been so extremist, that no one really wants to talk about it," Salem said. "Because the general sentiment is more in agreement [against Trump], I don't think people are willing to point fingers whether you're red or blue. We're all in this together at this point."
"There's not as much verbal heat, because people don't really say anything anymore. I think it's just sitting down, taking a breath and hearing people out," Sinfield said. "But what happened before the election feels like it was a week ago. It's never forgotten."
Editor's Note: Because the sorority members interviewed for this story were not authorized to speak publicly about their respective houses, the names of those sororities are not included in this story.