It has to be said: There is something plain amazing about Pete Buttigieg’s run for the presidency. His last election was for mayor of a very small city. No offense to South Bend, Ind., but being the nation’s 308th largest city is not something to brag about. In his last election before the Iowa caucus Buttigieg won the support of less than 9,000 people. Pete Buttigieg did this by outlasting, out-fundraising, and out-debating former governors and a California senator, and lapping billionaire entrepreneurs. He beat a national front-runner and essentially tied the runner-up to the 2016 Democratic nomination. From unknown to serious contender for the presidency in less than a year: This is real Mr. Smith stuff, a tribute to the everyman nature of democracy.
To repeat myself, this is amazing, amazing stuff.
But also, it’s really creepy.
A few nights ago, the Iowa meltdown was just starting to dawn on us. Officially the Iowa Democrats were telling us that they had verified precisely zero percent of the votes.
And while we pondered that fact, this man, “Mayor Pete,” emerged on cable news to dispel the utter confusion and uncertainty and declare himself the victor based on his own tabulation. Think about that for a minute.
This is a man from nowhere who seems to have spent a great deal of time in the last few years managing his own Wikipedia page. His popularity is widely attributed to the work of a single media genius, Lis Smith. And as he was declaring himself the winner, a flurry of reports were being filed that there were some questionable financial connections between the developer of the Iowa vote-counting app and the Pete Buttigieg campaign.
Doesn’t that fact pattern make your skin crawl? Just a little? But it wasn’t just that a man no one had heard of a few months ago was now a self-authenticating leader of the Democratic field. It was the way he became that leader. “Tonight, an improbable hope became an undeniable reality,” he said, introducing himself.
What could he mean by that? In fact, with zero tabulated results, the improbable hope was quite deniable. Now with 100 percent of results in, it looks like Bernie Sanders won the most votes, but somehow Pete Buttigieg obtained more delegates owing to the Iowa Caucus terms of service — which seems to run hundreds of pages long in describing how tiebreaks and rounding works, and happens to have worked almost entirely in Pete Buttigieg’s favor.
The stagecraft was weird. If the demographic polling we’ve all read is correct, then the line of seven or eight African-American supporters behind him during his Iowa victory speech represents, by my math, 180 percent of his African-American support nationwide. In fact, those in that line seemed to constitute most of the African Americans in the room, which made you wonder how it was they were placed so directly in the sight lines of the television cameras. I bet that was a very delicate mission for the person tasked with it.
The surreal and eerie quality of the speech was enhanced by the fact that he declared himself the winner in prose that was so fundamentally empty. “We had the belief that in the face of exhaustion and cynicism and division, in spite of every trampled norm and every poisonous tweak,” he said, “that a rising majority of Americans was hungry for action and ready for new answers.”
What action? What answers? What is this? The whole timbre and cadence of his speech seemed to be modeled after the rhetoric of Barack Obama. But it lacked all the reassuring notes of specificity that seemed to prove Obama was an actual human being, inhabiting a corporeal body in the same space-time continuum that I inhabit.
Buttigieg’s speech, on the other hand, resembled a kind of mad-lib speech in which none of the blanks had been filled. Obama was promising not just “action” but to turn back the rising sea levels. How did Pete Buttigieg manage to beat Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and a dozen other people with more charm (such as Andrew Yang) with this utter pablum?
I’m not saying for sure that Pete Buttigieg is a robot or a phenomenon of massive psychotic projection. I can’t prove that. All I can say is that when he came out on stage in Iowa, I felt like we were undergoing a coup.
Bernie Bros have started calling him “Mayor Cheat” — which is funny. But I now think of him as “Creepy Pete.” No one can explain to me with any narrative satisfaction how he ended up on television in the position he is in. But here he is, bidding to be our leader. It’s amazing. It’s incredible. So incredible that I just want to check with all my readers and all their friends: Why are we crediting this as our reality?