Dear Partners in thought,
following my note on “The Road to Unfreedom” I wanted to share my thoughts with you on another book I just read, this time about America today.
Putting aside the obvious vagaries of the U.S. electoral college system and related gerrymandering, it was challenging for me to fully grasp how Trump could attract so many voters to eventually give him the White House. Having always felt close to “America” and its values (even “seeing myself” as a moderate Republican), I was stunned to see someone like DT, given his profile and personality, winning the lead role in the U.S. with so much dramatic impact on the “indispensable” country and for the world at large. At the same time, I was not too happy about the easy (even if not wrong) explanation that he had made it thanks to enough “uninformed” voters in the right states, as Foreign Policy stated after the election. I wanted to know more and was looking for a book on this matter.
I found one in “The Great Revolt” by Zita Salerno and Brad Todd whose goal was to shed some light as to whom voted for DT and why. (she a New York Post staffer – I was a bit worried – and him the founder of a Republican ad and op research company – both not Trump aficionados, as I was fearing, and honest fact-based writers). I recommend this book, built on shoe-leather reporting, if you were interested in the topic, with the caveat that it really focuses on ten rural counties of five states of the Rust Belt.
By way of summary (if you would not read the book), and as we know, putting aside the well-reported general stories about the the vote of the white working class, the two coasts and the South, “Rural America” gave DT his victory (large cities and their suburbs having gone for Hillary), which can be explained through the emergence of a few groups, some that drastically changed the political landscape especially in the Rust Belt. It is notable that DT actually won 80%+ of all counties with a population under 50,000 across America and lost in most if not all of the mega-counties above 1 million. These broadly-defined DT voter groups, predominantly found in rural and smaller counties, were:
• The “red-blooded and blue-collared” who voted for Dems election after election since 1984 especially in the Rust Belt and the states where Hllary had taken for granted and not really campaigned (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio…). The shift to DT from the usual presidential Dem candidate was massive. The drive was job losses in those states and the perception that the Dems, Obama, and the Establishment did not care. There was no real shift to the Republicans but a reject of both parties and a focus on DT’s pragmatism and apparent care for their plights.
• The “Perotistas” or non-voters who usually stay at home and do not care for either party. Once again, DT’s style and being perceived as a free man, speaking his mind, however coarsely, won them over. He was simply able to motivate people who never vote (and given the low participation rate in U.S. elections, there is scope to do so if the right triggers can be found).
• “Girl Gun Power” or women who use guns to protect themselves (again more in rural areas). The number of concealed weapons permits given to women trebled under Obama II. These women (regardless of education/degrees) saw the right to “carry” as the most important demonstration of female empowerment. The NRA gave the largest donation (USD 30m) ever to a presidential candidate and launched a massive campaign targeted at women, not men, their traditional “hunting” ground.
• The “Rough Rebounders” or people who identified with DT and his down and “back up” (business) life style. Also, that Trump was flawed personally made him closer to these voters who could also see themselves in him. DT’s dislike by the Establishment and mainstream media were in fact strong positives – a badge of honour – for this group. There is indeed a lot of rough rebounders in rural America due to the drastic social and economic changes having taken place in these areas.
• The religious conservatives (as we knew) or evangelicals and conservative Catholics who were mostly focused on religious freedom and, key, making sure the new Supreme Court Justice post-Scalia would be the right one. That and their opposition to Obamacare’s features dealing with abortion and contraception as well as legalised Same Sex Marriage. Interestingly, DT’s “colourful” personality and behaviour were not the main issue for them – To sum up their views: “We do not share his values (and behaviour) but we share his concerns” (in the end while many in that group could have stayed home with the choice at hand, they went for a lesser evil but one that would have an impact on the Supreme Court. And Mike Pence helped).
• The “Rotary Reliables” or rural college grads who did not vote with their “class” nationally (of the college grads in the 44 mega counties, only 3 such county groups gave a majority to DT: in Ft Worth, Phoenix and Long Island). These college grads, who often are local community and business leaders, voted with their neighbours and staffs – also as they did not feel the same peer pressure to reject DT as in larger, more urban, communities.
• The “Silent Suburban Moms” who, against all odds, did not give the first woman presidential candidate a victory, this across the board in rural and urban America. Hillary had heavily focused on the woman’s vote making her bid to be the first woman President (while gradually stressing DT’s unsavoury approach to women) as the central plank of her campaign, which appeared to many women (though not a majority of white college degreed women) as self-centred rather than audience- centred, with her strong Establishment and dynastic entitlement status coming vividly across. Many women who felt “embarrassed” by DT held actually hidden mottos like “I did not vote for Trump. I voted against Hillary”, this mainly given her societal choices and personal style.
It is clear that a few themes and features appealed to DT’s voters, again especially in rural America:
1. “Draining the swamp”: Clear rejection of the two parties and lifelong politicians who do not care for the little or forgotten people, again outside the mega-cities. DT focused on this DC clean up need which resonated with disgruntled left-out voters in the heartland.
2. Pragmatism over ideology: DT, while nominally a Republican, did not project any of the traditional GOP themes (think Tea Party’s fiscal responsibility) and was also a Dem at some point, meaning he was seen as providing the right answers to the right times and issues, whatever the times. Also being “his own man” and not being afraid to speak his mind outside any party dogma was seen as a major asset. He was seen as an “exciting pragmatist” by his voters, even though many of them had not been convinced at the electoral outset.
3. No (apparent) allegiance to Big Business (and Big Money): Also why DT got many conservative Dem voters, even if the tax cuts which benefited a lot, short term, clearly favoured the top and business. His “billionaire” status and the fact he did not rely on business donations (initially?) also helped stress his ability to be his own man in the eyes of many (not to mention that he was “successful” to them in business given his “legend”).
4. Localism and not Globalism: Clearly globalisation in many rural states is seen as the main evil and is not much understood as to its ramifications explaining why trade wars and protectionism are seen as valid and needed policy tools from where DT voters live.
5. Craving for respect: Clear rejection of the bi-costal upper class elite that seemed (and was) detached from the lives of ordinary Americans while (being perceived as) telling them how to live and think. In many ways, Hillary’s Wellesley/Yale background, her roles of the last 25 years and her focus on “lofty” cosmopolitan concepts made her emblematic of that “global” (unpatriotic?) elite in rural America while the other choice, DT, did not, also as he was seen as a political outsider and a “disruptor” who could relate to, and came to visit, them where they lived. In DT they found a leader for whom they counted for something.
Now, if I may, my additional take:
I was puzzled by the fact that DT’s supporters did not mind at all his openly unsavoury character and the many sexual adventures that have kept cropping up from Stormy Daniels to the former Playmate of the Month. His core supporters stand by their man, come what may, and even like him more as a President than they did as a candidate, the feeling once again being strengthened by what they perceive as an onslaught against him from the mainstream media and the elite. Unanimously they will judge him on results, this being measured in economic terms, very locally. Even religious supporters do look the other way to focus on what matter most to them like the Supreme Court nominations and the economic recovery (it should be noted however that “most”, especially women, who backed him in large numbers, would also prefer if he were a tad more refined and Twitted less, though to give him credit he worked on the hair).
I noted that the “wall” or immigration were not mentioned much even if high on DT’s agenda. Perhaps as these were too negative and hard to defend as “good” proposals by many DT voters who see themselves as “good people”. The “wall” would have been more of an issue outside the Rust Belt like in Texas. Also China and other foreign nations were mentioned more than domestic Big Tech in terms of being factors for job losses, which fuelled major economic and social upheavals and its cohort of rising crime and opioids consumption. It is doubtful than Amazon and the likes are not responsible, certainly for high street changes and the disparition of many neighbourhoods everywhere in America. Similarly the Russian investigation (Mueller’s) does not register among DT’s core base, who finds him very patriotic and see that investigation as politically motivated to unsettle him and change the course of a democratically elected outcome (it is clear they do not dwell in details and turn off the news when they actually follow any, much preferring getting their news unfiltered).
One thing that struck me in the various testimonies of the people interviewed for the book was that they all conveyed good, traditional American values of hard work (stressing the desire for no handouts), patriotism and even optimism. In many respects they could have been Republican if born differently (on the right side of the track or even in a world that would not have evolved) and were backing Trump not out of despair but as they still believed in the future (in the American way) and saw him as one of them, who could deal with what they saw as the guilty Establishment and “DC swamp”. It is clear they did not value the traditional political process any longer (a key feature in itself), as it had not stopped what they felt, at times vividly, as economic and/or societal decay. I have the vivid feeling that one has to be in their shoes to fully understand the extent of their often desperate disgruntlement and why they would believe in someone like DT almost as last or new resort to correct their lives’ and society ‘s trajectories. It’s like they did not want for a DT but they had no choice left anymore to be heard as a group and he just came up with what they wanted to hear.
This book was helpful to refine my understanding of the DT success. Very personally (and admittedly from a non-U.S. European vantage point, however Transatlantic), I find DT in the White House to be one of the saddest and self-wounding developments in modern American History (akin to Britain’s Brexit) so much it destroys the values that American has put forward since its founding. DT, through his style and erratic decision-making, ill-judged policies, especially at the international level (Iran, Trade, NAFTA, Immigration…) and second rate advisers he does not even listen to, simply hurts the U.S. long-term interests and the world at large. DT has become the single most key destroyer of America’s real and soft powers globally. He is also working hard at destroying the very system put in place by Washington since WW2 which, while not being perfect, served the world rather well. However he was first rate in securing the votes of enough Americans in what was definitely an uphill challenge for him, given who he is, even if that was only a means (winning the election) and the end (governing) is and will likely keep being very dire.
I am sure that DT’s voters did not vote for all the negative developments that we see unfolding and that could easily keep happening globally. The saddest direct consequence is that those who voted for him will not only be disappointed but are likely to suffer the most, if only economically (like in the case of Brexit, say in Wales). In many ways – and that may be another key topic – this American “blip” (one would hope) also teaches us (as we knew) that while it is one thing to attract voters, often rightfully disgruntled, in our imperfect “will of the People” democratic process, it is another one to deliver on promises (all the more, populist ones – watch Italy) and more importantly to govern properly while upholding perennial values and ensuring sound economic and political sense, all the more when one wears a historical leadership mantle and has global responsibilities attached to it.
I think that one last aspect that made DT victorious is twofold:
1) the paucity of the choice in the Dem primary, largely the result of the dynastic and long time control over the party (even if Hillary was the best prepared candidate ever for the role) and
2) similarly the plethora of look-alike primary candidates on the GOP side, none of whom with much charisma or role readiness on offer, which made for a rather dull pack. DT also won as the others were not that “exciting”. I heard very few “Don’t ask what your country can do for you…” during that campaign. The TV star won as he was also entertaining.
The question now is “Where do we go from there?” in the mid-terms and 2020, assuming an impeachment is not to happen as being likely too challenging to effect given the probable remaining GOP control of at least the Senate post-2018 mid- terms. Both the U.S. and U.K. actually share the same political landscape with both main (and only) parties going gradually to the extreme right and left of the spectrum, leaving moderate wings disappearing from the current and possible future debate. In the U.S. the GOP has mutated into an opportunistic fusion of both conservatism and populism, both with some strong anti-Big Business and anti-trade agreement flavours (note Ohio Senator Rob Portman’s position on trade as an ex-U.S. Trade Representative under Bush II) while the Dems under a strong left wing leadership component (Warren, Sanders, Harris) have espoused a core electorally-driven agenda of multicultural and cosmopolitan values with their former main focus on the plight of the “American working man” (and its economic and strong union component) far less prevalent, this when Big Business CEOs from Buffett to the Tech giants are mostly leaning Democratic and veering also left, but again on a similar soft value agenda. This absence of a moderate counterweight in both parties might actually favour Trump and the GOP in 2020, even if the Dems are betting on the demographic joker of the “Ascending Majority” represented by the Millennials and their strong diverse minority component that would supplant any current Trump white majority coalition that may not survive its founder or simply die of attrition given the age of the members forming that coalition (very much a post-Brexit scenario too in that sheer demography, if not combined with a similarly rising diversity, may give rise to a pro-EU majority in the UK that would potentially lead to another Referendum in the 2020s if not before).
Going back to Rural America and the Rust Belt in particular, one wonders if any policy could restore over the long-term its pre-1980 status when past, now defunct, industries were booming. DT’s policies – based on campaign promises he is keeping, which will please his core base and cement their support – may provide some short term relief that the U.S. economy will pay dearly for elsewhere but it is hard to believe that desertification trends experienced across the Western world could be reversed through managed trade and the likes while it is clear that these policies will likely unsettle the world system and the very alliances the U.S. has relied upon to cement its world leadership at the hard and soft power levels.
Serge Desprat, May 2018 (Prague)