“You can observe a lot just by watching.”
I call 2016 the Chronicles Election. The issues discussed in this magazine, often a lonely voice in the wilderness, for more than 30 years finally caught up with the national political discourse and got a president elected. They are bum trade deals, an eroding industrial base, wars costing trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, tax policies that slammed the middle class, and—especially—open borders and unlimited immigration.
The Chronicles Election caught the ruling elite by surprise. Real conservatives experienced Schadenfreude election night watching Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, and the other avatars of fake news melt down on camera as the returns rolled in from the steppes. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, and my native Michigan went for Trump, the latter going Republican for the first time since 1988 when George H.W. Bush won on the coattails of incumbent President Ronald Reagan and a solemn pledge (quickly broken) of “No new taxes!”
How could the Main Sleaze Media have gotten it so wrong? The answer was ideological blinders and a failure to do some real reporting in the field. Hermetically sealed inside their TV studios and newsrooms in New York City and D.C., with occasional excursions to their mansions on Martha’s Vineyard, they had no idea power lay in the streets where it was being taken up by the American people.
Two reporters, however, who actually covered the election among the “deplorables,” had discovered what really was going on. They are Salena Zito, a Pittsburgh native who has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the New York Post and comments on CNN, and Brad Todd, who describes himself as “a sixth-generation native of rural East Tennessee” and is a founding partner of OnMessage Inc., a GOP opinion research outfit. In The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, they report their findings along the campaign trails.
Zito spent the whole campaign “on the road” traveling “the length of the old Lincoln Highway, highlighting the record surge of support for Trump far off the beaten path.” Todd set up focus groups across the land and watched, fascinated, as regular Americans “processed” the Trump candidacy: first hesitating over this brash New York billionaire with a personal life he admitted had been far from angelic, then moving full force toward him again when they realized he was an authentic patriot who would do his best to fight for their jobs, their liberties, their unborn children, and their way of life.
The chapter “Hidden in Plain Sight” describes Bonnie Smith, a wife and mother of three who owns a donut shop in Jefferson, Ashtabula County, Ohio. She gets up at 1:30 a.m. to start making donuts at the shop at 2:30. She worked hard in a previous job to save money enough to be her own boss. Her story could speak for many millions.
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.
Ashtabula went 55 percent for Barack Obama twice; then for Trump by 57 percent over Clinton’s 38 percent.
Smith explained her switch, something that could be recounted by so many:
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 . . . ”
The authors report that Smith was concerned about issues such as “the job losses and the decay of the area,” once a major coal and iron port for industrial Cleveland, 53 miles to the southwest. The county’s population steadily has declined since 1980. But even more important for her were “her faith and her growing disconnect on cultural issues from the candidates she had previously supported.”
It’s not clear if she realized it, but her words echo Obama’s attack on people like her during his 2008 campaign, made while trolling for campaign cash among the Tech Left billionaires of San Francisco. “They get bitter,” the Democratic candidate said, “they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” That year, even Hillary Clinton criticized those remarks, though by 2016 she had completely forgotten about them, and the people they were intended to describe. Bonnie Smith explained for her interviewer what the millionaire pundits on television shows didn’t see coming:
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.
The book includes data from Todd’s surveys of red-blooded (and red-voting) Americans, including “The Great Revolt Survey” of Rust Belt Trump voters that was conducted specifically for Todd’s and Zito’s purposes. From this survey, the archetypical Trump voter emerges as someone “who had worked a blue-collar, hourly wage, or physical-labor job after the age of twenty-one, and had experienced a job loss in the last seven years either personally or in their [sic] immediate families.”
Surprisingly, the authors’ interviewees expressed hope, despite their oppression by bureaucrats in the Swamp and being despised by the coastal elites:
Among this group, a full 84 percent were actually optimistic about their own future career path or financial situation, regardless of how they felt about their community’s prospects as a whole.
This inherent optimism about their personal situation, paired with concern about the community’s economic status, is a nuance missed by many analysts—and one that perfectly matched Trump’s optimistic and forward-looking slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
And that was before Trump even took office and actually started keeping his promises.
Another reason Trump won was the pat ently genuine enthusiasm he showed during his rallies in Flyover Country, mixing with the people he loved. Clinton, by contrast, spent a good part of October 2016 in California, which she obviously was going to win, grabbing campaign cash from the Tech Left and the Hollywood elite. Zito and Todd report that she traveled to Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan just seven times combined, while Trump stumped 18 times in those states.
I know the people who ran Trump’s California campaign. After he won the GOP primary in June, the whole effort concentrated on setting up phone banks calling voters in those Midwest battleground states. Ironically, it was made possible by the ultracheap phone services, designed by the Bay Area Tech Left, we now enjoy.
An important feature of The Great Revolt is its interspersion of regional and national analyses with vignettes of voters themselves. One of them is Gloria Devos, 77, who cast her vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Since then, her support for the President has only grown, “despite everyone telling anyone who will listen that our support for him has waned. Heh. Well, it hasn’t.” She voted for Trump in the first place, she said, because
[h]e was not a politician. He was not part of the system, a system that has been failing a lot of people. He was his own person, with his own style. And honestly, for the first time in the fifty years I was able to vote, I was excited to vote. Because this guy, this guy will make a difference. And the only people who will try to get in the way are the people who operate the swamp.
That’s loyalty, something you just can’t buy. And with Trump delivering on his promises, he’s going to be nearly impossible to beat in 2020.
[The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, by Salena Zito and Brad Todd (New York: Crown Forum) 320 pp., $28.00]