THE GREAT REVOLT: INSIDE THE POPULIST COALITION RESHAPING AMERICAN POLITICS
By Salena Zito and Brad Todd
Crown Forum, $28, 310 pages
The most memorable line of the 2016 presidential campaign was delivered in a speech by Hillary Clinton to a group of donors, in which she said “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
Needless to say, it was an astonishingly coarse, politically obtuse, inaccurate and hurtful characterization, as was made abundantly clear by Trump voters interviewed by the authors in 10 pivotal counties in the five Great Lake swing states that tipped the electoral college to Donald Trump. But in a sense, those elements in Mrs. Clinton’s definition of deplorability were apparently pretty much all her party had to offer — a list of the newly invented, deadly political sins as defined and applied by the new Democratic Party to smear opponents.
Does that make the Trump election a fluke brought on by the opposition’s campaign ineptitude and lack of a coherent message reaching beyond current bi-coastal superficial concerns? Or does the election mark a largely unforeseen shift in the electorate that signals new bipartisan alliances capable of shaping politics for years to come?
Those are among the questions posed in this ground-breaking and extremely well-written analysis of the 2016 election by Selena Zito, a seasoned reporter for The Washington Examiner who writes a nationally syndicated column and acts as a political analyst for CNN, and Brad Todd, founding partner at OnMessage Inc., a national Republican advertising and opinion research agency.
Such shifts in American politics are not unprecedented, usually occurring when a party in power strays too far from the basic concerns of the electorate. There was the great Nixon landslide of 1972 against the McGovernite opposition, and subsequent talk of a New American majority, i.e. Republicans and former blue-collar Democrats. Then there was Watergate and the confused Jimmy Carter interlude, followed by the great Reagan victories — victories fueled in no small part by Ronald Reagan’s genuine concern for those forgotten working men and women, many of them Democrats who had come to be taken for granted by their former party.
In 2016, much the same process was at work. Once again, it seemed significant numbers of productive Americans were being ignored, the attentions of the politicians of their former party apparently increasingly focused on meeting the perceived desires of more exotic constituents. It’s to Donald Trump’s political credit that he understood those “forgotten Americans,” abandoned by their party, were still there in sufficient numbers to make the difference in a presidential election.
Jonathan Kochie, the owner of a family restaurant in Freeland, Pennsylvania, put it this way to the authors. “People were weary of the professional politician, but no one seemed to hear us say that. We were here in plain sight if anyone cared to listen. We still are. The professional reporters and professional Washington still does not get it. They drone on every day either on social media or on the networks, and report with just enough inference that you know they find [Trump’s] win not legitimate. It’s as if our votes were not legitimate.”
Those votes were not only legitimate, but may well be predictive. As the authors point out, “The same group of voters in the swing states of the Great Lakes region swept both the Democrats in 2008 and the Republicans in 2016 to complete control of both branches of the federal government. The migration of these voters has fundamentally altered the American political landscape for the foreseeable future.”
These voters, the authors believe, will increasingly call for “resistance to multilateralism abroad and multiculturalism at home,” defiance of those political, corporate and societal leaders who embrace every demand made by every newly minted protest group with access to TV cameras, and cultural respect.
These demands, say the authors, along with “the intensity of the left’s reaction to them, will now animate not just our politics but our nation’s debates about commercial and societal norms.”
As Ed Harris, a former union boss from Northeast Pennsylvania, tells the authors: “What happened in 2016 is only the beginning; in fact the truth is it is not even that, because there is no turning back. I don’t think there is any way to put what happened in 2016 back into some neat place.”
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).