The End of Trump Won't Be the End of Trumpism
A new book—tweeted out by the president himself—argues that America is in the midst of a populist realignment.
For two years, the American media has been stuck in the movie Groundhog Day, replaying the 2016 election over and over in the hopes of extracting some new insight about an outcome it didn’t see coming. While some of this work comes from an earnest place—national reporters sense they got the story wrong, and now they’ve been to the heartland to see what they missed—in aggregate, they’re easily caricatured: the Trump voter as blue-collar Baby Boomer, out of a manufacturing job, a little bit racist, just whittling away at his rusty nail.
The journalist Salena Zito, along with the Republican political consultant Brad Todd, have written a new book in this genre, with two important caveats: They avoid stereotypes of Trump voters, and they do not believe Trump’s election was a freak political accident. The Great Revolt argues that Trump didn’t just destroy conventional Republican politics; he also built something new, uniting a coalition of Americans who hate bigness and politically correct, arrogant elites.
The book, based on a voter survey and Zito’s reporting in five Midwestern swing states, has some shortcomings. In their effort to counter popular narratives about Trump voters, the authors go too far toward contrarianism and embracing voters’ narratives without question. Still, it is a valuable read on two levels. First, it provides a nuanced, multifaceted theory of the Trump coalition, resisting the temptation to oversimplify a complex, diverse group of voters and the man they voted for. The authors offer archetypes that are impressionistic but subtle—a quality in short supply in contemporary American politics.
The book is also a meta-document, an artifact of Republican mythmaking to come. Unlike most retellings of the 2016 election, The Great Revolt provides a cohesive, non-wild-eyed argument about where the Republican Party could be headed. Although it is not an explicit playbook for future campaigns, it’s intently focused on the voters who matter most for winning elections: those who flip. This political moment “is bigger than Trump,” says one voter, a former Pennsylvania union boss. “I don’t think there is any way to put what happened in 2016 back into some neat place. This is the new normal, people just don’t know that yet. Or maybe they just don’t want to know.”
According to Zito and Todd, roughly seven kinds of voters comprised the Trump coalition in 2016. They base these categories in part on a survey conducted for them by a Republican research firm—findings that aren’t all that useful. The survey mixes online and phone interviews “from professional third-party sample sources.” It relies on relatively small samples of narrow groups of voters to make questionably specific conclusions about those voters.* The truly interesting material comes from the mini-profiles scattered throughout the book, presumably drawn from Zito’s extensive reporting in the Midwest. The interviewees are given space to describe their lives in their own words—their relationships, work histories, anxieties, sense of politesse. This is the feeder material of intangible cultural impulses, which are often invisible in polling results but powerful in polling booths.
The authors give these voter archetypes goofy names—“Girl Gun Power,” for example, describes women largely under 45 who voted to protect their Second Amendment rights—but they can be described equally well in plain language. There are the hourly wage workers or laborers who recently went through personal or familial job losses. These voters are optimistic, the authors claim, but mistrustful of “big banks, big Wall Street, big corporations, the establishment of both parties and their lobbyists, and the big media corporations,” as one man puts it.
Some Trump supporters were nonideological, breaking a pattern of political disengagement to support a maverick candidate. “I just didn’t like and I never ever liked anyone who ran for office,” said a 70-year-old woman from one of the 10 largest counties to swing from Obama to Trump, according to Zito and Todd. “He was his own man,” the woman said. “I admired that.”
Other voters who had lived through a major crisis or setback felt drawn to Trump’s narrative of self-reinvention, Zito and Todd argue. “One of the things I really don’t get about the Democratic Party or the news media is the lack of respect they give to people who work hard all of their lives to get themselves out of the hole,” said a Michigan woman who owns a variety store. “It is as though they want to punish us for the very things we hold dear: hard work, no dependence on the government, no debt, and so on.”
Conservative Christians who stuck with Trump through scandals did it for political ends, the authors write. “I was looking for a warrior for our values, for righting the direction of the country,” a 44-year-old woman from Bristol, Wisconsin, said. “When [Trump] said he would appoint Supreme Court justices who would uphold the values of our country and our Constitution, I started to bend towards listening to what he stood for.”
Then there were the Rotary Club presidents and civic leaders from middle-class or rural areas—the college-educated professionals who didn’t feel the same kind of Trump-shame as their urban peers. “There was this sense of reality with him,” said a 39-year-old restaurant owner from Pennsylvania. “It has gotten so in this country that you are not quite sure what you can say to people that might offend them. Things you would never think would make people offended. The politically correct stuff has gotten overboard.”
And finally, most crucially: the silent suburban mom, the woman who is younger and less religiously conservative than other Republicans and may have been uncomfortable telling her friends about her choice for president. “The one thing that Trump will always get credit for is that he proved that our votes matter,” said a 55-year-old social worker and stay-at-home mom. “No matter what party we were from, our votes matter. And I haven’t felt that way in a very long time.”
While some policy issues come up in these voters’ self-narratives—abortion, gun rights, NAFTA, the opioid crisis—their sense of cultural betrayal is a stronger common thread. They believe hard work has been devalued in America; that elites belittle people who live outside of urban centers; that once-normal opinions have become taboo. This sense of cultural disorientation and betrayal, of a common sensibility flipped upside-down, is the most powerful take-away from Zito and Todd’s journey through the Midwest. “Religiosity that was once honored by both parties became mocked by one as merely a basis of bigotry,” they write. “Rust Belt voters watched on cable television as the Left and journalists pigeonholed their rebellion as an ugly bout of white nationalism, doubling down on all the elitist snobbery those voters sought to rebuke.”
This is the book’s most defiant argument: “The professional Left focuses heavily on race-related questions in analyzing the Trump vote,” the authors write, capitalizing “Left” like some formal, menacing collective. “But race-tinged subjects were rarely cited by Trump voters interviewed for this book.” Their subjects deeply resent any suggestion that they are bigoted because of who they voted for. “‘Racist.’ Every time someone throws that at me I spit right back out: ‘Let’s see, our daughter that we’ve adopted is biracial. I got two hundred-percent black sons. I’ve got a half-Japanese grandson, a biracial daughter-in-law, and a daughter-in-law that is half Puerto Rican and half Mexican,” one woman says. “You have no idea who you’re talking to. My family is, well, we are like a rainbow family.”
The impulse behind this argument is worthwhile: Zito and Todd want to counter a media narrative that they believe has become reductive and mono-causal. “The common analytical inaccuracy of describing Trump supporters as unthoughtful rubes is driven as much by the lifestyles of the analysts as the intellect of those analyzed,” they write. But it’s also the source of book’s greatest liabilities. The authors indulge in self-aggrandizement, contrasting themselves with negligent national media and out-of-touch political consultants who “[continue] to blow it” by not “pausing to consider the durability of the trends and winds that swept [Trump] into office.” They let their subjects speak for themselves, but don’t bring any kind of critical eye to their stories: One woman describes her mother’s despair at a tax bill worth “half of what you’ve made for the year” and her fear of the federal estate tax, even though it’s highly unlikely that their small-business-owning family would have faced either scenario. And the authors’ resistance to seeing racism as a factor in the election leaves blindspots in their analysis. To take just one example, they cite exit polls showing that “81 percent of evangelical Christians supported Trump on Election Day.” But they neglect to mention one extremely important detail: That stat describes white evangelicals, who have been painfully split from fellow Christians of color over politics.
This is why The Great Revolt may ultimately be more useful as a guide to an emerging strain of Republican thinking—a strategy that would reorient the party toward localism and small businesses, that would seek to purple the deep-blue ranks of unions, and that would reject the free-trade gospel and unabashedly champion the American-made. “The new populism is a movement against bigness,” Zito and Todd write. “It distrusts big government, big corporations, big media conglomerates, and, perhaps more than anything else, big multinational agreements and organizations.” These impulses don’t map neatly onto a conventional left-right ideological spectrum, they add: “Just as the Whole Foods shopper is leery of the pesticide practices of a Mexican agribusiness, the Trumpian populist has no confidence that the Brussels bureaucrat will make economic decisions that consider the well-being of the American blue-collar worker.”
It doesn’t matter that Trump may or may not actually represent these values, or that he may or may not end up championing a policy agenda oriented toward these goals. Even if the Trump coalition united behind a cipher, Republicans are paying attention to what these voters are saying—or, at least, they will if Zito and Todd get their way. “A lot of people don’t understand what the 2016 election was about,” one Michigan woman told them. “It really wasn’t about Trump. I mean not really.” Apparently, the great revolt is underway. All that’s left is to find the person who will lead it.
* This story originally stated that the survey used in Todd and Zito’s book was not based on original data, and was not representative of Trump voters in five states. We regret the error.