In the run-up to the 2022 midterms, a dominant narrative in mainstream media spaces was that Americans were on the cusp of throwing away democracy in order to save a few dollars on gas. Should Republicans lose, they would refuse to concede defeat. The legitimacy of the electoral results would be undermined by widespread conspiracy theories. The elections and their aftermath could be marred by violence, intimidation and other forms of voter suppression.
None of these dystopian predictions panned out. Instead, as NPR noted, the elections were “largely uneventful.” Rather than widespread voter suppression, turnout was exceptionally high. Instead of the expected “red wave,” Republicans did worse than the opposition party usually does when a new party comes to power. The GOP only narrowly won the House (an outcome that was likely unavoidable). It failed to capture the Senate. Election deniers overwhelmingly went down in flames.
The reality of the midterms had almost nothing in common with the narratives going into them. This should not have been surprising.
There were no major demonstrations contesting the results. There was no violence. Although Arizona GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake still hasn’t admitted defeat, she’s a huge outlier even among election deniers this cycle (who overwhelmingly conceded their races without drama). Polling suggests that most rank-and-file Republicans view the elections as free and fair despite their party’s anemic performance.
In short, the reality of the midterms had almost nothing in common with the narratives going into them. This should not have been surprising.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, popular narratives about how Republicans overwhelmingly support the “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and are dragging the U.S. to the precipice of civil war or a fascist coup, are obviously overblown. They are the result of credulous reactions to polls and surveys and insufficient attention to how people actually behave.
The sociologists Colin Jerolmack and Shamus Khan call this the “attitudinal fallacy.” People portray themselves in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons in data they provide to social scientists and news outlets. As a result, this data may not be a reliable guide to how people actually behave in the world. If you want to know what people really believe or care about, prioritize their actions over their words.
So let’s look at how the voters behaved: Even though Americans grew less likely overall to back candidates from different parties, races with election deniers were a noteworthy exception. Many who backed the GOP in other races voted for Democrats when the Republican was an election denier. In other words, GOP-sympathizing voters were the Americans who defied the trend against splitting tickets — precisely to avoid electing candidates who might foment another Jan. 6.
What’s more, the Democratic Party clearly knew that the narratives they espoused about GOP-aligned voters’ authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies were hyperbolic at best. As political analyst Matt Yglesias observed, Democrats spent the 2022 electoral cycle claiming that America was a heartbeat away from autocracy while behaving as though they believed the opposite.
Democrats even spent tens of millions of dollars helping election deniers win Republican primary contests, something that would obviously be unconscionable if they literally believed that American democracy was on the cusp of being dismantled. The cynical bid paid off: Literally all the extreme GOP candidates that Democrats boosted failed in the general election. Again, this should not have been a shock.
Contrary to popular rhetoric depicting the contemporary Republican Party as a cult that blindly accepts whatever the orange man says or does, Donald Trump and Trumpian extremism have never been super popular among right-aligned voters. Trump actually secured the 2016 Republican nomination with the smallest share of the primary vote of any winning GOP candidate since 1968. He went on to decisively lose the popular vote as huge numbers of right-sympathetic voters decided to stay home rather than cast ballots for either major party candidate.
In the 2018 midterms, the Republicans that Trump endorsed tended to underperform compared to other GOP candidates. It was similar in 2022: Trump-endorsed GOP candidates did worse than those without his endorsement. And those who embraced Trump’s election-denying nonsense did worse still. Many people who would otherwise happily vote Republican were unwilling to vote for Trump or those he endorsed.
Another narrative that refuses to die is that Trump owes his electoral success to his racialized rhetoric. However, as I illustrated previously in THINK, Trump failed to energize a greater number of whites to cast ballots in 2016 and secured a smaller share of the white vote than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Moreover, the GOP has seen continuing losses among white voters in the years since Trump took office, even as the party has enjoyed consistent gains among voters of color over the same period. There is no good way to explain these realities within the standard narrative.
Popular talking points around gender fare no better. Contrary to narratives attributing Trump’s victory to his gendered language and policies, the GOP did not enjoy extraordinary support from men in 2016. And Trump’s sexist and misogynistic rhetoric alienated Republican voters, men and women alike.
In reality, the reason Trump won in 2016 was because women did not like Hillary Clinton, voting for her in lower numbers than several Democratic predecessors. In 2020, Joe Biden won largely due to shifts among men toward the Democratic Party. Women, for their part, moved toward the GOP, with women of color shifting more than white women.
In 2022, a similar pattern emerged. Although all racial and ethnic groups shifted toward the GOP, whites — and white men in particular — shifted less than any group other than Black women (whose movement was roughly identical to that of white men).
Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that Trump himself seems to have bought into ill-substantiated caricatures of his own voters and what motivates them. Despite repeatedly branding the media and academia as biased and unreliable, Trump seems to have accepted our narratives that people support him because he’s an election denier, a racist and a misogynist.
Trump keeps giving “the people” more of what he thinks they want. Reflected, for instance, in the dinner he hosted last week with white supremacist Nick Fuentes and the rapper Ye, who has come under fire for antisemitic remarks. But rather than enhancing Trump’s appeal, these behaviors consistently lead more people to recoil in horror and vote Democrat instead, particularly among his so-called base of whites and men.
Trump’s 2024 campaign announcement was a perfect encapsulation of these dynamics. Over the course of a bleak, lethargic and rambling speech, he hit all the usual notes — to the apparent effect of boring and alienating the GOP faithful while enhancing his political rivals. Presumably recognizing how badly the speech was being received — how poorly calibrated the remarks were to the audience and the moment — even Fox News cut away from the announcement midstream. They probably did Trump a favor.
Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld fellow in sociology at Columbia University. His research and social media can be found on his website, musaalgharbi.com.
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