Just as notable were the voters who were there for Trump’s taking, who didn’t support him last time but were giving him a chance as president. Pete, a sales manager in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, who declined to give his last name, called Clinton “the lesser of two evils” and told me his vote for her wasn’t an easy choice. “I was rooting for him the first year, but that was it,” he said of Trump. “He’s a crook. I just don’t believe anything he says.”
Despite the lack of racial diversity across the region, the topic of race came up, unprompted, again and again. With a mix of anger and sadness, white voters said they were taken aback by the racism exposed during the past four years, most shockingly in the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis and in the protests that followed. In their voices I heard a common lament: The nation had not made as much progress on race as they had assumed, and Trump was making it worse. The president had tried to exploit the unrest to his advantage, warning that cities and suburbs would succumb to violence and crime, while vowing to restore “law and order.” Polls found, however, that the strategy backfired on Trump, as white voters recoiled from his effort to crack down on the protests.
Marjorie and Larry Lewis, retired political independents from an upstate–New York district that swung from Obama to Trump, were two voters that the president might have once been able to win over. Larry, 80, voted for Clinton but called it “a mistake.” Marjorie, 79, liked Trump when he was on The Apprentice. “When he was on TV, he was funny. He’s a showman,” she told me, before adding: “He should have stayed a showman.”
As we sat in a diner, they wanted to talk about white supremacy, about the Black Lives Matter protests and Trump’s handling of them. Marjorie Lewis bemoaned all of the violence. “We have a country that is not safe to live in,” she said.
But she and her husband both blamed the president, not the demonstrators. “He stokes the fires,” Larry told me. “The Republican Party to me is a dead party until Trump is gone. Anything that is negative in this country goes back to Trump.”
More than 150 miles to the northeast, in New Hampshire, Pete from Bethlehem used the same words to describe the president’s handling of race: “He stoked the fires.” As we stood outside a grocery store on Main Street of the small hillside town, he pointed to the brewery down the street, which had put up a sign supporting Black Lives Matter that was met with racist comments in online forums. “I didn’t realize it was as big in this town as it is,” Pete told me.
Even among those sticking loyally behind the president, there were hints of wariness about his style. Invariably, Trump’s supporters touted his policies while lamenting his rhetoric. In upstate New York, I met David Manny, a 69-year-old independent who had owned a taxi company before the rise of Uber and Lyft destroyed his business—a development for which he blamed Governor Andrew Cuomo. Manny is a truck driver now, and he tried to explain Trump’s appeal, and his shortcomings. He told me he can “overlook” Trump’s style for his policies, but he acknowledged that many others cannot. “I know why he exaggerates, because I exaggerate,” Manny said. “They use his exaggerations, and they call it a lie.” Manny compared the president’s relationship with voters to that of a doctor and his patients. “It’s sort of like a bedside manner. He doesn’t have one,” Manny said. A lot of people, he noted, want a bedside manner. “I have a lot of doctors,” Manny said. “I don’t need a bedside manner. If you can fix me, I like you.”