How Donald Trump Courted White Americans to Victory

Donald Trump pauses during the presidential debate at Hofstra University on September 26 in Hempstead, New York. In a stunning upset, Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States on November 8. Joe Raedle/Getty

It was June 26, 2015, 10 days after the mogul and showman had announced his bid for president and just after I'd written a piece for Newsweek that my editor had given the alliterative headline "Donald Trump: The Billionaire for Blue-Collars." In it, I'd argued that although the media and most Republicans were dismissing Donald Trump's chances of winning that party's nomination, his opposition to multilateral free trade agreements and demands for much tighter immigration restrictions made him a perfect fit for the white working-class men who now made up a large share of the Republican electorate. I also noted that Trump broke with Republican orthodoxy by adamantly insisting he would never cut Social Security and Medicare—another position that put him more in line with working-class white voters.

"I thought that piece was great," Trump said over the phone from his office at Trump Tower, then digressing in Trumpian fashion to let me know he'd been on the cover of Newsweek before. ("I always loved the magazine," he said.) I was a little surprised by his enthusiasm, since I had accused him of "bloviating," among other things, and I'd cringed a bit as well, as any reporter does when the subject of a piece seems too happy. Later, I learned that he refers to himself as the "blue-collar billionaire," so the headline seemed to have captured his affection.

As the campaign went on, I wrote critically about his policy proposals, such as banning Muslim immigration (which he later modified to be a ban on immigration from countries wracked by terrorism) and dragnet monitoring of American mosques for signs of terrorism; his attack on the Gold Star family; his alleged groping. But I never lost my fascination in Trump and the blue-collar whites he won in the national election for president by a 40 percent margin over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. Among blue-collar white men, it was a 49 percent margin. Trump also won college-educated whites, but by 4 percent, far lower than the usual double-digit Republican victory in this demographic. Trump won seven out of 10 non-college white men and six out of 10 non-college women.

Trump turns to talk to members of the press as he greets the crowd after speaking during a campaign event at the CFE Federal Credit Union Arena in Orlando, Florida on March 5. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty

Clinton carried minorities, yes, but by a lower margin than Barack Obama won the African-American and Hispanic vote, and she made critical mistakes in her quest for white voters. She failed to travel to blue-collar-rich Wisconsin, convinced it was safely part of the "blue wall" of 18 states and the District of Columbia that have voted Democratic in presidential contests since 1992. Clinton never visited the state after the Democratic primaries. Trump won Wisconsin, the first time a Republican had taken it since 1984.

Those white working-class voters may not have commanded enough of Clinton's attention, but Trump put a spotlight on them. J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir and study of these voters, became a best-seller and a must-read for political types. Reporters air-dropped into Trump rallies and coal towns like Margaret Mead landing on the shores of Samoa to study native rites. I will even confess to spending my summer vacation on a driving tour of many of those voters' haunts: West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, southern Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. Call it my "Heart of Whiteness" tour.

The alienation of white working people from the Democratic Party has intrigued me for a long time. (I was a somewhat strange child.) My grandparents were working class, my mother's father a member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. They had not abandoned their liberalism, but it often seemed that many families around me had. Maybe my interest was piqued by growing up watching All in the Family, the 1970s CBS hit about Archie Bunker, a bigoted, working-class Queens loudmouth—sound familiar?—who loved Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. I remember my father telling me about Lower Manhattan's Hard Hat Riot in 1970, when white construction workers beat up "longhairs" demonstrating against the killing of four anti-Vietnam war protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. The beefy blue-collar workers also stormed City Hall to curse New York's anti-war mayor, John Lindsay, who had lowered the flag to mourn the campus shootings. One of my favorite books just after college was Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism (1985), a sociologist's chronicling of how some people felt abandoned by the Democrats because of affirmative action, crime, welfare and other racially charged issues.

In the 1990s, I covered the White House and saw how Bill Clinton wooed back many of these voters with policies that made Democrats seem tough—welfare reform with work requirements, longer prison sentences, support for the death penalty. I then watched Newt Gingrich lead the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, rallying working-class outrage over the assault weapons ban.

In 2011, I wrote about how the Republican Party was ripe to nominate a trade hawk. The GOP had seen a huge influx of working-class white voters who had very different ideas about protectionism than did the party's candidates for the 2012 presidential nomination, including eventual winner Mitt Romney. I wrote a cover story for Newsweek titled "The White Vote," illustrated with a blue-collar worker and blue lunch pail set on the floor inside a voting booth. Since 2000, white working-class men had become so estranged from the party of the New Deal that in some states Obama won only 10 percent of their vote in 2012. (Overall, about a third of white working-class men gave Obama their support that year. It looks like Trump bested that number, although we're still waiting for more breakdowns.) But I didn't see this victory by Trump coming. Like a lot of political reporters, I believed the polling, a science that may not yet be grouped with phrenology and tarot reading, but which has some serious flaws.

As did the Democratic candidate. Clinton not only ignored her working-class flank in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Maine, but also was flat-footed. Recall her flippant comment about the bright future for alternative energy: "We're going to put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business." It was unfeeling, but at least it had the element of truth. In 50 years, we're unlikely to get so much of our power from that source. Already, only about 80,000 Americans work in mines, about a tenth as many 100 years ago.

Supporters gather to rally with Trump in a cargo hangar at Minneapolis Saint Paul International Airport in Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 6. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Can Trump bring back manufacturing jobs and turn things around so quickly "it will make your head spin"? Of course not. Many of Trump's policies would be hard to enact. On trade, Trump will have unilateral powers to withdraw the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization and the pending Trans Pacific Partnership, but it's questionable he can come up with "great deals," as he so often claims. His threats to slap tariffs on companies that move jobs overseas would require the acquiescence of a Congress that may not give it. The Constitution gives a President Trump wide authority over immigration policy. (He's framed immigration as a threat to not only American safety but also American jobs.) While he could probably not build his controversial wall along the Mexican border without the approval of Congress, legal scholars believe he has the authority to speed the deportation of those in the U.S. illegally, rescind Obama's executive orders that allowed those immigrants to stay and complete his vow to ban the immigration of individuals from certain countries in an effort to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks in the U.S.

The social science research of Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University and other academics suggests other ways the new president might appeal to Trump men, if not actually improve their lot. He gives them hope. The most extensive studies of those voters was performed by Jonathan Rothwell, an economist at the Gallup company known for its polls. Rothwell took the survey data about Trump men and correlated it with a host of other factors, including income, health, occupation and other variables. Some of what he came up with was what one might expect: Trump voters tend to live in areas that are very white and have very small immigrant populations; they're disproportionately blue-collar and worry about foreign trade.

But here's the big finding from Rothwell. Trump voters are doing better financially than a lot of their peers. Their mood is sour and pessimistic, but their circumstances, overall, don't seem that bad. You'd think the typical Trump voter is getting clobbered by foreign competition—say, workers at an air-conditioner factory that is under pressure from cheap Chinese air conditioners. But the truth is that they're more likely to be self-employed, like an air-conditioner repairman: someone whose job can't be shipped overseas.

Paradoxically, Trump blue-collar voters tend to be more affluent than other blue-collar workers. They aren't the most beaten-down of the group, but they are the most pessimistic about the future. And they often have good reason: They tend to live, Rothwell found, in counties marked by downward mobility. They might be doing pretty well in relation to their blue-collar peers, but they are inordinately worried about their kids. They also test high for feeling they aren't doing as well as their parents. He didn't parse out their news viewing habits, but it's probably a good bet they're getting their negative views about the world reinforced by Fox News and other conservative media outlets.

Support for Trump also corresponded to counties with poor health statistics, Rothwell found. Indeed, there's been a lot of interest in the public health community about the surge in the death rates of non-college white men ages 45 to 54; only a part of that is related to the oft-discussed opioid crisis. Much of the disturbing surge seems to be due to an increase in familiar woes such as drinking, obesity, tobacco consumption and depression. Cherlin, author of Labor's Love Lost: The Rise and the Fall of the Working Class Family in America, believes there's a connection between the declining health in these Trump zones and a larger sense of pessimism. Surveys consistently show that non-college white men are less optimistic about the future than non-college Hispanics and blacks, even if their material conditions are better.

Child supporters of Trump wait for him to appear at a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa, November 6. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Bad health and a pessimistic view of one's chances are real problems that aren't easily treated by policy or politics. But a President Trump will have some tools. First, no one in the white working class can now feel like they've been ignored. They've roared and their election of Trump might lift some of that depression for a while. But Trump will probably need other policies from the Democratic part of his brain to help these workers in other ways. Clinton's proposals for more money for worker retraining, apprenticeship programs and college affordability are the kinds of programs Trump might be able to take and make his own, much as George W. Bush renamed and expanded Bill Clinton's national service plan.

Although it didn't get a lot of attention during the campaign, Trump and Clinton both vowed to overhaul the nation's infrastructure. Trump loves to lambaste New York City's LaGuardia Airport as "Third World" and to praise the roads in China and the Gulf states. A big infrastructure program was high on Clinton's agenda and Trump will likely push one as well. These kinds of jobs would do a lot for a lot of blue-collar people, and he can probably get Democratic support for them. It's a good sign for Trump and his base that he vowed in his election night address to rebuild American infrastructure.

On election night at the Trump victory party at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, there weren't too many blue-collar attendees in the crowd, except for the hotel staff. This was an event for politicos and donors and volunteers, but there was a lot of talk about helping the working class and smashing elites. "You can shove a poll up the New York Times's ass. And you can quote me on that," said Carl Paladino; born working-class, he became wealthy leasing land and knocked off an establishment type to be the Republican nominee for governor of New York a few years ago. (He lost, and he's none too fond of those at the paper of record, whom he considers "liars.") Also there was Mike Lindell, a former crack addict who managed to fight off his addiction and become the inventor of a pillow that he sells on Fox News—all the time, it sometimes seems—as His company, he says, has 1,100 employees in Minnesota, another state where Trump caught Clinton by surprise. "The American dream is possible," Lindell told me. "Donald Trump understands how to get the jobs back."

The white working class that voted to make Trump its champion is about to find out if that's true.