Review by Steve Parkhurst
If you ever pondered during the 2015-2016 campaign season or even since President Trump’s inauguration, “exactly who are the Trump supporters?” well, The Great Revolt has some answers for you.
These people were not hard to find, in fact they were “hidden in plain sight,” a theme that appears throughout The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, which hits bookstores nationally next Tuesday (May 8). First-time authors Salena Zito and Brad Todd have endeavored to understand the Trump victory of 2016, and they went a step further by having a survey conducted to get into the who, what, why and how of that victory. The “where” was a given: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, typically Democrat voting states that flipped to Trump and delivered a victory.
I have been familiar with Salena Zito’s writing for many years now. Her writing was invaluable in the 2012 election when many people assumed a Mitt Romney victory. Ms. Zito was in the cafes and the small town mom-and-pop shops in the Rust Belt talking to real people and her writing reflected a slightly different story than the narrative that ultimately played out as President Obama was re-elected. Ms. Zito paints some beautiful word pictures in her writing whether she is sitting at the kitchen table of a mother of five in a city with a population under 8,000 people, or whether she’s sitting across from the Speaker of the House or the Vice President. In that respect alone, this book does not disappoint.
Ms. Zito was again in the small communities of America during the 2016 election, and her storytelling that year reflected that something different was in the air. Indeed it was.
She takes the same approach to introduce us to the coalition that helped elect Donald Trump in what was appearing to be the most unlikely of scenarios. As it turns out, if more elites, and by extension their media representatives, had actually spent time in small town America, they may have picked up on the story, and they may have understood Donald Trump’s appeal better, if at all.
The Great Revolt takes an interesting route through America’s Rust Belt region and talks with voters where they live and work. We hear from people who have faced really difficult times. We hear from people who have watched their morals laughed at and mocked. We hear from people who have watched hometowns decline in population as people left to find employment elsewhere. We hear from people who work hard. We hear from people who were just fed up. The list of grievances was considerable as Zito and Todd profile one voter after another.
The Great Revolt features what we might refer to as “voters unplugged.” We get to hear their real words and hear how they speak. There is no paraphrasing, which makes for a really interesting, almost conversational read. “To recognize the potential of the Trump coalition, analysts would have had to visit places they had stopped visiting and listen to people they had stopped listening to,” write Zito and Todd. That is important to note. As is the fact that Ms. Zito was in these places throughout 2016, she was there before, she’s been there since. I might be making this sound like a National Geographic special where they go into a vast jungle and attempt to monitor some animal or another in its natural habitat. For some, especially members of the media, reading The Great Revolt will be very much like that.
Ms. Zito in her typical writing fashion brings these voters to life on the page.
The people of The Great Revolt are classified into catchy categories, which became chapter titles, like the “Rotary Reliables” or “King Cyrus Christians” or “Girl Gun Power.” The voters in The Great Revolt did not share an ideology, or more properly, they were not interested in a shared ideology other than “Make American Great Again” which proved to be more of a cause for the revolt, than a slogan for it.
The lack of an ideology on Trump’s part is an intriguing conundrum. He spent a fair amount of time mocking the ideology of the Republican party. Zito and Todd show some cases where Trump openly mocked conservatism and they noted that, “Trump went one short step further, enacting a primary strategy in which outsider credentials were not a veneer for ideological stripes but a replacement for them.” Even against forces like Bill Kristol, whose Never Trump pleadings went unheard by many Republicans, Zito and Todd keenly suggest that there was “an angst that perhaps the voters among the electoral coalition of the Right were suddenly more interested in triumph than tribe.” There needs to be a time when ideology matters though, and the Trump years probably will not be that time. If a realigning of priorities and the role of government takes place and takes hold during the Trump years, and we have a true return to localism, then perhaps we will see the Trump years as “the great reset” on ideology.
The Trump coalition was not a pure Trump fan club, we know those people exist, but they are not the feature of this book. There were certainly the voters who said, “I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. I voted against Hillary Clinton,” but their reasons for the way they voted is why The Great Revolt is invaluable. We hear them tell us. The Access Hollywood tape with Billy Bush was mentioned plenty of times as a point of hesitation. Conversely, appointments to the US Supreme Court were also crucially important in deciding. The women who considered their right to keep and bear arms of utmost importance were prominent here. As was the cover provided for then candidate Trump by the National Rifle Association, which micro-targeted women with a strong, repetitive message of women protecting themselves with a firearm, and how Hillary Clinton was the one person standing in the way of that continuing freedom. The NRA was a great unsung hero of the Trump 2016 victory. So for these groups, a lack of ideology was not a deal breaker.
Some of the people come from areas where there is no other way than a hard work ethic, in fact, anything else is foreign. And in a country where multitudes of people are encouraged not to work and in some cases actually discouraged from working, well, there comes a point where people find that unacceptable, and they push back. “The whole workforce changed from people who looked forward to going to work, to people who make excuses not to,” notes one voter.
In other cases, the raw emotion of some of the people that Zito and Todd spoke with was really breathtaking. For instance, one voter, semi-rationalizing her vote for Trump, made the point about other politicians before him, she said, “but because the other politicians’ faults are so worse. Because their failures were our lives, and that is unforgivable.” “Their failures were our lives…”
As Zito and Todd note, these voters shared, “The sense that Trump was looking at the overlooked, and fighting for the forgotten in Middle America.”
An equally valuable section of the book is the concluding four chapters which serve as a sort of road map, summation, and conclusion. This is where we understand that just as there are many things that make up a so-called populist revolt, there will be many things that need to happen to sustain the revolt and to change our politics. The media takes some much-deserved heat here. But, instead of an anti-media screed, The Great Revolt is a look at and a challenge to, media and elites alike to do the work necessary to hear everyone. That includes the people who may not live within the New York City or Washington D.C. zip codes. The media, which is always an easy target for conservatives, gets pigeonholed in their echo chambers, where they become sources for each other, and they think the complaints of a New York apartment renter who overpays for a small roach-infested place to live and commutes to work via the subway carries greater weight than the opinion of the small town shop owner or the family that operates a multi-generational farm.
What might a change in media look like? Mark Cuban makes a brief appearance and astutely notes that we now follow our news the way we follow our sports teams. He is not far off on that. If you go to ESPN.com today, you can set the website to show you the news and the scores of your favorite teams and colleges across all sports. If you prefer to filter out hockey and horse racing, no problem. What Cuban points to is quite fascinating in our news consumption as well. Even Drudge is complicit to a degree. Look at how often a story is in the news, yet Drudge links to Info Wars or Breitbart as though either is a reliable source for actual news. That filter is what leads to a 2016 and the uprising we saw that year. If we are all choosing our news and want to continue to do that, maybe we should reconsider the sources and the content.
The media may think they are doing a great job of destroying President Trump’s presidency and we shall see what happens in the 2018 midterm elections, but the fact is that for the people that had a grievance in 2016, to listen to them post-2016 is to see they are even more upset now than they were then. Zito and Todd note, “Leading national journalists missed the potential efficacy of Trump’s grievance appeal because they exemplified, professionally and personally, the other end of the complaint.” Exactly right.
The true test for the Trump coalition might be the midterm elections this November, a chance to see if the voters only wanted a temporary change, or to see if these voters want a peaceful revolution that leaves its mark. The fact that these voters were not devoted Trumpians “no matter what,” means that the coalition could easily fracture for any number of reasons. The Democrats, and the media by extension, have their work cut out for them though. As Zito and Todd correctly note regarding the Democrats’ uphill climb, “This obsession with the redefinition of cultural norms has come at a price for Democrats. Beyond the people it offends, it denies Democratic candidates time to discuss the pocketbook issues that swing voters are more likely to use in guiding their votes.”
Where is the gulf between the Trump voters and the members of the media? “When the press picked Trump’s words apart for strict fact analysis, voters assumed he spoke directionally; the press took him literally, but voters…took him merely seriously,” write Zito and Todd. In that context, it is not difficult to figure out how and why the media missed the story of 2016, with one national weekly going so far as to prepare a “Madam President” issue for print.
The Great Revolt is not a screed against “the liberal media” or “media bias,” it is instead some of the voices of the people who had stopped being heard until 2016, people who were first given a choice by Donald Trump, and who have now been given a voice by Salena Zito and Brad Todd. This cross-section of people is worth studying, their stories are worth hearing, not all of them came to Trump the same way, but they all got there eventually. Salena Zito and Bradd Todd have done a remarkable job of sharing these stories and showing us how.