A year ago this week, I flew to Cleveland, rented a car, and spent the next ten days driving across eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania, stopping in small towns and cities to talk to people about the upcoming presidential election.
Like most journalists and political pundits, I thought Hillary Clinton would win, but narrowly, in part because of places like Trumbull County, Ohio, and Luzerne County, Pennsylvania—places that had historically voted Democrat but I thought might go for Trump. To use a now-cliché term, I suspected these “white working class” communities, many suffering from decades of industrial decline, felt left behind by the Democratic Party and ignored by the GOP. I thought voters frustrated by the establishment in Washington DC might just vote for a political novice like Trump, warts and all.
It turns out, I was right—more so than I realized. Enough people in the Rust Belt voted for Trump (against all expectations he won Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin) to hand him the Electoral College and send him to the White House. A year later, many media and political elites still don’t understand why or seem the least bit curious to find out. The mainstream media, convinced it’s the last line of defense against a fascist Trump regime bent on shredding the Constitution, has sunk to pedantic meme-making in response to credible charges of bias and incompetence in its coverage of the administration.
The Democratic Party has begrudgingly admitted it needs to talk more about the economy and reach out to voters in the middle, even as Democrats themselves have steadily moved left on everything from abortion to health care. For their part, Republicans continue to be divided among Never-Trumpers, befuddled conservatives, and pro-Trump populists who’ll support the president no matter what he says or how little his administration accomplishes.
Many Trump Voters Were Looking For a Scapegoat
Lost in all of this are the people across the Midwest who actually voted for Trump. They had their reasons, some of them good and some of them terrible. But a common theme was a seething discontent with the status quo, and not just the political establishment of the two major parties but also the media, which many people told me was part of the problem.
Oftentimes, this discontent was directed at the wrong things, the misfortunes of a town blamed on the wrong causes. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the town of East Liverpool, Ohio, a hollowed out place that sits on a bluff overlooking a bend in the Ohio River some 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. I stopped there on a weekday afternoon and found the downtown eerily silent and nearly abandoned.
One of the only storefronts that wasn’t boarded up or vacant was a gaming shop, video games and board games and such, whose owner, a heavyset woman in her fifties, was more than happy to talk politics. She was voting for Trump, she said, because she was sick of both parties and their inaction on illegal immigration, which she said was ruining the country.
At first, this struck me as odd. East Liverpool is the second largest town in Columbiana County, which is 95.5 percent white and virtually devoid of immigrants, legal or illegal. It’s possible the owner of that store had never encountered a single immigrant in her town. But when you consider what’s happened to East Liverpool, it makes sense that some residents would look for something or someone to blame.
Its industry—East Liverpool was once known as the “pottery capital of the world”—has been gutted by globalization. Its population has shriveled by more than half since 1970. Its claim to fame last summer was a Facebook post by the city police department that went viral: a photo of a man and woman slumped over in their car seats, mouths agape, overdosed on heroin while in the backseat, a four-year-old boy looks on.
Trump won 68 percent of the vote in Columbiana County. The last time the county went for a GOP presidential candidate by anything close to that margin was the 1928 election of Herbert Hoover.
It wasn’t just embittered small business owners in dying towns like East Liverpool who blamed Democrats or globalization on the problems they saw around them and saw a glimmer of hope in Trump. All across eastern Ohio I met Democrats who told me they were planning to vote for Trump: a woman in Youngstown who’d been a Democrat her entire life but was registering Republican this year and volunteering for the Trump campaign; a gay man in Akron whose small business was crushed by government regulations; a retired Army veteran in Warren who was sick of the Democratic Party’s leftward drift on social issues.
Warren is in Trumbull County, one of Ohio’s northeastern counties that went for Obama by 22 points in 2012. Trump carried last year. It was the same in Pennsylvania. Luzerne County, once the heart of the state’s coal industry in the northeast, went for Obama in 2012 by 5 points. The county had gone Democratic in every presidential election since 1992. Last year, Trump won it by nearly 20 points.
The Elites Venture Into Trump Country
Molly Ball has an excellent essay up at The Atlantic about a plucky band of policy wonks from Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington DC, who ventured into the wilds of Wisconsin to find out why so many people there voted for Trump and what can be done to bring America together. Their venture belongs to a rising trend of perplexed elites traipsing across middle America trying to figure out what they got wrong about last year’s election.
The upshot of Ball’s essay, aptly titled, “On Safari in Trump’s America,” is this: the policy people start out thinking that if they just meet and talk with some of these “real Americans” in flyover country, they’ll discover that these folks are actually interested in meeting in the middle, in compromise and consensus and living together in harmony. After all, writes Ball, Third Way’s raison d’être is “premised on the idea that partisanship is bad, consensus is good, and that most Americans would like to meet in the middle.” That’s not what they find.
They travel to Wisconsin’s Third Congressional District, which voted Democratic for more than 20 years until Trump won it last year, where they find people looking for someone to blame: farmers who blame America’s troubles on “parasites making a living off the bureaucracy,” old white men who blame young people for being lazy and drug-addled, union workers who blame the GOP, hippies who, as Ball writes, are “separatists, proud of their extremism and disdainful of the unenlightened.” They don’t find many people looking for common ground.
Little of this makes it into Third Way’s final report, a tidy piece of legerdemain that sanitizes what all these Wisconsinites actually think about their fellow countrymen. Writes Ball: “Despite the great variety of views the researchers and I had heard on our tour, the report had somehow reached the conclusion that Wisconsinites wanted consensus, moderation, and pragmatism—just like Third Way.”
The essay is an important reminder that, a year after the presidential election, our coastal elites still have not quite been able to grasp what happened last fall. It’s not that they haven’t been willing to travel inland to talk with Trump voters. It’s that they haven’t been willing to listen.
Correction: Luzerne County is in Pennsylvania, not Michigan.