(Or, to Quote My Liberal Progressive Friends, “What the Hell?”)
In less than two weeks, Donald Trump will be inaugurated the 45th president of the United States. After bitter, bruising primary and general election campaigns, Trump and his supporters will be celebrating a triumph we’ve eagerly anticipated for nearly two years. We will don our Trump/Pence t-shirts, stock up on tortilla chips, guac, M&Ms, make S’Mores, and plop down on our sofas to watch the political equivalent of the Super Bowl halftime show. We’ll even sing Supercalifragilisticexpibraggadocius after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts swears him in. Some of the more ardent Trumpers are heading to D.C. for the festivities and will be sharing their reactions and pictures with the rest of us on social media. Since June 2015, the Academic Redneck has communicated with thousands of fellow Trump supporters from across the country, and we’re all ready for a party.
My liberal friends and colleagues may think this jubilation smacks of unsportsmanlike conduct, of spiking the ball in the end-zone and launching into a “Can’t Touch This” booty-shaking victory dance. Others who do not know us personally will argue that our happiness simply demonstrates more of our racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or extreme hatred of Barack Obama. Whatever. No matter the candidate we fielded, these charges would have been leveled against us anyway, so we’re used to such hyperbolic allegations. They have been used so frequently, they no longer have much of an impact.
Granted, a lot of us aren’t sad to see the 44th president move out of the White House. But we would argue that it’s his view of us that has been the real problem all along, not what we’ve thought of him. We’ve seen little evidence that the man who spoke of “no red states and blue states” in his 2004 DNC speech had much respect for conservative Americans. Some of us waited in vain for outreach that never came. We never felt that he had any particular interest in being everyone’s president. His “John, the election is over” and “elections have consequences” moments were victory dances, too.
Ultimately, though, the purpose of this article is not to pick a fight with liberals. No, honestly. Trump supporters can’t really complain about liberals’ calling us names without conceding that many of the elite within the Republican Party leveled even worse insults after many of us insisted that Trump—and only Trump—could be our standard bearer. No, my reason for writing this essay is to explain why so many conservative Republican voters enthusiastically supported Donald Trump and others eventually came on board, albeit reluctantly.
People struggling to understand how Trump got elected may want to consider the internal conflicts within the Republican Party. Certainly, people know about the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009, but that grassroots movement was just one early element of the intra-party dissatisfaction and rebellion brewing within the Republican ranks ever since Barack Obama won his first term. Certainly, while conservatives were hungry to defeat Barack Obama, they were just as eager to reform the Republican Party from an inept political entity into an effective messaging operation that pursued voters’ priorities. Those of us who tried to think strategically actually admired some things about Obama’s political skills. We envied the Democrats’ ability to present a unified front to the public. Republicans were often cowardly and willing to eat their own if it furthered their immediate interests.
After two consecutive defeats in presidential contests, grassroots Republicans wanted victory, and a lot of ordinary citizens were wise enough to realize that fielding yet another underwhelming candidate just wasn’t going to cut it. A battle developed, as the Republican establishment expected rank-and-file voters just to fall in line and let the party “kingmakers” pick the nominee. (I put “kingmakers” in air quotes because they had obviously forgotten how to kingmake.) RNC party insiders were preparing for another Bush coronation, putting all their eggs in the Jeb! basket. However, voters wanted none of him.
Those of us who supported Trump were taking a rhetorical beating from high-profile conservative commentators, particularly over at National Review Online. Kevin Williamson called us all “Trumpkins” and suggested that we were meth-addled welfare recipients living in Podunk towns that should just die out. He also referenced our supposed need for a “Father Führer.” NRO’s Jonah Goldberg was less insulting but acted as though our association with Trump was just a summer of 2015 fling we would get over by Labor Day. Okay, maybe by Thanksgiving. But definitely by Christmas! And on it went, with new Trump expiration dates being set weekly as the old ones came and went without the campaign’s self-destruction. In fact, the opposite was true. One by one, the more “suitable” GOP candidates dropped out. Trump remained standing. To Republican establishment leaders, Trump was the political equivalent of Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. They just couldn’t kill the son-of-a-bitch.
This isn’t to say that ordinary conservative voters were unanimous in thinking that Trump was the best choice. Significant, even contentious, disagreements were occurring at the grassroots level, too. Much of the division split along class and education lines. White-collar, educated Republicans mostly preferred more traditional candidates like Bush, Rubio, or Kasich. College-educated and religious (but not necessarily evangelical) conservatives preferred someone like Ben Carson. To these voters, Trump was crass, vulgar, and completely appalling. In their minds, a Trump win in the general election was incomprehensible. Toward the end of the primary season, many of them pinned their hopes on a Ted Cruz upset, but even they could not abide his behavior at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, where his non-endorsement of Trump seemed dishonest and self-serving. Ultimately, though, enough skeptical Republican voters rallied to Trump’s cause because he spoke directly to conservative Christians in a conciliatory way that persuaded them to give him the benefit of the doubt. Simultaneously, they concluded that Hillary Clinton—with her rogue server and lousy track record as a public servant (Benghazi, Russian reset, etc.)—was even more unacceptable than the combative billionaire.
Yours truly, The Academic Redneck, disagreed with my fellow college-educated conservatives. I sensed that working class conservatives’ intuition was dead right. I was convinced that winning required an in-your-face, innovative, shrewd candidate like DJT to re-take the White House from Democrats. I agreed with many ordinary voters in flyover country that Trump was the only Republican candidate who might be able to undermine the political machine in Washington. His independent wealth insulated him from having to do the sort of fundraising, groveling, and selling out that, unfortunately, so many candidates must engage in to get elected. Also impressive to me was that he fought like a successful Democrat in presidential contests. He had the same sort of talent to generate excitement among base voters as Barack Obama did in his first campaign. Yet he could be just as snarky and sarcastic as HRC or POTUS. (Don’t tell Republicans that these two were dignified and didn’t resort to mockery and ridicule. We know better.)
Despite many things that divided conservative voters, we still had a lot in common. For instance, just a little before Donald Trump’s presidential announcement in 2015 came word that Dennis Hastert, former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, was indicted for illegal bank withdrawals to pay hush money to his former sexual assault victims. Because Trump’s announcement and larger-than-life personality kept the press mostly preoccupied, the Hastert scandal did not generate the sort of wall-to-wall national press coverage it might have at any other time. However, among conservatives, Hastert’s sleazy story was yet more depressing evidence that Congress was a cesspool of corruption. Both parties swam in the sewage, but conservatives had to try and clean up our own rot.
All of us were disgusted by the Hastert sexual abuse scandal. However, more shocking to non-social conservatives like me was how that a former high school wrestling coach ended up going to Washington and being able to leverage 3.5 million dollars in hush money to keep people from revealing he was a sexual predator. How do such things happen? How do they have access to such large sums of cash? As an educator, I run afoul of Colorado ethics laws if I take anything worth more than $50 from a student or any group trying to influence me as a public servant. Congress is subject to ethics laws, too, but clearly, they are not strictly enforced. Such shenanigans demonstrate that too many lawmakers go to Washington to serve only themselves and spend their time trying to hide their own bad behavior instead of working on behalf of their constituents. And I’m not talking about buying off voters with special pork projects. I mean actual governance, where legislators make the tough decisions their consciences direct them to make. (Seriously, it is time to implement term limits so that serving in Congress is no longer a lucrative career.)
The Hastert embarrassment was only one of the issues that convinced many conservatives that dramatic reform was necessary. Are our efforts perfect and foolproof? No, but grassroots Republicans hope to chart a new course. We had to find a candidate that was fearless and daring enough to throw to the end zone in the general election with fourth and a million yards to go. Granted it wasn’t pretty, and we sometimes felt like the Mud Dogs in Waterboy when Bobby Boucher showed up at halftime to rally the team. But the win is a start.
Many honorable Americans find Trump’s personality abrasive. I do not. Something about him strikes me as quintessentially American: over-the-top, admirable in some respects, not-so-admirable in others, but gritty and capable. He’s cosmopolitan but tacky and nouveau-riche at the same time. He lives in a penthouse with gold-plated faucets, but he’s comfortable talking to average people as well. Although he’s a New Yorker, he’s a little like the living embodiment of the Chicago Carl Sandburg described in his famous poem (more ironic since Chicago is Barack Obama’s hometown):
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding…
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Liberal progressives may not want to hear it, but the Democratic party is also in need of serious reform. Remaining in denial about the election—blaming Russian hacking, racism, misogyny, or whatever else for Trump’s win without looking inward–is a recipe for disaster. If anything, Bernie Sanders’s emergence should demonstrate that voter dissatisfaction is just as much of a liability for Democrats as it was for Republicans.
I say this not as a conservative Republican but as a former Democrat and armchair policy analyst. But I will discuss my former life as a liberal in my next column.
DZ, The Academic Redneck
January 8, 2016