NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY FOREIGN AFFAIRS • “Unlike most retellings of the 2016 election, The Great Revolt provides a cohesive, non-wild-eyed argument about where the Republican Party could be headed.”—The Atlantic
Political experts were wrong about the 2016 election and they continue to blow it, predicting the coming demise of the president without pausing to consider the durability of the winds that swept him into office.
Salena Zito and Brad Todd have traveled over 27,000 miles of country roads to interview more than three hundred Trump voters in ten swing counties. What emerges is a portrait of a group of citizens who span job descriptions, income brackets, education levels, and party allegiances, united by their desire to be part of a movement larger than themselves. They want to put pragmatism before ideology and localism before globalism, and demand the respect they deserve from Washington.
The 2016 election signaled a realignment in American politics that will outlast any one president. Zito and Todd reframe the discussion of the “Trump voter” to answer the question, What’s next?
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About the Author
Brad Todd, a sixth-generation native of rural East Tennessee, is a founding partner at OnMessage media firm. His candidate clients have included six U.S. Senators, three Governors, and more than two dozen congressmen.
Read an Excerpt
Hidden in Plain Sight
Jefferson, Ashtabula County, Ohio—It is 1:45 in the morning and Bonnie Smith’s alarm has just gone off. That alarm is a reminder that, seven days a week, she is living her lifelong dream of owning a bakery.
“I come in at two-thirty in the morning. We start making doughnuts from scratch. After that, I go into the breads and pies or whatever I have going out—like right now I need to do cupcakes, and I have a couple pies I have to put out, but I also have to check what orders are going out. Then we start soups, and by eleven o’clock we start lunch,” she explains.
At sixty-three, she is two years into her second career in the small town of Jefferson, running a Chestnut Street bakery that is a throwback to simpler times: pretty pink-and-green wallpaper decorated with cupcakes surrounds a fireplace and tables and chairs that fill the front of the bakery.
By 9:00 a.m., already half of her sugar cookies, tea cakes, cream wafers, brownies, mini tarts, and thumbprints are gone. With the help of her grandson, a fresh batch of sugary glazed doughnuts makes its way from the kitchen to a tray in the display case.
The aroma is irresistible and intoxicating and gently teases the senses.
A young mother enters with her three-year-old daughter, Evelyn, who immediately makes a beeline to the display case filled with colorful cookies and pastries and, with the willfulness and determination only a toddler possesses, plants her face against the case to get a closer look at the cupcake with rainbow sprinkles on top.
To the girl’s delight, Smith hands her the confection, and minutes later Evelyn’s face and fingers are covered in pink icing. The imprint of her little face on the display case—a smudged outline of a tiny nose and lips—makes Smith smile broadly.
As Smith started making soup for the anticipated lunch crowd, the diminutive brunette was sporting a white apron with legally sweet embroidered across the front, the name of her shop and a hat tip to her thirty-plus years at the Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Office.
She started working as a cook in the sheriff’s department when the youngest of her three children was five years old. It was the same job her mother had.
But Smith wanted more.
So she went back to school for criminal law while she worked as a cook in the courthouse. She then moved over to dispatch and then up through the ranks in the sheriff’s department until she made deputy, all the while raising her three children with her husband, an electrician for Millennium Inorganic Chemicals—one of the last big blue-collar employers in the once-mighty manufacturing county of Ashtabula, wedged between the shore of Lake Erie and the Pennsylvania state line, northeast of Cleveland.
Smith was raised a Democrat, her parents were Democrats, she is married to a Democrat, and she worked for elected Democratic sheriffs in a county that had not voted a Republican into local office for as long as anyone you find can remember.
Until 2016, that is, when Ashtabula picked Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton and swept in a local ticket of Republicans underneath him.
Bonnie Smith was one of the unlikely participants in that unforeseen realignment that happened across the Great Lakes region in hundreds of communities like Ashtabula County, flipping Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa into the Republican side of the electoral college after serving as what journalist Ron Brownstein dubbed the reliable industrial Democratic “Blue Wall” for decades.1
How Democratic was Smith, and how recently? In March 2016, she voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the Ohio primary contest. Voting Republican wasn’t even on the table for her, until suddenly it was, just a few months later.
“I am not sure what happened, but I started to look around me, and my town and my county, and I thought, ‘You know what? I am just not in the mood anymore to just show up and vote for who my party tells me I have to vote for,’ ” she says.
She was not alone. Ashtabula County had given its votes to John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Michael Dukakis. It gave Barack Obama a 55 percent majority share of its vote twice—before turning 180 degrees to prefer Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 57 percent to 38 percent, a 31-point swing from one election to the next.
At first look, the numerical magnitude of Ashtabula’s swing, in a nation presumed frozen in partisan polarization, is what seems notable. At second look, the remarkable aspect is just how common that kind of change was in 2016 in the states that make up the Rust Belt.
Thirty-five counties in Ohio, long the nation’s premier presidential bellwether, swung 25 or more points from 2012 to 2016. Twenty-three counties in Wisconsin, thirty-two counties in Iowa, and twelve counties in Michigan switched from Obama to Trump in the space of four years.
With few exceptions, these places are locales where most of America’s decision makers and opinion leaders have never been. Trump only carried 3 of the nation’s 44 “mega counties,” places with more than one million in population, and only 41 of the country’s 129 “extra large” counties with more than 400,000 but less than one million. Those 173 sizable counties are home to 54 percent of the U.S. population, and in 135 of them Trump even lagged behind the net margin performance of losing 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Trump crawled out of that mathematical hole in the all-but-forgotten communities—thousands of them.
It took a lot of Bonnie Smiths, in a lot of places like Ashtabula County, to wreck political expectations—and if their political behavior in 2016 becomes an affiliation and not a dalliance, they have the potential to realign the American political construct and perhaps the country’s commercial and cultural presumptions as well.
For Smith, who lives with her husband, George, on a working farm in nearby Saybrook, the political tipping point—even more than the job losses and the decay of the area—was a result of her faith and her growing disconnect on cultural issues from the candidates she had previously supported.
“I had looked the other way for far too long, had accepted that I was supposed to be more modern in my views when I wasn’t comfortable with the views my party started to take,” Smith says, making clear that this was a difficult decision to have made and to discuss publicly. “And I took a stand for myself, my beliefs, for life, and for my country.”
She says she also took a stand for her community: “All of this decay has happened under their [the Democrats’] watch.”
The shopping district where Legally Sweet sits is struggling; a Family Dollar store is around the corner, and the majestic Ashtabula County courthouse, where she worked for years, is across the street. Shuttered businesses dot both sides of the street.
“The town closes up about three o’clock on the weekdays and, like, one o’clock on Saturday. There’s nothing here. The people come in and . . . you’re making it but you’re not. You know? You’ve got enough to skimp by for the next day, but that’s it,” she says.
The statistics on the area’s own economic development website paint a picture of an Ashtabula County stuck in transition and trying to creatively reinvent itself to get out of the Great Recession, from which the wealthier America on the East and West coasts recovered years ago. As of May 2016, the local economic partnership wrote that the county’s employed workforce level was still stuck under 42,000 people—nearly the same figure as at the bottom of the national recession in 2010, a fall from 46,000 in its pre-recession high.2 Nationally, the number of employed Americans had bounced back to pre-recession levels by 2014.3
The physical reality of the county’s industrial footprint tells the same story. Empty, idle, hulking coal-fired power plants line the lakeshore, and the docks that once attracted waves of Italian and Scandinavian immigrants to unload coal and iron ore now see little activity. The county’s population, according to the Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates, is 98,231, almost exactly what it was after the 1970 census, a span that saw the country as a whole grow by 59 percent.4
A Democrat for decades, Smith didn’t quite know what to expect when she went home one day and told George she was thinking about supporting Trump. He told her he was already there. “So there was that,” she says, laughing.
America’s political experts, from party leaders to political science professors to journalists to pundits, did not expect the Smiths, or enough people like them, to vote for Donald Trump. Virtually every political and media expert missed the potential of Donald Trump because they based their electoral calculus on assumptions that they hadn’t bothered to check since the last presidential election. To recognize the potential of the Trump coalition, analysts would have had to visit places they had stopped visiting and listen to people they had stopped listening to.
“I am kind of that voter that was hiding in plain sight that no one saw coming. I was right here all along. I’ve seen the job losses here, the rise in crime, the meth and heroin problem, society essentially losing hope; something just gave in with me,” Bonnie Smith says.
The political experts called the 2016 election wrong—not because they took too few polls or studied too many census trends, but because they assumed American elections were immune to the same changes wreaking havoc in every other part of American society.
Amazon is in the process of destroying Walmart and what is left of Main Street at the same time. Streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube are fragmenting and democratizing the creation and delivery of video entertainment. Person-to-person payment systems like PayPal and Venmo, and crowd-sourced funding communities like GoFundMe and Kickstarter, are reshaping the movement of private capital. In virtually every sphere of American society, institutional loyalty and expert filtering are being discarded in favor of direct communication and deliberate silo-ing. Similarly, Donald Trump’s electoral coalition is smashing both American political parties and the previously impenetrable political news media, often in spite of Trump himself.
In the wake of the 2016 election surprise, the political experts have continued to blow it—looking to predict the coming demise of the president without pausing to consider the durability of the trends and winds that swept him into office. Even if Netflix disappears, traditional cable providers will never have the monopolistic hold on viewers they did twenty years ago. Similarly, after Trump, traditional political parties will not have the same sway with voters they’ve had for past election cycles.
The history of the American electorate is not a litany of flukes; instead it is a cycle of tectonic plate–grinding, punctuated by a landscape-altering earthquake every generation or so. This movement is not dissimilar to that of any other American consumer category; it should come as no surprise that electoral choices float and change in the same manner as other voluntary behaviors in the most open and dynamic market in the world.
Analysts of consumer-product marketing make a distinction between category killers and category builders. Disruptive brands that merely reorient a single category are category killers: think Miller Lite beer, or diet soda. Meanwhile, products that are category builders do more, starting an entirely new marketplace: think Federal Express or Apple’s iPad.
Political analysts across the spectrum have given Trump credit for being a category killer, reshaping Republican politics in his image. But the characteristics of his rise and the unique new coalition he fused in the Rust Belt argue that he should be viewed as a category builder, the first success of a coalition that is not likely to soon separate.
Employing direct marketing to the consumer instead of relying on referrals is a hallmark of category builders. Trump’s favored message delivery mechanisms: Twitter, dominance of cable news even when it required self-stoked controversy, and television-friendly rallies not only cut against the normal practices of the professional campaign industry, they enabled him to outflank, and simultaneously own, his critics in the news media as well. Trump used the red-hot scrutiny of journalists to polarize and galvanize a plurality of voters in primary after primary, and then in the general election’s key battlegrounds.
Attacking all existing brands with equal ease and success is another trait of category builders. Trump drove a wedge between voters and the existing brands simultaneously, making the case that both parties were incapable of delivering his attributes. Trump’s campaign was arguably the least partisan in recent memory because from the start he aimed his fire at both political trenches. By Election Day, Trump had vanquished not only the stale institutional hierarchy of the Democratic and Republican parties, exemplified perfectly by the gasping legacy brands of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, but the entire national press corps as well.5
In his first campaign announcement speech in the lobby of Trump Tower in June 2016, Trump said: “I’ve watched the politicians. . . . They will never make America great again. They don’t even have a chance. They’re controlled fully—they’re controlled fully by the lobbyists, by the donors, and by the special interests, fully.”6 Trump, previewing his stamina for a slashing campaign that would leave him with few elected allies, said, “This is going to be an election that’s based on competence, because people are tired of these nice people. And they’re tired of being ripped off by everybody in the world.”
Trump bore out his differentiation on the primary campaign trail for a year through Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and subsequent primaries, even creating a months-long melodrama around the prospect that he might mount a third-party bid if his effort at the GOP nomination was thwarted. Trump deftly used Republican elites, exemplified by the well-off and well-connected backers of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, as foils, even daring to attack the donor-heavy, in-person audiences sitting just feet from him at the GOP’s primary debates. What struck many as thin-skinned rants turned out to be brand-building, proving to Trump’s most loyal followers that he was a different kind of Republican, one that wasn’t much of a Republican at all.
For nearly a century, American politics has put the New Deal coalition of government takers on one side, opposed by the fusion of affluence and evangelicalism of the modern Republican Party. The coalition that elected Donald Trump—and the one that opposed him—fit neither of those blueprints.
James Carville, the architect of the first Clinton campaign in 1992, famously said that after five Republican victories in the prior six presidential elections, he and the Clinton team engineering what was then a novel Democratic victory “didn’t find the key to the electoral lock here. We just picked it.”7
The question of whether Trump’s unconventional bid merely picked the lock of a different era of Republican politics or whether his new fusion of populism with conservatism is a remaking of the American political axis entirely, is a central question of this book.
Any discussion of the populist-conservative Trump coalition has to start with crude demography, because that winning coalition of voters was not one anyone in politics considered to be a possibility.
In the wake of two crushing Republican presidential defeats, the mantra that “More White Votes Alone Won’t Save the GOP”8 was an article of faith (and the headline of a 2013 piece in the Wall Street Journal by uber-strategist Karl Rove). The Republican National Committee’s postmortem of Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in 2012 concluded the same thing in many more pages of copy, bathed in census information. “The nation’s demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become,” wrote the authors of the widely cited report.9
Even neutral pundits such as The Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman postulated that “it’s no wonder that some pundits have suggested Democrats have an emerging ‘stranglehold on the Electoral College.’ ”10
Democratic strategists echoed this theory, and it underpinned every strategic decision they made. Fresh off their second consecutive presidential victory by a wide margin with Barack Obama carrying their banner, Democratic campaign pros were confident of their new enduring majority. Veteran journalist Ron Brownstein of The Atlantic dubbed this new amalgam of fast-growing demographic groups such as Latinos, socially liberal young voters, energized African American voters, and left-leaning women as the “coalition of the ascendant,” and the moniker stuck.11
In 2015, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress wrote a de facto obituary of the GOP. “For years Republicans could rely on white voters—and, in particular, working-class whites—to constitute a decisive proportion of the electorate and deliver victory. This is no longer the case.”12
It was a mantra Republican mega-donors, suffering with post-traumatic stress syndrome from Romney’s loss, were eager to advance. They pushed freshman senator Marco Rubio’s proposal to reform immigration laws and create a pathway to legality for the more than ten million illegal immigrants in the United States. They backed RNC chairman Reince Priebus’s remaking of the party’s staff structure around the concept of year-round field-staff outreach to minority communities, instead of saving up dollars for advertising in the last weeks of the election season. This article of faith quickly spawned an order of clergy, the political operatives who enforced discipline around the post-Romney takeaway: the only possible winning future Republican coalition must, by dint of math, become less white, less old, less rural, and more educated.
But quietly, many conservative data nerds began to analyze exit polling data from the 2012 election and drew a different conclusion. They saw signs that Romney had not fully exercised his own voting base on Election Day. One of the first among these analysts was Sean Trende, who writes for the popular polling aggregation website RealClearPolitics.com. Just days after the election, Trende calculated that the Romney-Obama election might have included fewer than 91 million white voters, down from the 98 million who had participated just four years before, while African American and Hispanic raw voter numbers increased slightly. The Democrats’ insistence on the inevitable rising power of minority voters was premature, according to Trende, and not an explanation for Romney’s loss. “In other words, the reason this electorate looked so different from the 2008 electorate is almost entirely attributable to white voters staying home,” Trende wrote.13
Notably, Trende did not hail from, or work for, the Republican Party’s committee-based power structure in Washington, freeing him to suggest that Romney, beloved in the inner sanctums of professional GOP politics, had failed, rather than been failed by, the electorate available to him.
Trende, and those who furthered his analysis, were widely derided by Official Washington.
Romney’s strategists, including veteran adman Stuart Stevens, regularly shot back at theories like Trende’s, saying, “The myth survives that there are these masses of untapped white voters just waiting for the right candidates.”14
But at least one person in the political pantheon of the country was listening: Donald Trump.
From the start of his campaign, Trump crafted an issues matrix that was as far from Romney’s as one could be and still fit nominally under the Republican tent. The capitalist free-trade consensus that Romney, Clinton, and every Bush on the national scene had endorsed was ridiculed by Trump, even in his announcement speech.
“The problem with free trade is you need really talented people to negotiate for you. . . . Free trade can be wonderful if you have smart people, but we have people that are stupid,” Trump said in his announcement speech. “We have people that aren’t smart. And we have people controlled by special interests.”15
Attacking trade and multinational agreements was at the core of Trump’s campaign—and a linchpin for his antiestablishment coalition—from the start. Trump assailed U.S. agreements with China just minutes after he descended the escalator for his debut as a candidate, in the second paragraph of his announcement speech, saying, “We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us.”16
And he segued seamlessly into his second primary angle on the topic, and one more suited to the Republican primary audience, illegal immigration. “When do we beat Mexico at the border?” Trump asked. “They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems.”17
Trump’s nationalist argument was economically pragmatic from the start, devoid of the ideological language of the trench warfare that had stalemated presidential politics for the preceding thirty-five years. Treated as a gadfly when he dropped into the race, the uniqueness of Trump’s opening argument was largely unnoticed. Since the Reagan era, virtually every Republican presidential aspirant until Trump had made arguments with a coherent libertarian antigovernment ideology at its core, the intellectual heirs to failed 1964 nominee Barry Goldwater, waging war on behalf of the international private sector against the creep of socialistic government. Republicanism itself became consumed with the “big government versus small government” argument. Trump’s premise rested on a different axis and picked different battles.
Trump’s announcement speech spanned 6,342 words, and not one of them was “conservative” or “liberal.” But the speech was not devoid of issues. Saving a few odd rambles into commentary on his personal wealth and his business trophies, Trump homed in on the themes that would animate his seventeen-month campaign: infrastructure spending, immigration reform and a wall on the southern border, protection of Medicare and Social Security benefits, a proactive and ruthless approach to the Islamic State terrorists, an unyielding support for Second Amendment gun rights, and a pledge to use the White House’s bully pulpit to shame American corporations into on-shoring future manufacturing jobs.
Trump’s populism found an immediate positive reception in both curmudgeonly New Hampshire and the antiestablishment South, setting him up for key early primary victories, overpowering the conservative appeals of his rivals. And more than just setting the pace in the primary phase, Trump gained a foothold with the same rural and industrial voters in economically challenged Rust Belt states who had either stuck with Obama in 2012 or stayed at home.
These voters represented the last, and most overlooked, clause in Brownstein’s description of the coalition of the ascendant. The subhead of Brownstein’s dispatch coining the moniker in November 2012 said: “A combination of the young, minorities, and women joined with just enough blue-collar Midwestern whites to put the president over the top.”18
Without Trump’s victories over a crowded field in New Hampshire and South Carolina, he likely never would have been able to overcome the mass of elite donors aligned against him. And without the twin sympathetic platforms of Twitter and live rally speeches on Fox News, which spoke directly to the non-Republican voters in forgotten small and midsized communities in rural Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa, he certainly never would have won the general election.
Trump’s candidacy would not only defy conventional labeling; the coalition it attracted would be forged on an entirely new axis, welding together the conservative bloc that had become almost chemically opposed to Hillary Clinton with an emerging populist cohort that voted based on its assessment of its own economic and cultural condition, when it bothered to vote at all.
A few observers in the center-left press toyed with the mathematical possibilities presented by Trump’s appeal, but ultimately could not project its efficacy.
Data-loving columnist Nate Cohn of The New York Times wrote, presciently, in the summer of 2016, “Whatever you think of Donald J. Trump, it is clear that this election has the potential to reshape the allegiances of many white working-class voters who have traditionally sided with the Democrats and many well-educated voters who have sided with the Republicans. . . . The potential for him to break through among white working-class voters isn’t merely theoretical. . . . There are more white working class-voters than is generally believed, and Mr. Obama was stronger among these voters than typically assumed.”19
But by November, Cohn had talked himself out of the radically correct projection of the Trump coalition that he had made five months before. On election morning, Cohn’s team of data modelers at the Times gave Clinton an 85 percent shot to win the election, and Trump only an 11 percent chance to win Pennsylvania, a 7 percent chance to win Wisconsin, and a 6 percent chance to win Michigan.20
The architecture of this new coalition, essentially a realignment, was made possible by technological changes that Trump was the first to fully exploit. The Internet, and the rise of social media’s prominence in reporting, has made the national landscape of journalism both more fragmented and more pack-oriented at the same time. The rise of Twitter and other aggregators, such as DrudgeReport.com, have empowered consumers to pick and choose not just their favorite news outlets but favorite individual reporters and commentators. The prevalence of aggregators and the ubiquity of Twitter use among writers and editors has created a national virtual newsroom, simultaneously giving every journalist an instant feedback loop on the stories their competitors are chasing, incentivizing them to do the same.
Trump’s preference for making his newsworthy—and often outlandish and almost always candid—statements via his Twitter account enabled him both to speak directly to his audience and to command the full attention, and agenda, of the press corps. That dominance of the spotlight, even when the spotlight turned negative, was a crucial component of Trump’s primary victory in a crowded field subject to a ruthlessly low campaign donation limit of $2,700 per person. If every candidate’s ability to advertise is limited artificially by legal donation caps, then the candidate with the most free media attention, however harsh it might be, has an advantage. Trump’s ability to go around the filter of analysts was even more critical because his coalition was novel.
Had Trump’s candidacy arisen in an earlier era, with just three networks and two wire services dominating and imposing a rigorous traditional filter on information reaching the consumer, his paradigm-bursting message might never have gotten through to its intended audience.
But in the age of the smartphone, Trump’s audience could not only find him, and recirculate his content to their peers on Twitter and Facebook; it could organically grow large enough to fuel the ratings success that made him a dominant presence on the cable news shows throughout the Republican primary process, starving a dozen major GOP candidates of any spotlight at all.
Even voices in the proud New York Times newsroom now cede that Facebook, not the Old Gray Lady itself, now drives the national conversation with the horsepower of its search traffic and algorithms providing traditional media its best chance to be seen. “Measured by web traffic, ad revenue and influence over the way the rest of the media makes money, Facebook has grown into the most powerful force in the news industry,” wrote Times media columnist Farhad Manjoo in the heat of the 2016 campaign.21
By the midway point of the GOP nomination process in March 2016, when Trump had romped through the early primaries to become the clear frontrunner, the analytics firm mediaQuant and The New York Times calculated that Trump had earned $1.9 billion dollars’ worth of exposure on news programs, nearly triple the amount Hillary Clinton had received to that point and six times the amount of his closest Republican rival, Senator Ted Cruz, or Democratic challenger Senator Bernie Sanders.22
Trump got booked onto cable news shows because he was good for ratings—driving eyeballs to morning gabfests like Fox & Friends and MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and evening staples like Fox’s Hannity. Conservative commentators and hosts who bucked Trump saw their ratings drop, while those who gave him an audience saw their ratings soar.23
Trump deliberately used this muscle of his loyal audience to incentivize more favorable coverage for his campaign, punishing hosts and outlets critical of him and rewarding those who gave him free rein. An extended spat between the candidate and Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly, in which Trump hurled what most observers saw as crude, thinly veiled sexist slurs at the prime-time host after her questions during the first GOP primary debate, in August 2015, led to a temporary Trump boycott of the entire network.
When Fox’s brass caved in the standoff and subtly picked a newsmaker over its own on-air talent, Trump returned to its airwaves and brought his ratings back with him.24 Trump dominated the pregame and postgame coverage of the Republican debates, which drew ratings previously unseen in nomination contests. Trump even dominated coverage of the two debates he skipped, including one in the week before the first nomination votes were cast in the Iowa caucus.25
As Trump’s star and his TV ratings rose in the Republican nomination process, he drew the fire of the party’s intelligentsia, mostly expressed in the print media.
Magazines such as The Weekly Standard and National Review, long house organs of the ideological Right, devoted entire issues to making the case against Trump’s ideological apostasy.
With the Iowa caucuses and the onset of the actual nomination process less than two weeks away in late January 2016, the editors of National Review pleaded with American conservatives to reject Trump and his hybrid message of populism fused to rhetoric that appealed in tone, if not in substance, to the rebellious conservative heart. “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself,” wrote the magazine’s editors.26
The Weekly Standard’s founding editor, Bill Kristol, an influential Republican thinker for decades since his days on the staff of Vice President Dan Quayle, remained a Trump critic from the earliest primaries throughout the fall election, penning articles with titles ranging from “Donald J. Obama” (as Trump was sewing up the nomination in April) to “Dump Trump Now More than Ever” (a month before the general election).27
Kristol’s last pre-election piece, on the eve of voting in November, titled “A Populist-Nationalist Right? No Thanks!,” pointed squarely at Trump’s realigning of the consensus on the American political Right. Kristol’s rational laments pointed not only to the lack of ideological coherence of his party’s nominee, but to an angst that perhaps the voters among the electoral coalition of the Right were suddenly more interested in triumph than tribe.
The pleas of the Washington conservative salons urging the base to eschew Trump’s often crudely expressed ideological apostasy leapt from the theoretical to the pragmatic in the final month of the campaign.
On a Friday night in early October 2016, The Washington Post released a video recording of a lewd behind-the-scenes conversation between Trump and television host Billy Bush in which Trump talked obscenely of grabbing women by the genitals.
The revelations, and the nonstop media frenzy they triggered, pushed many Republican leaders who had reluctantly held on to their party’s unconventional nominee to finally let go of the rope—from dozens of congressmen to the chair of the Republican Governors Association, Governor Bill Haslam (R-TN), to 2008 presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ), to embattled rising stars Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Representative Joe Heck (R-NV), with McCain, Ayotte, and Heck engaged in difficult Senate campaigns.28
The fallout from the tape brought prominent conservative women who had thus far kept silent on Trump to step out in opposition to him, from former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to popular evangelist Beth Moore, who chastised male Christian leaders still clinging to Trump: “Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s that big a deal,” Beth Moore said, joined by Dr. Russell Moore, the leading political voice of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, who announced he could support neither Trump nor Clinton.29 Russell Moore chastised Protestant evangelical leaders who stuck with Trump: “Convictional evangelicals who are pro-life and pro-family know Hillary Clinton is not with us and we cannot go that way but that doesn’t mean we have to follow another way that is reckless and horrible. . . . Many of the people who for years have warned us about situational ethics and moral relativism are now asking us to practice it.”30
Pollsters on both sides of the political aisle predicted a record low performance for Trump in the looming election among women, the college-educated, and the religiously pious, hollowing out any potential Republican majority and imperiling down-ballot candidates as well. Journalist Ron Brownstein summed up the angst of Republican handicappers in a column released the weekend the scandal broke, entitled “How Trump Could Become a ‘Political Black Hole’ for the GOP,” delineating a consensus fear among party strategists that Trump might not only go down, but take scores of other Republican candidates with him.31
But when the votes were counted it was not Trump who was a black hole for Republicans, but rather opposition to Trump.
Heck, who before his renunciation of Trump held a small but steady lead in his Senate race in Nevada, wound up losing by a slightly wider margin than Trump lost Nevada to Clinton. Ayotte was similarly unable to separate from Trump, losing by just over 100 votes in New Hampshire, a state Trump lost by 3,000 out of 700,000 cast.32
Trump’s coalition on Election Day obliterated the article of faith among experts in both parties that a Republican could not win largely on the strength of his margins among white voters.
It is possible that no other candidate in the 2016 Republican field could have assembled that coalition, precisely because too many of the party’s thinkers and donors were wedded to the inaccurate, quasi-religious belief that the GOP’s existing demographic base could not stretch far enough to encompass a winning coalition in 2016. The Trump campaign, devoid of any donors in its earliest stages and including few of the party’s Washington-based strategists, was untethered to the totems that constrained the Romney and McCain campaigns—a blind fear of expressing skepticism about trade deals, an unwillingness to take an edgy approach to border security, and an inability to use the unpolished language that could inspire confidence in the GOP’s most unreliable and skeptical voters.
Trump’s candidacy proved that a radical reshaping of the axis of decision-making, from one of ideology to one fusing aspiration with agitation, could build a governing majority in the electoral college—something short of a national majority or even a plurality, but more than enough in both traditional swing states like Ohio and Florida, and the “Blue Wall” of Democrat-dominated states in the Great Lakes region.
In assembling his new Republican margin in the critical Rust Belt states carried by Obama—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin—Trump built a robust new voter base that included the ideological secular Republican conservatives that Kristol and the editors of National Review sought to dissuade, far more evangelicals than Russell Moore hoped for, and millions more women and college-educated men than pollsters predicted.
In this book, we will explore seven archetypes of the most surprising voters who make up Trump’s coalition—voters who broke ranks to back Trump and voters who by all expectations should have broken ranks to desert him, based on the course the campaign took.
We will focus on the voters that Trump’s novel argument—coinciding with the decade-long leftward cultural drift of the Democrats—brought into the Republican fold, and those who stuck with him when their demographics indicated they might not. Some stayed with Trump, or were attracted to him, because of his platform, others because of their opposition to Hillary Clinton, others because of his polarizing style.
The specific voters who exemplify these seven archetypes of the Trump coalition and are profiled here were discovered in ten pivotal counties in the five Great Lakes states that tipped the electoral college to Donald Trump: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. All ten of these counties had been in President Barack Obama’s column in 2012, and most of them gave Trump a larger margin than any other Republican in this era.
From farm counties in Iowa and Wisconsin, to the suburbs of Detroit, to fading industrial centers on the shores of Lake Erie and the Mississippi, we spent time in diners, watering holes, bed-and-breakfasts, and coffee shops, finding Trump voters where they live and work. We avoided interstates and chain restaurants, looking for the places that make these communities authentic so we could better trace the journey of the voters who shook the American political system.
Our reporting was supported by empirical data analysis and survey research. The Great Revolt Survey was conducted exclusively for this book. The survey was fielded by the respected Republican opinion research firm OnMessage Inc. in August 2017, among a group of 2,000 self-reporting 2016 Trump voters, with 400 each coming from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
Some of these archetypes fit the familiar portraits of lower-income whites painted by journalists routinely since the election, but far more are hidden in plain sight and emblematic of wide swaths of voters who analysts least expected to find in Trump’s column.
To understand the potential staying power of this new populist-conservative coalition, and to decide if its marginal elements are likely to ever return to voting Democratic in future elections, one must walk with these voters, in their own places and within the imperfect textures of their angst and aspirations.
This is the story of the people behind the electoral earthquake.
Table of Contents
Authors' Note ix
1 Hidden in Plain Sight 1
2 Red-Blooded and Blue-Collared 19
3 Perot-istas 50
4 Rough Rebounders 74
5 Girl Gun Power 108
6 Rotary Reliables 143
7 King Cyrus Christians 172
8 Silent Suburban Moms 204
9 A Culture Craving Respect 228
10 Pragmatism Before Ideology 241
11 Localism, Not Globalism 246
12 What Comes Next 258