Four years ago, deep into that absurd, hallucinatory election witching hour, I read a post on Bustle with the headline, "Could Hillary still win?" It was penned by one of Bustle's many SEO-divining bloggers, and it made the case, as the walls were closing in on November 8, that Clinton needed to eek out exponentially unlikely victories in Wisconsin and Michigan to make up for the campaign's shortcomings in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio. (You can still find the bones of it if you look hard enough, though the headline has since been changed.) My memory from that evening has fractured into a million atomic pieces; it is almost funny, in retrospect, to consider the innumerable storylines that zoomed through the timeline at warp speed in the aftermath of Trump's victory. The Steve Bannon catastrophe, the Mitt Romney photo, the Steele dossier, the Sean Spicer experience, the Bill Mitchell vindication — this rogues gallery of buffoons and grifters who would go on to govern the United States in the exact way they said they would. It was, to say the least, a lot to take in. And yet, that Bustle post somehow looms the largest in my mind. There is a profound, unfathomable sadness mummified within its 402 words; like a primary source from the end of history. "The results coming in on election night have completely defied all predictions," opens the author, striking the same tone that a live-blogger in ancient Pompeii might have articulated as the magma started flying. "While the math in her favor is shaky, keep the faith — we've gotten this far."
I don't know where the author spent election night, or what their confidence level was heading into the 2016 presidential election. But from their diction, I imagine them ensconced in a cramped, lonely bedroom, roommates gone, after turning down an invitation to watch the ticker tape trickle in at a local watering hole, because their craven bosses demanded they spend the night in front of their laptop to blog the forthcoming Clinton coronation and soak up a few more victory-lap clicks before the end of the night. I imagine them with a small batch of different Google Docs in the oven — half-finished, rife with TKs, splayed across countless tabs — all aiming to articulate different apogees of Hillary's supremacy over her reality show challenger. What does it mean for American women? The Supreme Court? The far-right media cartel? The future of Obama-style center-left hegemony that was gasping for air and running on fumes without our knowledge? I imagine the author making maybe $45,000 a year, or like $50 a post, and living a hardscrabble subsistence familiar to anyone who's given full-time writing a shot.
And then, I imagine the author's entire universe tipping over. I imagine them refreshing the turnout rates for Wayne County over and over again, and reading a multitude of panicked, fidgety takes from all the usual suspects horny to litigate a seismic political reorientation with a knowitall-ness that they absolutely had not earned. I imagine them calling their mom, and texting their brother, before remembering that they needed to submit at least two more posts to Bustle HQ before the end of the night to fill their quota. And so, while weathering all that chaos, they navigate to New York Times projection page and crunch the numbers on one of the few paths Clinton had left to the presidency. The author finds an image of a heartbroken young girl, her miniature American flag clutched at half-mast, and they embed it in the middle of the copy. The blog soars up the Chartbeat tiers due to a slew of beleaguered ever-hopefuls and those with a morbid curiosity to witness the frontlines of this macabre devastation. All the while, Bryan Goldberg, owner of Bustle and noted immigration hardliner, sees the valuation of his shares tick up a half-percent.
Bustle isn't alone. Every publication on earth had at least one person on the payroll annotating every twitch in the narrative on the evening of November 8. It's fascinating paleontology if you have the patience. Some of the unearthings are antiseptic and droid-like, desperate to keep up the charade of Objective Punditry that was rendered hilariously fraudulent as soon as the dust cleared and Trump's neo-fascist agenda rounded into action. "People are focusing on Michigan right now, but Wisconsin is just as much of a problem for Clinton," offered a typically aloof Nate Silver, at 11:02pm in the 538 liveblog. "She’s trailing there by a slightly wider margin and more of the vote is counted." Others give us a rare glimpse of how a human brain reacts in the exact moment it realizes it's about to be hit by a car. "I feel physically ill," wrote Ashley Feinberg, an hour before Silver's whitebread update. "I don’t know what terrifies me more: having Donald Trump as president or living in a country that would elect him." Four years later, Feinberg's thesis on election night hasn't diminished in intensity one bit. Meanwhile, Silver is currently informing his audience that 538's predictive model does not account for the Trump Administration's attempts to hijack the democratic process.
All that said, I keep circling back to the Bustle post. A half-scroll into the website's archive reveals the sort of content that its editorial leadership prioritized for the 2016 election season before its stark conclusion. There are two separate articles outlining where someone could purchase Hillary Clinton-themed Halloween costumes. You can find a gaggle of Ken Bone content; a handful of paragraphs about whatever Michelle Obama's "epic mic tap" was; a post entitled, "If 2016 Presidential Candidates Were Nickelodeon Cartoon Characters." And then, as soon as the Doomsday Clock ticked over, and it was clear that we were firmly in the Nether Realm, Bustle scrambled to keep up with the depravity. All of a sudden, the publication was slinging out posts like, "There likely won't be a revote," "Readers are turning to Harry Potter for comfort," and my personal favorite, "Smug Putin memes to sum up his feelings about the election."
Bustle, of course, was built in the wake of Buzzfeed and Upworthy — two of the most quintessentially Obama-era startups of all time — which mechanized Daily Show-bred liberal optimism into an orchard of feel-good lists, editorials, and polemics. Now, those twee-poisoned media entities were forced to contend with the savagery of the Trump era, which banished their content into the abyssal depths of the uncanny valley. In the woozy, befuddled aftershocks of this reactionary paramountcy — as the Clinton coalition was still trying to figure out how everything went so wrong — the Bustle oligarchy wanted to see if their readers would click on Trump-Russia memes at the same rate they engaged with Nickelodeon slideshows. It is instructive, I think, to know that even as the grotesque truths about America are revealed and empowered by a vengeful, minority electorate, it will always be business as usual for people like Goldberg.
I don't know if there's a moral here. Like the rest of you, I will spend tonight in my living room, tuned to CNN for the first time this calendar year. I'll watch the results trickle in, express my disgust at the inevitable Republican chicanery, and probably call my parents a handful of times. So I want to express sympathy for any writers who will be forced to sequester their horror during the proceedings long enough to drum up a few posts about Biden's North Carolina margins in order to stay employed. This industry does an incredible job of making you believe that you are powerless. I cannot offer absolution, I can only hope that you do not feel that way for long.
And now, some MAGA guys predicting a red California.
(Bonus points here for the red Hawaii.)
Good luck tonight, see you on the other side, (whenever that may be.)