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The Great Revolt: Vital Political Lessons for Our Times

by on June 28, 2018 5:00 AM

“What is happening in this is more than politics, this is culture and values and it is everything” –Voter from Vernon County, Wisc.

Recently, as entertainers hurl expletives at Donald Trump, citizens harass members of the administration and the nastiness of “the Resistance” grows coarser, the debate rages in the Democratic Party of how best to oppose the president. Meanwhile, self-righteous extremists on all sides avoid actual civil exchanges of ideas.

So we hyperventilate about every presidential tweet, a coat the first lady wore, a congresswoman asking people to harass administration members or the White House press secretary getting kicked out of a restaurant. All this accomplishes nothing, and does more harm than good.

Democrats wanting to understand why Trump won need to read the book “The Great Revolt” by Salena Zito and Brad Todd. This book is old-fashioned journalism. Zito spent months in her car driving the state routes and Main Streets in small towns across five key states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa) that swung from Obama to Trump.

While some still stubbornly wring their hands over Comey’s October letter, or Russian collusion or “the popular vote,” the truth is that Trump did not win as much as Clinton and the Democrats lost the election.

They lost Democratic voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin. Take Luzerne County, Pa., where in 2012 Obama won by five points and in 2016 Trump won by 20. Lake County, Mich., went from Obama +8 to Trump +23. Erie County, Pa., went from Obama +5 to Trump +20. Macomb County, Mich., where Obama won by 16,000 votes went to Trump by a margin of 48,000 votes.

“Back in the day the Democrats represented the working people. They actually represented them and their interests… Yeah well that’s just a thing of the past. I used to think that the Republican Party stood for country club folks… Not anymore; they are for the blue-collar worker, they are for me, and the irony is not lost on me.” –Voter from Lake County, Mich.

So why did that change?

Issues and attitude.

The issues continually cited by the voters in this book included: jobs, security, gun rights, NAFTA, opioids, Obamacare, cultural issues, religious freedom and the looming Supreme Court vacancy.

What might surprise you is that the border wall was a very-distant fourth in polling of these voters’ “most important issues,” running 21 points behind the Supreme Court.  Trump’s campaign really pushed the Supreme Court vacancy as an issue. The NRA ran ads in these states on during football games on the Big Ten Network and during the Chicago-Cleveland World Series that highlighted that Supreme Court vacancy as a threat to gun rights.

In research cited in the book, pollster Wes Anderson found that 18 percent of Trump voters in eight swing states were uncomfortable telling people they supported Trump. These voters were more female and educated than the overall electorate, with 80 percent of them supporting the NRA’s goals and objectives.

The “attitude” can best be summed up by Trump’s unapologetic brashness, rejecting political correctness and “telling it like it is.” Many voters stated “people don’t want to work”, or that “the Democrats give people things for free.” Many voters had strong negative views of Hillary Clinton.

While Hillary Clinton played to the most liberal wing of her party’s extremes on cultural issues, on gun issues and things like transgender bathroom access, people on the ground in these states found Trump speaking to their concerns about the country’s direction.

As Zito wrote, “In the short span of a generation, the face and focus of the Democratic Party nationally has shifted from a glorification of the working-class ethos to multiculturalist militancy pushed by the Far Left.”

Media and party leaders characterized these voters as voting out of “fear.” That shows a lack of respect for them and their “concerns” and that is why they missed this change. It is also too easy to characterize them as racists until you realize many of them voted for Obama.

Maybe these voters’ perspectives on the issues are flawed. Some may use data to dismiss their views as “stupid” or “misguided,” but you dismiss them at your peril. What they feel and how they see the country is very real to them, a product of their lives and anecdotal things they see around them. Abstract stats and data do not easily sway personal experience.

Attacks don’t work either, as Trump’s base sees attacks on Trump as an attack on them. They’re deeply invested with him.

Zito stated, “The all-out assault on Trump by leading figures in entertainment and media is a contributing factor to the galvanizing of his support…  In many ways Trump voters see themselves behind the siege walls with him.”

The Clinton campaign invested millions in ads attacking Trump’s sexist statements to win women voters. At the end of the campaign Trump WON 53 percent of white women voters. Also, as Clinton had been outmaneuvered by delegate math in 2008, she was outflanked by Electoral College math in 2016. She was out-messaged by Obama’s “Hope” and “Change” and “Yes We Can” in 2008. In 2016 she lost to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”

While that slogan was derided and looked down upon by many media pundits and liberals, it resonated.

“It was his message. Make America Great. It was potent and powerful. It takes you to a better place. It’s aspirational” –Voter in Luzerne County, Pa.

Democrats will have to connect with these voters by addressing their concerns at a grassroots level. To that end, all Americans would do well to read “The Great Revolt.” It highlights individual voices for the collective roar that decided the presidency. On election night 2016 they jolted a media and political establishment that had stopped listening to forgotten people.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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