Listening to What Americans Said on Election Day

They’d been saying it for more than a year—but few bothered to hear them.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

This is what we hear when we listen.

We hear a Michigan landscaper call Donald Trump “crazy as in crass,” and consider it a compliment. “I’m not sure he has the temperament to be president, but I like how he’s messing with your minds in Washington. Crazy like a crash-test dummy.”

They were dying to be heard—that man and many others who explained to me in the summer of 2015 why they might vote for a billionaire bully who had nothing in common with them, who was more bigoted and less informed than they would prefer their president to be, but who channeled their economic and social anxieties, their distrust of elites, and their disconnection with the political system. From Detroit, where my family lives, to northern Michigan, where my family vacations, I heard Republicans, independents, and even Democrats begin sentences this way: "Donald Trump is crazy, but..."

"Crazy, but he's a winner, and I'm tired of America losing."

"Crazy, but he can't be worse than what we got."

"Crazy, but he's punishing the establishment."

"Crazy, but he's driving the media nuts."

"Crazy, but he says what I can't say."

Crazy Buts.

When we listen, when we keep our minds and hearts open, we hear the pain in a neighbor’s voice when he describes the devil’s choice he faces on Election Day. “I just can’t trust her,” a retired factory worker told me this summer. “I just don’t like her.”

He had stopped in front of my cottage in a pickup truck to take possession of two old bar stools I had left with the garbage. Handing him a can of beer, I asked the neighbor if he would vote for Trump.

“Maybe,” he said. “He’s a liar and a moron, but they all are. The question I keep asking myself is, ‘Would he destroy the country?’ If the answer is no, at the end of the day, I’ll vote for him because she’s proved that she’s no better. The Democrats are no better. The whole system sucks—and at least he’s a change. A big damn change.”

Listen closely and it’s clear the guy is no dummy. He mentioned the names of daytime anchors on MSNBC, CNN, and FOX News. He quoted columnists for the New York Times and Politico. He knew that Trump promised to rewrite trade deals, fight gun control, cut taxes for the wealthy, and ban Muslim immigrants. There’s a lot not to like, he said, but …

He pointed at me with a gnarled finger. “Trump might shake things up in your city.”

This is what we hear when we listen to Democrats willing to speak honestly about Bill and Hillary Clinton. On March 8, 2015, one of their longest-serving advisers told me the biggest threat to her candidacy wasn’t a newly discovered private email server. This person said the political danger lied in what the emails might reveal about any nexus between her work at State and donations to the Clinton foundation from U.S. corporations and foreign nations.

“Longtime whispers of pay-to-play are going to become shouts,” the source said. “Follow the foundation money."

This is what we hear when we listen to Democrats who defend and enable her behavior, who distort the truth and flat-out lie because the ends justified their means. “Trust doesn’t matter,” a senior adviser to Clinton’s campaign told me later in the spring of 2015.

I heard the aide argued that Bill Clinton was elected and re-elected despite the fact that voters trusted him less than his opponents. I heard the aide predict that Hillary Clinton’s credibility ratings would decline a bit, but not enough to block her glide path to the presidency. I heard the aide call me naïve for suggesting otherwise, then dismiss me as “a sexist Clinton hater.”

This is what we hear when Clinton’s defenders blame the media and Trump and Republicans and FBI Director James Comey—when they blame everybody but Clinton herself for America’s harsh judgment. We hear people who didn’t listen.

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