December 2018 – January 2019


Losing the plot: the American midterms

By Richard Cooke
Image of Barack Obama voting in Chicago, Illinois

A woman votes next to former US president Barack Obama as he casts an electronic ballot in Chicago, Illinois. © Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images

Caravan conspiracies, dead candidates and a miasma of acrimony … welcome to the 2018 US campaign trail

The Oumuamua is, or was, an interstellar body of unknown origin that permeated our solar system in 2017. It was detected by chance on the Pan-STARRS1 telescope in Hawaii, but it was not until November 2018, immediately before the United States midterm elections, that two Harvard scientists released a paper describing the cigar-shaped object’s unique properties. One explanation for the Oumuamua’s unusual flight, they suggested, was that it may be an alien probe or craft originating in a two-starred system of impossible distance.

It has been said that America now produces more news than it can consume, so this potential milestone in humanity’s lonely journey through the universe was only half-heralded. Some gee-whiz headlines disappeared into an undifferentiated slurry of events, ever moving, like a spill. If there was any reaction to the UFO at all, it seemed more like embarrassment than wonder. Godlike visitors in the neighbourhood had not seen us at our best.

My own trans-civilisational probe was only into the American elections, but it too took on a strange trajectory. The midterms are enormous, too big for one person to take in. They encompass not only the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, but governorships and positions in state legislatures as well. They are really thousands of elections, with tens of thousands of candidates, if you count the micro-contests for county commissioners or sheriffs, and take place over hefty stretches of time and distance. While the Senate seats and congressional districts competed over are clearly demarcated, the regions they form together are ill-defined, as though ordained by someone waving vaguely at a map. It all adds up to fuzzy logic.

I spent the campaign in the Sun Belt, a place that tells a story about the American present (imperfect) and the American future (conditional). The expanse between Florida and California below the 36th parallel (give or take Virginia) was once poor, whitish and rural, and is en route to being wealthy, diverse and urban. The sources of this change are sometimes obscure and prosaic (one of the key catalysts, boringly enough, was the invention of air-conditioning), but the Sun Belt has the added value of not being the Midwest. Like any reporter who also covered the 2016 election, this trip was partly penance for Getting It Wrong, but I wasn’t going to make another pilgrimage to Pennsylvania or Ohio, some of the most journalistically over-explored terrain on earth. The Midwest’s formerly industrial Rust Belt has become the American media’s sociological G-spot. (Another mundane explanation: these places are driving distance from New York City.)

“The polls were wrong” has become Donald Trump’s retrospective motto, post 2016. Like most phrases in the word cloud that fugs this presidency, it is an untruth. The polls were more accurate in 2016 than they were in 2012, and predicted the popular vote precisely. What was wrong was the interpretation of those polls. Punditry tended to interpret a 1 per cent chance, or a 20 per cent chance, as a zero per cent chance of winning. Handicapping a victor who had made a taped confession of sexual assault turned out to be hard. Instead, this was taken as final proof that the media are effete libtards who decant their experience through layers of bias and abstraction, instead of feeling things in their gut, the way a man does.

Among the many sorrows that came out of this Pandora’s box was a lot of second-guessing. Civil society (or what was left of it) decided to seek the wisdom of fools instead of sages, and ship college graduates out to understand Trump supporters in, well, Pennsylvania. This approach expended its usefulness quickly, and from the beginning felt inauthentic. This time I avoided Trump rallies. I don’t mind trash talk, or people who hate the media (they’re often right), but I wasn’t going to stand in a cattle pen acting as a prop, or be cast as the heel in a one-sided professional match, without so much as a folding chair to swing. I revolted against the instinct that a “Tree. Rope. Journalist” slogan on a dead-eyed good old boy’s T-shirt was a garbled cry for help. What started as anthropology ended up as cryptozoology, a fruitless search for the one mythical mountain man who could explain it all.

If this kind of pandering – a dance with strangers – is so important, is the negative version allowed? Can I give my eyewitness testimony? I’ve spent many months talking to hundreds of Trump supporters, all over the United States, and by tour’s end thought them more ignorant, prejudiced and malicious than I did at the beginning. (I’m not talking about Republican voters, who often offer caveats and ballot-box habit as mitigation.) But Trump supporters … after a while, I was frankly reluctant to talk to them. “The deep state, OK,” I would say, my notebook opening up like an abyss. Is that admissible, in this festival of anecdotes?

Experience in the “real world” doesn’t dislodge the impression that Trumpism is driven by racism. It cements it. Trumpism does what it says on the tin, and part of the unpleasantness comes from repetition and recognition. If you’ve been to the Balkans or the Middle East, you will be familiar with the style of trapdoored conversation that takes place when rumour is the informational gold standard. You are speaking with a seemingly ordinary, often affable stranger, investing rapport, and suddenly the talk jacknifes and spills irretrievably into a ravine of batshit conspiracy. It happens so seamlessly, sometimes in the course of a single sentence, or a derailing train of thought, that there is no real way to prepare for it. The topic transitions from sport or all the rain we’ve been having to the protocols of the globalists, without even an alteration in tone. If this happens often enough, it is demeaning, and if it happens nationwide, you start to fret about the future of the country involved.

This is not quite the default experience in the rural United States, but it’s close. There was a time (it concluded not long ago) when I would pay assiduous attention during these diatribes, believing they had some kernel of importance. Revising that was painful, and over the course of this campaign I found my professional curiosity diminishing, a sensation I had never experienced before. It was not the violations of truth – those were bearable. It was the persistent indications that the people speaking with me (or, more often, at me) didn’t really believe what they were saying at all. If they were over the age of 70, poly-medicated and watched Fox News, they were basically mentally unstable, and would present a tissue of paranoia so incongruent it offered an unusually literal representation of “losing the plot”. It was not conversational but performative. It reminded me of John Steinbeck going to see the “Cheerleaders”, the pro-segregation protesters who abused pupils of colour on their way to school in New Orleans in the 1960s:

Here was no spontaneous cry of anger, of insane rage. Perhaps that is what made me sick with weary nausea. Here was no principle good or bad, no direction. These blowzy women with their little hats and their clippings hungered for attention. They wanted to be admired. They simpered in happy, almost innocent triumph when they were applauded. Theirs was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heartbreaking. These were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience.

I thought of that passage many times, when I switched a car radio to the AM band, or walked into a bar playing Fox News, or asked the right question, or eavesdropped on the diner booth behind mine and caught the high, faltering voice of hatred. I thought of it in Georgia, and Texas, and Arizona and Nevada. But most of all, I thought of it in Florida.

In the olden days, before about 1820, the midterm elections were the most important elections in America. They had a higher turnout than the presidential ballot. This was partly because structural oddities meant the stakes were higher, and that surging feeling came back this year. Instead of merely a contest for the House of Representatives and the Senate, it was instead a referendum on whether the changes wrought by an outlier presidency would be ratified. No one could pretend Donald Trump was an unknown quantity anymore. John Cassidy in The New Yorker summed it up this way:

While the United States remains an economic leader, it appears right now to be spiralling into a miasma of acrimony, post-truth thinking, and violence. The combination of ubiquitous connectivity, unregulated social media, lax gun laws, and rampant political demagoguery is presenting a challenge that our system of government hasn’t faced before.

This description felt especially acute in Florida, a place that looked like the new America in miniature.

Florida is a graveyard for liberal political dreams: the site of both the contested count that gave George W. Bush the 2000 election and the electoral college votes that helped tip Trump into the White House in 2016. Its rural counties are retrograde, it is full of addled retirees, and its large Hispanic population raises hopes just high enough to dash them.

The Harvard lecturer Pippa Norris, an expert on the practical business of elections, wrote that domestic and international experts rate the US elections as the worst among all Western democracies. Florida, with its corruption, and incompetence, and voter suppression, and inept Democratic Party “machine”, is perhaps the worst-functioning of all American democracies. “Mired in recounts” should be printed on the state’s numberplates. (It is again mired in recounts as I write.) If the Democrats were going to squander a seven-point polling lead, it would be here.    

Statewide, Democratic fortunes rested on four key races, at three different levels of government. There were two House races in South Florida: the 26th and 27th congressional districts. In the Senate, the incumbent was a Democrat, Bill Nelson, and his challenger was the current governor of Florida, Rick Scott, who was trying to go federal. For the vacated governorship, the favourite was Andrew Gillum, the African-American mayor of the relatively small city of Tallahassee. Gillum was garnering inevitable Obama comparisons, while on Fox News his Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis, had commenced his campaign by asking Florida voters not to “monkey this up”. That was all you needed to know about DeSantis. All of these Democrats were ahead in the polls. There was a lot to lose, and for a moment they looked intent on losing it all.

These campaigns should have had a single purpose – elect Democrats – but in reality they were fresh from acrimonious primaries, organised by different wings of the party and hostage to the eccentricities of volunteers. On arriving in Miami, I made a routine enquiry – where could I see the candidates speak? The answer became a four-day odyssey. Early voting had begun, but the Democratic campaign offices I toured looked half-empty and only half-busy. I was given a phone number, which routed to the City of Miami Gardens switchboard. Staff would reference the Miami-Dade Democrats, and then roll their eyes. No one seemed to be in charge. At a critical voting precinct, those handing out how-to-vote cards took me to their leader, who would have the answers. He turned out to be a young backpacker who knew no more than anyone else, which was nothing, and had been in Florida only a few weeks. Where was he before that? “Spain.”

“I have to say, I haven’t had these problems with the Republicans,” I told one campaign manager. “Well, they’re a lot more organised than us” was the on-the-record reply. Events had played their part to stymie the organising. Security had increased after mail bombs were sent to CNN and other declared enemies of the president. A Democratic event featuring House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had been harassed by an alt-right street gang. (The organiser of the protest turned out to be the head of the Miami-Dade Republicans, Nelson Diaz.) But it was not just lockdown that made it hard to find out what was going on. I tried to speak with a key press officer and had to go through 22 different people, almost none of whom had heard of him. Nelson and Gillum were both frontrunners on the morning of election day, and both losers by the end of it. Unusually low turnout in Miami-Dade County was blamed.

I did finally see Gillum speak, in a gubernatorial debate with Ron DeSantis. Sitting outside the venue at Broward College was a middle-aged man in a lawn chair, with a homemade sign reading “Gays for Trump”. At best he was a gay for Trump, and was later misidentified by bumbling online sleuths as the Florida man who had sent those mail bombs. The real suspect was Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr, a type specimen of “Florida Man” – the distinct species whose natural habitat is outlandish headlines. (Election day offered “Florida Man Wearing Crocs Gets Bitten After Jumping into Crocodile Exhibit at Alligator Farm”.)

Gillum was the candidate for Floridians, Ron DeSantis the man for Florida Man. “Racially charged” was the electoral euphemism du jour, and this was one of the most racially charged contests in the land. The New York Times wrote about “racial flare-ups” in Florida, like the state had a rash instead of a racism problem. DeSantis had spoken at events where white supremacists were present. White supremacists made robocalls full of racial slurs targeting Gillum. You could tell it was a grudge match. “I’m not calling Mr DeSantis a racist,” Gillum said, “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist,” and DeSantis started as if struck.

Apart from the monkey comment, they clashed over the “caravan”, the group of Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans making their way through Central America. They were hoping to seek asylum in the United States, and President Trump had ordered thousands of troops to the border to stop them. DeSantis thought the caravan could be an orchestrated invasion designed to smuggle Chinese-made fentanyl over the border. This theory, by conservative standards, was a model of probity.

Most times after a debate, campaign surrogates come out and talk with the media. Here, instead, the Republican Florida congressman Matt Gaetz (himself something of a Florida Man and perhaps the most obnoxious politician in America) starting shouting at a Democratic surrogate, creating a kind of undercard fight to the debate’s main event. It was so rude, and he was braying so loud and close to their faces, that reporters, not knowing what else to do, started to laugh.

In October, Gaetz had posted a video “proving” that the people in the caravan had been paid by the billionaire George Soros. “Footage in Honduras giving cash 2 women & children 2 join the caravan & storm the US border @ election time. Soros? US-backed NGOs? Time to investigate the source!” he wrote, in the choppy syntax of direct-mail scams. Of course, the video was retweeted by the president. The footage was really from Guatemala, and appeared to show local retailers giving the caravan money in support. Elsewhere, in Miami, these “racially charged” conspiracy theories were causing headaches for moderate Republican candidates. In Florida’s 26th and 27th congressional districts, they were trying to hang on to Spanish-speaking seats.

The little man on the door had a gold chain and a bald head, round and shiny as a melon, and in spite of his age and appearance was trying to transmit menace. “It’s RSVP-only tonight,” he said, and couldn’t hide his disappointment when I was on the list. Upstairs, in the kind of restaurant where frozen margaritas swirl in an icee machine, the Federated Republican Women of North Dade were hosting an evening with Maria Elvira Salazar, the Republican candidate for Florida 27.

Florida 27 was unusual. Its congressperson, the moderate Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, had resigned, leaving it open. Trump had lost it by 20 points in 2016. Ros-Lehtinen didn’t like her chances, and she didn’t like Trump. (She once described the president as having a “warped mind”.) But Salazar, a former Spanish-language TV journalist, was gaining against her opponent, a Democrat called Donna Shalala. (It was Shalala, alongside Pelosi, who had been yelled at by the alt-right.)

At the front of the room was a banner-sized logo; it was supposed to be a crimson map of Florida emblazoned over a high heel, but instead looked like a communist flag crammed into a shoe. That was ominous. The audience – chaining Virginia Slims, piling buffet plates with free seafood until their hands trembled, one sitting in a walker like it was a throne – was replete with Cuban Americans. These were exiles from Castro, or the children of those exiles. I have heard them nicknamed momia by other Spanish-speakers, “mummies” – so right-wing they seem to have emerged from an ancient tomb.

I sat next to a Cuban American named Eva Exposito; she had stopped voting for the Democrats because “Obama was lazy”. I was trying to unlisten to a confused exegesis on sharia law when a woman in sincere business attire approached, and handed me a sheet of paper and a pen. “We’re just checking everyone is registered,” she said, tapping her “list”. “This paper is blank,” I said. “Well, I recognise everyone else,” she said. Next she “checked” a young black woman on the other side of the room, before returning to me. This seemed a cheap intimidatory gesture, but it turned out she had just forgotten our first encounter, though it was only five minutes earlier.

Florida 27 is more than 70 per cent Hispanic, but President Trump’s “Mexicans are rapists” outreach program had not salted the earth. In fact, half these people probably agreed with him, and that made Maria Elvira Salazar’s job difficult. She was running as a broad-appeal candidate – pro-business, distinct from Trump, willing to call him to account, wanting to do something about climate change. Tonight, she was addressing an audience who did not want her to do any of those things.

She reached the small stage to applause that felt somehow investigatory. Her manner was charismatic, but she was uncertain without an autocue, and her ad-libs clanged. It was a tough crowd. “I believe we have an opportunity to keep the seat,” she said. “Miss Shalala is not part of this community. She did not go to school with the Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelans, Colombians … and more Colombians. And of course the Americans.” [Pause for laughter … no laughter.] “See, I’m trying to be funny,” she continued. The dynamic had gone open-mic night. She looked into the bleak faces of the audience for signs of human warmth and did not find it.

She tried to talk about bipartisanship, and accountability, and the environment (Florida’s Republicans have been forced to acknowledge sea-level rise), and in response the room tumble-weeded. Marshland was seized on, but not in the way she was hoping. “The swamp!” someone called out, and Salazar said, “Let’s not call it the swamp. Let’s call it Washington connections.” At one stage she said, “The difference between Obama and Trump is that Obama knew how to talk. He had finesse,” a sentiment so comically unpopular it seemed almost heroic.

It held together, fractious but lively, until the Q&A session. Even then, sanity remained until we hit the caravan. “These are human beings,” Salazar said, but the audience weren’t so sure they agreed. “It’s an invasion!” someone yelled. Here we go. It was “not a complete accident that it started two weeks ago”, said someone else. “Soros!” an old Jewish woman cried out, and after one extra-long ramble Salazar let her hands drop. She was curious and exasperated, back to the posture of a journalist instead of a candidate, asking questions instead of answering them. Why would someone fund the caravan? How was this supposed to work?

“If just one person pushes someone … you’re in trouble” was the theory. If a Border Patrol agent beat someone, America would be morally blackmailed into taking “them”. An orgy of nodding. There was concurrence. There was liberation, something breaking free. “To create division.” “Maybe it was CNN that started it.” “Listen to her – she is a psychologist!” Salazar made some enthusiasm-free statement about putting people on planes and sending them back home, and finally hit serious applause.

Then people started complaining about their pensions. Obama didn’t increase them enough. A room full of migrants complaining the US government doesn’t give them enough welfare, all hopped up on Fox News and Facebook videos. Unreal.

I turned to my seatmate in the aftermath. “Eva,” I said, “I’m curious – what separates you from those Guatemalans? You were a migrant once.”

“We don’t want them,” she said.

“Well, many Americans didn’t want you either,” I said.

“We came here legally,” she said.

“Only because of an open border policy. The Mariel Boatlift – that was 100,000 people, not 2000 people.”

“We don’t want them.”

“And that group was full of criminals, and patients from mental hospitals. ‘Castro flushing the toilet,’ people called it.”

“Richard, I’ll tell you a little secret. Cubans have always been the Americans’ favourites.”

By the wall were two state legislature Republican candidates, Chamber of Commerce types who looked almost as stunned as me.

“What was all that about?” I asked one of them. His business card said he was called “Jonathan ‘J.P.’ Parker”.

“A lot of Cubans got here under a policy called ‘wet foot, dry foot’, where if they made it to the United States they were citizens,” he said. “And that makes them feel special.”

“I understand that shut-the-door psychology,” I said. “But these people are slamming the door. A room full of Cubans and Jews, peeling the paint about refugees. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He did his best Brooks Brothers smile and touched me on the shoulder before he said, “Welcome to Miami.”

The Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel is probably the best race-by-race electoral analyst around. All the way back in February 2017, he tweeted, “Honestly the funniest 2018 result would be: Dems win the majority based on suburbs after reporters spend two years canvassing rural diners.” And that’s what happened. Salazar lost, and so did Carlos Curbelo, her partymate over in Florida 26. Curbelo, one of the only Republican congressmen to legislate against climate change, moderated so hard that he seemed reluctant to even encourage people to vote for him. At a town hall I attended, Curbelo was asked what he would say to someone planning to vote for his opponent. He answered, “Good for you.” Maybe he was throwing it.

Republicans nationwide were bleeding urban and suburban votes. On the ground this was not just noticeable but almost jarring. Almost any city, no matter how rural or small, starts to produce liberalism. In Louisville, Kentucky, I went into a pit BBQ restaurant and found it selling kombucha on ice. Huntington, West Virginia, has a gay bar (in fact, it used to have two). Anywhere there is a college, or service industries, or nascent diversity, Democrats have a foothold.

Hitting true Trump country, not just isolated pockets, required real mileage, way beyond an Uber from an airport. In Texas, I drove to Tarrant County, which encompasses the city of Fort Worth. This was supposed to be the largest remaining urban “red” county in the country, and so I kept going, eventually pulling up at a polling station surrounded by parched semi-­industrial estates. It had a parking lot full of pick-ups, and looked very Republican, but there was election literature in Vietnamese, and almost everyone casting an early ballot turned out to be a) Hispanic and b) enthused about the Democratic senatorial candidate, Beto O’Rourke. The results showed that Tarrant County is now no longer majority GOP. Of 81 urban or semi-urban districts nationwide, 80 are now represented in Congress by Democrats. Beto lost, but ran the closest race against an incumbent Texas senator in 40 years.

Phoenix, Arizona, still has some very conservative suburbs, but the voters in Maricopa County sounded most concerned about the tenor of the campaign. The Senate contest was between a bisexual Democrat, Kyrsten Sinema, and a Republican congresswoman, Martha McSally. (The anti-Trump Republican Jeff Flake had announced his retirement, vacating the seat.) The campaign spots on Arizona radio sounded extra venal and stupid. “I’m shocked at how negative these ads are,” said Raymond Ginther, a Democratic voter, outside a polling place. “It’s as though these people have no redeeming qualities. They’re just throwing garbage at their opponents.”

He was unpersuaded by the caravan. “It’s all nonsense. Sending 15,000 troops at a horrible cost, to prevent 2000 people getting in? It’s political hornblowing.” Initially, the race was called for McSally, but a late surge from Maricopa County put Sinema over the top. She was part of a record-breaking year for female candidates. In Congress, at least 115 women won. Among the new “freshmen” class were the youngest ever woman (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), the first Muslim women (Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar), the first Native American women (Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland). Of the Republicans elected to Congress for the first time, only one, Carol Miller of West Virginia, was a woman. Almost all the remaining Republicans were white men.

Today’s Republican Party voters are heavily white and rural; by contrast, Democrats are a coalition of the diverse urban and suburban voters, and, increasingly, the wealthy. Measured by median income, the richest House districts in 11 states flipped from Republican to Democratic. According to the election analyst Evan Siegfried, 56 per cent more people under 30 voted than in the 2014 midterms (overwhelmingly for Democrats), and Republicans lost 14 points of their support among the over-65s. The most significant shift was in female voters. In 2014 they favoured Democratic candidates by four points, but this year that advantage was +19.

The GOP had female trouble, and they knew it. Even in the shadow of Death Valley, Nevada, where Democrats fear to tread, Republicans were trying to soften the appeal of their star candidate. There were billboards all along the spare highway reading “Women for Hof”. Hof was Dennis Hof, a state assembly candidate who had overcome a professional Republican in a primary after styling himself on Donald Trump. “The Trump from Pahrump”, he called himself. Like the president, Hof was the star of a reality-TV show who had been accused of sexual abuse. Unlike Trump, he ran a string of brothels, including the notorious Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Also, he was dead.

He had been found unresponsive by the porn legend Ron Jeremy, after the two of them had celebrated Hof’s 72nd birthday. (Also present at his campaign rally/celebration the previous night were the Republican anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, the disgraced celebrity sheriff Joe Arpaio and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss. Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav had not been present, but was said to be inconsolable.) Hof was now buried (in a cherry red coffin, with a floral tribute that depicted two rabbits making love), but it was too late to remove him from the ballot. County officials would vote on a replacement if he won – and he was still the favourite, meaning Pahrump would rather vote for a dead pimp than a live Democrat. Even a woman who claimed she had been raped by Hof said she would still vote for him posthumously, one of the most extreme cases of “voting against their interests” ever recorded.

At a highway-side strip mall (bail bondsman, chain-link fence, “For Lease”), I was taking photos of obscured campaign signage when I ran into one of Hof’s biggest supporters. He was a Christian constitutionalist candidate for lower office called Lance Schaus, and he and his wife were putting up corflutes for his run at Nye County treasurer. His wife was wearing a freshly bedazzled pullover, each rhinestone sitting in a tiny freckle of hard glue, and soon Schaus, in interview mode, was wearing a top hat. (It was a signature, and did not impede his ability to talk serious policy.) He used Hof’s and Trump’s names interchangeably, so often it went from a slip to a tic. Hof and the president were ratcheting him towards a reluctant social liberalism. There was a place selling cannabis up the road. The brothels were legal, he said, and pastors at the Christian Men’s Breakfast he attended most Wednesdays should be focusing on sodomites and adulterers instead. He conceded that the brothels might contain both adultery and sodomy.

Over at Terrible’s Roadhouse Casino it was already dark inside, though it was not yet dusk, and at the bar was a woman in late middle age, wearing a Notre Dame college football shirt. She was drinking on the house and playing video poker, not the hallmarks of life’s winners, but she was a surprise, a snowbird who had escaped the cold in Indiana. She had raised the sister sitting next to her, and every night before sleep she read the science journal Nature and wondered. Her face twisted at the mention of Trump. “Don’t get me started on that man,” she said. “Have you heard about Hof? Ughh. We vote Democrat, but there are some mighty intolerant people around here. We’ve been asked,” she continued, looking around, “to tone it down when we talk about politics.” Pam, like many women I’d encountered on the campaign trail, impressed a message on me for broadcast: “Please, tell the world there is still decency left in America.” Please tell them we’re not all like this. Sometimes these women were first-time voters or former Republicans. But they had all been dealing with Trump-like men all of their lives.

When election day came, I was in California, where they were queuing outside libraries and community centres to send a variation on this message. The American electoral system is a chaos of midweek elections, faulty ballots and proprietary voting machines made by companies that no longer exist, so the wait sometimes lasted hours. Like the American healthcare system, the American voting system is best understood not as “broken” but as a sophisticated network functioning for an ulterior purpose, in this case the deliberate disenfranchisement of people of colour. Elsewhere the lines slowed enough that voters had to go back to work, but here the voters seemed to draw a sense of solidarity from the wait, as though standing together was the beginning of their joint purpose.

“This is the longest I’ve ever waited for any election, including presidential,” said a woman named Elissa Jhunjhnuwala. “I’m happy to see the turnout; it’s the biggest I’ve ever seen.” We were not in Berkeley, or Haight-Ashbury, or some enclave of the liberal west coast, but in Orange County, formerly one of the most Republican places in America. (Ronald Reagan’s political career started here.) Jhunjhnuwala had been a Republican herself, but not anymore.

“I voted all Democrats, because I’m mad at the Republican Party. I got mad when Trump got elected. You have to be uneducated and ignorant to vote for the Republican Party right now. Educated women such as myself will think it through cogently and vote accordingly.

“I had a friend who was hardcore Dem – we used to butt heads. Now we’re in total agreement. I can’t even believe it myself sometimes.”

The Democratic vote total for the House hit more than 60 million. It was the largest midterms turnout since the beginning of universal suffrage, and the seat pick-up by the Democrats was the largest since the elections after the Watergate scandal. There were seven Orange County seats contested. Republicans lost every single one.

Mariam Cheik-Hussein contributed research to this story.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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