The Trump voters you don't know

There's a fear in blue America that a groundswell of racism propelled Donald Trump to victory. But statistics – and conversations with the voters who turned the election – don't bear that out. 

Rebecca Cook/Reuters
Donald Trump held his last campaign event in Grand Rapids, Mich., before the Nov. 8 election. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, where the results are not yet official, shocked Democrats by voting Republican, propelling the billionaire real estate investor to an upset win over Hillary Clinton.

Dee Finley has a message for those who think Donald Trump’s election is a victory for racism and white nationalism.

“I don’t think Trump supporters are racist, because then I’d be racist,” said the African-American woman from Conyers, Ga., just before the election. “He’s just expressing how people feel.”

Ms. Finley, of course, was an outlier in this election. The vast majority of African-Americans who voted chose Hillary Clinton; only 8 percent chose Mr. Trump, according to media exit polls.

But Finley’s words and actions point to a deeper realization that is only beginning to become apparent and has been widely misunderstood across much of blue America. Trump did not win the presidency only because of the racist comments that he made. He won the election because key groups of voters overlooked those comments and instead embraced him as an agent of change against a government seen to be subservient to corrupt elites who pay more attention to the poor than to the middle class.

On some levels, race plays into those perceptions. For many of the working-class white voters who delivered Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and probably Michigan to Trump, views of who are “worthy” and working hard are influenced by the racial stereotypes that have threaded through American society for generations.

The promise to “Make America Great Again” “appeals to a time when white working-class men had a higher status in society than they do now, and race is in there,” says Katherine Cramer, who has spent the past nine years talking with rural Wisconsin voters for her book, “The Politics of Resentment.”

But she dismisses categorically the idea that these voters were driven by racial animus.“To assume that what just happened is a bunch of people were convinced by the alt-right [and its white nationalist rhetoric] to vote for Trump, that does not at all fit the data that I’ve been collecting,” says Ms. Cramer.

Voting for Obama ... and Trump

It does not fit important parts of the national data from the Nov. 8 election, either. While Trump won virtually every category of white voter, putting clear racial brush strokes on the election, nuances within those statistics show that decisive elements of Trump’s winning coalition looked past his racial rhetoric.

For instance, of the counties that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, one-third flipped to vote for Trump, according to a Washington Post analysis. These were heavily clustered in the upper Midwest – the areas that most conspicuously destroyed Mrs. Clinton’s chances of winning 270 Electoral College votes.

Sandy Suisse works at Fin’s Eatery and Spirits in New Baltimore, Mich., about a half hour north of Detroit. She voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and 2012, and for Trump this year. Asked to describe the man who won her vote, she summarizes: “I don’t like him. I think he’s abrasive.”

But at least he wasn’t Hillary Clinton.

“You know, he’s going to speak from his way of thinking, whereas as far as I’m concerned Hillary knew exactly what she was going to say and it was all a lie, from what I figure,” she says. “So that was a deciding factor: He might be abrasive, but he’s not lying, I don’t think.”

In the past, Ms. Suisse has helped undocumented immigrants from Asia, Cuba, and Haiti who were smuggled across the border from Canada. She would buy them pizzas and give them shelter to keep warm before authorities came to get them.

So some of Trump’s comments bothered her – the ones about Muslims and Mexican immigrants and sexual harassment. But she doesn’t believe Trump is a racist – and if he is, he won’t be able to remain one long as president.

“I don’t know what is true and what is not true,” she says. “There’s a whole lot of mudslinging going on out there. That’s an issue, but I don’t think as a president of the United States it’s going to stay an issue.”

The rise of 'Trump Democrats'?

Indeed, to Jeff Payne, managing editor of the Macomb Daily, which serves suburban Macomb County north of Detroit, the Trump phenomenon here represents something closer to the rise of Reagan Democrats than the rise of white nationalism.

“Reagan connected here big-time. I think it may not be all the same folks, but the same sort of phenomenon is at play,” he says.

Macomb voters are not concerned about bigger issues, like the environment. They’re focused on “What’s in it for me?” he says.

The perception among these voters is that the federal government is more and more guided by coastal elites concerned with providing benefits to people not like them. It is perhaps in that way that race became a focus of the election – not in any new form, but because Trump activated long-standing underlying racial prejudices about “who should get what,” says Cramer, who is also director of the Morgridge Center for Public Service at the University of Wisconsin.

“He appealed to people who have felt disrespected for a long time,” she says. “At the same time, what happened is not extreme radical right-wing groups getting a hold of people…. It’s not that there are people out here in rural Wisconsin who are totally unsophisticated people who hate people with darker skin color. It’s that in our fabric of society – and not just in rural communities – race is part of a story we tell ourselves about who is deserving or not.”

In other words, while 2016 saw the clear rise of white identity politics, crucial parts of it are not based on the most aggressive forms of racism. Research suggests that bias around race and gender “increasingly reflects attention to the welfare of one’s own group rather than animus toward other groups,” write researchers Eric Knowles and Linda Tropp in New Republic.

To some degree, the Democratic Party has played a role in the perception that its policies are about helping others instead of working-class white voters. Obama won the past two elections by building a coalition of young voters, single women, and people of color. Clinton in some respects doubled down on that strategy, for all practical purposes ceding the working-class white vote to Trump. But her coalition didn’t rally around her to the degree Trump’s rallied around him in crucial swing states. In the end, key white voters went to Trump simply because they felt frozen out of the Democratic vision, some analysts suggest.

By “relying on racial and ethnic solidarity, earning record numbers of Latino and black votes,” to win the past two elections, Democrats “polarized the white working classes,” writes Victor Davis Hanson, a historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, in an opinion article for National Review.

Minorities for Trump

Even among minorities, Trump performed surprisingly well – at least in relative terms. In an election that stirred up so much racial tension, Trump managed to win more black and Hispanic votes than Mitt Romney in 2012. Trump’s 8 percent of the black vote was up two points from Mr. Romney, as was his 29 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Like many Trump voters, Joseph Olivares, a janitor at a paper mill in Kalamazoo, Mich., looks at Trump’s seemingly race-baiting rhetoric in a different way.

“It didn’t bother me at all,” says Mr. Olivares, who was born in the United States, though his mother entered the country illegally. “Politics is a nasty business. It’s tooth and nail. The stakes are high.”

“It’s politics. I just listen to it, and I understand it from my perspective that he was selling something,” he adds.

Olivares voted twice for Obama and for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, but he doesn’t trust the Clintons, so he voted for Trump.

“I wanted to see change,” he says, adding that he likes the idea of a border wall and deportations. “Things are not like they used to be when I was a young boy,” he adds. “Terrorists are coming over the border.”

Most workers at the mill, which is unionized, voted for Trump, too, he says. There was only one he talked to who voted for Clinton.

On Nov. 8, Trump lost union households nationwide to Clinton by only nine percentage points – despite significant get-out-the-vote efforts on her behalf by unions – marking the poorest union showing for a Democrat since Walter Mondale ran against Ronald Reagan in 1984.

“He’s appealing to a certain class, trying to wake up the Republicans who were asleep and disenfranchised,” Olivares adds.

A wider awakening

In some ways, the election of Trump has brought an awakening for others, too.

“I’ve talked with many different reporters, I’ve been struck by how there’s been a few conversations where the questions clearly come from the perspective of assuming that what happened here is that the KKK got ahold of people, and it’s just such a weird [inquiry],” says Cramer. “It just goes to show how out of touch some people are about what life is like here in ‘flyover land’ ” between the blue coasts.

At a time when the parties have in many ways retreated into talking only to the demographic groups that safely make up their core, it’s become more important to have conversations and debates across those lines, says Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University in New York.  

“We [are bad] at that, and we’re [getting] worse at that with every passing election cycle,” he says. “The bottom line is that people are more complicated and interesting than identity politics allows them to be.”

• This article was reported by staff writers Patrik Jonsson in Conyers, Ga., and Simon Montlake in Kalamazoo, Mich., as well as contributor Trevor Bach in Macomb County, Mich. It was written by staff writer Mark Sappenfield.

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