Trump’s Working Class, Conservative, Populist Realignment
Bonnie Smith is a 63-year-old bakery entrepreneur in Jefferson, Ohio, in Ashtabula County. She begins her day in the bakery at 2:30 a.m., making doughnuts, then moving on to breads and pies “or whatever I have going out.” Married with three grown children, she started her business two years ago after more than three decades at the county sheriff’s office, where she rose from cook to dispatcher and then to deputy. Like nearly all her neighbors throughout Ashtabula County, she is a lifelong Democrat. Her parents were Democrats. She married a Democrat. She worked exclusively for Democratic county sheriffs.
But in 2016 she voted for Donald Trump. “I’ve seen the job losses here,” she says, “the rise in crime, the meth and heroin problem, society essentially losing hope; something just gave in with me.”
She was not alone. Ashtabula County had voted for every Democratic presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan, including Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama twice with vote totals of 55 percent. But Ashtabula County gave Trump 57 percent of its vote, to just 38 percent for Hillary Clinton. That tally represented a 31-percentage-point swing in the county’s presidential balloting from 2012 to 2016. That’s a remarkable statistic for any locale in any election cycle.
But it was typical of Midwestern counties. Fully 35 Ohio counties swung from Obama to Trump by 25 percentage points or more. Further, 23 Wisconsin counties switched from Obama to Trump, while 32 Iowa counties did so, along with 12 Michigan counties.
What’s going on here? We know that Trump’s performance in the battleground states of the Great Lakes area sealed his presidential victory, and we know that Clinton, in her focus on identity politics and the virtues of globalism, foolishly took that region for granted. But does this potent political swing from Democrat to Republican represent anything more than a fluke or a temporary Democratic setback?
Salena Zito and Brad Todd think it may represent something on the order of a “landscape-altering earthquake.” In their new book, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, they write: “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….”
That’s an audacious statement, but the two authors back it up impressively in this probing work of political reporting mixed with quantitative research and trenchant analysis. They conclude that Trump has transformed the American political structure in ways that will reverberate through civic America for years. “The migration of these voters,” they write, “—first in the congressional elections of 2010 and 2014, and then ultimately to Trump’s side in 2016—has fundamentally altered the American political landscape for the foreseeable future.”
Perhaps. But America also has 44 “mega-counties” with a million residents or more, and Trump captured only three of them. There are also 129 “extra-large counties” with populations between 400,000 and a million, and Trump took only 41 of those. Of these 173 big counties—encompassing fully 54 percent of the U.S. population—Trump’s vote totals even lagged behind Mitt Romney’s 2012 totals in 135 counties. And Romney, unlike Trump, lost his election.
What emerges from these numbers and the Zito-Todd analysis is a strong suggestion that America is split down the middle, and a political realignment may be in the works. The Democratic Party is redefining itself, in part by relinquishing the working class contingent that was once the party’s bedrock constituency. This apparent political inflection point poses two important questions explored by Zito and Todd: can the Republicans galvanize the Trump constituency for the long term? And will it matter to the future of American politics if they do?
The inflection point comes into focus with an understanding of the prevailing view of the political landscape that was in vogue before 2016. The man probably most identified with that prevailing view was Ron Brownstein of Atlantic Media, who coordinates the publishing company’s political coverage. Zito and Todd treat Brownstein respectfully as a serious political analyst, but they don’t spare him from the observation that, under his view of the condition and direction of American politics, Trump’s victory never could have happened.
Brownstein coined the term “coalition of the ascendant” to describe the voting blocs he saw as coalescing into the country’s dominant political force, including racial minorities, immigrants, millennials, and highly educated whites. And one more, which he identified in November 2012 in describing Barack Obama’s winning reelection coalition: “just enough blue-collar Midwestern whites to put the president over the top.” In other words, barely enough of those people voted for Obama to give him the battleground states of the Great Lakes region and hence to keep intact what Brownstein calls the “Blue Wall” of Democratic Electoral College hegemony.
But Hillary Clinton didn’t get “just enough” of those white voters. The Blue Wall didn’t hold for her, and the reason was Donald Trump’s resonance with citizens such as Ohio’s Bonnie Smith. The hard-working baker didn’t like what Clinton stood for, and she didn’t feel welcome in the coalition of the ascendant.
The Brownstein coalition stands for globalism, open borders, identity politics, free trade, cultural individualism, foreign policy interventionism, and gun control. Brownstein posits that this coalition’s growing force is driven by demographics—the decreasing “whiteness” of the U.S. population due to differential birthrates and the ongoing wave of immigration from non-Western nations. By 2012 this thesis was widely shared, including by Republicans such as Karl Rove and the authors of a solemn post-election analysis by the Republican National Committee. A Wall Street Journal headline over a Rove piece warned, “More White Votes Alone Won’t Save the GOP.” The RNC report declared, “The nation’s demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become.”
For Republican mandarins this translated into an imperative to become pale versions of the Democratic modality, embracing globalism, adopting a soft attitude on immigration, doubling down on free trade, acquiescing in elements of identity politics, maintaining a stern foreign policy, accepting the industrial devastation wreaked by U.S. globalist policies—and reaching out beseechingly to all the elements of the Democrats’ coalition of the ascendant. This translated into a view that, as Zito and Todd described it, “the only possible winning future Republican coalition must, by dint of math, become less white, less old, less rural, and more educated.”
And then along came Trump, the candidate of infrastructure spending, immigration curtailment, protection of entitlements, a ruthless assault on the Islamic State, selective curbs on free trade, Second Amendment gun rights, and foreign policy restraint. He not only laid waste to the Republicans’ “me too” drive to chip away at the coalition of the ascendant, but he did so with a raw contempt mixed with a scabrous mode of expression that was offensive to many but struck others as demonstrating a resolve to shake up a political establishment that had become ossified and oppressive.
In the process he demonstrated that Brownstein’s ascendant coalition concept was at least premature and possibly flawed. Even as far back as the 2012 election aftermath, a political analyst for RealClearPolitics.com, Sean Trende, noted that the white vote that year had declined to only about 91 million from 98 million just four years before, while black and Hispanic voters increased only slightly. What happened to those white voters? Most likely they just stayed home because the election offered no political alternative that stirred them. Their concerns, interests, and hopes weren’t being addressed, as the Democrats abandoned them and the Republicans ignored them. But in 2016, with Trump raging on the stump, the white vote reached nearly 97 million, according to exit polls, while a Center for American Progress study by Rob Griffin, Ruy Teixeira, and John Halpin pegged it at more than 101 million.
Nate Cohn of The New York Times foresaw this possibility, though he succumbed to conventional wisdom on election morning by pegging Trump’s chance of victory at just 15 percent. Wrote Cohn in June 2016, “The potential for [Trump] 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.” In other words, white voters who had avoided the political scene or had supported Obama but later felt disappointed represented a significant opportunity for a Republican willing to address their simmering grievances. That’s what Trump did.
In the process he opened up a powerful new fault line in American politics—Trump vs. the coalition of the ascendant. In ideological terms, it’s between globalists and nationalists; in socioeconomic terms, between elites and ordinary citizens; in geographic terms, between the coasts and flyover states; in foreign policy, between interventionists and advocates of realism and restraint. The question is whether the demographic changes heralded by Brownstein and others before Trump’s emergence will continue to the point of overwhelming the Trump coalition, assuming he can even hold it together. Brownstein adheres to his original thesis. True, he concedes, Trump’s vision has the potential to increase margins among whites, “but I just don’t see how that’s sustainable.” In this view, Trump represents an effort to outrun demographics, but ultimately demographics will prevail.
That may be right. But Zito and Todd suggest there’s wisdom in at least seeking to understand the Trump constituency before dismissing its survival prospects. That’s what they do with this book, which consists of three discrete elements—a public opinion survey of some 2,000 Trump voters in the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin; extensive interviews with some of these voters designed to elicit an understanding of what drove their vote; and an analytical exploration of the forces and pressures swirling through the body politic in the wake of Trump’s emergence.
The poll, conducted in August 2016 by a GOP advertising and opinion-research firm co-founded by Todd, indicated that 77 percent of Trump voters in these battleground states identified themselves as blue-collar Americans. Some 64 percent identified as conservatives, and 73 percent were Republicans. Some 21 percent voted for Obama’s presidential candidacy at least once.
The poll showed widespread sentiment that the American political system isn’t working. Some 89 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that Republicans and Democrats in Washington were both guilty of leading the country down the wrong track. Some 86 percent agreed that Trump “stands up for the working people against powerful corporate interests.” And 72 percent agreed that large corporations don’t care when their decisions hurt working people.
Many of those polled had experienced economic and cultural disruption. Some 37 percent had known people who had suffered from drug addiction, and 31 percent had either lost a full-time job in the previous seven years or had a family member suffer that fate. Fully 41 percent said their communities had fewer job prospects today than they did a decade before, and 18 percent had experienced a family bankruptcy or considered filing for bankruptcy. And yet, while these people harbored severe worries about the fate of the country, a vast majority (87 percent) felt optimistic about their own careers and financial situations.
What we see here is what Zito and Todd call a “fusion” of conservative and populist sentiments. Conservative populism isn’t unprecedented in American politics (I have argued in TAC that Andrew Jackson represented a particularly distilled version of that brand of politics), but the authors reveal an inherent encumbrance posed by such a fusion—namely, the difficulty in keeping non-populist conservatives (and particularly more moderate suburban Republicans) in the fold while addressing populist concerns. As Zito and Todd express it, “The challenge for Republicans is to keep the Trump coalition intact in rural and small-town geography, while preserving the pre-Trump partisan breakdown of suburbia—a feat that will require keeping longtime Republicans voting their party and newer Trump voters voting their cause.”
Through their interviews with Trump voters throughout the battleground Midwest, Zito and Todd identified seven distinct political subgroups. They are:
Red-Blooded and Blue-Collared: These are old-fashioned working stiffs who once served as the backbone of the FDR coalition. Although they had lost jobs in the past seven years or seen a family member forced out of work, they actually felt good about their own futures. Their primary concern was the health of their communities, and thus Trump’s promise to bring back industrial jobs drove their votes more than any other consideration.
A prototypical voter of this category is Ed Harry of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (Luzerne County), a longtime labor organizer. For decades, just his calling alone would have marked him as a Democrat. “But when the establishment Democrats stopped caring about his people,” write Zito and Todd, “he stopped caring about them.” Luzerne County peaked in population in 1930 at 445,000 residents. Now its population is down to 316,000, and no one in the establishment seems to care. Harry ticks off the big American institutions he doesn’t trust: “Big banks, big Wall Street, big corporations, the establishment of both parties and their lobbyists, and the big media corporations.” He decided to support Trump when he realized that the man was hated by just about every organization and entity he didn’t like—the Democratic establishment, the Republican establishment, K Street lobbyists, the Chinese, India, Mexico. When he announced publicly his Trump support, he promptly lost his job as president of the local labor council. He doesn’t seem to care.
The Perot-istas: These voters hark back to the supporters of the 1992 independent candidacy of industrialist and political maverick Ross Perot, who galvanized millions of Americans who either hadn’t previously registered or who had voted only intermittently. Similarly, Trump brought in a large surge of new voters, including Democrats who voted for the billionaire in open primaries or switched parties to vote for him in closed primaries. In the general election he also drew “Perot-istas” who hadn’t voted in recent years because they hadn’t found anything inspiring in Obama or Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney. “Democrats normally expect to reap the benefit of increased turnout,” write Zito and Todd, “but in the Great Lakes states it was Donald Trump who gained.” They define these voters as being older than 30 who registered for the first time in 2016, or who were eligible to vote but didn’t in 2008 or 2012, or who had no history of primary participation. Comprising about 6 percent of Trump’s Great Lakes constituency, they were less conservative, less ideological, and less religious than the rest of the Trump pool. The authors speculate that they will be the most difficult to keep in the Trump fold if things go awry under his presidential leadership.
Rough Rebounders: Trump drew voters who, like himself, had rebounded from significant life setbacks and found inspiration in his story of overcoming his early bankruptcy and debt problems. These people are decidedly less religious than other Trump supporters, less conservative, and more forgiving of Trump’s lewd and uncouth expressions. Only two thirds are Republicans, and a third voted for Obama at least once. It seems they were driven to Trump in large part by anti-corporate sentiments. Write Zito and Todd, “A less glamorous target than elite upscale social moderates, hip millennials, or racial minorities, Rough Rebounders nonetheless helped add votes to the GOP coalition that neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney got.”
Girl Gun Power: The Zito-Todd survey discovered, among Trump’s supporters, a significant number of women whose Trump support stemmed in large measure from a desire to protect their right to own handguns for personal protection. The poll indicated that women under age 45 constituted the one demographic group among Rust Belt Trump voters most likely to agree with the notion that “every American has a fundamental right to self defense and a right to choose the home defense firearm that is best for them.” Zito and Todd write, “The success of Trump and the NRA in coalescing a key niche of younger women, in an election in which every one of those votes mattered, is the story of a voter archetype few saw coming.”
Rotary Reliables: This group is particularly intriguing. Trump lost large numbers of educated GOP voters in suburban counties surrounding major cities, and those defections nearly cost him some major swing states and the election. But the GOP nominee did well among college-educated voters in counties farther from major cities—“a vital component,” write the authors, “of the record margins he assembled in those non-metropolitan counties.” Zito and Todd speculate that these more educated voters didn’t face the same social pressure applied to potential Trump supporters in bedroom communities of major cities. In more rural areas, such people are community leaders, responsible for the wellbeing of their less educated neighbors—and less likely to look down on their foibles, such as accepting Trump’s often uncouth demeanor. Hence this demographic was far less likely to defect from the GOP ticket because of Trump’s nomination. They are, however, among Trump’s least populist supporters.
King Cyrus Christians: One lingering question of the campaign was how a libertine vulgarian such as Trump could pull significant numbers of evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics—and seemingly retain their support well into his presidency. Zito and Todd speculate that “four decades of culture war has just made these voters Republican, and active, under any circumstances.” Perhaps their view of Hillary Clinton’s villainy on cultural and social issues also was a factor. The authors quote Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, as saying, “My personal support for Donald Trump has never been based upon shared values, it is based upon shared concerns.” These voters care a lot about Trump’s promise to nominate conservatives to the Supreme Court, and the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch as a High Court jurist bolstered their appreciation of the president.
Silent Suburban Moms: These were the people who kept Clinton from scoring the vote tallies she needed among suburban women to carry the swing states of the Midwest. “Because she and her campaign team bet their entire strategy on this group and failed to get the margin they needed,” write Zito and Todd, “the Silent Suburban Mom is an important archetype in the Trump coalition.” These voters are younger than most Trump supporters, less religiously conservative, less pro-life, and less likely to care about Supreme Court nominations. Some 25 percent supported Obama at least once, and nearly half were uncomfortable revealing to friends their Trump support for fear of social opprobrium. Write Zito and Todd, “As long as Trump is the face of the emerging populist-conservative coalition, this group will remain on its margins—and at the center of the electoral combat between the two parties.”
Although the Zito-Todd study focused only on the Midwest’s battleground states, it nevertheless demonstrates that the Trump phenomenon is far more complex and multidimensional than many pundits have appreciated. And it bears noting that this region will be particularly crucial in coming presidential elections. Brownstein and likeminded analysts were simply wrong about the so-called Blue Wall of Democratic Electoral College dominance, just as analysts of the previous era were wrong in positing the notion that Republicans held a “lock” on the Electoral College through the L-shaped configuration of states encompassing the Rocky Mountain West and the Sunbelt.
In fact the American system is always in flux and turmoil and can change direction abruptly as new issues, sensibilities, and coalescences roil the polity and generate new thrusts of political energy. That’s what happened in 2016, and the fact that hardly anyone predicted it only serves to accentuate the point. Further, the Brownstein thesis may suffer from the same intellectual weakness for which George Orwell scathingly attacked James Burnham in the early 1940s—namely, the pitfall of predicting the inevitable continuation of the thing that is happening. Brownstein predicts implicitly that U.S. immigration policy will continue in coming decades pretty much as it has unfolded in past decades.
But if Trump’s triumph demonstrated anything it demonstrated that current immigration policies are under severe challenge within the American polity. And it isn’t at all clear that ascendant liberals will be able to maintain those mass immigration policies indefinitely into the future. If they can, perhaps the coalition of the ascendant will materialize as predicted; if they can’t, then the trajectory of American politics could turn out to be far different from what many now perceive it to be.
Indeed, the Zito-Todd work leads to a conclusion that many liberal analysts and commentators have sought manfully to avoid—namely, that something like the Trump phenomenon was probably inevitable in U.S. politics as more and more Americans began to perceive just where the coalition of the ascendant intended to take the country. Perhaps that coalition will in fact rise to national dominance, will crush American nationalism, and foster an immigration regimen that will overwhelm those aging whites who bridle at seeing the country of their forebears transformed before their eyes. But, as this study of the Trump phenomenon makes clear, they won’t take it lying down.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is the former editor of The American Conservative. His latest book is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.