Interview: Why did so many Democrats vote for Trump—and what should Joe Biden do about it?
In their new book Trump’s Democrats, Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields do a deep dive into the Democratic strongholds that voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016. While Mr. Trump has lost the 2020 election, the authors contend that the factors that led to these Democrats voting for a Republican president will shape U.S. politics into the future. I spoke with them about this project over email.
Who is a Trump Democrat, and why do they like Trump?
They are the formerly loyal Democrats who unexpectedly voted for Trump. [Almost] a third of the counties that supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 broke for Trump in 2016. The vast majority of these places voted for Trump in 2020, often by wider margins. These defections are more surprising than the oft-mentioned Nixon Democrats in 1972 or Reagan Democrats in 1984. Those elections were landslides; thus, it is not surprising that Nixon and Reagan flipped many Democratic communities. The elections of 2016 and 2020, however, were not Republican landslides. Trump lost the popular vote. Yet he managed to win some of the most loyal Democratic communities in the nation.
To make sense of this extraordinary shift we lived in three Democratic communities that “flipped”: Ottumwa, Iowa; Elliott [County], Ky.; and Johnston, R.I. There we discovered worlds that have long been Trumpian. Some of the most adored Democratic leaders in these places resemble the president: They are brazen, thin-skinned, nepotistic and promise to take care of their people by cutting deals—and corners if necessary. The ideal Democratic politician in these places is not especially ideological, much less a leftist. Instead, he is a boss-like patron, a figure that was once more familiar to Democrats everywhere in the heyday of political machines. When Trump promised to make America great again, these citizens thought of their local towns.
Trump lost the popular vote. Yet he managed to win some of the most loyal Democratic communities in the nation.
You write in the book about the “honor culture” of Trump Democrats. What is that, and how does Trump play into it?
Honor culture is more or less the default culture in much of the world and is still pervasive in much of the United States, especially outside of highly educated enclaves. In an honor culture, it is essential to defend one’s reputation for toughness. Thus, one must always respond to insults, even if they are slight. If one ignores an insult, it is read as weakness rather than magnanimity. Thus, one cannot “go high” (as Michelle Obama once admonished) when others “go low.”
This honor culture shapes the local political culture of the towns we studied. Many local Democratic politicians, for example, are brazen and never let an insult slide. In Johnston, the mayor calls citizens who criticize his rule “misfits” and “malcontents.”
Like these Democratic politicians, Trump’s philosophy of power is to never show weakness, to never back down from a conflict. Thus, Trump seems relatable and trustworthy in these communities because he seems like one of them.
You characterize many local Trump Democrat politicians as “Trumpian.” How is Trump reflective of these politicians?
They’re “Trumpian” partly because they respect their local honor cultures. But that isn’t the only similarity. Another is what we call a “boss-centered politics.” Democratic politicians often presented themselves as local patrons, as providers and protectors who expect absolute loyalty in return. This transactional politics sometimes leads to corruption. In Elliott County, for example, a previous judge-executive was found guilty in 2011 of buying voter support by maintaining private roads and driveways with public money. But notably lots of locals in the area don’t think such behavior is corrupt. As one told us, “If the county isn’t helping you with your gravel and your road, what’s it doing?” Political nepotism was common in two of the communities we studied.
We tend to forget about this boss-centered politics because reformers have largely eliminated it from America’s major cities. But this boss tradition survived in smaller towns, where it faced weaker opposition from reformers.
Trump aped this boss-centered style of politics. He is not like the many former Republican businesspeople or “bosses” who sought the presidency. His persona is one that resembles not the bosses of corporate America but rather the local political bosses that once ruled Democratic machines.
Trump offered this boss-centered vision of politics at a moment when these communities badly needed assistance and when many were wondering whether the national Democratic Party had forgotten them.
Honor culture is more or less the default culture in much of the world and is still pervasive in much of the United States, especially outside of highly educated enclaves.
Race and gender play complex roles in your argument. What should we take away about them?
With respect to race, white identity isn’t Trump Democrats’ only social identity. If it were, these places would not have supported a Black president twice. In addition to racial ties, citizens in the places we studied have identities rooted in their social class and the places they live. And because these voters are three-dimensional rather than one-dimensional “deplorables”, there are opportunities for politicians to appeal to them, including Black ones.
Gender played a role, but not in the way many outside observers alleged; the people we talked to were not against voting for women per se. By respecting the norms of an honor culture, however, the president embraced a masculine leadership style that thrilled Trump Democrats, especially the men. But in both Elliott County and Ottumwa, men have no monopoly on honor culture; many women strive to be fierce, too. Both of those communities have elected tough, outspoken women to local leadership positions. So we suspect that a Trump-y female candidate on the national stage could also do well in these places.
How does religion figure in your account?
These communities are secularizing. Churches are closing and losing parishioners. Nonetheless, Christianity still exerts cultural power in these communities. As Trump shifted citizens’ attention from the more conservative face of the local Democratic Party to the more progressive politics of the national one, some Christian-minded voters reassessed their party. In Johnston, for example, a Catholic Democrat told us she hadn’t realized that her party uniformly supported abortion rights because she had always seen her local Democratic leaders at church with her, taking communion. Now that Trump’s ascendance had prompted her to tune in to national politics, her strong pro-life beliefs encouraged her to vote Republican for the first time.
The declining institutional and cultural power of the church is undeniable—and it may have aided Trump. Trump’s nominal Christianity and messy family are far more familiar in these towns than they would have been a few decades ago. Historically, Christianity has been an important check on honor culture, helping to soften men by teaching them to turn the other cheek and providing alternative models of manliness. And it arguably still does in these towns. But whatever power these messages have, they reach fewer citizens in these communities than they once did.
The declining institutional and cultural power of the church is undeniable—and it may have aided Trump.
The local versus the national emerges frequently in this book. How do these “place-based identities” factor into our politics today? Is this an unbridgeable division within the party?
The identity of citizens in these communities is powerfully linked to their hometown or county. One might say that their political ethos is “Ottumwa First” or “Johnston First.” It was evident in everyday life. In Ottumwa, for instance, many believe they should buy goods and services only in the city itself. As one local told us: “If it costs me an extra $20 a week to shop local, it’s an investment in my community. I’m going to do it.”
These place-based identities help us understand why Trump voters were more likely to live in communities with economic stresses than personally suffer from them. They also help make sense of their anxieties about mass immigration. Many small Democratic communities that flipped for Trump have experienced a significant surge in immigration in recent years.
While we [the authors] are strong supporters of immigration, we encourage those who share our views to not reduce opposition to immigration to irrational prejudices. Newcomers generate more anxiety in the places we studied partly because they are put together differently. Trump Democrats’ sense of belonging to a particular place is rooted in close social ties and knowledge in their neighborhoods. And as a large body of social science confirms, ethnic diversity weakens social capital in neighborhoods, at least in the short and medium term. By way of contrast, the community we belong to—and that of our social class more generally—is more virtual and national. Immigrants actually facilitate our cultivation of these national social networks by freeing us from our neighborhoods, by cleaning our homes and tending our yards, all at low wages.
If the politics of the white working class does not simply reflect irrational prejudices, then there might be some reasonable basis for common ground and compromise.
Trump lost the 2020 election. Why should people read this book now?
Trump’s Democrats may determine the balance of power in Washington for years to come. They nearly cost Biden the White House in 2020, and probably would have done so if not for the pandemic. Any serious effort to rebuild the “blue wall” must find a way to swing these voters back into the Democratic fold. Meanwhile, Republicans also should not count on their support, especially once Trump fades from political life. More generally, our book offers readers a window into the white working class and the class divisions that are remaking our public life.
Trump’s Democrats may determine the balance of power in Washington for years to come.
How do you think these voters would view the events on Capitol Hill—as an expression of masculine leadership and honor culture, or as the degradation of those values?
Aside from cultivating toughness, honor cultures also nurture patriotism. Military recruitment is higher in states where honor culture is prevalent. Soldiers from states with high levels of honor culture even receive medals for bravery at higher rates.
Thus, insofar as Trump’s Democrats see the Capitol invasion as an attack on America, it will not be well-received in their communities. Polling data show that few Americans consider the invasion a genuine expression of patriotism. A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Wednesday found that only 9 percent of Republicans and 5 percent of Democrats consider those who stormed the Capitol “patriots.” We suspect that most Trump supporters in places like Ottumwa, Elliott, and Johnston would agree with the large majority of Americans who were upset rather than inspired by the invasion.
However, that doesn’t mean that Trump will necessarily be blamed for the Capitol invasion in the places we studied. We suspect that Trump’s Democrats, like his Republican supporters, are divided and confused about the president this week. The same Reuters/Ipsos poll cited above found that 60 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s behavior “around the events of the Capitol,” while 38 percent do not. That’s a stark division, given how rock-solid Republican support has been for Trump. Republicans are similarly divided over members of Congress who sought to delay the certification of the election, with 37 percent of Republicans regarding them as either “criminals” or “fools.” These new divisions are likely driven by the extent to which Trump supporters are convinced that the election was rigged.
This new rift also creates an opportunity for Democratic leaders in the places we studied to distance themselves and their constituents from Trump, one that some are taking. In Johnston, town councilman Joe Polisena Jr.— the son of the mayor—just retweeted Arnold Schwarzenegger’s widely circulated anti-Trump speech. Schwarzenegger quotes Teddy Roosevelt: “Patriotism means to stand by the country. It doesn not mean to stand by the president.”
Polisena is a savvy politician and an example to Democratic politicians in Trump country. He is appealing to his communities’ honor culture—with the help of the manly patriotism of Arnold Schwarzenegger—to rebuke Trump and support president-elect Biden.
What should the Biden administration take away from this book?
It might practice a new identity politics, one that is more racially inclusive than the white identity politics of Trump or new woke politics of, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. One way to do that is to embrace an identity politics that is more rooted in place than race. To do so, it should remember that disadvantaged and marginalized communities are actual places, a fact that is obscured by abstractions like “people of color” or “middle America.” Thus, it might link the displacement of racial minorities in our rapidly gentrifying cities to the collapse of hometowns in the white Rust Belt. In both cases, our new commercial order isn’t serving Americans with deep attachments to neighborhoods and towns.
Part of the story of this book is the “complex social reality of the chasm that increasingly defines our politics,” as Yuval Levin put it in praising your book. What is that chasm, and what did you learn about it from this research?
The chasm is partly rooted in social class, but not primarily economic class. We think our class divisions are more rooted in a cultural division that separates the college-educated from everyone else. The college-educated constitute a social class with distinct tastes, values and norms. And they live in a world largely removed from the citizens they rule. Thus, whether they are poor graduate students living on meager annual stipends or affluent managers of a successful start-up, they are part of the same social class. Likewise, we met successful small business owners with little to no college education in the communities we studied. Certainly they are not poor. But they nonetheless share the same cultural norms and sensibilities with other citizens in their communities.
These worlds are increasingly isolated from one another. So, for example, the musical “Hamilton” reminds its highly educated theater goers that our national leaders once died in duels to defend their honor. Rarely does it dawn on “Hamilton” fans that honor culture is still alive and well in the U.S., and continues to shape our politics outside of elite enclaves.
What is the future for Trump Democrats?
Whether they will return to the fold, become partisan Republicans or something else is still uncertain. It depends on the lessons the parties take from their support for Trump. Before either camp can make prudent decisions on this front, however, they need a more textured understanding of these voters. We hope our book has provided one.