Meeting Trump Voters Where They Live: An Interview With Alexander Zaitchik

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For his new book, Zaitchik approached supporters of the GOP presidential candidate at bars and on their porches — and debunked the media-constructed stereotype of an entirely intolerant, racist voting base.

By Dan McCarthy

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Donald Trump addresses supporters at a campaign rally at Fountain Park in Fountain Hills, Arizona. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

In February 2016, when journalist Alexander Zaitchik pitched independent imprint Hot Books a book about Donald Trump supporters, Trump had become a viable option to be the GOP’s presidential candidate. And yet, even after Trump had swept the New Hampshire Republican contest, many journalists weren’t taking him seriously. “Pundits were still saying no fucking way, his next event will be his Waterloo,” says Zaitchik, a freelance journalist who has written for Rolling Stone, the Guardian, and the New Republic, among others. “I was saying no way, this guy is going to win the whole thing, and I’m going to do this book.”

Zaitchik wanted to learn about Trump’s actual voters beyond the cartoonish portrayals that he regularly perceived in the mass media. He aimed to probe the human side of the candidate’s groundswell popularity; to entice news consumers interested in nuanced examination of Trump’s supporters; and to offset the slanted way many media outlets were portraying them as wacky, frustrated, and ideologically confused.“I originally hoped it would appeal very broadly to everyone across the system the way Studs Terkel’s books did,” Zaitchik says, citing the author of The Good War and The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream. “Just presenting everyday Americans talking about their lives … I think it would benefit the country if we’re willing to muddy up our partisan media diets and imagery.”

The result, The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride Through Donald Trump’s America, released in mid-August, creates a cross-section of the complex and sometimes contradictory viewpoints driving Trump voters to support their man. Zaitchik has conducted intimate interviews with supporters at the places where they are most themselves, away from the fray of campaign rallies — in bars and at their homes, among other small-scale venues. In his discussions with diverse subjects — which include a disabled veteran in Arizona, out-of-work machinists in Wisconsin, power line contractors in California — Zaitchik dives deep into the complex factors involved in their support, including years of foreign wars, outsourced jobs, and predatory banking practices.

In early September, we caught up with Zaitchik to discuss how he attempted to succeed where he believes most media outlets have generally failed. Understanding the rise of the Trump voter is, Zaitchik demonstrates, far more layered than the mass media has painted it: The Trump phenomenon can’t be fully reduced to simple racism or fervent nationalism, but involves a complex interplay between the social and economic influencing factors. We spoke about the echo chamber of Trump media coverage, Zaitchik’s unique reporting tactics on the campaign trail, and the nature of his supporters’ overlapping sympathy with Bernie Sanders.

You’ve previously immersed yourself in the rise of Glenn Beck for a book. What specifically appealed to you about focusing on the people fueling Trump’s push for the presidency with this one?

When it became clear that Trump was going to win the Republican nomination, it was kind of hard to avoid the story of our times. And it seemed like there was a void in all the coverage, which was turning the camera around [from the commentators themselves] and taking a deeper look at his supporters. I thought the few attempts to do that were insufficient. You never really felt like you met the Trump people as full human beings.

I set out to investigate it by meeting people and drawing out the appeal of Trump to these people — what they saw in him and what they were responding to. What I found is what anyone would find when you peel back easy assumptions and stereotypes that we form: Reality is a little more complicated [than cliché], and a lot of the people supporting Trump were bringing more self-awareness and critical thinking to their support than might have previously seemed [to be the case] from afar.

How did you go about it? There must have been a lot of noise to filter out at first, given the media’s Trump-campaign supersaturation.

It was as unscientific as it gets: I’d walk up to people, or up to porches, and I’d sit down with them at bars. I jumped on the [campaign] trail in Phoenix, Arizona, and started going to events, which is where the book opens up. But I didn’t want to just go to events where people … were in this confrontational mode and screaming at each other. You can’t begin and end an investigation there, I don’t think. Often, the same person I would meet at a rally in that environment would be a very different person in the quiet of a bar, or in their home.

I didn’t insert myself too much into the book, and instead just let those people speak for themselves, and let the fullness of their politics come up in their own words. Not directly by asking about politics, but by them talking about their own lives.There’s explanatory power in that, but not the kind resulting in someone telling [a reader] “what it all means.” Just let people come to their own conclusions.

What were some of those conclusions?

Human beings are complicated. If you try to reduce them to something, in almost every case you’ll be proven wrong. And that goes for [all] people no matter who they supported in the election, but it’s especially true in the case of Trump supporters. Trump represented this kind of hybrid candidate that was more complicated than anything we’ve seen recently in American politics. He came out with fire defending Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, [he] attacked the Bushes on the wars, [and attacked] free trade. Nobody knew what to make of him.

Did you ever find yourself in a position peeling away the media construct of the ignorant, xenophobic Trump voter only to find yourself face to face with one?

The people I spent actual quality time with for the book weren’t the crazy ones screaming about Mexicans and Muslims. Actually, most weren’t that way at all. There were surprises all over Trump Nation.

A track is not reducible to a cow bell, necessarily, and a lot of [journalists] were trying to do that. When people have grown up in a talk radio and in cities where their jobs that have turned into service jobs that don’t pay anything, and half the people they personally know are on heroin, it’s not as simple as them mumbling about Mexicans and Muslims, even if some of them do that. They’re not stupid; they know it’s not poor migrant workers that have caused big changes they’ve seen in their lives, and most are more likely to direct their anger upwards to who they understand as “the elites” within both parties.

Besides the New Hampshire primary win, why did it take so many people so long to consider Trump’s campaign as something beyond spectacle and something to take seriously in the 2016 race?

I think people and mainstream journalists didn’t take him seriously because they were operating with a textbook that was assumed to be the way the world works. In their experience of beltway culture, there are certain foundational positions that the Republican Party has stood on, and to come out against them, guns blazing, caused everyone to see it like someone walking on water, but expecting that water would give way at any second. [You know,] “Just you watch.”

But the people that were saying this often don’t realize they’ve never left the bubble and don’t have much experience actually talking to people in the country…. They really just have no clue what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck, or to have all your nephews hooked on smack, or to have good factory jobs replaced by McDonald’s and Payless Shoe jobs. Those are real realities for a lot of the 13 million people that voted for Trump.

Is that a one-time byproduct by the whole Trump phenomenon?

I think that kind of thing is unavoidable now, especially with the Sanders insurgency and the Trump victory. You trace the overlap back between those two candidacies, and what do you find? You find free trade, anger at Wall Street, a desire to see CEOs shipping jobs overseas browbeaten, and a sense of public assistance you’ve never seen in a public candidate before in the GOP.

Regardless of whether or not Trump actually wants to defend these things, and there are plenty of reasons to believe he doesn’t, the fact that Trump made those noises means he’s smart enough to know you can win as a Republican by defending them. Sixty percent of the country can’t miss a paycheck, or get in an accident because they can’t afford the health care, or afford higher education. The things we heard more explicitly and rationally from Sanders during the primaries, those populist themes, resonated with Trump voters. I think I spoke with over 100 of them at length during my travels, and a lot were verytempted by Sanders. But they couldn’t quite get over the snag of voting for a socialist, because if you come out of a conservative community that has been listening to conservative talk radio your whole life, that’s a big hurdle.

Understanding that distinction and how a voter got there is worth its weight in gold. Everyone noted that overlap of voter demographics, even Trump.

The experience in their lived lives pointed [Trump supporters] in a kind of left-wing populism direction, if it was re-packaged with a different figurehead [other than Sanders], and I was interested in exploring that overlap. What was drawing people to [Trump’s] populist politics? Just as important, what was the potential for bringing them into a different kind of populist movement, one that is inclusive, less demagogic, and pro-science?I think I found a lot of that overlap, and some of it was hopeful, but it was sobering to realize just how much work there is to be done [to bridge that gap]. It’s going to take a skilled political strategist better than myself to figure out how to do it, but I don’t think there is really an alternative to at least trying. Otherwise, we’re going to get a lot more Trumps.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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