Out there, away from the nation’s liberal-leaning, coastal big cities, is another America – the one that elected President Donald Trump, and on the road this summer I traveled through that world, seeking people who helped put him in the White House.
As my husband and I drove to visit relatives in Idaho and Oklahoma, we passed through rural stretches of eastern Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. Along the way, I found people in coffee shops, gas stations, restaurants and campgrounds, and I talked to them about our president.
It was a sobering education, and one that I am still waiting for the media to convey effectively.
Again and again, I found the hold that Trump has on his people to be enduring. It is not a bond torn asunder when he makes impolitic Twitter remarks or backs away from campaign pledges. Finally, his supporters told me, they have a president fighting for them.
When I think of the Trump people I met, I think of Roy Wright, a Tule Lake farmer with alfalfa fields near the California-Oregon border. Wright, a Vietnam veteran, worries America is heading toward socialism. He packs a gun in case he might need it. And he knows the life he knew growing up, when Tule Lake was a bustling place with two car dealerships (there are none now), is disappearing.
“Trump is not doing too bad, given what’s thrown at him,’’ Wright told me. But, he said, the president faces “a country divided between the working and the non-working.” It’s also a country where corporate farming dominates: “Rural America is going away whether we like it or not.’’ In the political realm, Wright puts his confidence in Trump, “a business person who is going to look out for America first.’’
And on Trump's negotiations with Democrats, Wright said he could understand the president allowing the Dreamer children to avoid deportation but said he hoped Trump would not give up on his campaign pledge to “protect our southern exposure.”
“I can’t believe our country doesn’t have a wall,” he said.
Bonnie Keller, a retired bartender in Roseburg, Ore., sees the country similarly. Keller, who grew up on a Minnesota farm, said, “Nowadays you can’t find someone to do an honest day’s work. Trump wants to make it back to where you could walk down the street and not be mugged. Now things are so out of control with all the unwanted people, drug dealers and hard-core criminals coming across the border.’’
Even Trump’s seeming betrayals to his base, such as framing a debt ceiling compromise with Democrats in Congress and leaving Republican congressional leaders slack-jawed, did not soften the loyalty of the core supporters I met.
“He’s not been getting the support he needs from Republicans,” Ken Schwabauer, a retired livestock hauler from Vale, Ore., told me. “And in my opinion, even though he’s a registered Republican, he will do what he needs to do to get the job done.’’
Political commentators tend to present that loyalty as a footnote to a bigger picture that Trump himself helps frame: Day after day, he gives the media grist for raving about his bald-faced lies, his bloated narcissism, his bellicose threats of war, and so on.
Liberals might feel comfortable dismissing Trump’s support as primarily the product of stupidity and bigotry, but the numbers are simply too large to make that argument plausible. You can loathe the man, but he connected with millions in a way the Democrats have so far proved themselves incapable of doing.
In California alone – one of the nation’s foremost bastions of liberality – almost a third of the vote went to Trump in November. Nationwide, he garnered almost 63 million votes.
Of course, I also met people on the road like my liberal friends in San Francisco, where I live. Patty Brown, a mother and Sportsman’s Hall waitress in Pollock Pines east of Placerville, told me: “When I was growing up, the ’60s were happening with civil rights, and I thought it was the end of a lot of the racism and things that went on in the past. Now it feels like we are regressing. … If I were a young person, I would not have children at this point.”
But of the more than two dozen conversations that made up my unscientific sample, the pro-Trump voices were the most fascinating and, from a media standpoint, least exposed.
These folks I met reflected the 88 percent of Trump’s voters who informed Reuters in a July poll that they would vote for him again. What his voters told me was that even if they were not pleased with his Twitter habit (unseemly for a president), his comments about women (he is a man of a certain age) or other shortcomings, they felt he spoke powerfully to their unhappiness over the refugees flooding into the country, their sense America is not the comfortable place it once was, and their belief that newcomers and young people no longer possess the work ethic that helped build America.
“I am sorry you have nine kids, but I don’t owe you a house. No one is entitled, no one owes you in this world,” Wright told me. “I think Trump is taking a lot away from these handout programs.”
Trump supporters’ remarks sent me hunting for those who have looked at this issue. I wondered: How does Trump hold onto his base with such a potent grip?
The most compelling voice I found was that of Justin Gest, an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University. In a recent Washington Post interview, he said Trump is much about symbolism: “His purpose and many of his statements and policy visions are not necessarily practical in the sense they are achievable or feasible. … This is what people want to hear, and if it doesn’t get done, it is almost beside the point because he has elevated the prerogatives of his constituents to the national stage after being relegated to the fringes of American politics for decades.
“…Unless there is someone who is going to seize the baton and be that voice going forward, it is not in their cultural interest to vote against him no matter how little he has delivered to help them in any material way.”
What, if anything, can Democrats do to break this lock?
Gest said that “660 counties in the U.S. are 85 to 90 per cent white and below the median income. Of those poor, white American counties, Hillary Clinton won two. The Democratic Party is redlining these regions of the country and saying ‘we have no chance, there’s no point in trying.’ That is not a way to be a mainstream party.’’
Linguist George Lakoff makes a similar evaluation of Trump’s base, observing in a July blog that Trump’s “presidency has given them self-respect. Their self-respect is more important than the details of his policies, even if some of those policies hurt them.’’
Absorbing all this, I conclude Trump accomplished something inadvertently when he gave voice to those so long on the fringes. He exposed in a raw, indelible way just how deeply divided we are as a nation today – about who we are, what we owe our fellow Americans, and what our path into the future should be.
He didn’t intend to do so, but he gave us an assignment slip – to tackle that corrosive division. As simple as it might sound, a first step would be to listen and identify areas of commonality where we can move on fronts overwhelmingly important to all Americans, from infrastructure to health care. A superb second step would be campaigns to oust those in Congress who spurn this road.
On the road, some people told me emphatically it was too late – the country was too harshly divided for any fix. I was reared to be an optimist, however. I would like to think they are wrong.
Susan Sward is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.