It says something about our politics when the loser gets more attention than the winner. It’s been nine days since Election Day. It’s been five since learning Joe Biden won. For all that time, most of our focus has been on whether Donald Trump will concede instead of what election results mean to the future of the United States. Something none of us has had time to talk about while wondering if the president were mounting a coup was this plain fact: Trump won the white vote, and lost.
Again, with feeling—he won the white vote, and he still lost. It wasn’t close either. The president won 58 percent of white voters, a demographic that constituted 67 percent of all voters, according to Edison Research exit polling for the Times and other news outlets. Yet the president-elect flipped states in the upper-Midwest. He flipped two red states (Arizona and Georgia). He won more votes than any challenger since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. He won 5 million more than Trump. (I think he’ll double that.) The counting continues. Bottom line: Trump bet everything on racism, and he lost.
Virtually no one is talking about this. All of our attention, mine included, is on Trump. It’s understandable! None of us has experienced what’s now happening. No president has refused to concede. No political party, to my knowledge, has gotten behind a president’s refusal to admit defeat. No one has had to imagine the dread of witnessing two people claiming the title of president of the United States. And yet here we are.
That dread, thank God, seems to be waning by the minute. The president knows he lost. The Republicans know he lost. Trump knows the Republicans know he lost. All that remains, it seems, is figuring out a way to save face amid 72 million Americans who voted for him. (That’s the highest ever vote share behind Biden’s). Saving face, for Trump, means never ever—ever—admitting defeat but leaving in a loud huff anyway. Will he run again in 2024? No one knows. More certain is the Republican Party has no incentive to reform itself. Victory requires even more stoking of even more white rage against the slow muddle of American modernity toward greater equality and justice.
Which is why we should appreciate this moment for what it is. As a reminder of where we started, allow me to quote at length from Jamelle Bouie. He’s at the Times now, but in 2016, he was at Slate. In a post-election piece called “White Won,” Bouie wrote:
More than anything, Trump promises a restoration of white authority. After eight years of a black president—after eight years in which cosmopolitan America asserted its power and its influence, eight years in which women leaned in and blacks declared that their lives mattered—millions of white Americans said enough. They had their fill of this world and wanted the old one back (my italics here). And although it’s tempting to treat this as a function of some colorblind anti-elitism, that cannot explain the unity of white voters in this election. Trump didn’t just win working-class whites—he won the college-educated and the affluent. He even won young whites. Seventeen months after he announced his candidacy, millions of white Americans flocked to the ballot box to put Trump into the White House. And they did so as a white herrenvolk, racialized and radicalized by Trump.
Bouie put 2016 in the stream of history. He thought, as I thought, the major parties agreed there was no going back to the politics of explicit white supremacy. Racism didn’t go away, of course, after the civil rights triumphs of the 1960s. It didn’t go away after the triumph of 2008. There was a sense, however, that a multiracial democratic republic had become a permanent fixture. “I thought this meant we had a consensus,” Bouie wrote, with a heavy heart. “It appears, instead, that we had a detente.”
Perhaps it was, but the results of the 2020 election give us reason to reconsider. It’s true the president won the lion’s share of the white vote. But the other 41 percent of the white vote teamed up with huge majorities of Black voters and voters of color, overwhelming polling places, running up the popular vote to heights never before seen, making a statement that no one is seeing but should. Cosmopolitan America did assert its power and its influence in 2008. Having gotten its fill of the old weird racism, it did it again. It decided nothing was going to stop it from taking back the country. You don’t need a detente when you’ve demonstrated the power to continue winning.