Why Everyone Should Feel Stupid After This Election

This was an election which blessedly provided more than enough fodder to make everyone feel a bit stupid. Pollsters and “modelers,” who spent months upon months projecting smug certitude about a massive-scale repudiation of Donald Trump, were once again embarrassed by huge systematic error in Trump’s favor — thus rendering much of what they had said worthless. On this score their predictions were even more error-riddled than 2016, undoubtedly the previous high watermark of phony media-crafted perceptions versus reality. So if you let down your guard and allowed yourself to be beguiled by their overconfident “data analysis” mumbo-jumbo, you should feel about as stupid as they presumably do.

Likewise you should feel stupid if you extrapolated mindlessly from the lack of overt, in-person displays of enthusiasm for Joe Biden that he couldn’t possibly win the election. Biden’s antagonists across the political spectrum, from MAGA troopers to smarmy online leftists, had at various points convinced themselves that this would be an epic problem for Democrats in their quest to dislodge Trump. But Biden was never banking on personalized emotional zeal — the kind that generally produces motivation to attend political rallies — in order to prevail. If anything his candidacy was antithetical to the notion of a personality cult, the likes of which had surrounded previous presidential victors including Trump and Barack Obama. Conversely, there are just not many people out there falling to their knees in loving stupor to worship at the feet of Joe Biden. This year, it was clearly sufficient merely to offer a vehicle by which to remove a figure in Trump whose omnipresence in the day-to-day waking consciousness of the country was so beyond precedent.

Trump himself, who riffed about fleeing the country in the event of his loss, also has to feel pretty stupid — even if he’ll likely never admit it in public. To label one’s rival “Sleepy Joe” only to subsequently see Joe sleep-walk into the White House must be quite a blow. But even in defeat, Trump can perhaps take some solace in the reams of data which contravene some of the most deeply-held assumptions that legions of anti-Trump pundits, operatives, and prognosticators harbored about the nature of the electorate. Most notably being Trump’s gains among nonwhite voters. It should be challenging to square this trend with the all-expansive “white supremacy” thesis of US politics that so dominates elite media, but lord knows certain people with large platforms will try.

Georgia is particularly instructive in this regard. Biden has managed to win by the narrowest of margins, which is a huge accomplishment for any Democrat, as ten years ago a Democrat winning Georgia would’ve seemed like a pipe dream. But in Hancock County, which has the highest proportion of black voters (71%) anywhere in the state, Trump received a full 38% more total votes there than he did in 2016. Meanwhile, Biden received just 10% more votes than Hillary Clinton. It’s going to be a tall order to posit that “white supremacy” was the key factor in Trump’s relative success there. The plot further thickens when you consider that in the state’s whitest county, Fannin, Biden’s vote total increased by a full 34% compared to Hillary — whereas Trump’s total increased by just 26%. There’s not a lot about this election that’s going to make you happy if what you’re looking for is an easily reductionist interpretation of the results.

In the waning days of the race, Trump’s campaign operation clearly detected the need for a late-stage boost in Georgia’s rural counties, and he held an enormous campaign rally in the state’s northwest corner the Sunday before the election — only his second major rally in Georgia of the 2020 cycle. I attended that rally, opting to go through the public entrance so as not to be stuck with a bunch of sequestered journalists who seldom bother to mix with the plebs. Even arriving four hours before Trump spoke, I only barely made it in because of the massive, unwieldy lines. The intense devotion to Trump in that part of Georgia — a “WE LOVE YOU” chant broke out during Trump’s remarks, prompting him to joke about wanting to cry except for the weakness that would exude — was at least superficially difficult to reconcile with the prospect that Trump could ultimately lose the state. Compared with Biden’s semi-privatized quasi-campaign events, the locations of which were kept secret from the general public on dubious COVID-related grounds, the “enthusiasm” discrepancy was so wide as to almost be comical.

But there was always a danger in over-extrapolating on this basis.

Trump ended up receiving over 12% more votes in Floyd County, where the gigantic rally was held, than he did in 2016 — which almost would’ve been hard to fathom given the already-massive rural turnout he’d already achieved last cycle. Evidently, there were still many more rural votes to squeeze. But the problem for him is that juiced GOP turnout in these areas wasn’t enough to stanch statewide trends. At least 22% more votes were cast overall in Georgia than in 2016, and it was concentrated disproportionately in the affluent, growing suburban population centers surrounding Atlanta which have become the locus of Democratic political power. This again would have been tricky to glean on Election Day itself, because if you traveled around these suburban districts, as I did that Tuesday, there was so little action at the voting sites that it was verging on bizarre. A poll observer in Roswell, GA told me she was almost getting drowsy in the middle of the afternoon due to the lack of foot traffic to monitor. So she kind of just gave up and started listening absent-mindedly to a podcast.

Nonetheless, the numbers which have emerged are clear. Biden will have won this election because of these affluent white suburbs in Georgia and elsewhere (Arizona, Pennsylvania, etc.) that have become the paramount cultural and political base of the Democratic Party. It is those demographics to whom national Democrats are increasingly indebted for power, and it is their priorities that national Democratic governance will now be even more oriented around. (See also: the 2018 midterms.) Among the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States by median household income, all of which are quintessentially affluent/suburban, there was an average of 8–9 point shift to Biden compared to 2016 (based on preliminary vote counts, which in classic American tradition are not done yet nearly two weeks later). In each of those counties, the partisan trend-lines are heading decisively in the Democratic direction. Biden might have branded himself as a “middle class Joe” good ol’ boy, whose hardscrabble roots put him in touch with the common working stiff. But the entire basis of his victory will have been because of the increasingly elite economic hue of the Democratic coalition — as further evidenced by Wall Street’s satisfaction with the results.

Perhaps the most defining feature of this election, in Georgia and virtually everywhere else, is the overall hyper-politicization of the US electorate — which was observable on a cross-party basis throughout the entire country. With millions of additional votes still to count, at least 13% more total votes will have been cast than four years ago — a staggering increase. Depending on the exact estimate, this election saw the highest voter turnout since either 1908 or 1900. To borrow the Trump-era Twitter cliche: “Let That Sink In.”

There was reason to believe this would be the case dating back years now, with polls even throughout early 2019 — when the 2020 campaign cycle had barely begun — suggesting astronomical interest in the election. That’s why one sees a muddled national map in terms of regional partisan shifts, few of which are neatly reconcilable with what media partisans would like us to believe. Either way, such hyper-politicization is notoriously great for everyone with a professional stake in the political, media, and consultancy worlds — just watch as those fundraising dollars flow in — notwithstanding the psychological turmoil such a state of duress often inflicts on the emotionally unstable. These profiteers will likely find it extremely challenging to move on from the outrage-a-day Trump bonanza. (Whether the average person enjoys living in a hyper-politicized society seems more doubtful.)

And as far as further reasons to feel stupid: the post-election period has also delivered. Hysterical prophecies of Civil War and fascist coups pervaded the US elite commentariat in the run-up to this election. But the most that a defeated Trump can currently muster is his typical combination of ALL-CAPS tweets, hopeless lawsuits, and spurious allegations that cause a lot of momentary agitation but will swiftly be ignored.

To take one — for Georgia to have been “rigged,” as Trump has suggested, would require a far-reaching conspiracy that also includes a large number of powerful state Republicans, including the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General. Both chambers of the state legislature are controlled by Republicans. And if you look at the official Republican-controlled Georgia government website right now, it still reads: “More than ever, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger encourages Georgians to vote with a mail-in absentee ballot.” So it was hardly an exclusively Democrat-led effort to cause a transition to widespread mail-in voting in the state, which is the main sticking point for MAGA loyalists who feel the election was somehow stolen. (It’s also far from clear that the widespread transition to mail-in voting was the main factor in explaining the vastly increased turnout.)

As far as I could tell, every place where the votes were being processed and tabulated in Fulton County (Atlanta) were completely accessible to whomever in the general public would have liked to go view the proceedings. Anyone was free to walk into the COVID-abandoned basketball arena in Downtown Atlanta, and observe to their heart’s content as votes were being counted there. Republican observers were ubiquitous, including at another vote processing center that I visited in a drab industrial park. Various local officials onsite would patiently explain to you what is happening, if you asked. Despite its chronic dysfunction, there’s still something admirably transparent about this aspect of the American electoral process — it’s not like the dysfunction is being hidden, at least.

Trump will probably impotently flail for a while longer, as is his nature. But the electoral outcome is more-or-less settled. On the bright side from the Trump perspective, his defeat is in no way a vindication for opinion-making elites whose entire political existence has come to be consumed by their violent loathing of him. (He got approximately 10 million more votes than in 2016!) So even if they are soon to be relieved of 24/7 Trump-induced psychosis, they are still just as hopelessly detached as ever.

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