Trump’s American Spring
When the race to 1600 Pennsylvania began, no one imagined that Donald J. Trump would become the Republican nominee. Indeed, vast majorities of Republicans told pollsters exactly that in 2015. They could not imagine Donald Trump as our president, Commander in Chief, Leader of the Free World.
Or if they could, the picture was too hideous. Big, gold, gleaming "Trump" letters emblazoned over the entrance to the White House like a cheap Atlantic City casino strip club -- like the ones he had built and bankrupted in New Jersey.
But here we are. A man who, despite himself, built a following, a movement, that defied all of the Washington DC smart money. An orange haired, loud mouthed, reality TV show impresario who defeated 16 other competitors. With half baked ideas, mangled half sentences, a few adjectives (Huuuge! Terrific! A disaster!), and a slogan: "Make America Great Again."
How did he do it?
It would be easy to dismiss his success as the dividends of American celebrity: Whoever gets the most attention wins. That helped. Certainly. In the beginning. And much of the American media commentariat dismissed his appeal as nativist, racist, sexist, name the -ist. His own words and behavior made that an easy and lazy analysis. But it does a disservice to the many honorable men and women who saw Trump as their champion. And voted so.
Scratch the surface of Trump-mania, and the story gets a whole lot more complicated.
Conventional wisdom says Trump supporters are poor, uneducated, economically marginalized, right wing, mostly white males.
Early in the primary process, Trump attracted voters who liked that he could not be bought. They liked his outsider, independent status, and his promise to shake things up inside the Beltway.
As Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi, and former chair of the Republican National Committee put it to NBC News, "People all around the country want to send Washington the bird. And they see him as the gigantic middle finger."
Economics also played a huge part.
Analysis by NBC News found that early on, the biggest predictor for a Trump primary win, was how much a county's average pay had gone down in the decade between 2004 and 2014.
Another strong predictor was low white labor force participation. Trump's strongest supporters were people who were weathering tough economic conditions -- voters in towns where people and jobs were moving away; shops on Main Street were shuttering their doors.
Trump supporters felt over looked and under appreciated by the powers on Capitol Hill. They were tired of the status quo, and of politicians who care more about K Street than Main Street.
But as Trump's campaign gained ground, his coalition diversified. Support in upscale counties gave him the edge over his rivals.
In fact, ultimately, Trump received the same percentage of votes in metropolitan counties as he did in rural ones. More than eight out of ten votes Trump won in the primary came from city dwellers.
By way of comparison, Trump earned ten times more votes in California than he did in West Virginia.
The angry rural Trump voter with his pitch fork and confederate flag is a stereotype, and largely a myth. As one left leaning rural publication puts it, "You don't have to go to West Virginia to find the heart of Trump Country. Trump voters are a lot closer to home."
And politically, Trump voters also defy conventional wisdom.
Early Trump voters identified themselves as "moderates" -- which doesn't mean centrist. It means they held a mix of views. Conservative on illegal immigration. Liberal on trade and social spending. Isolationist when it comes to foreign policy, but pro-military when it comes to national defense.
Early in the primary process, the more a voter supported labor unions; higher taxes on the wealthy; a higher minimum wage; and government funded health care -- positions light years from traditional conservative orthodoxy -- the more likely that voter was a Trump supporter.
When it comes to government spending, Trumpers cared more about where tax dollars are going, than how many the government is collecting.
While Trump ultimately won self described Evangelicals, 45% of Trump primary supporters were pro-choice.
And on the hot button issue of illegal immigration? The issue that was the rocket fuel of his campaign rise? Trumpers had varying opinions.
Most Trump supporters believed that illegal immigrants are competing away jobs and lowering wages, while at the same time feeding at the public trough. They saw it as an issue of fairness, and economic and national security.
But when it came to solutions, views were more mixed. They definitely wanted that wall. And for Mexico to pay for it. But a February 2016 NBC News poll found that 44% of Trump supporters favored a path to legalization, while just over half favored deportation.
Now, here's the part that should really grab the attention of Republican leaders and conservative activists moving forward. Trump did not actually bring in "new" voters to pin the votes on the elephant. Nor did he, as he boasted he would, attract conservative Democrats. As Michael Reagan, Ronald Reagan's son, jokes, most Reagan Democrats are either dead or already Republican.
Trumps's primary voters were reliable general election Republicans who were energized to make primaries great again. To mix (and butcher) my metaphors, Trump didn't grow the carnival tent, he drew more towns people in.
Why should this be of special interest to the Republican establishment?
It suggests that a large, previously invisible, chunk of Republican voters who didn't bother with primaries, are less conservative, more populist, and when ignored (and good and angry) ready to revolt. Which they did.
Throughout this election season, I, like many Americans, was disgusted and frustrated with our choices. As an African American, single woman who lives in Manhattan (I often joke that I'm a woman with blue state tastes and red state politics), Trump had less than zero appeal to me.
He's not conservative. His instinct is to incite the worst instincts. I don't regard him a racist. He strikes me as an opportunist who doesn't regard the consequences of his words or actions, let alone let the consequences be damned.
But Trump's voters saw something else. And are someone else. They are not deplorable or irredeemable. They are American citizens who want to smash the Washington inside game, and bring democracy back to the people -- where it belongs.
I had many heated discussions this past year with Trumper friends. "But did you just see what he said about grabbing women's body parts?" "Did you see him ridicule a New York Times journalist for his physical disabilities?" "Did you hear him say that Hispanic Americans love him because they work for him?"
And yes, they did see. All of it. And they disapproved. Of all of it. But they could tolerate his bombast and personal foibles because they felt the alternative was far worse. A candidate who had proven herself to be irredeemably and deplorably corrupt, power mad, and dishonest.
Not a choice most Americans ever wanted to make.
Where do we go from here? After one the worst elections any voting age American adult has ever had to suffer? With grace, I hope, and humility. And faith in what makes our country great. It's not our leaders who define us, but ourselves. "We the People". And the underlying, universal principles that bind us. We are a Republic, after all.
And if that doesn't work, in the (perhaps apocryphal) words of Otto von Bismarck: “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.”
Pass the whiskey.
policy analyst, "Rasmussen Reports." Former speechwriter for former United States Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.