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The Making of the President, Heartland Edition

books and culture

The Making of the President, Heartland Edition

Salena Zito and Brad Todd profile the Rust Belt voters who elected Donald Trump. June 1, 2018
Politics and law

The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, by Salena Zito and Brad Todd, Crown Forum, New York, 320 pp., $28

During the 2016 presidential campaign, amid the pontifications of a national press both certain about its disdain for Donald Trump and confused by his appeal, came a flash of insight. Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review explained that the press “takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” With her ear for how Midwest people speak, Zito, along with her coauthor Brad Todd, expands on this understanding in The Great Revolt.

The authors commissioned an extensive survey for the book and also took a road trip “into the lives of Rust Belt voters.” They spoke with lifelong Democrats who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but switched parties in 2016.  “On the back roads and side streets of places like Erie, Pa., and Kenosha, Wis.” emerged voters who never seemed to figure in the networks’ reporting. They were “blue-collar optimists, evangelical pragmatists and suburban vacillators who turned the dials just enough to shock the body politic”—part of a white electorate that, notes analyst Lloyd Green, had seen the loss of more than 700,000 jobs between November 2007 and late 2016.  

Despite Trump’s narrow margin of victory—just 77,000 votes—in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, Zito and Todd see the 2016 election as representing a tectonic shift in America’s electoral plates. “Far from a fluke, the 2016 election was a product of Obama’s globalist conceits that produced defective trade deals, open borders and an aggressive secularism.” Trump’s victory was his triumph, not the Republican Party’s.  Neither the two-time Obama voters who switched to Trump nor the habitual nonvoters who came out to the polls in 2016 saw much to rally around in the GOP. Their ties are to Trump, a finding with implications for the upcoming midterms.

“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,’” Zito and Todd write. An Iowa voter insisted that the “only person that is able to turn me against Trump is Trump.” Similarly, in economically hard-hit Ashtabula, Ohio, east of Cleveland, a voter said: “So to ask me what would extricate me from Trump would be like asking me to remove me from myself, from my family, and from my community.” The most important issues for voters in the authors’ survey were “restoring manufacturing jobs, protecting Medicare and social security and appointing conservatives to the Supreme Court to protect religious liberty being threatened by assertive Hilary Clinton Progressives.” One interviewee said that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, “is no longer an acronym—it’s a noun, and a profanity.”

One cliché that critics got right about Trump’s swing voters is that they came largely from the small-town and rural Midwest. “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 observe. But in places like Ashtabula County, where Democrats have won for 30 years, Trump beat Clinton by 19 percentage points.

Zito and Todd show a keen understanding of voter sentiment and do not condescend to their subjects. White working-class swing voters have generally been characterized as resentful, ignorant, and often racist, but Zito and Todd describe thoughtful men and women who made a deliberate and sometimes fraught decision to support Trump. Upper-middle-class Joe Steil of Keokuk, Iowa, whom the authors dub a “Rotary Reliable,” interacted with middle- and lower-middle class citizens through his involvement in local civic organizations like the Rotary Club and the YMCA. Steil and many other residents of small and midsize communities are more likely to vote “with their neighbors and not their economic or educational class,” the authors conclude. 

With the Democratic Party doubling down on its hyper-progressive, identity-politics-driven agenda, it will have a hard time recapturing the voters it lost in 2016. “A liberalism that seeks to spread cosmopolitan relativism to the masses,” Zito and Todd write, “by force if necessary, instead of spreading economic equality, was destined to leave a decisive slice of the American electorate in search of a new home.” The Great Revolt does an excellent job of limning the concerns of this crucial and much-maligned segment of the American electorate.

Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

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