Donald Trump is the first president that Shay Eicher has ever voted for. A civil engineering student, Eicher, 20, is a an oddity on his university campus in Youngstown, Ohio, where most of the students walking around last Thursday morning had voted for President-elect Joe Biden of the Democratic Party. Eicher is not surprised by this, nor by the election results. Despite Trump’s claims, he doesn’t believe there has been voter fraud. “Here in Ohio he [Trump] won, but people were more with Biden in the rest of the country,” he says.
Eicher doesn’t identify with either the Republicans or the Democrats; he doesn’t consider himself a conservative and he doesn’t particularly admire either candidate. When asked why he prefers Trump, he hesitates, then says: “He’s done a good job these four years; he’s been very good for the economy. And sometimes when Biden was talking, I felt like he wasn’t up to the job.” He does say, however, that he likes that Biden takes climate change into account, something that Trump often ignores, or even disputes the existence of. “And he should also watch what he says,” adds Eicher. So what is it about Trump that swayed him? “I think I just like Trump,” he says.
Far from the Trump rallies and protests supporting the president, such as the one organized last Saturday in Washington, there is a Republican voter who does not fit the popular perception of Trump loyalists – one who is more discreet and low-key. These are voters like Eicher, who not only does not deny the climate crisis, he worries about it; who instead of celebrating Trump’s bravado, criticizes it, but who still votes for him, either for the economy, or because Trump conveys the kind of muscle he feels Biden lacks. Or because, although he doesn’t know it yet, he will end up being a Republican.
Last Thursday, the university was in the middle of exams and the Youngstown campus was buzzing with life. But beyond the student buzz and the postcard-perfect display of fall colors, the nearby streets were eerily empty. The coronavirus pandemic has struck a blow at this old steel stronghold just when it was enjoying something of a revival. By the time Eicher offered his opinion, the news was already out that Donald Trump had suffered a resounding defeat in the presidential elections. Democrat Joe Biden was leading in the popular vote by more than five million votes and had won in traditionally conservative states like Arizona and Georgia. Even so, the Republican real estate tycoon won the support of 72 million voters, 10 million more than four years ago – within the context of a historic rise in voter turnout – and has kept decisive swing states, such as Florida and Eicher’s Ohio.
Ohio used to be the electoral barometer of the United States, the bellwether state whose victor would win the whole election. In each and every election since 1964, whoever won in Ohio became president. But on November 3, 2020, despite an eight-point-plus lead in this corner of the US, Trump lost overall. Today, Ohio is now just a good place to measure support for Trump – in fact, Youngstown County, Mahoning, swum against the tide and voted for a Republican president for the first time in nearly 50 years.
“He lets things get out of hand on Twitter,” says Tom Karpinski, 65, an Air Force veteran who lived for two years in the Madrid city of Torrejón de Ardoz. “He can be very rude, but his policies are good, and since the media doesn’t report much of what he does, he has to make himself heard that way.”
Karpinski, who lives in a small town called Vienna, 20 minutes from Youngstown, begins to outline the reasons why he voted for the Republican. “He put China in its place,” he says. “He lowered our taxes, he got a deal in the Middle East and he fought to bring back the jobs that went to Mexico.”
This last point carries a lot of weight especially in Ohio and in many Midwest cities that have had industrial production curtailed. In 2016, only Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders blamed trade agreements, especially the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), formerly known as NAFTA, for the impoverishment of the middle class. Between 2000 and 2015, more than 60,000 factories in the US closed and 4.8 million well-paid industry jobs disappeared.
According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, NAFTA is responsible for the loss of almost 700,000 US jobs. Any economist will explain that, apart from competition from countries with cheaper labor, automation is one of the main reasons millions of jobs have been destroyed. But for years now, states like Ohio have been witnessing multinationals closing their factories while expanding in other countries. During his term in office, Trump has not been able to prevent the closure of the nearby General Motors plant in Lordstown, which employs 1,600 workers, but the state’s voters have seen him talk about it and criticize it and that is something they appreciate.
While four years back, the New York real estate tycoon donned a blue collar and promised to fight for factories, this time around he promised to reopen the economy, which has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. This is a point that matters to many of his voters who associate Biden with lockdowns. “People here need to work,” says Karpinski, who does sporadic electrical system maintenance. “People here don’t have the kind of money that [Democratic Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi has. People need to work as soon as possible, taking all the precautions.”
Like many US voters, these Trump supporters say they don’t vote for a political party, but rather for the right person. At the same time, they barely remember voting for anyone in the past who was not from their traditional party.
The people who voted for Trump in 2020 weren’t so different from those who voted for him in 2016, according to a number of exit polls. According to The Washington Post, Trump wins among men (53%), loses among women (42%), has little support with African Americans (12%), and, despite casting himself as a hero of the working class, is the candidate most voted for by people earning more than $100,000 (€84,000) a year. In the four years since Trump came to power, these percentages have risen or fallen only very slightly. Because among Trump voters, 94% simply identify themselves as Republicans.
Georgetown historian Michael Kazin, an expert on social trends and author of a book on populism in the United States called The Populist Persuasion, downplays the magnate’s pull. “He has achieved roughly the same percentage of popular votes as [Republican presidential candidate] Mitt Romney in 2012 and no one believed Romney was a popular hero,” he says. “In reality, Trump has not gained much more support than in 2016; he got 46% of the popular vote then and now he is at 47.3%, a figure that will drop as the count in Democratic territories draws to a close. And [Republican presidential candidate] John McCain had 46% in 2008. Trump has a very loyal base but, in reality, he has not been able to grow the Republican Party.”
The difference is that neither Romney nor McCain turned politics into a spectacle; Trump, in contrast, has severed relations with his international allies, taken Russian President Vladimir Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence services, insulted the Mexican people, suggested disinfectant could cure the coronavirus – days later he said he was joking, with 100,000 having died from the disease on his watch – plus a long list of “Trumpisms” that has left half the world wondering how he is still winning votes.
“Well, after all, his policies have been those that conservative pro-business Republicans have always supported, with the big exception of immigration,” says Kazin. “And the [Republicans] are the ones who have been really loyal in 2020.” In his opinion, Trump is not exactly a textbook populist – a term that is not necessarily negative in the US. “In the rhetoric against the more educated elites, that resentment against an administrative apparatus that is against him is populist to a degree, but his policies are not – they are not so different from those of [former Republican president Ronald] Reagan, so the image of him as a populist is somewhat exaggerated. Trump is more of a right-wing nationalist than a right-wing populist,” he adds.
The pandemic has put the US economy into an induced coma. Having planned to go to the polls in the midst of the longest economic growth period in history, Trump instead was facing the worst crisis in 70 years. His approval rating as a commander-in-chief, however, has barely suffered. The big tax cut he pushed through at the beginning of his term and his bullish talk about reopening the economy, even when his own health experts advised against it, have given his voters the idea he is the candidate that cares the most about the economy. Moreover, small businesses in rural areas where Trump has much of his base have suffered less from the economic fallout of the pandemic than businesses in large Democratic states, according to a survey by the Economic Innovation Group in Washington.
“I’ve never had as much money as I have now,” says Megan Logan, who has been working at the Yankee Kitchen restaurant as a waitress for 10 years. “I’ve even been able to save. I’ve never been better off, even with this crisis, and I’m 39 years old. I’m not sure if it’s because of him, but he’s got something to do with it. I realize that some of the things he says are terrible, like when he came out of the hospital with Covid and said, ‘Don’t let Covid dominate your life,’ but he’s done very well with the economy. I’m not a big fan of Trump,” she adds. “In fact, I couldn’t vote because I wasn’t here, but I don’t like Biden, I’m worried about him, though not so much as I’m worried about his vice president, Kamala [Harris], being a Black woman, with all the Black Lives Matter movement out there. I’m worried about how things are going to go.”
The economy versus the virus: as if these issues were unconnected, concern for one or the other has divided voters between Republicans and Democrats. Only 24% of Trump supporters considered the coronavirus outbreak to be a “very important” issue in a Pew Research poll last October, compared to 82% of Democrats. However, the economy was critical for 84% of them – a figure that dropped to 66% among Democrats.
The Yankee Restaurant’s cook, Lyle Almburg, 50, also voted for Trump. He hasn’t always voted Republican, he says – in 2000, he backed Al Gore. “I vote for the one I think can do the job best,” he says. That was Trump in 2016 and also in 2020. “He can be very rude, but he’s sincere. He speaks his mind and that means he gets through to people. A lot of people like that and I don’t think you can argue with economic success. Things have gone very well here, even with Covid. People see that and like it.”
Disassociating the person from his presidency is common among the average Donald Trump voter. Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, one of the benchmark election polls in the US, has been struck by this in his surveys. “You can ask about his policies and see different things,” he says. “But when you ask, ‘Could he be a role model for your kids?’ It’s three to one against. ‘Is he a good leader?’ Two to one. ‘Is he honest?’ Well, almost nobody believes that.” To be specific, in a poll taken in July, only 33% of the population believed Trump to be an honest man.
There are those who vote for Trump in spite of Trump’s character, and those who do so because of it. If there is one thing Trump has kept up during his presidency, it’s working his base across the country. Just a month after the 2016 election, he was back holding rallies and before the 2020 campaign had begun, he had already held more than 100. Obsessed with leading the news cycle, with constant television appearances, Trump has been the eternal candidate, an element that also helps explain the mobilization of his people. “He has that aura of celebrity around him,” says Malloy. “At the same time, he is a celebrity who says the things that many people think but don’t say, either because they don’t have a voice or they don’t dare or simply aren’t allowed.”
Both loyalty to the Republican Party and the allure of this political maverick have found their boundary lines in this election, which saw a wave of opposition frustrate those 72 million votes. After January 20, when Joe Biden officially takes office, the Republican Party will be taking to the couch for a spot of introspection. If Trump disappears from the picture, there will be room for a candidate who will probably be a more refined version of the tycoon but will still inherit his votes. Running against the Trump model will be a more moderate Republican, who will make altogether less noise.
Following the election, there has been growing speculation about what Trump will do next. Will he try to run as the Republican presidential candidate in 2024 at the age of 78? Will he create a television channel from his Florida mansion and try to influence the next election that way? Will he end up behind bars for some of the pending court cases against him in New York? No one knows but what is almost certain is that those who voted for him will vote Republican again.
English version by Heather Galloway.