WESTBY, WISCONSIN—In a country increasingly engaged in national politics and divided, the next 12 months may feel like 12 years.
Voters in both trenches are eager to vote, convinced not only of victory but also of vindication. The shocking result in 2016 wasn’t a black swan, an irregular election deviating from normalcy, but instead the indicator of the realignment Brad Todd and I describe in The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, now available in a new a paperback edition in time for the 2020 election season.
The story of America’s evolving political topography is one of the tectonic plates that slowly grind against one another until a break notably alters the landscape with seismic consequences—a sudden lurch long in development.
The election of President Donald Trump cemented a realignment of the two political parties rooted in cultural and economic change years in the making. Although he has been the epicenter of all politics since his announcement of candidacy in 2015, Trump is the product of this realignment more than its cause, a fact that becomes clear as you travel the back roads to the places that made him the most unlikely president of our era.
Thirty-year-old dairy farmer Ben Klinkner doesn’t consider himself a member of either political party. “I am a Christian conservative,” he says matter-of-factly.
Sitting at conference table at the Westby Co-op Credit Union, the sixth-generation family farmer who has a master’s degree in meat science explains that when he left to attend college at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and then at North Dakota State University in Fargo for his master’s, he vowed he would never milk a cow again.
“And I’ve been doing just that every day for the past six years,” he said.
On Trump, Klinkner is pragmatic. “I am very happy with his policies. I just wish he’d put that Twitter down,” he said of the president’s unorthodox style of communicating. This cuts against the national media’s narrative that farmers will dump the president because of the trade uncertainty.
And, yes, Klinkner will vote for him again.
How Trump Did It
Trump’s 2016 victory came in spite of his historically weak performance in the suburbs long dominated by Republicans. The key was that he more than overcame his suburban weakness with the mass conversion of blue-collar voters in ancestrally Democratic bastions of the Midwest, and he inspired irregular voters who mistrust both parties. For The Great Revolt, we traveled to the counties in the Great Lakes states that Trump wrested away from Democratic heritage to find examples of the voter archetypes that define the Trump coalition.
Large strata of the population are now not just eager to vote in the next race for president but eager to vote against the party of their ancestry. This enthusiasm for new alliances is perhaps the greatest indicator of lasting realignment.
The election of Trump glued populism to conservatism, an ideology long leavened by anti-establishment rhetoric but rooted in the inertial acquiescence to the status quo that comes with laissez-faire policies. In Trump, Republicans have embraced, or have been forced to embrace, a more muscular and activist approach on issues ranging from trade policy to nonstop legal warfare with liberal state governments like California’s. Gone is the consistency of federalism, replaced in conservatism’s pantheon with the base-motivating potency of perpetual confrontation.
The emotional exertion of Trump’s combative approach continues to provide Democrats with avenues of appeal to buttoned-up suburbanites who otherwise resist liberal policies. And it has forced populists on the Left to copy Trump’s antagonistic style, elevating Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the edgiest of the Democratic contenders for president, into front-runners.
Democratic populists seek to copy Trump’s success but not to win back the same populist voters who flipped margins by 32 points from 2012 to 2016 in places like Ashtabula, Ohio, or 18 points in Erie, Pennsylvania, both of which we profiled in The Great Revolt. Democrats such as Warren and Sanders have given up on winning those places—and those Obama voters.
Instead, Sanders and Warren hope to emulate Trump’s success with their party’s version of the voters we called Perotistas, those whose participation in elections is irregular, even elliptical, and who pass into voting booths every decade or so like comets crashing into an otherwise orderly solar system, only to disappear just as abruptly.
Suburban Voters Hold the Keys
For his part, the president has accepted his path, choosing not to broaden his appeal by tapering his temperament to one that might suit the two-income, two-degree Republican-leaning suburban families who split their tickets in 2016 and then chose Democratic congressmen in 2018. These voters crave predictability and civility at a gut level, two things in short supply in Trump’s style, but they tell pollsters they are wary of the lurch toward socialism in today’s Democratic Party. Thus far, their hearts have overpowered their heads in off-year elections in the Trump era, and Democrats are banking on the same result in 2020.
Whether or not the president ever turns his attention to winning over the voters who resist both socialism and his own style, other Republicans will be appealing to them. Suburban voters hold the keys to hotly contested 2020 Senate races in Michigan, North Carolina, Arizona, and Colorado—not to mention the entire slate of competitive House districts.
The suburbs may be where control of government will be decided, but the 2020 election will not be the end of the coalition Trump mobilized in 2016 or the resistance that formed in response. Why? Because the individualization of our cultural economy and the self-sorting of our communities will keep fueling distrust of establishment institutions and keep roiling our political and consumer behaviors. Establishment politicians, CEOs, and journalists all ignore the dynamism of this great revolt at their own peril.
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