Magazine | May 28, 2018, Issue

Understanding the Upheaval

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, by Salena Zito and Brad Todd (Crown Forum, 320 pp., $28)

Over the past decade, Pittsburgh-based syndicated columnist Salena Zito has carved out a niche for herself in political journalism. In her travels across the states bordering the Great Lakes, she has reported on the lives of men and women who do not normally make the headlines. Small-business owners, restaurant managers, bartenders, bus drivers, hunters and fishermen, contractors, technicians — these are her sources. What she learned from them in the years after Barack Obama’s reelection clued her in early to the Trump phenomenon.

Based on her extensive interviews with Trump supporters, Zito not only had a keen understanding of the voters from whom the New York businessman drew support, but also coined a memorable phrase to describe their mindset. A Trump voter, she said, took his words seriously but not literally, while the mainstream press took him literally but not seriously. On Election Day 2016, journalists learned that in dismissing Trump and his followers, they had made a gigantic mistake.

Now Zito has joined forces with Republican consultant Brad Todd to write an entertaining and informative study of Trump’s unexpected victory. The Great Revolt is organized around the findings of a poll, commissioned for the book, of 2,000 self-identified Trump voters from Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Trump is president because he won slim majorities in these states, especially Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which had been lost to GOP presidential candidates for a generation.

It is possible to overstate the magnitude of Trump’s win, easy to forget that he did not win majorities of either the primary or the general-election vote. If not for some 77,000 voters in three states, moreover, he would not have won the presidency at all. And yet it is also possible to understate his achievement. What Zito and Todd demonstrate is that Donald Trump stunned the world in large part because he ran a campaign that was so different substantively and stylistically from those of the Republicans who came before him.

To frame their argument, Zito and Todd adopt the language of business and advertising. They liken the Trump brand to an innovative product that reshapes a consumer market. “Political analysts across the spectrum have given Trump credit for being a category killer, reshaping Republican politics in his image,” they write. “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.”

It’s an interesting analogy that helps to organize the material and expands the potential readership to include chambers of commerce and insurance executives eager to replicate Trump’s success in their own industries. But sometimes Zito and Todd put more weight on their business simile than it can bear. Pointing to Trump’s reliance on Twitter, Facebook, and the mass rally, for example, the authors observe, “Direct marketing to the consumer instead of relying on referrals is a hallmark of category builders.”

Well, sure. But did the Trump campaign ever consciously set out to apply the lessons of Madison Avenue to presidential elections? Ever since June 2015, Trump and his lieutenants and hangers-on have behaved more like a band of improvisatory acrobats than executives in gray flannel armed with PowerPoint decks.

The authors divide the Rust Belt Trump voters into seven “archetypes,” but there is little evidence that Trump ever gave much thought to the demographic makeup of his coalition. Instead he stuck to messages he had been repeating for decades: Trade deals have harmed American industry, the political class has failed ordinary Americans, and other nations have exploited the United States.

And he hit a nerve. Trump’s style, utterances, outbursts, and ideas may have shocked and disturbed the men and women at the heights of American media, technology, finance, and government. But the millions of voters who live and work outside of, and often find themselves at odds with, these elite systems became enraptured by his provocations.

To extend the commercial analogy: Trump discovered an underserved market, disaffected blue-collar voters in fading industrial and rural areas. “Trump only carried three 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,” the authors write. But in such places as Ashtabula County, Ohio, where Democrats have won for 30 years, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 57 to 38 percent.

Chief among the reasons for this remarkable shift in votes was Trump’s criticism of offshoring and foreign competition. His pledge to bring back manufacturing jobs was ranked most important by the voters surveyed for this book. Next came protecting Social Security and Medicare, then appointing conservative judges, and finally building the wall on the southern border. That reindustrialization and preserving the safety net are issues traditionally identified with Democrats gives some insight into the crosscurrents within the Trump movement.

These voters loved Trump’s attitude, authenticity, and pox-on-both-your-houses rhetoric. Indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that Zito and Todd’s interview subjects were more attracted to the way Trump said things than to the content of what he was saying. Joe Keenan of Viroqua, Wis., a lifelong Democrat who voted for Trump, says, “The one thing you saw with Trump is he didn’t pretend to be anything else but himself.”

Like his base, Trump was angry. Sixty-nine-year-old Connie Knox, of Fort Madison, Iowa, is “furious at a political establishment she believes has forgotten people like her who live in the middle of the country.” Trump voters are suspicious of large and distant institutions. Another Democrat for Trump, Ed Harry, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., says he’s “lost trust in everything big in this country, ‘big banks, big Wall Street, big corporations, the establishment of both parties and their lobbyists and the big media corporations; gone are the days of the network news just delivering the news.’” It is a sentiment echoed by David Millet, of Erie, Pa., who impersonates Kenny Rogers twice a week and says, “Big banks, big media, big corporations, I want nothing to do with them.”

Nor are Trump voters much interested in the Republican party. Their attachment is to Trump, and to him alone. “Eighty-nine percent of Trump voters represented in the Great Revolt Survey agree with the statement ‘Republicans and Democrats in Washington are both guilty of leading the country down the wrong path’ — a stunning rebuke for Congressional Republicans from their own voting coalition, and a cudgel that Trump will be tempted to wield when he reaches an impasse with his party in Congress,” the authors write. Just ask Jeff Flake or Bob Corker.

Trump voters are acutely conscious of the disdain in which they are held. Zito and Todd conclude that Second Amendment rights factored heavily into Trump’s victory, with gun owners rebelling against cultural stigmatization enforced by the media, Democrats, and Hillary Clinton. Amy Giles-Maurer, of Kenosha, Wis., says, “Our culture in Hollywood or in the media gives off the distinct air of disregard to people who live in the middle of the country. As if we have no value or do not contribute to the betterment of society. It’s frustrating.” Cindy Sacco, of Washington Township in Macomb County, Mich., adds, “I love the slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’ and . . . he was not going to bend and bow to political correctness.”

Support for Trump, then, was a protest vote against Democratic and Republican elites and the way they have managed America’s political economy, and policed public discourse, since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But was this outcry the start of a political movement, or just a spasmodic eruption of discontent?

“The emerging schism between the intensity of support for Republican candidates who represent this populist-conservative fusion in rural and industrial areas, and the newly competitive nature of educated suburbs that previously tilted Republican, is the core axis of our new politics,” Zito and Todd write. Whether it’s a schism or an axis, what matters for Trump is his ability to maintain the support not only of those who found his style appealing, but also of those who found him personally distasteful but voted for him anyway.

The future, as always, is an open question. But we ought to be grateful to Zito and Todd for reminding us that conservative policy victories increasingly depend on men such as Dave Rubbico, of Erie, Pa. Another lifelong Democrat, he voted twice for Obama, “loves the Pittsburgh Steelers, loves Donald Trump, and despises Hillary Clinton with a vengeance.”

Rubbico wears a MAGA hat and a T-shirt that reads, “This IS the USA. We EAT meat. We DRINK beer. We OWN guns. We SPEAK English. We LOVE freedom. If you don’t like that MOVE.” A few days before he spoke to the authors, he says, the body of a mother of four was found nearby. She was dead of an overdose.

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