Only a week into his presidency, Donald Trump made good on one of his most controversial campaign promises: to secure America’s borders. That promise manifested on January 27, 2017 in the form of Executive Order 13769, aka the Muslim ban, which quickly inspired thousands of protesters to assemble at airports around the country with signs reading Refugees Are Welcome Here and No Muslim Ban. It also sparked a swift lawsuit from the ACLU, which received donations totaling $24 million within three days of Trump signing the order. For comparison, in all of 2015, the ACLU raised $3.5 million.
One of the people voicing her opposition to the ban was Syrian American Sarmad Assali, whose family had arrived in Philadelphia just as it was issued. The U.S. government promptly sent Assali’s family back to Syria, despite them having visas. “It was a shock,” she told Public Radio International. In that interview, Assali also revealed a detail about herself that was surprising given the circumstances: she had voted for Trump, the very man who blocked her family from entering the United States.
A travel ban isn’t what Assali anticipated when she voted for Trump. Sure, he may have said he wanted to ban Muslims on the campaign trail—but Trump has said a lot of things. When the interviewer asked Assali if she still considered herself a Trump supporter, Assali didn’t say no, but listeners could tell she was conflicted. “I don’t know what [Trump’s] going to do next or if I support what he’s gonna do. I can’t tell at this point,” she said.
As late as Election Day, no one knew what a Trump presidency or his administration would look like—not even his most fervent base in the reddest states. It’s a statement that could arguably be made of all presidential candidates, but Trump, as the first president in history to walk into the Oval Office with no political experience, is an entirely different being. His chaotic roller-coaster of a campaign emboldened the most racist and sexist backwoods trolls in the same breath as it appealed to impoverished, hardworking rural folk who believed Trump to be their last hope at bringing back jobs in the Rust Belt and coal country. There was also the element of entertainment Trump brought to a tiring campaign cycle, bragging about his achievements and overall acting like a goofball. But less than 100 days into presidency, not all of Trump’s voters are happy with the man they put in office.
A recent survey by Penn Schoen Berland reported that 11 percent of adults self-identified as Trump Regretters.
It’s impossible to estimate how many of Trump’s 63 million voters regret their decision. A recent survey of 800 people by Penn Schoen Berland reported that 11 percent of adults self-identified as Trump Regretters and the president’s approval ratings have backed up that figure rather consistently. According to Gallup polls, in his first week, Trump’s average job approval rating was 45 percent. Four weeks later, it dropped to 40 percent, a remarkably low number for a president this early in his first term. Consider the approval ratings of other presidents in February of their first year: 53 percent (Reagan), 63 percent (H.W. Bush), 55 percent (Clinton), 59 percent (W. Bush) and 64 percent (Obama). Even among Republicans, Trump’s approval has dropped from 89 percent in his first week to 86 percent four weeks later. More notably, several websites are now entirely devoted to those who find themselves living in a purple state—and who are battling buyers’ remorse.
Sherri Underwood, a Midwestern woman in her 50s, considers herself an independent but more recently has voted Republican. Underwood regretted voting for Trump almost immediately. Her realization came during Trump’s post-election 60 Minutes interview where he oh-so-casually walked back on his promise to “lock up” rival Hillary Clinton. Afterward, Underwood published an op-ed on Vox titled “I Voted For Donald Trump and I Already Regret It.” The piece was published a mere two days before Inauguration Day.
“I realized I had been scammed and people like me had been scammed. I felt like someone should ring an alarm bell,” Underwood tells me over the phone. To be clear, Underwood doesn’t actually want Clinton behind bars. Instead, she’s disturbed by how Trump is making it obvious just how much he played to his base during the campaign. Prosecuting Clinton was one of Trump’s core promises. Once he got the votes, he flippantly dismissed it. To Underwood, that’s a betrayal coming from a so-called non-politician. During our conversation, it’s obvious Underwood is worked up, her voice growing anxious. “I wasn’t thrilled about admitting I was wrong,” she says. “I’m mad at myself. Just because I describe myself as a political news junky doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes.”
Much of the media’s spotlight during the presidential campaign focused on the beliefs of the far right or the far left, not on moderates. Underwood, like many Americans in 2016, wasn’t happy with either major party candidate—so much so that she nearly abstained from voting altogether. (Clinton and Trump were the two least popular candidates to ever run for president in history). At the ballot box, she ultimately turned toward Trump because she wanted a pro-life judge appointed to the Supreme Court and felt Trump’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act would be better than Clinton’s plan to patch the existing system. Today, Underwood is rethinking both of these positions—and whether she will ever vote Republican again, especially as she watches the previously critical GOP placate Trump at every turn.
After Trump’s 60 Minutes interview, Underwood began looking online for people who felt the same as she did. She came across the “I Regret Voting For Donald Trump in 2016” Facebook page, created mere days after Trump’s victory. Underwood was one of the first people to share her story in the group. Her story then caught the eye of a Vox editor, who reached out about writing a longer piece for the website. She was reluctant, but felt she had to do something positive.
The person who runs the “I Regret Voting For Donald Trump in 2016” Facebook page has chosen to remain anonymous. According to the page’s credo, it’s “a place where people…can express their regret and be supported by others who feel the same way.” Via Facebook messenger, the creator tells me s/he wants to “bring anti-Trumpers and regretters together to unify the country.” The administrator also says that while s/he has spoken to a lot of people, many are unwilling to publicly admit they regret voting for Trump.
Zach Wilson used to be one of them. A 26-year-old Bernie Sanders supporter living in Chicago, Wilson found the Facebook page by chance. Wilson didn’t vote for Trump because he liked him. He voted for Trump because it was a “fuck you” to the Democratic National Committee, which he perceived as having screwed over Sanders in the primaries. But Wilson never thought Trump would win, and on Election Day, he fell into shock. Now, as he hears about more hate crimes allegedly incited by white supremacists reenergized by Trump’s victory, Wilson’s negative feelings have transformed into a tremendous sense of guilt. “I started to think about [my vote] as a fuck you to minorities and to women,” he tells Playboy, obviously disturbed.
In our initial Facebook messenger conversations, Wilson wanted to remain anonymous. By the time we spoke on the phone, however, he decided to go on the record as a sort of way to make amends. “I feel like I deserve to get shit on,” Wilson says. “My friend pretty much told me to think with more empathy, and to try and live with more empathy. I feel like one of those fucking people who had a concentration camp up the hill from them but just went about their lives because it was out of mind.” Wilson is now reading Origins of Totalitarianism.
Twitter, too, has turned into a refuge for people like Wilson, namely via the account @Trump_Regrets, which boasts a quarter million followers. The handle is run by a 23-year-old Canadian woman named Erica Baguma, who retweets regretful tweets without comment. Examples include “MR. President if u don’t lock Hillary up it will look like your corrupted BIG MISTAKE & I’ll want 2 change my Vote,” “I voted for you and was appalled by the nomination of DeVos for a position for which she is clearly unqualified. Crooked.” and “I supported Trump until he appointed a bunch of billionaire to his cabinet and unregulated corporate pollution into our waters.”
Reading tweets on @Trump_Regrets gives you the sense that on Election Day, some voters cherry-picked what they liked about Trump and ignored the qualities they disliked. “I don’t think anyone expected him to follow through so thoroughly, especially to the people that voted for him for one specific issue,” Baguma says. At the time of our interview, only two people had asked Baguma to remove their tweets from her account, and she’s happy to oblige. Her intention isn’t to embarrass anyone.
Prior to the election, one of Trump’s biggest advantages was that many believed he was too inexperienced to be capable of enacting any real policies, unlike Clinton. While he might have campaigned on radical ideas, his lack of political know-how would presumably prevent him from following through on any of it. Such was the thought of Jeremy Burrage, a 36-year-old social worker from Alabama and a life-long Democrat who supported Sanders fervently. He prepared himself to bite the bullet and vote for Clinton on Election Day, but had a sudden change of heart at the last second. “At the end of the day I felt trapped. I didn’t want to vote for Hillary,” Burrage says. “I should have voted third party, but for whatever reason, I pulled the lever for Trump.”
Two thirds of the voters in 2016 thought the country was heading in the wrong direction. That just screams change.
George Washington University
Burrage began to regret his vote once Trump started building out his Cabinet with people on the extreme right, many of who had no credentials to lead their departments. During our interview, Burrage says several times that he’s scared. In order to keep that stress in check, he now stays away from the news as much as possible. “Some of the things he was saying was so outlandish, which I didn’t see as happening,” he says. “Now I just don’t know what to do. I think we’ve made a terrible mistake.”
While Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, the majority of Americans didn’t vote last year with enthusiasm. According to CNN exit polls, nearly half of all voters expressed reservations about the candidate they did chose, with a near-even split between Clinton and Trump voters. Ninety-two million registered voters didn’t bother showing up at all. Another CNN exit poll rating the most important candidate qualities reported that 39 percent of voters cited “Can bring change” as the most important quality; those people voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The other three qualities were “Cares about me,” “right experience” and “good judgement”; those voters chose Clinton.
“You have two equally unpopular candidates. One represents change. One represents the status quo. Who do you think’s going to win?” says political strategist and media consultant Gary Nordlinger. Nordlinger teaches at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. An expert in developing communications strategies based on quantitative research, he has helped win 78 election campaigns for members of Congress. He too admits he was shocked that Trump won, but in his opinion, like in 2008, the last election was about change. “Two thirds of the voters in 2016 thought the country was heading in the wrong direction. That just screams out ‘This is a change year’,” he says.
Now Trump voters are left with a new question: Is this the kind of change they wanted? As more and more Trump voters come forward to voice regret, they’re also facing backlash from frustrated liberals. The majority of “regretters” I messaged for this story declined my requests for interviews because of that very reason. One woman even specified she didn’t want talk to me because she’s already had her fair share of snide comments from angry liberals. While owners of the “I Regret Voting For Donald Trump in 2016” Facebook page and the @Trump_Regrets Twitter make it clear they don’t allow harassment (those who do will be kicked off or blocked), they can’t completely stop it.
Since writing her Vox op-ed, Underwood has experienced her fair share of harassment. One woman told her, “You voted to kill my daughter and I.” Another made it personal and referenced a part of the article where Underwood discusses her fibromyalgia condition. The commenter said she deserved to have a fibromyalgia flair-up the duration of Trump’s presidency. “I understand the anger and the frustration, but there was a lot of pure hate that came across there too,” she says.
The backlash is a common-detonator for anyone that’s come forward. It’s an unfortunate side effect given that the goal of the “I Regret Voting for Trump” Facebook group is to organize people who oppose Trump into numbers that exceed those that support him—and it may very well paralyze the effort altogether. “We need to take the red and the blue and make purple and just work together. Without that we cannot stop him,” Underwood says. “It shouldn’t be an ‘us and them thing.’ It should simply be a ‘we’ thing.”