How Could Obama Voters Go for Trump?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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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.

Shouting down political opponents is nothing new, but for people with modern sensibilities, being called a bigot when it’s unwarranted actually has an effect similar to a racial slur. It creates a sense of shame and anger, and it forces people to remind themselves that they’re fundamentally a good person. Like other slurs, it shuts down the conversation immediately and creates a mutual distrust.

Add in the new culture of safe spaces and trigger warnings, and you create an ideological echo chamber. Little by little, the social justice movement seems to be morphing into an insidious and sometimes subtle form of oppression, where controversial ideas are expunged from the public dialogue—by force of law if necessary.

Donald Trump is a cartoon character of a man. He’s likely committed multiple acts of fraud, his political knowledge is suspect, and even when addressing thousands of people, he sometimes seems to blurt out whatever insensitive comment comes to mind.

But the more his opponents exaggerated his evil nature and disregarded the legitimate policy concerns behind his questionable language, the more they turned him into a champion for all of those who the government had left behind. Both parties and the majority of the press unleashed all of their powers against him, but rather than backing down and providing the usual political doublespeak, he simply withstood the onslaught.

Meanwhile, Hillary was basically a character from House of Cards, with numerous scandals, questionable ties to everyone from Wall Street to foreign governments, and a policy agenda pulled straight from the polling computers. When I failed to find an inspiring third-party candidate, the choice was easy.

The silver lining is that this will be a shock to the system for many young liberals. In their confusion at the result, maybe they’ll take that extra step to start looking at the issues from all sides. Perhaps aspiring politicians will realize that the status quo in Washington simply isn’t good enough, and that a lot of people will vote for whomever provides the most believable case that they will change how things are done.

As divisive as this campaign has been, I’m still hopeful that some good can come out of exploring that divide more deeply. The more people who realize that in many ways we’re more the same than different, the better off everyone will be.

This video is a must-see:

In fact, according to a poll from The Washington Post and GMU, nearly one in five Trump voters say they approve of Obama’s job performance. And the still-president has a 56 percent approval rating—more than Reagan at the same point in his presidency.

This next note, from Len, has a core reason for voting for Trump that I definitely haven’t seen yet: “I went Trump for his obvious LACK of principle, and pitched HRC due to her obvious religiosity.” Len elaborates:

I’m a middle-aged white male in Wisconsin with a rural Xtian upbringing. I am blue-collar for life and can’t afford more college at my age. It would be a waste of my money. My house, in a semi-rural area, is completely paid off, so that’s a plus: but the value of it, on the tax rolls, is about $45K. It’s a nice enough place.

In 2012 I voted for Obama (although I disagree with the guy, I like him personally), in 2008 I voted Green. I wanted to vote for Jill Stein this year but got worried about Hillary Clinton actually being elected. I vote for Tammy Baldwin [for Senate]. I voted Trump because, while I was laid off four times in six years, I did a lot of jobs, and work of various kinds, and I think got a pretty good view of how people live here. Oddly, for around here, I am violently opposed to Protestant religion and its global view, and voted for Trump as I consider Clinton a religious zealot. I chose to vote for a guy with no discernible principles at all. But Clinton? Globally, I regard her as a complete religious whack-job.

Len follows up:

I know this is a VERY out-there thing, but I do in fact consider modern Progressivism and Liberalism a form of Evangelical Protestant Christianity: the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. This is a very fringe idea at the moment, but it has very deep roots. There was a serious theological battle before the U.S. Civil War about whether Protestant Christianity was about saving the individual or projecting the Christian world-view into the physical realm. The firebrand abolitionists forced the United States into a physical battle over a physical injustice: slavery. The roots of the so-called “Social Gospel” are in that decision: to attempt to force, or instill, a Christian “defend the weak” values into the physical realm, on a mass, real-world scale. (I am kind of morally neutral about it.)

If you look into Hillary Clinton’s religious beliefs, you will find it, just like I did: She is, really, a Wesleyan Protestant Calvinist religious zealot. For real.

Oh, and Chris: Human beings get into fights all the time, all over the world; it’s what people do. So what happens when you ascribe, to yourself, the role, the job, of “helping the loser,” when one fight only leads to another? When as soon as you “empower” one combatant, they abuse and oppress the loser of the fight, that YOU just helped them vanquish? (As a case-study, I use Israel.) The whole theology is flawed.

Anyway, I am not popular with my supposedly “secular” Progressive and Liberal acquaintances, and they get very upset at being termed “religious fanatics.”

Here’s the third Obama/Trump voter to write us, Kristin:

My elderly mother and aunt were the biggest Trump supporters from the very beginning. As a college-educated, registered Independent woman and divorced mother of six (five daughters and one son), I stood by during most of the election. Presently, four of my children are grown, working under the weight of this economy. Three are in college.  

A few years ago, as a non-traditional student, I finally completed my BS in Humanities (a minor English, with emphasis in Women’s Gender Studies) and went on to an MA in English Literature (two classes away). I have recently started an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) and this is where you and I meet: in a bulk e-mail announcement that always happily begins “Hi Kristin...”

I watched, I listen, I researched—a lot. Previously, I voted Obama. I celebrated Obama. This time I voted Trump.  

I am not a Deplorable; I am an American, and a couple of generations ago, all of my grandparents were immigrants. I have sent my voice forth, in the poems attached. Yet there is only anger from the other half that I didn’t know existed until Obama flew from city to city on taxpayer money and warned my friends that a Trump victory would be disaster from America.  

I will let my poems speak. From the very bottom of my heart, I thank you for listening :)

Here’s one of the pieces of writing she attached:

Dear Protesters,

I’m sorry you are hurt. I hurt too. In 2008 I voted for Obama. In 2012, I didn’t vote at all. Either way, it didn’t matter. Nothing changed.

Protesters, I still didn’t have enough money to pay my mortgage, which had tripled. Neither did my family, my neighbors, my friends. And my job disappeared, over the Pacific, or the Atlantic. I forget. “It’s the right thing to do,” they said, those Third World countries that keep changing names deserve a better life for their people.

But Protesters, I didn’t get it. I still don’t. I looked in my refrigerator and then I stood in line at the food bank where they gave me rancid cake mix—did you know a cake mix can get rancid? I watched. I waited. Along with my family, my neighbors, and my friends. We held our breath as the Bail Out began.

Protesters, something DID happen during the Bail Out. But it missed us. We lost our homes, our cars. Our marriages. Still, we prayed. We waited. And we learned a few things while we waited, too. We learned that one meal eaten late in the afternoon can be counted as lunch and dinner. We also learned that “help wanted” meant under 20 hours, and if you get sick and you can’t pay the rent on the 5th of the month, a five-day “Pay or Quit” Notice of Eviction will be hanging on your door. Then the daughter who can’t read will ask you what it says and the daughter that can read gets very quiet and without asking, does her homework. And takes out the trash.

Protesters, I’m a woman, too, and I was so excited to see a woman candidate on this almost 100-year anniversary of the Women’s Right to Vote! Sure, I had questions about Obama Care, about e-mails, and dead soldiers in Benghazi. And issues about Trump. War with Russia and Global Warming. But Protesters, as a college-educated woman, I know that all guilt should be proven or else it’s all rhetoric. After all, this is America. I listened.

Then my paycheck came in, direct deposit, and the bank re-calculated a $4.00 gasoline purchase, a $3.00 Safeway charge for milk, and a $3.89 charge for tampons (can it already be that time of the month!) This triggered two $35.00 charges and after I paid the water and the electricity I had two crisp dollar bills and a handful of change in the palm of my hand. And 14 days till payday.

Protesters, that night, I listened one more time to Hillary speak. I really, really, really listened. Afterwards, I clicked off the television, tiptoed into my daughter’s bedroom and kissed her on the forehead. And I knew: something had to change.

I also knew that Hillary would understand my choice NOT to vote for her this time around. After all, she’s a woman, too.

Protesters, in the end, you’re not protesting President Trump. You’re protesting my cry for change. Your protesting ME.

Once again, I apologize if I hurt you.

With Love,
Your Fellow American

If you’re also an Obama voter who voted for Trump and want to share your perspective, please drop us a note. Update from a long-time reader, Scott:

First time I’ve emailed, but as a former subscriber to the Daily Dish, I have followed Notes with interest and appreciate the curated reader comments. Thank you for continuing to air these discussions with Trump voters. I am despairing over the notes from these Obama/Trump voters, Aaron and Kristin, who feel like the government let them down since 2009, or that the social justice movement was too aggressive.

To Aaron, there is a big difference between describing systemic racism and injustice vs. labelling individual people as prejudiced. All of us work together to create these systems, even if individual people are free of animus toward African Americans, Muslims, etc. My interpretation is that many in positions of power, including white people, are having their eyes opened to the daily reality of people not like them, who have never been treated like full, equal members of the American community, and who are now asserting that equality. I do not believe in the need to have safe spaces to keep people from uncomfortable ideas, but at the same time, saying the rise of their use on college campuses somehow led to the expungement of controversial views, etc. from the national discourse is quite laughable. And tying that to assertions of equality for those our systems have prevented from being equal is a strange rhetorical leap indeed.

I also wonder if Kristin has spent any time contemplating why she feels that “nothing changed” despite her vote for Obama in 2008. Perhaps it was a GOP Congress that from the outset refused to let anything pass proposed by President Obama that could have actually helped her situation or the situations of her family members?  

***

Here’s one more reader note, from Vince—an Obama voter who didn’t vote for Trump but relates to a lot of sentiment that elected him:

Alan [the reader who voted for Trump mostly out of a disdain for identity politics] voiced exactly what I feel about this election.

There seem to be many parallels between Alan and me: I too am a straight white male, raised Catholic. I have been married for 22 wonderful years to a black woman, and I adore my extended family. At 51 years of age, I have lived my entire adult life a stone’s throw from West Hollywood, the throbbing heart of the bluest state. I voted for Obama twice, and pretty much any analysis of my voting record for the past 30 years, or indeed my lifestyle and closest friendships, would reveal an open-minded, liberal-leaning independent. Oh: and I’m a 20-year professional employee of UCLA with a Master’s.

The difference between Alan and me is that I just could not vote for Trump, as I saw him as too reckless. I voted for Gary Johnson, knowing that in a state that Hillary would win in a landslide, I was safe to cast this protest vote.

However, I am thrilled to see the cynical, greedy Clinton machine finally smashed to bits. I am thrilled to see the arrogant cocoon of the news media, popular culture, Hollywood, liberal activists, DNC, identity politickers, and academia punctured by reality. I am thrilled to see the progressive juggernaut derailed. Trump could have replaced “Make America Great Again” with, “It’s the Authoritarianism, Stupid!”

The progressive left seems to have grown more hysterical, more bullying than ever before. It has enacted an illiberal, punitive, terrifying form of politics where everyone is one wrong position or one misunderstanding from being ex-communicated from the world of the decent. You’re either an Angel completely signed onto their endless quest for progressive utopia, or a Devil. While too many grope for the overheated “Marxist” to describe this kind of politics, it is far more apt than the totally inadequate “Political Correctness.”

It has obliterated any serious debate on a host of subjects by vilifying and demonizing some very good, decent people throughout the country. This cannot be stressed enough: While it has only gotten worse—ironically, as big culture war battles like marriage equality have been settled—it has been this way for decades.

So has the vicious mocking and slandering of anyone who lives outside of the liberal elite urban hubs—the demographic that put Trump over the top—as hateful, ignorant rednecks, a stereotype that has been a liberal punchline for generations. The Democratic establishment has become as much of a corporate-elitist imperium as the Republicans’, and it too has totally failed this large and economically desperate swath of Americans as much as the GOP. The only difference is that as the Democrats hold these peoples’ heads under water they insult their intelligence by promising “job training” while a black Ivy Leaguer tells them to “check their privilege.”  

Liberals need to answer this question honestly: Even if the Republican candidate had not been a narcissistic, vulgar, bigoted clown, no matter how temperately he spoke about a need to control our borders, criticized Obamacare or questioned the wisdom of bringing tens of thousands of war-traumatized Muslims into the U.S., would you not have tarred the candidate and his supporters as bigoted scum anyway? Of course you would have. How, in that respect, was 2016 any different?  

This new progressive bullying lies too much, obfuscates too much, railroads too much, silences too much, divides by identity too much. And it is finally an unsustainable strategy in a democracy where everyone gets a voice at the ballot box.

***

Update from a latecomer to the discussion, Alex, who has a detailed account of “why my brother, a life-long Democrat (and prior Obama voter) voted for Trump and I didn’t”:

My brother works as an electrician in the boroughs of New York City. He is also a veteran and an ex-EMT. Last year, I went there to celebrate Thanksgiving Day with him. Later that night, I, along with him and a bunch of his buddies retreated to his “man cave,” and we drank (I was cajoled into multiple shots of “Fireball’), told stories of yore, and got around to talking politics.

I was hesitant and a bit nervous to dive into this topic, since he knows I am a conservative and he is a life-long Democrat. His friends are an eclectic group: ex-cops, union guys, stage workers, etc. Some are like him, veterans. Almost all were loyal Democrats. I was therefore very much surprised when they all stated they were going to vote this year for Donald Trump. They were equally surprised when I said that I most likely would not.

I asked why they flipped from their party and now supported Trump. Let me distill all the responses given down to this one: “He gets us.”

My brother, financially, is “middle class.” He is, however, “working class.” He is one of the millions of workers to whom we owe our very lifestyle. They RUN our country in the mechanic sense. Everything you eat, use, and operate depends on THEM. Nothing works without them. Your life would devolve into the 16th Century without them. They are workers. Most are white and male. And they voted overwhelmingly for Trump. It was a workers revolt.

Democrats are always boasting that they represent the working class; this is only partly true. Every protest you see by “workers” is industry specific and they are surrogates for the Democratic Party. They represent the teacher’s unions, the fast food and restaurant industry, and the services sector. They usually are comprised of more minorities than the working class that voted for Trump.

Aaron Sorkin, who produced the T.V.  Series “West Wing” recently made the news by penning a letter to his daughters in response to Trump’s victory. It was published in the far-left magazine Vanity Fair. In it, he states:

and it wasn’t just Donald Trump who won last night—it was his supporters too. The Klan won last night. White nationalists. Sexists, racists, and buffoons. Angry young white men who think rap music and Cinco de Mayo are a threat to their way of life (or are the reason for their way of life) have been given cause to celebrate.

Newsflash to Aaron Sorkin: one of my brother’s buddies is a rigger and stagehand. Your industry employs thousands of folks like him. He is not a racist, sexist or a xenophobe, and as a white male, he is sick and tired of rich, liberal elitists constantly saying that he is. And neither is my brother. Both my brother and his buddy voted for Trump. When you order a seafood entry at one of your fancy, expensive favorite restaurants, it was made possible by some guy fishing in the middle of the ocean, in places like the Bering Sea, where it is so cold and the waters so rough that it is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.  You can bet that those guys voted for Trump. Many of the workers in the lower rungs of your industry, who without, your damn plays and T.V. shows cannot be made, voted for Trump.

Sorkin’s letter is exhibit #1 why Trump won.

When a water main breaks and poor Aaron Sorkin can’t take a shower in his 3,700 square foot, $6.1 million dollar mansion in Los Angeles, who goes out and fixes it? Some guy (or gal) whose job it is to do so. He or she goes out regardless of the weather conditions and grapples with equipment down in the mud and restores the water supply. Ask that white male who fixed it who he voted for, Mr. Sorkin.

New York City’s “Water Tunnel 3,” that is almost complete and has been under construction since 1969 is famous for the workers that have created this marvel. They are called “sandhogs.” They get paid very well. Some of them die in this very dangerous vocation. These jobs are family heirlooms passed onto generation after generation. Many of these workers are white; all of them male. Many are Irish. The last leg of this massive construction project which would have reached the outer boroughs was shut down in April of this year by the socialist, liberal mayor of New York, Bill DeBlasio. Funny how once Manhattan got its part of the water tunnel finished, somehow there was no longer any money left to complete the tunnel into Brooklyn and Queens where the “bridge and tunnel” crowd live, huh? DeBlasio should ask some of these workers who they voted for, Trump or Clinton.

The people who make sure everything works in this country, those who farm the grain your food is made from, those who make sure your lights are on, those who transport everything you see around you by truck, train, and plane, those who process all the food you eat, those who you depend on day and night, do not all live on our two coasts. They live in “fly-over country.” They have been referred to as Aaron Sorkin did, as racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic and ignorant. Some of them are. Some “liberals” are as well. But the vast majority is not.

They have seen their manufacturing jobs disappear, many as a result of NAFTA. Trump made it clear he will re-negotiate that treaty. Trump appealed to the average white male worker who just wants to have a good paying job and who was sick and tired that the elite Washington D.C. political class along with academia had convicted them to be what Hillary Clinton deemed as a “basket of deplorables.”

Aaron Sorkin and Hillary Clinton can continue to attack Trump voters with such incendiary jabs all they want. And Trumps everywhere will continue to be elected.