When Donald Trump emerged disheveled and broken from Air Force One Saturday after what was supposed to be his triumphant comeback on the campaign trail in Tulsa (coronavirus — what’s that?), it was clear that the sheen of his electoral invincibility had finally started to tarnish.
National journalists (even one who reported live from a Zamboni ride with him in 2015, for funzies) snarked on Twitter about the half-full stadium that witnessed his rambling speech (yes, more so than usual) in which he demonstrated the amazing feat of drinking water one-handed and told old war stories about his trip down a slippery (obviously liberally slanted) ramp.
It was a real the-emperor-has-no-clothes moment, as analysts seemed to finally absorb what poll numbers have been showing for weeks: Trump’s reelection is in serious trouble and he’s losing his grip on his base.
There was never that much mystery as to how Trump scored his 2016 bank shot Electoral College win in the three Upper Midwest states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. But at least it provided an opportunity for endless diner safari stories with national media parachuting in to ask white Macomb County voters why they loved the president just so darn much.
Presidents before him who had notched far more impressive electoral victories — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and especially Barack Obama — never inspired a genre of stories dissecting their diehard fans (indeed there was no shortage of coverage of the small AstroTurf Tea Party movement that virulently opposed the nation’s first Black president).
Part of it was an overcorrection for journalists who were convinced Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in and had the admirable instinct to try and figure out what they missed. But after the wave of derivative stories kept coming, year after year, it became clear that many were assiduously avoiding the elephant in the room: Racism was the driver of so many voters’ passion, even though Trump’s anti-immigrant, law-and-order platform was always front and center. And misogyny was, too, with anti-Hillary paraphernalia featuring “Trump that bitch” and “Lock her up” still ubiquitous at Trump events.
Many pieces relied on the terms “blue collar” and “working class” as euphemisms for white people, which, however inadvertently, erases many people of color. Coupled with the insistence that those poor folks were just suffering from “economic anxiety” — a term wealthy both-sides pundits are still fond of — that also conveniently ignored that most Trump voters were affluent.
It’s an effective and again, perhaps subconscious, “othering” technique. Trumpers are the unwashed masses of the heartland, not rich guys you went to college with who decided a fat tax cut was worth a few kids in cages or actually found Trump’s bigoted tirades refreshingly honest (as you’ve learned from their now-emboldened Facebook posts).
I’ve been poor (so much, in fact, that I didn’t qualify for G.W. Bush’s universal tax cut one year) and worked for years in very unglamorous jobs, ranging from a motel maid to a laundry factory worker, which is one reason why I’m perhaps less apt to complain about the (admittedly not great) pay in journalism than most.
It’s also why I’ve always tried to cover people who have been left behind, something that’s fairly easy to do when you work for papers in Jackson, Saginaw, Battle Creek and more. It’s impossible for millions to save for retirement, own a home or send their kids to college with stagnating wages and constant downsizing — and this was before the pandemic recession. Some of them voted for Trump because it didn’t seem like things could get much worse.
You also can’t ignore the racism, sexism and homophobia of many and their embrace of dangerous conspiracy theories, from anti-vaccine memes to Pizzagate to now QAnon. We ultimately do folks a disservice in painting a picture of downtrodden working-class nobility (but it will sell books, as “Hillbilly Elegy” shows).
What I’ve been struck most by in talking to some of these Trump voters over the years is that they honestly didn’t expect that he would make them fabulously rich. They didn’t think they would personally get much out of it. They were confident that politicians didn’t really care about people like them and that good jobs weren’t coming back from overseas. They didn’t even really believe that things would be better for their kids or grandkids.
But they did think Trump would hurt the right people, at least. That usually came down to believing some combination of him kicking the immigrants out, cracking down on crime, saving unborn babies and restoring “traditional” marriage. If they couldn’t be happy, at least all the less-deserving people would get theirs.
It was revenge politics at its finest and Trump masterfully tapped into that.
But the world in June 24, 2020, looks far different than it did on the night of Nov. 8, 2016. More than 120,000 people are dead in a pandemic that’s shown no sign of stopping — and it’s hitting Trump strongholds particularly hard right now. The resulting economic freefall may have paused a bit, but 16% national unemployment is terrifying. And there’s mounting evidence that things will get worse in a second wave.
It’s not like Trump is a steady leader who can get us through these crises. Even if you don’t believe that he willfully bungled the response or ignore his latest rant that he ordered a slowdown in testing, he looks angry, shaken and exhausted so much of the time. And he couldn’t even draw a packed house in one of the reddest states, Oklahoma, because enough of his supporters didn’t buy that it was safe (an encouraging sign for public health).
The election is more than four months away and a lot can happen — especially under Trump, where news cycles average around 20 minutes. But the failures are adding up. And when Grandma dies because there aren’t enough COVID-19 tests or beds at the hospital, you can’t really tell yourself that Trump is still just hurting the right people.
At various points, Trump has asked Americans, “What do you have to lose?”
Turns out, a lot.