Reporter's Notebook

Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?
Show Description +

Atlantic readers from across the political spectrum discuss the results of the U.S. presidential election and what it means for the country. (The Atlantic’s overall stance on Donald Trump remains firm.) To join in, especially if you’re a Trump voter, please send us a note:

Show 0 Newer Notes

‘Trump Hasn't Been the Wrecking Ball I Anticipated’

In the wake of the shocking results of November’s election, readers in Notes had a robust discussion titled, “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?” One of the most revealing and contentious entries came from a Trump supporter who “voted for the middle finger, the wrecking ball.” He began by countering some common stereotypes about Trump voters:

I have a Masters degree. My kids go to public school with kids of all races, colors, and creeds. Our neighborhood has immigrant families, mixed-race families, minorities, and same-sex couples. Our sports teams are multi-cultural, diverse, and play beautifully together, on and off the field. I have neither the time, energy, or room in my heart for hatred, bigotry, or racism.

His was a protest vote:

I am tired of the machine rolling over us—all of us. The Clinton machine, the Republican machine, the big media, investment banking, hedge fund carrying interest, corporatist, lobbying, influence peddling, getting elected and immediately begin fundraising for the next election machine—they can all kiss my ass.

Maybe Trump won’t do a thing to change or fix any of it. Hillary definitely would not have changed any of it.

Many readers disagreed here. Another one, Susan, emailed this week asking, “Could we have an update from the guy who ‘voted for the middle finger, the wrecking ball’? I’d be very interested to know what he thinks of the first two months of President Trump.”

I actually wondered the same thing in early February, when I emailed the wrecking ball reader to see if his views on Trump has shifted during the presidential transition and his first few weeks in office. Here’s the reader’s verdict on February 9 (followed by a reply to Susan’s request):

It’s too early to tell, really—kind of like calling the Falcons to win after their first touchdown, right? I think Trump is still too combative and his messaging is awful at times—a lot of the time—but so far he is the guy (ass?) he’s been through the entire run. Trump thinks of himself as an executive in the most stringent application of the word—the buck stops here, the buck begins here, the buck is always here—but he’ll that learn running a company and the country are not the same thing, not matter how much I sometimes like the idea of someone “running the government like a business.”

I wish Trump had what we call down here—the land of obesity, fireworks, and Flannery O’Connor-inspired realities—a “pull-back guy.”

See, we love our college football down in the buckle of the Bible Belt. We love to watch our Clemson Tiger defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, go crazy on the sidelines. To handle him, they have to get a designated staffer be the “pull-back guy”—grabbing Venables around his britches and pulling him back off of the field so he doesn’t draw a penalty.

“Adele, please release a new album” was all one reader had to say when we asked what you were feeling in the lead-up to Thanksgiving, with so many people bracing themselves for political clashes following a particularly toxic presidential election. The Adele fan might have had in mind this SNL skit from last year:

After the holiday, we reached out to readers again to see how things turned out. Sally paints a vivid picture:

I am the lone Democrat among six siblings ranging in ages 60-75. We gathered at our sister’s weekend cottage, a New Orleans shotgun salvaged from N. Claiborne Avenue and moved to a tongue of land on Bayou Lacombe. Spouses, children, and grandchildren made the crowd large. I steered clear of the sprawling back-porch addition, where the conversations, using outside voices, were laced with declarations about Hillary and Blue Lives Matter.

Inside was more temperate. In past years, my siblings would take me on and I’d jump in with rebuttals, mine from print, theirs from TV and talk radio. This year, I think my sadness was visible to them—not a time for jousting, as it came naturally to me to lower my head and eyes whenever in the vicinity of their political conversations. We did not engage.

Ellen Pober Rittberg and her family also tacitly decided on non-engagement:

Several members of my immediate family had a somewhat heated discussion/debate/what-have-you several days prior to the day of the holiday, and so they/we agreed without agreeing we wouldn’t talk (presidential) politics at table. It helped that there were 12 different dishes and lots of guests (24) so the majority of time guests alternately chewed and head-nodded (while chewing). That the head-nods were not all that emphatic indicated that our informal non-agreement was not breached.

Is strategic avoidance of politics enough to get us all through the holidays—or through the next four years? And how long will it be before the tension gets to be too much?

Last week, we put out a survey to readers asking about Thanksgiving plans, and over 400 of you responded, telling us how far you’d be traveling to see friends and family and how you’d be getting there. We compiled the results and Andrew made this cool graphic:

Andrew McGill / The Atlantic

As you can see, we also asked how you were feeling. In the aftermath of an ugly presidential season and a shocking upset of an election, Americans may find their family gatherings more fraught than ever this year—and in this era of a deep political divide between the city and the countryside, that may be especially true for the people who are traveling far to see loved ones.

When we asked, generally, what emotions you were feeling, most of you didn’t bring up politics. But about 14 percent of you did. For some, that’s the reason they look forward to having family close. As one reader puts it, “I want to hug the ones I love following this dreadful election.”

Be sure to check out this video—a post-election Thanksgiving message that’s right in line with what readers have been debating in this Notes thread (except now with delightful lines like “we can keep shoving our heads up our high-horses asses all we want”). The self-described liberal redneck has some hard truths for his wounded compatriots:

A long-time reader—back when the Dish was at The Atlantic—flagged the video:

Long time, no talk, amigo. I’ve been meaning to check in with you, but I had to detox from any form of online interaction for about a week after the election. (Sully was onto something about our online addiction; I’ve never seen the battery on my phone die so quickly, or my anxiety get so out of control, as the days around this election.) It’s an occupational hazard for you, so it’s not like you could really look away, but I hope you’ve carved out some time to not be plugged in.

The back and forth with Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters has been illuminating, which is something to salvage from this wreckage, I suppose. I have tried empathizing with the “wrecking ball” voter, but I find myself coming up short when he says he knows coal won’t come back to West Virginia but he votes for the guy who has promised to fire up the flux capacitor and take the DeLorean back a few decades. The same goes for wanting a synagogue, a church, and a mosque all on the same street, while voting for the guy who traffics in Muslim scare tactics, retweets anti-Semitic imagery, and now employs Steve Bannon. Similarly, there’s no room in his heart for bigotry, but he’s accepting of the most openly bigoted campaign in contemporary politics.

His entire note reads inchoate. He didn’t really vote for a wrecking ball; he voted to piss into a stiff wind. Because … principles?

Your colleague David Frum gave an interview in the lead-up to the election [seen below, transcript here] in which he mentioned there are only two ways to use your vote: as an expression, or as an instrument.

Using your vote to express “I’d rather just piss into the wind than worry about what might happen to healthcare in America” is not something I can really find a defense for. It’s an obviously intelligent person grasping for a way to express anger at “the system” but who voted in a way that instead may put everyday people at risk. “I vote for the wrecking ball” because handing commander-in-chief duties of the most powerful military in the world to a guy who is so thin-skinned he picks fights with a Broadway musical? Call this line of thinking frustration, charitably, but it’s also reckless and irresponsible. Being a frustrated voter is understandable; being a reckless one is not.

My colleague Andrew McGill wrote a punchy piece over the weekend called “The U.S. Media’s Real Elitism Problem.” An excerpt:

In the aftermath [of Trump’s victory], many of the immediate post-mortems blamed a coastal bubble: Too many journalists had grown nearsighted in urban Democratic enclaves, the reasoning went, blinding them to what was taking place in Middle America. If more reporters actually spent time in fly-over country, instead of jetting through for a rally, they’d understand why Donald Trump won voters over. [...] [T]here’s little question the journalistic class has diverged sharply from the country it covers. In 1960, nearly a third of reporters and editors had never attended a single year of college; in 2015, only 8.3 percent could say the same, according to Census figures extracted with the help of the University of Minnesota’s IPUMS project. That year, 46 percent of adults 25 and older nationwide had never attended a university.

Andrew also made a great little graph showing how our fellow members of the media have congregated on the coasts:

For a reader debate on the media’s role in this election, see “A Middle Finger to the Mainstream Media,” sparked by Lindsey, a long-time Republican. Brett responds:

I’m a 35-year-old teacher who grew up and attended college in Oklahoma, moved to Alaska for a few years after I got married, then moved to NM, where I currently reside. This narrative about how poorly Trump and his voters are treated by the media is flat-out embarrassing. We have here a group of people that looked at the fact that every adult in the room was telling them that this was a terrible mistake and took that as a sign of their virtue. And it wasn’t just the usual suspects in the so-called liberal media; conservative newspapers broke with hundreds of years of precedent to point out that—despite their concerns with Clinton—this was an election unlike any other and that it would be unwise to elect a temperamentally buffoonish man to the White House. And it didn’t make one iota of difference. Now, when everyone recoils in horror at the terrible damage that has been done, that is further evidence of the Trump voter’s righteousness?

Another reader, Chris, thinks we’re missing a big point about the media’s role in this election:

As preface, a brief synopsis of my background: I’m a mid-30s, white, straight, Southern male. I was born in South Carolina, about 30 minutes from where they flew the Confederate flag, and I’ve there most of my life. I’m college educated, married, and live/work in Atlanta now. I’ve worked extensively in Republican politics, including for Congressman Joe Wilson (of You Lie! fame) and in various state and federal elections. I voted for Bush, McCain, Romney and in this election, Hillary Clinton. I’m fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Before this election I’d have called myself a Republican, but now I guess I’m a small-l Libertarian or maybe a small-government Democrat—if either of those things are things.  

Lindsey echoes much of what I see daily from friends, family, and acquaintances on my Facebook feed. Her point raises one I’d like to make, and that I don’t believe has been explicitly made on your site.


A photo posted by Daquan Gesese (@daquan) on

I seriously can’t think of more polar-opposite people and public figures than Donald J. Trump and Barack Hussein Obama. But the following two readers actually voted for both, so their perspectives are especially valuable right now to understand what drove so much support to the president-elect. Here’s Aaron:

First I’d like to thank Chris Bodenner and The Atlantic for allowing a genuine conversation between Trump and Clinton supporters to take place. In my opinion, discussing all sides of difficult issues is the most important thing that we can do, and more discourse like what I’ve seen on your website could have made this election cycle go in a very different direction.

I’ve voted Democrat in every presidential election until this one. As the son of former hippies, I grew up respecting the environment, disliking unnecessary military action, and desiring equal rights for everyone. Over the years I came to realize that Democratic candidates provided a lot of high-minded talk with very little meaningful action, but they still seemed better than the alternative.

During the early stages of the election process, I began to notice a dramatic shift in public discourse. To me equal rights means an egalitarian meritocracy. I believe that everyone should be free to pursue happiness in their own way as long as it doesn’t harm others, and that everyone should be given an equal chance at success if they’re willing to work for it. In my mind, legalizing gay marriage was one of the last big hurdles in overcoming the unfair policies from our checkered past.

But not everyone seems to think so.

There’s a big difference between theoretical rights and actual results. The average woman still takes in significantly less income than the average man. Young inner-city black men are still being killed and imprisoned at an alarming rate. Muslims are still distrusted and even feared by Christians.

The reasons for each of these issues are extremely complex and difficult to fully address. But the narrative coming from Democrats and much of the mainstream media seemed to be that all of these issues and more were predominantly products of continuing systemic bigotry. It was an easy answer, but nowhere near good enough. And as the rhetoric on both sides became more heated, I began to see just how dangerous this simplistic way of thinking was.

Ben, the reader who sparked our long and evolving discussion thread on the best ways for Trump voters and other Americans to engage, emails about a new flashpoint: the cast of Hamilton delivering a short speech to VP-elect Mike Pence, who attended a performance of the musical on Broadway last night. Here’s how CNN covered it:

Here’s Ben (followed by a ton of reader pushback)

I’m seeing an awful lot of social media commentary looking at Trump’s tweets regarding the cast’s message to Pence, and nearly all of it follows a certain pattern of “Boo Hoo, Trump doesn’t like it when actors exercise their first amendment rights? Cry me a river.” On one hand, they are completely right: The note-reading by cast member Brandon Dixon was protected speech, and political speech. It’s very, very important that people are able to do what the Hamilton cast did, and I think very few people will disagree with that.

On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to be the least bit objective and not acknowledge that what happened was harassment, or at least something pretty close. The story is being presented near universally as “Trump is whining because Pence received a note!,” but let’s break down the evening in dry terms and see if that holds up:

Myself with mother and father at New York Military Academy. See, I can be very military. High rank! #TBT #Trump

A photo posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on

A previous reader note from Jon (“Confessions of a Liberal Urban Elitist”) expressed resentment toward rural Trump voters who accuse him of snobbery for choosing to live in a big city on the East Coast and leading a “Don Draper” life in advertising. Another self-described “liberal elite,” Alison, responds:

Jon’s note rings all too true for me, in many aspects. I am viscerally opposed to classification of young liberals like myself as “privileged.” I grew up in a very rural town in southern Alabama. My family—a lovable bunch of traditional conservative Christian Republicans—still lives in rural America. Now in my 30s, I am finishing a medical degree from a university in rural Ohio. My journey has taken me through poverty, unemployment, mental illness, and some generally awful times. While I cannot deny that I was born lucky to have the natural ability to understand science, capitalizing on that was not a privilege. It was tremendous work.

Melissa can also relate:

I have shared the thoughts of Jon during some of my darker moments since the election. I grew up in a mid-sized city (that went for Clinton, narrowly). My father was a drug addict and Mom worked hard to support us as a single mother. I didn’t have a lot of advantages, but I am smart. I graduated from college and worked in a clerical job instead of anything more.

The election of President Obama actually motivated me to go back and get my law degree and a masters in public policy at the same time. Suddenly I was working in government. I wrote legislation and did a stint on the policy staff for the governor.

I am one of those elites. Elite doesn’t mean born with a silver spoon. I’ve had a tough childhood, maybe tougher than some of those complaining about people like me. My relatives in more rural areas (aunts and uncles and cousins) seem proud of me. They tell their kids to stay in school so they can be like cousin Melissa. When they have legal problems, they will give me a call.

Yet, they are also the ones posting about how we need to drain the swamp and get the elites out of government. They voted for a man with no experience to the highest office in the land. They seem to not understand why someone would need some specialization to know how to govern. It makes me feel like my life’s work is useless to them.

A reader, Jon, articulates in Notes what he probably doesn’t say in public:

A lot of the post-election analysis has pointed to the deep divide between between city-dwellers and country folk. An excellent essay in Cracked Magazine, the musings of Michael Moore, and people in the reader notes you’ve been compiling [namely the Southern Trump voter in “‘I Voted for the Middle Finger, the Wrecking Ball’”] have described the election of Donald Trump as a collective middle finger to us urban liberals who think we’re so superior.

I could see exactly what they’re talking about in my own life. I grew up right on the edge of New York City’s sphere of influence, in Sussex County, New Jersey, just about where the suburbs end and the farms of greater Pennsylvania begin. I was raised in an Evangelical church where Republicanism was preached from the pulpit as God’s Word handed down from on high. And you might’ve found me among the right-wing ranks had I not attended a little private school further East, closer to where my parents worked—a school much more ethnically diverse than my public school, and much, much closer to New York City.

Just to further fuel the allegations of urban snobbery, I was completely ashamed of where I grew up. The kids at school made fun of me for living in the boonies. I pestered my parents to move east. I didn’t want a quaint life on a pretty, little lake. I wanted to be where stuff was happening, where I could walk to convenience stores and play street basketball games, preferably with black people. That’s what was cool when I was a kid and that’s where I wanted to be.

So on the one hand, I think that this explanation of a collective middle finger to The City and all it represents makes total, complete, and perfect sense. People in the country have struggled along while their jobs have disappeared and their communities have been forgotten—all the while being written off and looked down upon by those in Washington and cities around America. I get it. It’s tough.

But the other part of me wants to respond with a middle finger of my own. And I’m afraid it feeds right into the narrative of urban snobbery and elitism we’ve been hearing about.

A familiar reader follows up. And his name is Pat:

Chris, I have to tell you, I am a little shocked that you posted my note [“‘I Voted for the Middle Finger, the Wrecking Ball’”] and even more shocked by the responses it elicited. I know there is no way for me to effectively respond to all of the incredible and heartfelt feedback from your readers. Below is my lame effort. I have no idea if it is what you want, but it is at least honest, although far too many words. Do with it what you will. Wow, your job must be hard. Happy Thanksgiving.


I am Southern. I am white. I am male. I voted for the wrecking ball and I wrote to Notes a rambling stream of consciousness email more for my own benefit than for anyone else to read, trying to figure out myself how Trump earned my vote—if he really did earn it?—and trying to explain that I don’t hate anyone or want to take away anyone else’s dreams of a better life in this great country.    

I was amazed my note prompted as many questions and responses as it did.  I never expected it to even be seen. I wish I could address all of them and am sorry that I lack the intellect and time to do so. I think it’s too bad these conversations happen too often over the internet and not in the local pub. I expect my response to echo in silence and definitely to lack the clarity your readers seek. But I read them all and I hear their concerns.

I think it sucks that a 32-year-old Ivy League educated lawyer can’t make ends meet. I hear you.  

I understand I have a limited view of how this election looks to the African American med student who refuses to let anyone or anything rob his or her humanity and dignity. I hear you.   

I will likely never fully understand the struggles an immigrant family may face trying make a life, a better life, in a new country as crazy and complex and diverse as ours. I hear you.  

I can only imagine how difficult it is for the small business owner who put her little retirement savings into a dream and through toil and talent made it work, and now deals with the government saying she has to provide health insurance to her employees whom she loves and employs … or else. I hear you.

I know it isn’t easy being Muslim, or gay, or poor, or sick, or a woman, or a drop-out, or felon, or a college grad waiting tables in America. I hear you.  

I know Trump said some crazy and mean-spirited shit. I hear you.

I know all of us wear both the scars and beauty marks of our history. We have saved the world but enslaved and murdered innocents. We have extended protections to the minority and pursued phantom threats with terrible consequences because people looked, thought, worshipped differently than our Founding Fathers did. We have been imperialistic and nativist, we have opposed authoritarianism, been the saving grace for immigrants, turned around at Plymouth Rock and said “Foreigner Go Home.” We continue to ask our young and able bodied of all races, creeds, colors, and genders to die for our freedom.  We call each other names, put one another in boxes and label them: foreigner, redneck, racist, bleeding heart, gay, bible-thumper, conservative, liberal, progressive, extremist. We’re all guilty … and most of us are innocent.

Our country is a beautiful, living, breathing mess of wonderful and amazing people all believing in the same lofty ideals but disagreeing on the way to achieve all of them. Our country is an enormous promise, an unthinkable undertaking, a miraculous contradiction of individualism, collectivism, voluntarism—every –ism under the sun. What an incredible mess to be a part of it. Thank goodness for it.  

This reader note from Ron, a med student in Rhode Island, is incredibly moving and filled with grace:

I hope you are well, Mr. Bodenner. Thank you for running this reader series engaging with Trump voters. I have been alternately heartened and dismayed by others’ contributions, but the insight has been invaluable either way.

As a 20-something, Black-American male born and raised in the USA, recent days have seen me alternating between rage, sadness, and despair—and I suspect there is much more to come. I feel unwanted by a nation that raised me, despised by my home.

But as the paroxysms of rage and tears become less frequent, as the space for introspection and reflection becomes greater, I have had time to interrogate my soul about the man I want to be and the role I seek to play in the work to which I committed myself long before last Tuesday. And in that time, spent communing with the ones I love, I am grateful to God to have found at least the skeleton of a mindset, a plan, a path that I hope will sustain me through coming trials while allowing me to continue to be of the greatest service to the nation I love.

I truly believe we are a great nation that desperately strives to be good. I truly believe that our differences are not something to fear and our disagreements are not something to flee from. And I want to do all in my power to fight for “us” and “them.” As much as I have been disgusted by our president-elect’s rhetoric and behavior, as much as I condemn the conduct and indict the character of a great many of his voters, I would have to deny a large number of my life’s memories to pretend his constituents did not have legitimate grievances. This is not the way I wish we would address them. But when your message is littered with the dirty needles and pain pills that line the bottom of a seemingly bottomless chasm filled with the dreams you had for your descendants, it is somewhat understandable if it does not arrive wrapped in the prettiest package. And now that it has arrived, the worst decision we could make would be to ignore it once again.

As a Black man who seeks to do his part to lift his people, I want to fight against the bigotry and hatred that has our melting pot bubbling over. But as the boy that Lima, Ohio, raised, I have seen, at least in part, the pain and suffering of many of the white working class—the very same that many people would now call my natural enemy.

As the man who spent a summer carting patients around the local hospital and was moved to pursue medicine by witnessing the devastating effects of painful illness on my neighbors who “used their strength of bone and sinew to provide,” I refuse to accept that these people are now my foes. Our differences are real; our histories, our prejudices, and our nation’s successes and failures in addressing the former two prevent them from being anything but real. But a difference is not a defect, and I firmly believe if anyone thinks opposite, they are missing a large piece of the puzzle.

When a white person struggling to overcome debt and disability points at a brown person just barely wriggling out of the chains of oppression and honestly believes they are the source of their struggles, or vice versa, and both those people pin all their hopes on a competition between billionaire families in ivory towers, I think we are all missing something much deeper.

A reader dissents over this Notes series trying to give a fair hearing to the views of Trump voters:

How many more of these fucking notes? I get it. “Get to know Trump voters” is generating clicks. But at least publish something real in response.

Reader Marco says, “It won’t fall because the U.S. government’s institutions are designed to prevent irrational outcomes to a good degree. Trust the system a little, if you learned anything from history.” Really? We had Japanese internment upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1940s [a reader previously made this point] and national-origin restrictions on Japanese people until the 1950s. We had state-sponsored terrorism of black people in the South through the 1960s. [This reader and others previously invoked the history of slavery and white supremacy.] What someone who actually reads history, and pays attention to it, knows is that the values of liberal democracy are not universally held and when lost, recovered only at great cost.

I don’t think these things will happen. I also don’t think there are 60 million racists. But I do think there are 60 million people who don’t really give a shit whether it does or doesn’t. If I’m wrong and they do give a shit, let them prove it with their own behavior and statements—not just tell people to “rely on the institutions” that they say they voted for Trump to destroy.

Another reader, James, lives in southern California and describes himself as a “White, middle-class, Christian, culturally-rural, ideologically-moderate Independent” who is sympathetic to the grievances of Trump supporters but couldn’t bring himself to vote for the guy. Now with Trump’s victory, James worries that the democratic norms and institutions of the U.S. won’t be able to withstand the dicey demagogue, and he fears that the country could veer down a painful path like that of Venezuela, Uruguay, and Peru during the late 20th century. Here’s James:

Fascinating discussion, and I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of the responses on both sides and the courage of Trump voters to explain their reasoning. But like reader Pamela, I’m afraid I still don’t get it. I share many of the same concerns that other readers have brought up, but I feel like I must be missing a step.

I am sympathetic to conservatives who felt that their voices were not being heard. I am a grad student, and I wish that conservatives were better-represented in my discipline, political science. I also wish that conservative students at my university felt safer in expressing viewpoints that differ from those of the majority on campus. I think that some individuals are over-zealous in their political correctness, though I would hardly attribute this to “liberalism” as a whole any more than I would attribute racism to “conservatism.” Most people I know—whether on the Left or the Right—want to live in a society like the one that Southern Guy described. I do, too.

But I struggle to see how electing a demagogue who has put identity politics at the heart of his campaign and who has just chosen a white nationalist as his chief strategist is going to get us to that pluralistic, tolerant society. If you really want to see an end to identity politics [as reader Alan says he does], why stoke the flames?

I am also sympathetic to voters who wanted to cast a protest vote. I myself cast a protest vote in this election, but my protest vote was for a third-party candidate who had zero chance of winning my state. If there were other options, why did you cast your protest vote for a competitive candidate, unless you also wanted him to win?