You can observe a lot just by watching, said Yogi Berra. And you can learn a lot just by talking to people. Instead of talking at them. Salena Zito is a reporter, and in 2016 she hung out in bars and poolrooms talking to people, begging for their opinions. That’s how she learned that Donald Trump might win the presidency.
She was a regular on the “John Batchelor Show,” along with an academic. Like Batchelor, the academic knew that Trump didn’t have a ghost of a chance and explained it all so well that it was hard to disagree.
Trump was uncivilized, the Republicans didn’t have a ground game, the Democrats had all the data-miners.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the analyst proved Hillary Clinton would win. But then Zito would blurt out that, when asked, people were saying they liked Trump. Poor Zito, a reporter at a Pittsburgh newspaper. It was pretty embarrassing.
Except the academic had gotten it wrong, and Zito had gotten it right.
Now she’s written about what she heard in a new book, “The Great Revolt,” co-authored with Bard Todd. In it, they describe the different groups to which Trump appealed, groups that were hidden in plain sight. You only had to talk to them.
There were the Second Amendment women, for example. Hillary got fewer women’s votes than Barack Obama did in 2012, and white women broke for Trump. Some of them wanted to keep their guns and liked what Trump said about gun rights.
There were the “King Cyrus Christians,” who voted for someone not very religious but who promised to protect their religious practices, as King Cyrus had for the Jews. Actually, those King Cyrus Christians included a lot of patriotic Orthodox Jews, and even the Christians sensed that Trump was a co-religionist.
Mostly, there were voters whose beliefs were mocked by all that was fashionable, by Obama and by Hillary herself, voters who craved respect. Their religious beliefs had been called bigotry, their pride in America denounced as white pride, the country they loved derided as fatally flawed. When they were told they had brought their misery on themselves, through their foul habits, they filed this away.
When they were called deplorable, they paid attention. When their cherished institutions — their religion, their patriotism, their regional loyalties — were derided, they voted for Donald Trump.
The two authors only scratched the surface, however. They missed the decline of mobility, the idea that our kids won’t be as well off as we were.
They don’t talk about parents who recognize how mediocre our K-12 schools are and how unaffordable college has become. They don’t talk enough about immigration.
Nevertheless, the book would teach Democrats something useful about their fellow Americans. The simplistic and idiotic way of explaining the 2016 election is to label Trump supporters as “populists.” That’s essentially a smear, meant to link them to racists like Pitchfork Ben Tillman or Father Coughlin.
But the Trump voters who talked to Zito are the same folks, with the same feelings, who in elections past had voted for FDR, JFK and even Obama. Back then they were the salt of the earth. Now they’re populists. So now you know what makes someone a populist: He voted for Trump.
Zito is in a great tradition of writers who talk to ordinary people and learn what the experts had missed.
In 1821 the British Parliament was debating farm policies in Westminster, and William Cobbett decided to find out for himself just what the farmers wanted. So he got on his horse and made his way from pub to pub to talk to them. He heard stories about class divides and corrupt politicians, and he wrote it all down in “Rural Rides,” a classic in political reportage.
What he learned was that representative democracies aren’t very democratic when the representatives don’t know much about the people they’re supposed to represent.
George Orwell also talked to people, and learned more common sense from them than anyone did from intellectuals like Sidney and Beatrice Webb. And Albert Camus understood the French better than Left Bank Marxists like Jean-Paul Sartre.
Orwell and Camus were like William Butler Yeats’ “Seven Sages,” who “walked the road, mimicking what they heard, as children mimic.” So, too, Zito, who understood that wisdom comes of beggary.
F.H. Buckley is author of “The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why it Was Just