Review: ‘The Great Revolt’ offers insight into Trump support
“The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics” (Crown Forum), by Salena Zito and Brad Todd
People struggling to understand what is happening in American politics would do well to read this fascinating book co-written by one of the first journalists to see what was happening to a key slice of the electorate — the white working class in the upper Midwest.
And Salena Zito, who was based in Pittsburgh, had a clear view of what was happening well before the stunning election of 2016.
Zito wrote “The Great Revolt” with Brad Todd, a Republican strategist with Tennessee roots. She pulled together her observations of extensive reporting and writing about the people in parts of America who feel they have been forgotten as the fast-growing cities and especially those on the nation’s coastlines surged back from the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Many of the towns and small cities in the nation’s Rust Belt did not snap back so easily, something often overlooked in coverage about the economy’s comeback.
Their book shifts from chapters looking at broad themes from this slice of American voters to portraits of these people, many of whom struggle to raise their families, make a living and rediscover hope in the future.
Todd studied their reactions in focus groups as they talked about the brash newcomer to the political scene — Donald J. Trump — as well as their fears about globalism and traditional politics. Democrats used to consider the Upper Midwest their “blue wall” that would deliver the party’s presidential nominee a bushel of electoral votes every four years.
In a campaign like no other, Trump boasted about his abilities, made bold predictions, talked about creating jobs and promised to get out of international treaties, cut immigration and protect struggling industries. Most important, he took his campaign directly to these people who desperately wanted the attention and promises of help. The Hillary Clinton campaign never perfected her campaign’s appeal to these people and in some cases neglected to travel to them.
The book profiles people like Bonnie Smith from rural Ohio, who runs a bakery. She was raised a Democrat, her parents were Democrats and she is married to a Democrat. In March 2016, she voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. But later in that election year: “I started to look around me, and my town and my county” and decided “I am just not in the mood to just show up and vote for who my party tells me I have to vote for.”
Throughout the region, people made similar decisions to change their voting patterns, though the specific reasons may have differed. For Smith, the sagging local economy of Ashtabula County seemed to demand a dramatic change from politics as usual.
When Trump returns to campaign themes about trade, immigration and “America first” he has these people firmly in mind — in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. The question of whether he has permanently reshaped America’s politics is central to the book, and to Trump’s persistent campaign themes.
The writers spent time “in diners, watering holes, bed-and-breakfasts and coffee shops” across the region. They talked to everyone from union bosses to day laborers, mechanics and waitresses to see what was on their minds. They found the people had optimism about their personal situations and pessimism about their communities. The incessantly repeated Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” is custom tailored to these voters.
Many of these voters — hungry for change — had supported Barack Obama in two previous presidential elections. They were attracted to his soaring rhetoric and promise of change. Joe Keenan is a rural Wisconsin resident who owns a repair shop for farm equipment and he voted for Obama because “in politics change is a potent message and he had a potent delivery.” But he grew disappointed with Obama and the direction of the country. So he switched in 2016.
“I liked Trump because he is going to clean out Washington,” Keenan said.
The former blue-collar Democrats have gone through some of the most radical change in recent years due to technology, global wage competition and cultural changes.
David Rubbico, a longtime union Democrat from Erie County, Pennsylvania, liked Obama but eventually found him culturally distant and now he says his support for Trump “isn’t going anywhere, I haven’t found a thing he has done that I don’t like.”
The roughly 40 percent of the population that supports Trump is unwavering and includes many residents of the Upper Midwest who were long a critical part of Democrats’ path to national victory. Winning them back from Trump will be no easy task.
Will Lester works on the editing desk for The Associated Press in Washington. For a dozen years before that, he covered politics in Florida and Washington for the AP. On Twitter, follow @wjlester.