The night before Super Tuesday I was on a plane from Oklahoma City to Cleveland, my hometown, when a thought struck me: I truly had no idea what was going on in America.
I’d been traveling a fair bit during the rush of primary season, and you start to feel unstuck when you do that. The moments of my days I would have otherwise spent doing soothingly banal things — grocery shopping, hand-washing delicates, pouring Drano into various plumbing orifices — I now spent alone in hotel rooms, contemplating the Donald Trump phenomenon.
I’d seen glints and glimmers of his wide swath of support — the man in New Hampshire who was following Trump around the country, hawking merchandise; the friendly middle-aged women in Iowa who just liked his style; the Oklahoma couple at a Bernie Sanders rally who, after a few minutes of pleasant chitchat about Sanders, started talking to me about their deep admiration for and likely support of Trump. But the thesis was still missing for me: Why him? Why these people?
Mulling over these questions has pretty much become the primary occupation of politicos. Jamelle Bouie of Slate wrote that it was a consequence of President Obama’s upending the country’s racial hierarchy. Scott Winship at National Review chalked it up to a more generalized national anxiety disorder. Samantha Bee did her own twist on a focus group with young Trump voters.
There were other theories too, based on more empirical thinking. The Upshot found that areas of Trump support overlapped with places that had high concentrations of people who ethnically identified as “American.” A doctoral student theorized that Trump supporters had a bent toward authoritarianism. Recent political science fieldwork seemed to suggest something different: that his supporters are more raging populists than autocrats. They weren’t rallying around a figure who consolidated power in a chaotic vacuum, they were thrilling to the words of an instigator.
What I kept returning to, though, was the surprise of it all.
Polling’s long arm, we were promised, could reach farther than any reporter into the brambles of American politics and retrieve what was difficult to see from the outside: the hidden proclivities and preoccupations of demographic groups. Political science, in turn, was meant to act as a killjoy, a gulp of dusty academic air amid the breathlessness of campaign news cycles.
But for months political obsessives doubted poll numbers with the strength of a thousand Thomases. The numbers said one thing, but common sense indicated otherwise. Political scientists had no perfect historical precedent to call upon. Reporters, meanwhile, had only the piecemeal musings of the voters they happened to accost at rallies and coffee shops, nothing to suggest that a new paradigm was being formed.
Now Trump is the likely Republican nominee for president.
Given the limitations of statistical analysis, political science and traditional reporting, I reasoned that a hybrid approach using all three could help answer the prevailing question in American politics: Why Donald Trump?
On March 1 there was a Trump rally in Columbus, in a billboard-strewn no man’s land by the city’s airport. When I arrived that morning it was spotted with campaign yard signs and volunteers directing cars to a vast overflow lot about a mile away. In the Middle West, such parking crises are often engendered by county fairs and football games, but rarely by political speeches.
I ended up in a scofflaw’s spot in front of an industrial stone company and walked down the road’s shoulder to where Bill and Alysha Johnson stood pointing cars toward the lot. Bill, 42, a DirecTV installer, and Alysha, 37, who stays at home with the couple’s kids, had driven from their small town of 600 outside Cincinnati while it was still dark to volunteer for the campaign. Alysha’s affection for Trump was simple, she said: “He’s for the working class and seems to be revealing a lot of things about the government we haven’t known.”
Outsiders claiming to reveal what’s really happening on the inside of the marble halls of power — that’s what this election has become all about.
“The country is fed up with what’s going on,” Trump said in July. “You know, in the old days they used the term ‘silent majority’; we have the silent majority back, folks.”
Outsiderism means not just skepticism about big banks and Washington politicians but wariness of other institutional pillars of American life — like the media. Alysha was spending a lot of time fact-checking the news, trying to make sure that what she read and heard about the campaign was trustworthy. “If there’s rumors that are going around, I watch them,” she said.
Alysha is not alone in her mistrust of mainstream news organizations — in 2015, only 40 percent of Americans said they trusted mass media, and that number tends to dip in election years, according to Gallup. Trump is never short of disdain for the press, particularly at his rallies; he likes to stop in the middle and direct crowds to jeer at the members of the media in their midst.
When I met Joseph Youde, 24, at a Trump rally in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in January, he answered my questions — “I like Donald Trump because we’re weak,” he said. “I think we need a tough leader” — then turned the questioning on me. Youde managed to be genuinely friendly while asking something along the lines of “How does it feel to be a member of the media?” Trump had just dispensed a few choice words for journalists during his speech: “The press, they’re the most dishonest people I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re disgusting.”
In Columbus, I asked Alysha Johnson what she thought about what was then Trump’s most recent dust-up, his refusal to disavow an endorsement from David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan. She replied, “From what I know, that’s all a lie and Hillary Clinton is actually cozy with KKK members — there’s several pictures of her with them.” If I went online and searched for “Clinton; image; KKK member” it would show up, she assured me.
When I tried that, a picture of former West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd pecking Clinton on the cheek popped up. Byrd was indeed once a member of the KKK and had mentored Clinton in the Senate. So Alysha’s claim wasn’t strictly wrong, though Byrd, who died in 2010, had long ago renounced his membership in the organization.
Political science has shown that Alysha isn’t alone in her doubt. A 2000 study by political scientists found that Americans who have incorrect information about public discourse can be divided into two different groups — the misinformed and the uninformed. The uninformed simply don’t know about a given topic; the misinformed are interested in what’s going on, but their sources of information are flawed. Another study, in 2010, found that when the misinformed were told about their inaccuracies, they held onto their beliefs with all the more conviction.
One could forgive them that very human reaction. Anyone who has ever been chastened or embarrassed might understand the tendency toward anger or defensiveness when cornered in an argument — backing down doesn’t seem viable, and that can produce unfortunate sound bites, if not glimpses into deeply held beliefs.
But why the alternate news sources to begin with?
“I think on the right we’ve been ignoring the mainstream media for years,” Matt Mayer, who runs a conservative think tank out of Dublin, Ohio, told me. “I think the real break was Rathergate. The view was that Dan Rather truly tried to alter the election by hitting Bush with that National Guard stuff, and I think that’s when the right finally said, ‘That’s it.’” And that, he continued, led to the rise of sites like Free Republic and Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze, with their communities of active commenters. Unfounded claims often take root and flourish. “In some ways it’s an echo chamber — some of the stuff I see I’m like, ‘Oh my God, really?’” Mayer said.
If the rumor-filled parts of the Internet were the lens through which Alysha viewed the world, then it was like looking through rose-colored stunner shades: There was an unmistakable red tinge and some bars that blocked her from seeing the full picture.
Every time I go to Cleveland’s art museum, I like to visit a painting called “Stag at Sharkey’s,” by George Bellows. It’s from the early 20th century, during boxing’s heyday, a time when Irish and Italian prizefighters were the fierce poster boys for ethnic whiteness. Bellows’s fighters are going at each other — snapping sinews and all that — but it’s the crowd that always gets me. They’re a mass of dark figures at the foot of the ring, and some have slashing grins, a reminder of the exhilaration of having a champion who can do what you yourself cannot.
As I rounded the corner in Columbus, I found myself in an industrial alley with dozens of late arrivals streaming into an airplane hangar. I’d been denied press credentials for the event — no explanation, although I’d been approved for others — so I queued up in the general admission line and entered the massive space just as the national anthem was starting. The assembled crowd of about 5,000 was reverently quiet — a massive flag billowed, police officers and firefighters stood at attention, and the sickly gray sky seemed more like swirling marble than the dull harbinger of rain it had been only moments ago. Something stirred deep beneath my layers of reportorial cynicism; I got chills.
This part of the appeal of Trump rallies is not talked about much. Most reports on the events detail incidents of violence, and that is because they are numerous: In North Carolina, a 78-year-old man recently punched a black protester in the face and said he wanted to kill him; a rally in Chicago was canceled outright because of scuffles between Trump supporters and protesters; a man was punched and kicked repeatedly during an Arizona rally last weekend. Trump leverages the power of this violence — he recently said that if he isn’t nominated at the Republican Convention in July, “I think you’d have riots.”
Along with the fighting, though, something inspirational seems to be happening among the assembled — a sense of collective identity being discovered. In this millionaire cosmopolitan who has married two immigrants, the threatened silent American majority has found its champion.
Trump supporters feel America’s national identity is threatened in 2016; a RAND survey of likely Republican voters found that those who strongly agreed with the statement “Immigrants threaten American customs and values” favored Trump at a rate of 60.1 percent. Ruth Albert, a 65-year-old retired postal worker whom I met outside a Trump event in Exeter, N.H., in February, told me that Trump’s immigration policy was a big reason she was attracted to him. “Why should people sneak in?” she said. Albert herself is a descendant of Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and lives in the family’s ancestral home.
David Merritt, managing director at Luntz Global, a political consulting firm known for its focus groups of Republican voters, says many Trump supporters reject the notion that their views are racist. “These people were actually surprised,” he told me. “They said, ‘Why would you think we’re racist because we want to protect America? When Muslim terrorists want to come into America and blow up our buildings and kill us, why is keeping them out racist?’”
The Upshot’s look at the geography of Trumpism showed a number of variables linked to areas of deep Trump support — counties where a high proportion of the population is white with no high school diploma, where there are large numbers of mobile homes, and where there is a poor labor-force participation rate. Political scientists Michael Tesler and John Sides recently pointed to new research that shows “both white racial identity and beliefs that whites are treated unfairly are powerful predictors of support for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.”
This is in no small part because of Trump’s virtuoso dog-whistling — it’s a thing to behold, almost as if he’d grabbed the slender wrists of the crowd with those big hands of his, felt for the pulse of their darkest hearts and then whispered the words they so long to hear. While containing no overt racial slurs, Trump’s stump speech is cleverly coded.
“Do we love our police?” Trump asked in Columbus to big cheers. The line is simple but cuts to something much deeper: Republicans, the majority of whom are white, have consistently reacted quite differently from Democrats to the recent spate of racially charged police killings. On March 15, when Ohio voters cast their ballots, I went to a polling place at Our Lady of Angels in the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland, where many of the city’s police officers live and just a mile and a half from the park where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer in November 2014. There, Katy Gallagher, 55, told me that while she had voted for Hillary Clinton, many cops and firefighters she knew in the neighborhood were switching their allegiances. “A lot of them are voting Trump because of immigrants getting jobs — which is surprising because they’ve always voted Democrat,” she said.
A 58-year-old West Park voter named Eileen who declined to give me her last name said she was supporting Trump because of the energy he’d injected into the race. “I found it to be very exciting,” she said. “I paid more attention to this than any other year before. I watched all the debates.” She had voted for President Obama in the previous election.
This is something she has in common with a lot of Americans. Sides and Tesler cite the work of political scientists James Stimson and Christopher Ellis, who have found that those who identify as conservatives often take liberal positions on things like the size of government. These voters are “symbolically conservative” but “operationally” liberal. According to Stimson and Ellis, that group made up nearly 25 percent of the electorate in 2008. Trump’s views on trade, which National Review called “silly and illiterate” are old-school-Democrat ones — globalization is really screwing over the little guy, huh? The idea that Trump could pick up white support that might typically go to Democrats in states like Ohio has become a truism of the 2016 race, though he lost the state to its governor, John Kasich, in the March 15 primary. “I am a commonsense conservative — Is that OK?” he asked the Super Tuesday crowd in Columbus. Trump has taken on the patina of conservatism, despite lacking a conservative orthodoxy.
Trump has offered people something more potent than party allegiance: empowerment. Bernie Sanders is presenting something similar, though his message is more catholic in its demographics; John Kasich speaks about empathy as a balm for the scathed electorate; but Trump’s silent majority, a mostly white, working-class cohort, wants to talk about their problems for once.
The morning after Super Tuesday I headed west on I-90, hugging the curves of Lake Erie. John Kasich, consummate moderate and the zip-up sweater’s greatest proponent since Mr. Rogers, was speaking in Grand Blanc, a suburb of Flint. I had met Trump supporters, but wanted to see how Republicans outside his base were thinking about him. While Trump seems to have something of a ceiling of support — his best showing was 49.3 percent of the vote in Massachusetts, but he has received an average of 34 percent — most Republicans seem to agree that Trump will be the GOP nominee. In a new poll, only 10 percent still thought he was “not very or not at all likely” to get the nomination.
This swift adjustment to the magical thinking of the Trump candidacy is perhaps the most astounding thing about the 2016 election. America’s political sensibility has adjusted to his rhetoric as part of the new, bilious normal. What that means for the future of the Republican Party isn’t quite clear, but it may be that many of its voters, even the moderate ones, are looking for a bit of a crack-up, a revolution they never knew they wanted until Trump walked into their lives.
“I’m looking for a candidate that’s kind of a moderate,” Bonnie Guith, a retired nurse practitioner who was sitting in the back of a Grand Blanc meeting room, told me as she waited for Kasich to arrive. “I don’t like the way they’re stabbing each other in the back.” So she wouldn’t be voting for Trump, then?
“No, I didn’t say that,” Guith said. She offered that Kasich might make a decent vice presidential candidate for Trump.
Ostensibly, these voters were from the moderate wing of the party, yet here they were, allowing that Trump had some good points. They were the personification of America’s collective brain adjusting to his reality.
“Winning begets winning,” David Merritt had pointed out to me. “Lots of people like being on the winning team; there are more Patriots fans than there are Cleveland Browns fans.”
Trump’s eventual win in Michigan was sizable, with 36.5 percent of the vote; Kasich narrowly finished third, behind Ted Cruz. But contained in Michigan’s exit polls were the same conflicted feelings that had been on display in Grand Blanc: just 20 percent of Kasich voters in the state would be happy with Trump as the nominee, while three-quarters would be dissatisfied. Last week, a group of party elites met to discuss strategies to stop Trump, including a third-party bid for president. The Washington Post reported that “the mood of the room was muted and downbeat.”
When I talked to Matt Mayer, lanky and wry and able to cite Reagan’s birthday off the top of his head, he just wasn’t sure what was going to happen to the GOP. We were sitting in a Starbucks in Dublin, Ohio; arranged before him was a venti coffee and a creased copy of the Financial Times. “Are we starting to see a split? Is the Freedom caucus — could it turn into the Freedom Party?” he wondered.
Mayer understood the Trump appeal, especially after having driven around Ohio in 2012 on a book tour; he’d felt the changes coming, perhaps. “I’ve talked to everyone you can imagine that’s the base of the Republican Party,” he said. “My God, you could see the frustration and the anger at the political actors, and he is not that. I get it.”
Mayer leaned back into his chair as an old O’Jays song played over the Starbucks speakers. “People all over the world, join hands.”
That evening I drove south from Grand Blanc to my hotel in downtown Detroit, where the streets were quiet and slushy. I lay on the bed, flipping through the channels — nothing but political coverage, nothing for me to think about but the Donald Trump phenomenon.
So, why Trump after all? Even after all my time on the road, no one explanation for Trumpism seems more illuminating than the other. Voters’ distrust in institutions meant news and basic facts were worthy of questioning and only the most outrageous statements had the ring of truth; working-class whites’ racial anger had reconstituted their sense of identity; and their desire for the center to no longer hold meant drastic upheaval in the Grand Old Party and America. But there is no one unified theory of Trumpism. The reasons for his rise are numerous, and perhaps, in some cases, unknowable. Trump’s candidacy has shown that Americans are more radical than anyone realized.
My sister texted late — she was watching “Mitt,” the documentary about Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. The next morning, Romney was due to make a speech denouncing Trump and all he stood for. I decided to watch too. How quaint it all seemed, we marveled; four years ago, the 47 percent video had been a scandal, and now the fact that Trump had bad-mouthed the pope only days before was but a passing thing. The thought I’d had in the Grand Blanc meeting room came rushing back: How powerful our minds are that we adapt to such strange circumstances so quickly.
UPDATE (March 24, 2:52 p.m.): Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article omitted a paragraph that described political science research on misinformed and uninformed voters. We’ve updated the article to add the paragraph.