The presidential victory of Donald Trump in 2016 surprised many Americans. For more than a year, the public had been treated to a steady diet of political commentators and celebrities assuring us of Hillary Clinton’s inevitable ascension to the U.S. presidency. Across cable and network news, on late-night entertainment shows, at Hollywood award celebrations, during sporting events, we could not escape it: Clinton’s candidacy was strong and popular, while goofball Trump was wretched, unrefined, racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic. Who would ever vote for this clown? was the daily, even hourly, message.
It turns out, plenty of people did vote for President Trump, and a new book provides insight and clarity into who those people are and why they voted the way they did. The Great Revolt:Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics by Salena Zito and Brad Todd presents a delicious mix of quantitative and qualitative data analysis regarding the 2016 election cycle. You might remember Zito through her dispatches from flyover country during the election in publications such as The New York Post, The Washington Examiner, and The Atlantic. Many election-watchers may have been caught off guard when Trump won the presidency, but I suspect Zito was not.
Her co-author Todd, a GOP consultant and political ad guru, also had a reputation for unique insight into Trump voters. Todd’s observation that “voters take Donald Trump seriously but not literally, while journalists take him literally, but not seriously” ended up as one of the most quoted lines of the 2016 election.
Much of the the book revolves around The Great Revolt Survey, a post-election survey of 2,000 self-reporting Trump voters in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Wisconsin, and in-depth interviews with Trump voters who “broke rank” and voted for Trump in ten important counties that Obama had won in previous elections. The Great Revolt breaks down its interview subjects into seven categories: Red-Blooded and Blue Collared; Perot-istas, Rough Rebounders; Girl Gun Power; Rotary Reliables; King Cyrus Christians; and Silent Suburban Moms.
For each of the seven categories, Zito and Todd provide the background of the area and their interview subjects: how they came to their place in life, how their communities and industries were affected by previous political promises and policies, and how the demographic had voted in past elections. Trump outperformed Hillary Clinton and Obama in these places, and outperformed past GOP presidential nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney.
“Part of the difference as to why Trump won Erie and no other Republican in recent history has is that Trump actually came here. He showed interest. He told a different story. I believe Romney and McCain both just basically felt, ‘Hey, I’m the Republican candidate. Statistics show I can’t win Pennsylvania, so I’m not going to spend any time there,’” said Michael Martin of Erie, Pennsylvania, who came from a family of Catholic Democrats. “Trump did what nobody else did. He paid attention to the states that he shouldn’t have won and he did that, that was one of the things that really brought people to his attention. People were craving someone to pay attention to what was going on their community.”
What was it about Trump that led voters away from Clinton? The seven archetypes’ interests have some similarities and some differences, observe Zito and Todd. Trump held a certain appeal to very different people with different priorities. There were those concerned with growing religious liberty restrictions; those who had watched their town decimated by globalist political policies; those who were concerned about their personal security; and those who were concerned about losing the American traditions of a hard day’s work and patriotism.
While some voters were hesitant to pull the lever, fully aware of Trump’s shortcomings, their trepidation could not outweigh their dissatisfaction with beltway business as usual. One thing you won’t find coming from the interview subjects is the tired refrain we hear from the political celebrity class, hopelessly doomed to misunderstand the 2016 election: Trump voters are racist, sexist, xenophobic, and the like. Rather, the common theme from these unexpected voters was a revolt against the status quo, a revolt that transcended political partisanship.
It wasn’t that one party or another had let them down. It was the entire political system and those in its orbit that had failed at addressing their concerns. They were very intentionally voting for a complete outsider.
Abandoning Good Faith
It would be comforting to think that the group most in need of understanding The Great Revolt will read it and reflect on how the Trump victory came to be. However, the political industry has abandoned good-faith reflection in favor of doubling down on their cartoonish characterization of President Trump and his supporters as part of their political advocacy.
Even anti-Trump Republicans, still bitter over the Trump victory, are investing more time in damaging the Trump agenda than they ever did the Obama agenda. The media, entertainers, and the political establishment live in cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington DC, and they are far away from the communities and personal realities described in Zito and Todd’s book. The authors write:
Within a generation, the religiosity that was once honored by both parties became mocked by one as merely a basis of bigotry. Angst about financial insecurity was derided by coastal elites in both parties as the last wheezing of an outmoded appendage on the global economic animal. Even in the wake of their decisive role in the elections, Rust Belt voters watched on cable television as the Left and journalists pigeonholed their rebellion as an ugly bout of white nationalism, doubling down on all the elitist snobbery those voters sought to rebuke.
What does the future hold for “Trumpism?” Can this coalition who came together to put Trump in office continue beyond his time in the presidency? Or will politics revert to business as usual when he is gone? That remains to be seen. We are now in the midterm election season, the first wide-scale election since the last presidential race. The Great Revolt is perfect preparation for November, considering a repeat performance of 2016 is more likely than the establishment would have you believe.