The Stickiness of Donald Trump’s Base

With the past week’s continued devolution of Donald Trump and everything he represents, one would think at least some portion of his Republican base that had been clinging to him so desperately from one moral and political travesty to the next would finally begin to have their grips loosened. After all, a political party that has built its reputation partly on a fierce anti-communism (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) and loud patriotism (“Love it or leave it!”) couldn’t possibly abide a president who chums it up with an ex-KGB dictator who is reveling in the U.S. president believing every lying word out of his mouth, all while the president casts aspersions and doubt on the exhaustively rendered findings of his own intelligence agencies and congressional investigators, could it?

Well, if that president had a “Dem” after his name, the Republican base would most certainly be expressing their disgust and reprising the “Lock (him) up” refrain that so enchanted the party faithful during the 2016 campaign.

President Donald Trump is doing exactly what Candidate Trump said he was going to do when he was on the campaign trail. We must give him that: the man laid out his basic themes early and repeated them often…

But in the Donald Trump era, ignited by a fuse that has included incendiary materials of rapid social, cultural and technological change, middle class economic doldrums, globalized commerce, continuous refugee crises and the sometimes loud rise and advancement of long oppressed classes (women, blacks, LGBTQs), so many strange bedfellows have woken up next to each other that it seems the old order is at best scrambled and at worst an untamable, disparate, cross-currented mess. (Deeply devout conservative Christians embracing a serial adulterer-groper and rapacious, foul-mouthed capitalist who is proud of never admitting error and therefore never asking for forgiveness, since, well, he never makes an error? Say it ain’t so…)

So after our president, in the view of many commentators including this one, sold his own country down the river in an all-too-indelicate, hapless gesture of reconciliation with a longtime devious adversary, how did his professed flag-waving, America-loving base react?

With, yawn, a solid 68% approval rating—not of his presidency, which hovers closer to 90%—but of his behavior at the “Surrender Summit,” which everyone this side of Rand Paul, including John McCain and many other Republican Senate and House members, denounced as unwise and ill-advised.

Even Fox News commentators described Trump’s genuflection to Putin as “disgusting and wrong” (anchor Neil Cavuto), “lame” (anchor Brit Hume) and “threw the United States under the bus” (reporter John Roberts).

And still, the president’s base has hardly wavered.



How to account for this undying devotion from a vast majority of Republican voters despite actions and words that surely have Ronald Reagan groaning in his grave? What is going on here?

This is the question of our age, and the bulk of the commentary on it over the past two years has revolved around the issue of the white, college degree-less working class feeling left behind by a globalized economy that has richly rewarded high tech and finance workers in “knowledge centers” of the country’s urban core (San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York) while the traditional manufacturing base of the Rust Belt (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin) has gone to seed.

There seems little doubt it was frustrated, angry voters in those pivotal heartland states that gave Donald Trump the presidency. We have heard and read about it in countless reports and books with titles such as “The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America,” “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” and “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.”

All these books and more take a largely sympathetic, “listening tour” view of the roots of rural white disenchantment with the status quo that led to the astonishing result of the 2016 election.

To review and amplify just how astonishing it was, let’s look at the voting results of four key states that pushed Trump over the top on that fateful night not even two years ago. (Yes, if it seems to you like the Hundred Years War already, you have a lot of company…)

Here were the results of the races in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, all carried handily by Barack Obama in 2012 and turned narrowly to Trump four years later (with the exception of Ohio, where Trump won easily).

The numbers below show the Trump victory margin in percentage terms, followed by Obama’s margin in 2012, and then the state’s electoral vote totals.

Wisconsin: 47.2 to 46.5 (Obama won by 6.9) 10 electoral votes
Michigan: 47.5 to 47.27  (Obama by 9.5)  16 electoral votes
Ohio: 51.3 to 43.2  (Obama by 3.0)  18 electoral votes
Pennsylvania: 48.2 to 47.5 (Obama by 5.4) 20 electoral votes

These are remarkable numbers for many reasons, not the least of them being how precariously thin Trump’s victory margin was in three of the four states.

Also highly worthy of note: how substantial Obama’s margins were just four years earlier.

Really, an 11-point swing in Ohio, nearly 10 points in Michigan? Obama’s relative cruises in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania turning to shipwreck with Hillary Clinton, an ideological if not temperamental soulmate of his, smack in the mainstream of modern technocratic liberal thought?

Those 64 electoral votes noted above, most of which the Clinton campaign expected to win, would have given her 291 electoral votes to Trump’s 240, a result that would not now have us, among countless other head-shaking matters, be discussing her cozying up to a dictator actively involved in trying to destroy our country.

But that was then, and this is now, after not quite two years of the most tempestuous, visibly chaotic presidential administration in history.

Trump detractors would almost en masse, I am convinced, acknowledge that although they expected it to be bad, they badly underestimated how bad things would actually be, and how destabilizing Donald Trump would be not only to our country, but to the larger world, for which we have historically been the shining light of a functional, give-and-take democracy.

Meanwhile: 90% overall approval from the faithful and 68% for this most recent episode of outright appeasement. Why?

It’s simple, really.

President Donald Trump is doing exactly what Candidate Trump said he was going to do when he was on the campaign trail. We must give him that: the man laid out his basic themes early and repeated them often, and he has worked tirelessly—in that fragmented, chaotic, bellicose way he so loves—to bring them to bear.

Let’s go back now to two most telling paragraphs in the Washington Post on the morning of November 9, 2016 by reporter Jim Tankersley. The article was entitled: “How Trump Won: The Revenge of Working Class Whites.”

“Trump courted working class whites by promising a restoration of the old industrial economy—through renegotiated trade deals and tariffs on imports; by pledging to deport immigrants, which he said would reduce competition for native-born workers; and by promising rapid economic growth from tax cuts, deregulation and more drilling.

“Many economists, including several conservative ones, warn Trump’s plans will not deliver the relief those workers are seeking. Some say tariffs won’t bring back jobs and could actually lead to recession. Others say Trump’s plans ignore more critical issues for the working class, such as the need for improved worker training or measures to encourage workers to migrate to higher-opportunity regions.”



Whatever one thinks of all the grievances nursed and expressed by Trump supporters the past few years, this much is clear: His voters responded vociferously to the positions he mapped out throughout the 2016 campaign, voted for him based on those positions, and he has tried very hard to fulfill every last one of them, almost to the proverbial “T” that begins his name.

No wonder his people remain so enamored of him—his was the true “Straight Talk Express” (John McCain’s slogan in his first ill-fated presidential campaign in 2000), inasmuch as Trump laid out very specifically what he stood for and what he was going to do and, unlike most every politician and most certainly Republican presidents of recent times, did exactly that.

Now, will all those promises eventually backfire as the second paragraph in the article cited above suggests? Will Trump ultimately sell out his working class supporters by giving them small tax cut-driven bumps in their paychecks (dwarfed exponentially by the huge income bumps enjoyed by the wealthy) while tariffs ruin the economy and a war on the environment stunts where the jobs will actually come from in an energy future that will decidedly not involve coal?

I would say yes, emphatically. But the workability of Trump’s agenda is not in front of us here.

The question of the day is instead, “How can Trump supporters possibly live in such a state of denial that they still support him after all that has befallen the country in the past 19 months?”

And the answer is: “Because this is what they responded to and wanted in 2016.”

And now they are getting it—the near complete fulfillment of their dreams, in a president who has, for better and in my estimation very much worse, done exactly what he said he was going to do.

May God now help them.

And us.


John Gorka, a modern voice for the working class, at his songwriting best…

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Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Trump supporter by Daniel Foster, Berlin, Germany

Sticky plant (“Cape Sundew”) by Scott Schiller, San Francisco, California

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania industrial shot by William Real, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

12 comments to The Stickiness of Donald Trump’s Base

  • David Moriah  says:

    Astute, my friend. I agree he has been true (a strange word to apply to the Prevaricator-in-Chief) to his campaign promises. Of course, one could quibble with the promise to drain the swamp of corrupt capitalists, but overall he’s done all the miserable, mean-spirited and destructive things he said he would do which was exactly what his rabid base lusted after. Truly, we have become the shithole nation, with a yawning wealth gap and a health care system that leaves millions bankrupt while a select few dine on caviar and top shelf champagne. This is the end game, folks. Our backs are to the wall and the dream of a free and kind society is slipping away at a rapid pace. There’s only one shot left for those of us who still believe in the dream of America, and that is to focus on November and organize, donate, campaign, vote and get everyone we know who can see that the Emperor has no clothes to vote as well. This is it. There is no second chance.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks, David; it does seem like the stakes grow a little more dire every day, doesn’t it? Daily life goes on, but underneath, the ground keeps shifting with an ever more troubling gap. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I’d do if he were re-elected. In some ways, I don’t even want to face the question, but I suspect I should do so well before 2020, so I don’t wake up shell-shocked and planless one dark day in November. But my deeper faith—perhaps delusional, but I’m holding onto it—is that in the face of such awfulness, enough of this country’s better angels will finally hold sway.

  • kirkthill  says:

    I fear that voter turnout will again be pityful and the results will further degrade America (I was going to say “jeopardize our future” and realized that has already happened). Will people think that this aberration of 2016 could not possibly happen again and that their peers will come to the rescue therefore thinking that “my single vote isn’t that important…..others will vote enough to right this wrong? All the while Trumps base is being charged up and their voter turnout % increases. I also fear that the destructive economic decisions won’t take effect until after the election process, and the meager tax cuts will give proof to Trump’s base of his perceived wisdom, while the top 10%, enjoying their huge tax cuts, will find even more ways to influence the elections.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Well Kirk, if there was ever a time when Democrats and Dem-leaning independents should feel inspired and energized to get off their duffs and vote, it would be this year and again, even more importantly, in 2020. If they don’t, then we really do deserve the country we will have, and none of it will be pretty.

  • Ben Lempert  says:

    Thanks for this, Drew. I think you’re mostly right, although plenty of analyses since then have suggested that Trump’s victory shouldn’t really be credited to white working class. Let us not forget that Trump won in virtually _every_ white demographic imaginable: college-educated and non-college educated, wealthy and poor, Midwest, East Coast, and the West. Young white voters, old white voters, middle-aged white voters: every one of these groups voted Trump over Clinton. (The only white demographic he lost was white college-educated women.) This (to my mind, at least) gives some pause to the idea that economic anxiety best explains Trump’s win. Chillingly, white people went for Tump across the board, period, economic precarity be damned.

    (It’s in part this fact that explains why his bumbling economic policies won’t lose him support from his base; that support wasn’t about economics to begin with. Anxiety, certainly, but anxiety over perceived loss of racial status, not economic status.)

    Either way, thanks as always for your keen observations, and apologies for returning to this horse (I seem to remember having beaten it heavily a few posts ago). More soon!

    • Bruce Curran  says:

      An eloquent essay neatly detailing the the whole construct of how, when and why we arrived at this place. It is worthy of comparison to the work of commentators like David Brooks & George Will on the near right or Eric Sevareid and Molly Ivans on the left. The comprehensiveness of your observations are really impressive pulling together a number of disparate pieces into a unified whole. The sum total of though reminds me of a much simpler over arching reason that permeates this entire discussion which was offered a long time ago by someone much smarter than all of us combined….Albert Einstein. Professor Einstein said, ” I only know of two things that are infinite…..the universe and the ignorance of the American public…and I am not sure about the former.”

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Ben, I’m glad you brought up these points on the racial and educational dimensions of Trump voters, which are troublesome enough in and of themselves. Elections are rarely if ever about one thing, and the focus on high school-degreed working class Trump voters being consequential in the election has the usual truckload of exceptions and other variables, which I am happy you pointed out. (See how I rely on my commenters to fill in more of the picture? You are appreciated more than you know…) That said, a standard frustrated liberal’s trope is to brand all Trump voters as racists and anti-immigrants, etc., and that too, misses a far more complex picture. (An interesting take on this I heard the other day, source not remembered: “Not all Trump voters are racists, but all racists voted for Trump.”) There was a fascinating piece in the NYT recently, link below, that involved multiple interviews with Obama voters who had flipped for Trump, some of them college graduates and professionals who disdain Trump personally but pulled the lever for him anyway. The article pointed out that about one-third of the 650 counties across the land who had gone for Obama in both ’08 and ’12 flipped for Trump in ’16, and that a critical number of them were in the states I mentioned in this piece (along with Iowa). So no, the Trump victory wasn’t only on the coattails of white working class voters across the country, but those voters seemed to have disproportionate impact in those key Rust Belt states that flipped by razor-thin margins to Trump. And given that those states had gone for Obama, the reason obviously can’t be laid at the foot of racism. Always, things are more complex than we would like them to be, damn!
    Here’s the article link, well worth a read:

    Bruce, thanks so much for your kind thoughts, to which I can only respond that we do the best we can here, rattling around in this cage of words! I am happy to become acquainted with that Einstein quote, which I had not heard before—ouch! It seems a close cousin to the one usually attributed to Mencken but not actually found in any of his published work: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” (Ouch again!) And I am happier still to see the name of Eric Sevareid in your note—oh my! (We date ourselves by those we cite, yes?) He’s one of those people to whom I am drawn to think, “What would Mr. Sevareid be saying now about Donald Trump and the state of our world?” (I can see his arched eyebrow now…) Miss him and others of his ilk—Adlai Stevenson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan—dignified, serious, well-spoken figures seemingly from an alternate universe than the one in front of us now. I very much appreciate you registering Mr. Sevareid’s name here for posterity’s sake alone!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Andy, so much negativity permeates our life today that it feels like a cloak of permanence hangs about us. We all need to take a deep breath and consider that fact that in politics nothing is truly forever. Hitler’s 1000-year Reich lasted but 12. McCarthy’s accusations that commies had infiltrated every aspect of American life spanned only 4 years. I wrote this poem to recognize the horrors of Trump’s administration, but also to counter the hopelessness that presently seems so overwhelming.

    “America Pro Tem”

    Putrid odors render ethos extinct,
    Comity surrenders to hatred’s birth,
    Decency gasping midst an airy stink,
    Sick souls suppressing gaiety and mirth,
    America thirsts, dying, unable to drink.

    Drowning in the clutch of an eddy’s swirl,
    Driven down into the blackness of the deep,
    Insanity like sirens’ songs unfurled,
    Poison fangs of bias slither and creep,
    A vile oyster sculpting a deadly pearl.

    Eerie silence shrouds music’s elation,
    Atonal voices echo demonic sounds,
    Euphony wanes ‘neath moral castration,
    Ominous waves ebbing evil unbound,
    And hope succumbs to godless damnation.

    Callousness eats away at humanity
    Like Kronos devouring his young children,
    Bones litter barren leas of insanity,
    Creating a wasteland of toxic wen,
    Obscenity eulogizing depravity.

    Winds blow away pollutants in the air,
    Cascades aeroate once dying streams,
    Rain cools the orb with cyclical care,
    Nitrates from waste mold a farmer’s dream,
    Common sense can cease this present nightmare.

    Despair may now rule our nation’s milieu,
    Time drains the depth of a despot’s cesspool,
    The Reign of Terror guillotined by a coup,
    Headless revenge for its one-year misrule,
    Premature death for absolutism’s miscues.

    The Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance,
    Knowledge and humanism saved the day,
    Idealistic thought became mankind’s response,
    Sparked the trial-by-error interplay,
    Leaving science and art truly ensconced.

    No panacea mends the current decay,
    Green emerges between cracks of cement,
    Goodness hammers out a metal overlay,
    Candles scented with gracious intent
    whelms this ill night, melting light into day.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    By the way, when I mentioned that the 1000-year Reich lasted only 12 years. I’m not minimizing the horrors of the the World War II and the concentration camps. I should have written that in the opening.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Many thanks, Robert, enjoyed that a lot; reminds me of Auden just a little bit, though more hopeful, and your voice is very much your own in any case. Also glad you wrote the followup, cuz the original note did make me muse for a minute on the notion that perhaps one should never use the word “only” in connection with the holocaust. Seems you were struck by the same thought…

      And that thought does bring up the sheer amount of damage one deranged person can bring about in the world in a short time, whether 12 years or 2, this morning’s latest dark ALL CAPS warning from our president to Iran basically threatening all-out war serving as but the latest reminder…

  • Robby Miller  says:

    Nothing to add to the fascinating conversation you are all having on this topic. But I do want to share that I was born in that very same Bethlehem, PA that John Gorka sings so eloquently about, along with his photos. My father even worked at that steel mill. Of course, we soon decamped, in the early 1950’s, for sunny SoCal and what was supposed to be a better/happier life. Somewhere around 15 years ago I went back, with family in tow. The abandoned mill felt like the 8th wonder of the world (and was so referred to in a NYT article) with miles of huge industrial buildings and machines. (Some with trees growing through the roof as nature fought to reclaim the land before the redevelopers arrived.) I peeked in an abandoned office window (the mill shut down very suddenly in the mid-70’s) and there were still papers on the desks – forms waiting to be filled out. I’ve never forgotten the, then, desolation of the place and sometimes wonder who I might be, and what my political orientation would be, if we had stayed on.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’m pleased you wrote this, Robby, because it brought to mind my one journey through that industrial heartland back in the mid-80s sometime. I remember very clearly the desolate steel towns of Pennsylvania, one after another, a good portion of each town boarded up, trashed; it seemed not a creature stirred, though the towns were still populated to some degree by those truly “left behind.” The sense of emptiness and lack of any vibrancy was palpable; it gave me a profound appreciation for how important economic solvency is for communities, no matter their location or what their industries are.

      “A good job at good pay”—it seems so platitudinous in the mouths of politicians, but absent the sense of purpose, commonality and basic busyness provided by a job, human beings wither, and the evidence for that is stark as can be when industries collapse in the way that they do when the world of innovation churns on and leaves the old ways behind. It also helps me better understand the desperation of coal towns trying to hang on long past their sell-by date, and the cynicism of Trump playing to their grief and pretending they have a future so he can buy their votes.

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