They wanted disruption in 2016. Now they're Trump defectors
Shawna Jensen’s moment of reckoning came in March, as she sat in her suburban Fort Worth, Texas, living room next to her fireplace. Her laptop was open to a Zoom happy hour with five girlfriends. She sucked in a breath, gripping her glass of red wine.
“Hey, guys, I gotta tell you something,” she said. The women, all white, Republican, suburban moms, stared back at her.
Jensen’s heart raced. How would they react? What would they think? She never dreamed she would utter these words aloud.
“I’m not voting for Trump this year. My heart will not let me do it. I can’t vote for someone who is that ugly to other people.”
An uncomfortable pause descended over the screen. “Oh, OK,” one woman said, in a strained voice.
Since then, the 47-year-old hasn’t been invited to parties, and the Zoom happy hours have been few.
Jensen is among former Donald Trump supporters who are voting for Democrat Joe Biden this year, breaking ranks with family, friends and, in many cases, a lifelong political affiliation. They say it’s caused them anguish, both to personal relationships and their own identity. They wanted change and disruption, until they found out what that actually looked like under a President Trump.
Trump’s case for reelection rests almost solely on the intensity of support from those who backed him four years ago. Unlike other modern presidents, he has done little to try to expand his base, and there’s no evidence that he has. So he cannot afford to lose many voters like Jensen.
It’s unclear how many voters like Jensen are out there — white, middle-class people who are pro-gun and anti-abortion rights, solid Republicans in most conventional ways — and how they will affect the election’s outcome. Voters like Jensen could be only a slice of the electorate, but they still represent a flashing caution sign for the president.
Trump’s support among Republicans has been stable throughout his time in office. For all those voters repelled by Trump, there are diehard legions who remain solidly with him because they believe he honored his campaign promises, shows strengths and has presided over an economy that was flourishing before the pandemic.
In a tight race — especially in swing states — those who are abandoning Trump could make a difference.
In two dozen interviews with voters in three traditional swing states and Texas, people discussed why they aren’t voting for him again and what it feels like to leave behind a political allegiance that was part of their personal identity.
“Everything that I thought I knew doesn’t exist anymore,” said 22-year-old Zach Berly, of North Carolina, who was active in high school and college Republican clubs and enthusiastically cast his first presidential ballot for Trump in 2016 but won’t be voting for him in November. “There has to be another solution. I don’t even know what I am.”
The bedrock of Trump’s America is white voters who are 45 or older, and they are largely solidly with him, especially in rural areas. According to a Pew Research Center study, the 2018 elections showed a decline in support for Republicans in suburban areas, and if that is true in 2020, it provides an opening for Biden.
“Joe Biden’s a family man and so am I, and that’s how I’m connecting with him,” said Jensen. “He loves his kids and his wife, you can tell it. For me, he’s the safer of the two candidates. And he doesn’t make fun of people.”
Nearly everyone who spoke with The Associated Press said they had hesitations about voting for Trump in 2016 but chose him anyway because of his outsider status and willingness to shake up Washington. They expected him to grow into the job. Jensen was one of those voters.
“I was super proud that day I walked out of voting,” said Jensen, who voted for Trump in the primary and general election in 2016. She’d been a lifelong Republican. “My son was with me, and he just turned 18. He voted for Trump as well. It was a year of ‘Hey, let’s do something different.’ I really thought he was going to drain the swamp, get rid of career politicians, small government, be a leader. We wanted everything to change.”
She recalled Ronald Reagan. He was an out-of-the-box, unusual choice, and so was Trump. “I was looking for that Reagan-esque, (Arnold) Schwarzenegger appeal.
“Looking back, though, it was all a big mistake.”
Jensen sighs a lot when talking about the 2016 election. When Trump became president, he didn’t become presidential, she noted. His tweets were alarming, and so was his rhetoric. But she could overlook a lot.
Her first serious inkling that he didn’t align with her values was when he nominated Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. Jensen, who is a librarian at a high school, felt that DeVos wasn’t qualified.
But there were many other troubling signs to come, including Trump’s habit of belittling people. “I started being mindful. Watching things. Growing up with traditional Christian values, it bothered me how he made fun of people,” she said.
She tried to focus on her favorite things in life: ’80s music, books, her ownership in a small cattle ranch in her native Oklahoma. She shared plenty of photos of her colorful life on Facebook. But politics crept in like a gray fog that clings to the edge of nightmares. The more Jensen learned about Trump, the less she liked. For the first time in her life, she was uncomfortable with a Republican.
Friends would cite the stock market as proof of Trump’s success, and Jensen grew increasingly annoyed. Previously, she’d lived in a half-million-dollar home in Texas with her ex-husband. That was where she met most of her social circle and developed deep friendships with a group of women.
But after her divorce, she moved into a “regular, $200,000 teacher’s home,” and later married a man who coached high school football. She was solidly middle class and happy with her life, but couldn’t understand how her wealthier friends didn’t see what was going on with anyone but their own kind.
“Not everything is based off the stock market,” she said. “Most regular people just don’t have stocks. Everything about the stock market comments irritated me.”
Over the course of Trump’s first term, as Jensen grew more alarmed by the president’s actions, her stance on many issues started to shift. She began to read different news sources, scour new types of books. She watched MSNBC along with Fox News, and read about media bias and immigration.
Everything she thought she believed was in question. She’d loved George W. Bush and was a strong critic of Barack Obama. Now? She found herself warming to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Democrat from the Bronx, which was about as far away from suburban Texas as you could get.
“I love her spirit,” said the mother of four, who is equally at ease in a leopard-print sweater as dingy brown farm coveralls. “But sometimes she’s too much, she turns people off. I don’t like her rhetoric, but I love that she’s a passionate woman. She stands up for her values, even though they’re different than mine.”
Even admitting that much about such a left-leaning politician was shocking to Jensen.
With each new scandal and breaking news alert, she felt like her eyes were opening for the first time. Perhaps, she thought, she’d been too rigid in her thinking.
Hispanic immigrants? She noticed several in the school where she worked. It made her think of Trump’s fixation on a border wall. “The wall really bothered me, and the inhumane way we were treating Hispanic people.”
Abortion? “I’m pro-life, but I just feel that Republicans have become so hung up on our abortion stance that we are letting this man ruin us.”
She’s also left baffled by Trump’s Cabinet and campaign staffing choices. “The buck stops with the leader. He can’t keep a staff. Why does he have so much turnover?” She paused. “People don’t leave when you have a good boss. Why is it that he cannot keep the Cabinet? It’s one crisis after another, and all he does is go on Twitter. Does he have a job?”
She finally decided Trump had failed at his job when it mattered most, when the pandemic struck. “He did nothing to help us,” she said. And she went for Biden.
To be sure, Jensen is not typical. Trump’s approval rating was 86% among Republicans in a recent AP poll. There are many who remain fervent in their support for Trump for the very reasons she has come to spurn him: They agree with his immigration policies, his abortion stance. They appreciate his brashness and believe that he is bedeviled by unfair coverage in the media.
But she also is not alone — and she’s still a registered Republican. Across the country, others who voted for Trump came to the same conclusions she did: He isn’t the man they thought he was.
Folks who are switching their votes from 2016 all cite different turning points for their change of heart. For some, it was when Trump gave his inauguration speech. For others, it was the way he called certain nations “s---hole countries,” and how he responded to the Ukraine scandal. Others quit Trump this summer amid nationwide protests over race and a pandemic that’s killed more than 200,000 Americans.
Among the two dozen Trump defectors, there is no discernible pattern. They are women and men, old and young. Some are evangelicals, with strong opposition to abortion.
In 2016, Al Cogossi, 75, a retired defense contractor in Marysville, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, and a lifelong Republican, voted for Trump because he despised Democrat Hillary Clinton. He decided to switch as he saw the toll of the pandemic mount. He felt that Trump was “politicizing” a national crisis.
“I should’ve voted for Hillary. I think she would have done an outstanding job handling the issues we’re facing today,” he said, sighing.
Others had more specific breaking points.
James Farr, a 77-year-old evangelical Christian who lives in Kissimmee, Florida, voted Republican in large part because of his opposition to abortion.
While working as a Bible translator in Papua New Guinea in 2016, he voted for Trump by absentee ballot. Now back in the United States, he is appalled at how Trump treated the Kurds. In October 2019, Trump declared U.S. troops would step aside for an expected Turkish attack on the Kurds, who had fought alongside Americans for years, but then threatened to destroy the Turks’ economy if they went too far.
Farr called that decision a “dealbreaker.” He’s voting for Biden, the first Democrat he’s selected. “I really am scared with what Trump does. Feels like he’s able to do anything and get away with it.”
For Dee Stoudemire, a 64-year-old retired legal administrator and lifelong Republican in Jacksonville, Florida, it was Syria. When Trump made the decision to pull out of that country, going against the recommendations of his military advisers, she ceased supporting him. “That was a bat signal to me, that he’s not listening to his military leaders. When you have a leader that cannot and will not listen to his military leaders when it comes to world affairs, you’ve got a problem.”
Stoudemire says most of her friends are Republicans. “We don’t talk about the election a lot. Because our friendship is too important. They’re aware of how I feel. What other people think about me is not my business.”
For others, the issue of racial justice, and Trump’s attitude on the subject, prompted them to reject the president.
Daniel Turner, a 59-year-old construction contractor in Deerfield Beach, Florida, had high hopes that Trump’s outsider status would help him cut through the bureaucracy in Washington. Then, the 2017 Charlottesville protest happened, with members of the alt-right marching while a woman was killed. “I probably say that the tipping point was definitely when he claimed there were good people on both sides in Charlottesville. I just don’t know any good Nazis.”
The divisions the Trump era has sewn in many parts of the country have also affected individual families, tearing at their sense of unity.
In rural North Carolina, Zach Berly and his mother avoid talking about Trump, politics or the coronavirus. They were both Trump supporters in 2016. Now only one of them is.
“In order to really keep the peace, we just don’t talk about it,” said Jennifer Wise, his mother, who is 45 and from Lillington, a town of about 3,100 between Raleigh and Fayetteville. She recently expressed worries that her son was now “regurgitating” talking points of the Democratic Party.
Like others, Berly decided to abandon Trump when he saw how the president handled the pandemic. The recent college graduate lives in Holly Springs and now has “secret” discussions with friends about voting for Biden.
“It’s gotta be Joe Biden, right?” Berly said to a friend one day. “It was a really crazy moment to say that out loud. Fox News is on TV everywhere here.”
Berly tuned into the Democratic National Convention in August. “Watching the DNC is the first time I’ve felt proud to be American in a while. After watching that, I really wished I could share that with someone. I’d love to go back to my grandparents and say, `Isn’t this the vision you want for America?’”
Berly said that if he did try to talk about it with his family, he’d be brushed off.
“They will dismiss all of it. There’s no sense of compromise,” he said. “It’s not so much they’re not willing to criticize Trump. It’s an unwillingness to listen to Democratic talking points.”
In the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, Shawna Jensen didn’t mention politics on social media. She posted about her children, her cattle, her beloved Chicago Cubs. She was tagged in photos of large groups of smiling friends.
Shortly before Election Day, she made note of when she voted early with a smiling selfie but didn’t make any partisan statement.
On Nov. 8, 2016, Jensen posted on Facebook, “CNN having a meltdown,” referring to Trump’s unexpected win.
A friend replied: “Please please keep the lead. So stressful,” and Jensen liked her comment.
Now, four years later, she’s still posting about her cattle and her children, but she’s dipping a toe into political waters. She joined a Facebook group called “Former Trump Supporters,” and posts charts about media bias.
Because of the pandemic — and because of her newfound political beliefs — she’s not in many group photos anymore. She still does the occasional Zoom happy hour, but it can get uncomfortable.
“They’ll still wear their MAGA hats and things around me,” she said. “They’ll do it teasingly, but I can tell there’s some strain. I think I’ve grown, and my friends have not.”
But she hasn’t wavered. “I’m happier now. My time here is limited. I see myself four years ago, I would have never said, `Black lives matter.’ But they do. Sometimes we have to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. It does not always have to align with what your friends believe.”
She’s mindful of not getting into heated arguments or nasty debates. Her son, who went with her to vote in 2016, has decided not to vote at all this year; all he’s told her is that he doesn’t feel comfortable with Trump.
Now she asks one question of Trump supporters, whether it’s online or in person.
“Were you better off four years ago right before the 2016 election, or today?”