Intramural food fights about journalistic practices normally don’t attract my attention. The journalists I know, right and left, have their biases but are mostly honest and good at what they do. But the recent assault on Salena Zito’s integrity is different.
That’s because Zito’s reporting chops aren’t what’s really at issue. What’s really at stake is her narrative, that Trump’s victory was due to millions of fed-up, blue-collar Americans angry at coastal elite condescension and the failed policies that flowed from that conceit. Strike her down, and the most prominent advocate of that explanation for 2016 gets removed from the conversation—and with her, perhaps the narrative itself drops by the wayside.
See, NeverTrump resisters—Left and Right—still don’t want to admit this is why he won. They would prefer to chalk it up to Russian hacking or to misinformation, the political nerd’s version of Area 51 and Roswell. Or they contend it’s all a matter of latent racism, which somehow never expressed itself when Barack Obama twice won in these same areas or when two Hispanics and a black man won majorities of the votes in early GOP primaries and caucuses. Anything—anything—but that Americans who have different cultural interests than coastal or suburban college graduates were mad as hell and didn’t want to take it anymore.
But that’s exactly what the data tell me. Whether it’s looking at election returns, exit polls, or post-election in-depth voter surveys, Trump won because he struck a chord with blue-collar, white America the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.
You can broadly be sympathetic with those people’s views, as I am, or you can loathe them, as many of my fellow Washingtonians do. But if you fail to get a handle on what is going on, you are pretty likely to do something that will make things worse.
Here’s a rough summary of what the data show. Trump won massive majorities of whites without a college degree, whether one looks at the exit polls or post-election analyses. These voters told pollsters they were angry: they didn’t like the job Barack Obama was doing, they thought the country was on the wrong track, and they wanted change.
Trump had energized these people early in the race and brought many who were not regular voters in Republican primaries into those contests. Exit polls during the primaries invariably showed that Trump’s support was directly connected with a voter’s education level, strongest with the least educated and weakest with the most, and turnout in the GOP races was at a record high, nearly equaling Democratic turnout for the first time ever.
Neither Trump’s primary voters nor his general election voters were primarily motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment. Many were, of course, but even in the primaries large numbers of his supporters opposed his views on deportation or did not say immigration was an important issue.
Emily Ekins of the Cato Institute used data from the Voter Study Group, which I direct, to break Trump’s general election support into five discrete groups. Attitudes and importance attached to immigration varied among those groups and there is even one substantial group holding views on immigrants and immigration policies nearly indistinguishable from Clinton voters.
Trump broke the Democrats’ “blue wall” in the Midwest on the backs of these voters, millions of whom were former Democrats. Voter Study Group data shows that about nine percent of Obama’s 2012 voters—nearly 6 million people—supported Donald Trump in 2016. The election map tells us where these voters lived—counties and towns well outside of big cities in the Midwest. These were places like Lee County, Iowa, which gave Obama over 56 percent in 2012 but backed Trump with nearly 55 percent in 2016.
Trump’s pledge to make America great again resonated with them, and not because of their latent resentments. It still surprises my fellow swamp creatures to learn that Trump received a higher share of the vote among people whose most important criteria for a president is that he “cares about people like me” than Romney, McCain, or even “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush.
Zito saw all of this as she traveled throughout the Midwest. She called me in the summer of 2016 for data on a piece she was writing, the first time we came into contact. Her anecdotes and reporting confirmed what my data were telling me: Trump was riding an enormous tidal wave of support among blue-collar whites. I saw it firsthand when I drove the backroads of Pennsylvania in October for speaking gigs: hundreds of Trump signs, many obviously not made by the campaign, decorated lawns across the land, more than I had ever seen in over 40 years in politics.
Salena’s books, CNN appearances, and columns give voice to these people. Her interviews and stories put faces and names on real concerns. This means she reaches many more people than do analysts and writers like me, focused as we are on numbers and data. That makes her dangerous, someone who must be brought down. That is why Twitter trolls are poring over her work to find any error, no matter how slight, to discredit her.
Zito will survive this onslaught. She’s too careful, too competent not to. But in a broader sense (sorry, Salena!), it wouldn’t matter if she didn’t. She is merely a voice crying in the wilderness speaking for the millions of Americans whose lives and thoughts she recounts. Their voices can be repressed, their tribunes silenced, but they will not go away. They are the Force that is shaping American politics. And to paraphrase Master Obi Wan, if you strike their Jedi Knights down, they will simply become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).