It used to be a truth universally acknowledged that U.S. politics are barely comprehensible outside of presidential elections. But since Donald Trump came along, every scintilla of Senate, House and gubernatorial races have become part of a person’s everyday expertise. How innocent we were, once.
Now it’s all part of a compelling, continuing narrative, a TV-specific narrative, like an epic cable drama or a stupefying reality show that’s too close to actual reality for comfort. And Trump knows that. He twists and manipulates the narrative constantly and blithely hires, fires or promotes staff based on their impact on TV. He must have watched coverage of Tuesday’s midterm elections with mordant satisfaction. Blue wave? What blue wave? That never happened.
What did happen was a taut build-up and then a no-shock, seriously wobbly drama. And, if you were watching in Canada, there was a stunning, mid-drama twist: Long-time Conservative politician Tony Clement resigned after sharing sexually explicit images. Wait, what?
Some new and potentially seismic characters entered the American narrative, mind you. Beto O’Rourke took it to the limit in Texas. But he lost. What Trump, the one viewer who matters, will take away from a long night of viewing is this: A string of bad Senate results for the Democrats.
The on-screen statement, by 10 p.m. ET, was “Democrats take House, Republicans keep the Senate,” but what Trump would take from it is a decisive, emboldening victory. The young, the cool and the articulate who made so much media noise were losers. Oprah tried to get Stacey Abrams elected governor of Georgia. Hours and hours after the polls closed, a possible run-off was what Abrams could best expect. Didn’t Oprah used to be big on TV? Yeah, used to be.
On TV, pro-Trump Fox News took a cautious view at the start of the night’s coverage. It looked and sounded like excuses and spin, just in case the night went badly for Trump. Laura Ingraham, no slouch when it comes to demonizing Democrats, took the view that “people are in the mood for a report card on the Trump administration.” Time passed, and before actual results could be reported, Fox pundits played the game of slipping in the word “Obamacare” after somebody else called it “health care.” Tiring of this, Ingraham delivered a rant about the excesses of “PC culture” while fellow pundits nodded sagely. Possibly they were fondly remembering their former colleague Bill O’Reilly or former boss Roger Ailes. Fox News isn’t subtle. You can usually tell what the on-air personalities are thinking.
Meanwhile on MSNBC, giddiness was rampant in the early going. “The 2020 elections start Wednesday,” declared Brian Williams, without a care for people of a nervous disposition who might be watching. The channel also had a purported poll of voters, the results of which led an excitable young reporter to announce that “83 per cent say sexual harassment is a problem in the U.S.” If Trump saw that, the guffaws were long and loud.
By 8 p.m. ET, when results from Florida and other states came in, Wolf Blitzer was getting testy with John King on CNN. King, ruler of the graphics map, was as usual obsessed with county-by-county voting in Florida. For him, the Florida election recount of 2000 has never ended. Blitzer was trying to draw King’s attention to Georgia before King started talking about “hanging chads.” As a viewer, one had the eerie feeling that John King is correct. We are all trapped in this weird, all-news narrative that started years ago.
Somewhere around 9:30 ET, sobriety set in on CNN, and Fox News went a little crazy. On CNN, pundit Van Jones said, “This is heartbreaking. It’s not a blue wave, but it’s a blue war.” Over on Fox, it was concluded that President Trump had won that war. “It’s the triumph of the Trump effect,” said somebody whose name wasn’t given. Not that it matters on Fox. They all preach cheerfully from the same hymnbook. On MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell took a very long time seeing solace in a Democratic victory on Staten Island. It was poignant to see that. Staten Island matters, apparently.
More time passed, and the entire package of coverage came to resemble a very long and boring baseball game, with the commentators relying on stats to enliven what wasn’t actually happening on the field. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow tried to generate excitement about a Democrat-controlled Congress demanding to see Trump’s tax returns. The same tax returns Maddow talks about most nights of the week on her show. Brian Williams noted glumly that Robert Mueller probably has those documents already.
In the midst of what felt like a deflating twist for Democrats and indeed most of the non-Fox TV news media, some channels carried Andrew Gillum’s concession speech live. The defeated Florida gubernatorial candidate was eloquent, the rhythm of his remarks distinctly Obama-like. “In the long run, good always wins out over evil,” he said. Right, but he lost. That’s what Donald Trump will have noted. He won the night, and the non-Fox media and many others lost. Trump still controls the narrative, and everybody else is just watching, stupefied.