Four years after Trump’s victory, scholars are still struggling to understand his appeal, especially in the many working-class communities that had previously supported Obama. Observers usually say this surprising partisan flip is due to some noxious mix of racism, authoritarianism, and diseases of social despair. Such explanations have one thing in common: They all assume these citizens must have serious psychological or character deficits.
But what if this analysis is rooted partly in scholars’ social isolation from Trump’s admirers? In an effort to bridge that divide, we spent three years living in three blue strongholds that unexpectedly voted Republican in the 2016 presidential election: Ottumwa, Iowa, a small industrial city with a meatpacking plant; Johnston, Rhode Island, a suburb of Providence; and Elliott County, Kentucky, a small rural community with a history of coal mining and tobacco farming. We soaked up the political culture of these Democratic hamlets by interviewing residents and by hanging out in bars, churches, coffee shops, diners, and town council meetings.
We found that Trump is not an oddity in these Democratic communities. Although he ran as an outsider, he resembles some of the most beloved political insiders. In these places, the political culture has long been Trumpian. Their most beloved Democratic leaders are crass, thin-skinned, and nepotistic. They promise to take care of their people by cutting deals–and corners, if necessary. In these respects–and others–they continue to practice a forgotten tradition of boss politics in the Democratic Party.
Understanding this forgotten tradition is critical both to Democrats who hope to rebuild a broad-based working-class party and to Republicans who will need to revamp their party once Trump finally fades from the scene.
The local patron–or boss–has long embodied the Democratic Party for his loyal voters in the places we studied. Elliott County’s judge/executive (an elective executive position) David Blair was the Democratic machine for decades. He remains popular there, even after being forced out of office in 2011 due to corruption charges. Mayor Joe Polisena, meanwhile, controls Johnston’s powerful Democratic machine. In Ottumwa the boss tradition faded years ago when city reformers pushed Jerry Parker out of the mayor’s office. Yet it lives on in the fond memories of the city’s old-timers. To the dismay of many in Ottumwa’s small professional class–whom Parker calls the “Indian Hill people” (after the local community college)–they continue to elect him to the office of county supervisor.
The boss and his supporters are held together by a paternalistic social contract, one that exchanges promises of protection and provision in return for respect and loyalty. It’s a model of politics that grows up from the patriarchal, working-class family. Boss rule also includes a degree of tolerance for corruption. “Getting the job done” in the service of loyal supporters is what matters, which means that scrupulousness about the law or maintaining tidy distinctions between public and private boundaries can interfere with good governance.
In these communities, the “Democratic” label does not even suggest a commitment to progressive views on race, gender, guns, or immigration. On many such issues, in fact, the Democrats we spoke with are moderate, some even staunchly conservative. Rather to be a Democrat long meant that one was part of a paternalistic social contract, one brought to life through an informal network of alliances.
For almost three decades, for example, David Blair was Elliott County’s judge/executive until he was forced out of office by the federal government on corruption charges. Blair was indicted for currying favor with voters by providing them public gravel for the upkeep of private backroads on their farms. But he remains popular. A number of county residents we spoke to lauded him for personally helping constituents out, including hiring them when they needed jobs and using his own company’s equipment to clear snow.
He first became a local patron decades ago through his connection to the carpenter’s union, which allowed him to become a critical gatekeeper for jobs. “All the boys came to me who wanted in the carpenters’ union,” he told us. “They were just farm boys. I’d take them up there [to union headquarters] and get them a union card, and send them to Cincinnati to work. They could earn good money up there then.” Later Blair continued this strategy when he bought his way into a pipefitters’ union. And when Blair eventually acquired a coal business, his ability to offer jobs to loyal supporters expanded once again.
Like Blair and machine politicians everywhere, Polisena is inundated by a constant stream of favor seekers. Unlike boss rule in Johnston’s old days, Polisena says he tries to help his constituents, so long as they don’t ask him to break the law, which they sometimes do. “People come in here. They’ll ask for something off the wall. I tell them . . . . ‘I can’t do that [often because it’s illegal], but I can do this,” the mayor told us.
In exchange, Johnston’s Polisena–much like Blair in Elliott County–demands loyalty. “If you’re not a Democrat in Johnston, you would never get anything, you wouldn’t even get your street swept,” one local told us. True or not, that’s what Johnstonians believe. For this reason, Johnstonians often only expressed reservations about the mayor’s rule “off the record.” One accounted for their reluctance by saying,“You know how this town is.”
Trump fashions himself more an old-style Democratic boss in the mold of a Blair or Polisena than a modern Republican. Like these men, Trump offers his supporters not a grand ideological vision, but rather a promise to take care of them by cutting deals–and corners if need be.
These boss-centered Democratic communities and the Trump White House have also indulged in nepotism. Many are appalled that Trump was set to appoint his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, who are neither public health experts nor economists, to the Council to Reopen America. But in the towns we visited, extended family ties are often the basis of common enterprises, including politics. In Johnston a handful of family cliques control town politics. Thus, it seemed normal to people we talked to that Trump’s relatives would play important roles in his administration. As one Johnstonian told us, “What do you want his kids to do?” “They’re backing their father.”
The Democratic machine in Johnston has been stitched together by extended ties that link families across generations, including the Lombardis, the Uccis, and the Delfinos. Mayor Polisena’s son–Joe Polisena, Jr.–was just recently elected to the town council. This continuity of families in politics builds trust and familiarity among local supporters.
It took us longer to tune in to Elliott’s political nepotism, since the locals at first seemed disapproving of the practice. We spent over a month in 2018 listening to citizens criticize judge/ executive Carl Fannin for hiring his son as his deputy. Yet it eventually became clear that the offense was not the nepotism itself so much as the personality of this particular son. It turned out that every judge for the past half-century had hired his oldest son as his deputy with few complaints.
In Elliott County even lower-level public officials are expected to bring their families on board. After assuming office, county clerk Shelia Blevins hired her sister, Jeannie Moore, as a deputy clerk without having advertised the job. She explained, “The former clerk left office [in a corruption scandal], and all of her employees left with her, and so I started fresh. Because I was learning and I just needed somebody that I knew for sure I could depend on, [my sister] was there with me and had my back.”
Corruption, more generally, has been a feature of Democratic boss politics, including the cases we studied. It grows out of a social contract between the boss and his supporters that rests on personalism and reciprocity rather than meritocracy and ideology.
Therefore, voters are often forgiving of corruption. When Ottumwa’s Jerry Parker was arrested for running a gambling operation from his home, he refused to step down from public office. “‘So [what?]–I gambled,’” he told us, “‘I have a bigger jury out there than the twelve people trying me here. I’ll let them try me at the next election.’ And I won bigger at that election [after the arrest] than any other.” Parker believes he won because of his prior work on behalf of the town’s working-class, particularly his efforts to control annual flooding that plagued Ottumwa’s southside neighborhoods. “They never forgot that.”
In Elliott, many locals were dismayed when Blair reached a federal plea deal for paving private roads and driveways with public gravel. Some were even bewildered by the corruption charges. “If the county isn’t helping you with your gravel and your road, what’s it doing?” one asked rhetorically. Another complained: “At least when he was in, if you needed a load of gravel you could get one.”
Such examples do not seem idiosyncratic. Other studies of working-class Democratic communities that embraced Trump also identified a legacy of political corruption. In Youngstown, Ohio, for example, U.S. Representative Jim Traficant is still adored by many of the city’s white working-class citizens even after he was expelled from Congress convicted on ten felony counts, including racketeering. According to sociologist Justin Gest, locals in Youngstown are so forgiving because Traficant is regarded as a “championed martyr who has the audacity to stand up for the working man.” As one of his admirers told Gest: “Jim Traficant did a lot for this Valley . . . [The crimes he was accused of were] just bartering. He went to jail for it, but he cared a lot about the working man–the little man, the small businessman, that’s what built this valley.” Similarly, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, for instance, political corruption has long been a norm. As one state investigator recently described the region, “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel in Pennsylvania. You just turn over a rock. You are guaranteed to find something.”
Democratic bosses and their supporters have also long been shaped by honor culture. Honor cultures are common around the world and in most working-class places in the United States. They have been called “hillbilly justice” in Appalachia, “the code of the street” in poor Black neighborhoods, and “toxic masculinity” by feminists. What they all share is an understanding that one must never ignore a slight. One must defend one’s reputation–or honor–by always responding to insults. A failure to respond is always interpreted as weakness, never magnanimity.
Johnston’s mayor, Joe Polisena, is a devotee of this honor culture. During frequent town council meetings Polisena is regularly greeted by a small group of locals who criticize his rule. Polisena doesn’t follow Michelle Obama’s advice by going “high” when they go “low.” Instead, he calls critics “malcontents,” even “douchebags.”
Thanks to Johnston’s honor culture, Polisena believes that he has no choice. “You can’t be nice when people are trying to take shots at you,” he told us. Why not, we asked. “It shows your weakness,” he replied. “And then they’ll just roll over you.”
Stephen Ucci, Johnston’s representative in the Rhode Island state house, told us that he also meets constituents he “can’t back down from” without losing their “respect.” One Sunday morning at Brewed Awakenings, Johnston’s local coffee klatch, Ucci recalled that he was approached by an angry constituent. “So, I tell him, ‘Get outside!’ I get in the parking lot and I just lay into him.” “I think that’s what people respect in this town,” Ucci added.
Ottumwa, at first blush, seems far removed from the Italian-America suburb of Johnston. It’s a midwestern, industrial town that is miles from a major city. But there, too, honor culture shapes political life. During the 2016 Democratic primaries a fight nearly broke out between pro-Clinton Jerry Parker, a county supervisor and former mayor, and Alex Stroda, a Sanders’ precinct captain. “Forty years ago, I would have punched him, but I’m older [now],” Parker told us. “Solving problems with violence,” Stroda added, “is sort of ingrained in the nature of Ottumwa. . . . There’s no ignoring an insult.”
Like all communities governed by an honor culture, citizens in Ottumwa suffer consequences when they let an insult go. A Trump enthusiast named Brenda (not her real name) worked for years in a corn-processing plant. The working-class technicians loved tormenting the new engineers, often young men just out of college. Everytime one newbie made a mistake, Brenda recalled, an older technician barked: “You’re a dumb fuck, say it!”
Brenda waited for the retaliation required by an honor culture. “I was thinking, ‘Man, stand up for yourself, don’t let him do that to you. . . . Put that guy in his place right away.’” When he didn’t fight back, Brenda thought, “that’s the end of you, bud.” And it was. The young man quit. His reputation–or honor–could not be salvaged.
The culture of honor was so pervasive in Ottumwa that we stumbled upon it unexpectedly at times. As we sipped coffee in the lobby of our hotel one morning, a handful of men from a local union gathered in a noisy dispute over changing workplace norms. When the supervisor informed his employee that he could lose his job for bullying a coworker, he responded in disbelief: “I was just fucking with him.” To which the supervisor responded sympathetically: “It is not called fucking with people anymore. It’s called harassment. . . . It’s just the way it is, and it sucks.”
In Elliott County, like Appalachia generally, honor culture is powerful too, though it lacks some of the bluster commonly found outside of the American South. Isolated in the Kentucky hills, local residents have long been required to fend for themselves with little protection from the police. That means that they are familiar with the individuals and families that one should be careful “not to cross.” After a family with a reputation for toughness was robbed, one of our informants told us with a chuckle: “That was a mistake!” The victims figured out who the thieves were and went to retrieve their things–at gunpoint.
The journalists who parachuted into Trump country in the wake of the 2016 election kept stumbling over honor cultures in these working-class hamlets without noticing them. Salena Zito and Brad Todd divided the citizens they interviewed into seven different archetypes even though many of these ostensibly varied Trump voters shared an appreciation for the president’s toughness. The voters they spoke with said Trump had “balls,” “didn’t back down” or “take crap,” “meant business,” possessed a “fighting spirit,” “came from a place of strength,” and didn’t apologize.
Citizens in the communities we studied routinely praised Trump in similar ways. As one typical Trump Democrat told us over eggs and coffee one morning: “I hate to say it but Bush and Obama were pushovers. With Trump, he’s not a pushover. You’re going to deal hard with him.”
Our softer, ethnographic research is supported by harder survey data. The 2016 American National Election Survey found that new Trump voters—those who either did not vote or voted for Obama in 2012—were especially likely to admire Trump’s tough persona. These voters were particularly likely to say that the United States needs a “strong leader.”
Critics who reduce this desire for “strong” men to an authoritarian personality miss the cultural context in which such desires are embedded. Trump didn’t so much widen a split in the American psyche: one democratic, the other proto-facist. Rather he exploited a cultural divide that pits the “honor” culture of the working class against the “dignity” culture of the professional class. That divide helps us understand why Democrats in the leafy college town where we live abhor Trump, while many in the working-class towns we studied adore him. In the former, Trump’s thin skin and relentless counterpunching is seen as a sign of a disordered mind, while in the latter those qualities are simply normal.
Trump’s respect for these Democrats’ culture of honor is arguably what distinguishes him most from other modern presidents. As Bob Woodward recounts in his book Fear, Trump once told a personal friend: “Real power is fear. It’s all about strength. Never show weakness. You’ve always got to be strong. Don’t be bullied. There is no choice.” Thus, the president seemed “more like the working person,” as one Trump Democrat put it. Another echoed this: Trump, he said, is “not a politician. He’s a regular guy. He’s a rich regular person.”
This sense of social proximity matters. As political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have argued, social identities shape voting behavior more than policy preferences or ideology. Voters assess whether candidates can speak their language. Of course, it sometimes happens that overlapping social ties pull them in different partisan directions. In the 2016 election, working-class Democrats had to either choose a candidate who shared their partisan identity or one who spoke their language. Many opted for the latter.
To see the Democratic Party in these places, therefore, is to catch glimpses of a forgotten tradition of machine boss rule in the Democratic Party. The party’s traditions have not just been shaped by establishment figures like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama–or by democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It has also been the party of men like Richard Daley, Jim Traficant, and Rod Blagojevich — and less nationally prominent figures like Joe Polisena, Jerry Parker, and David Blair.
We tend to forget about this tradition because it has been extinguished from major cities and college towns long ago. But this boss tradition enjoyed a longer life–and still fights for its survival–in small Democratic communities where bossism faced fewer foes.
Trump fits more comfortably in this Democratic tradition than do the many former Republican businesspeople or “bosses” who sought the presidency, such as Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, or Mitt Romney. Trump’s persona is one that resembles not the bosses of corporate America but rather the local political bosses (and mob bosses) that once ruled and influenced Democratic machines. Like them he is crass, thin-skinned, nepotistic, and promises to be the patron–or “don”–of his loyal supporters.
Trump also offered up this older, boss-centered vision of politics at a time when many of our subjects were wondering whether the national party was still their patron. Thus, when Trump promised to take care of his people, many understood that he was referring to their community–and perhaps to members of the white working-class more generally. As political scientist Ashley Jardina found, “Trump capitalized on white identity because many white voters saw him as restoring and protecting their group’s power and resources.” Trump did so at a time when the power of local Democratic patrons was weakening and at a moment when many white, working-class communities were facing existential economic and social threats.
But if Trump fits comfortably in this boss tradition, it’s also not one that imports well into the national orbit. Honor culture, for example, functions much better in small communities marked by familiarity. Not only do locals know who “not to mess with,” thick social ties can help defuse conflicts.
When that same culture of honor was exported into more impersonal settings by Trump disputes were more likely to end in violence. At his campaign rallies, for example, Trump often encouraged his supporters to fight those who tried to disrupt them. Typical was a speech Trump gave in Iowa: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would ya? Seriously.” In impersonal contexts like this one, political violence escalates much faster than in intimate settings like Johnston, Ottumwa, or Elliott County.
Similarly, governance by credentialed technocrats—rather than family members—is important to good national government, given the complexity of problems in its orbit. It is less vital in small towns and counties where governance by trusted community members with extensive local knowledge is often adequate to address local challenges. Elliott County’s Michelle Oney is a good example of this tendency. From humble beginnings, Oney became one of the county’s most impressive magistrates thanks to her intelligence and work ethic. Compared to interlopers with college degrees who pass through the county’s school district on their way up the professional ladder, locals like Oney are more valuable public servants.
It is also difficult to import the personal, transactional politics practiced by local bosses into national office. Often the best Trump has been able to do is a poor imitation, like emblazoning his name on stimulus payments as if he were personally cutting checks.
We should also resist the temptation to read Trump’s personal deplorableness into his admirers or this forgotten Democratic tradition. Even the most Trumpian politicians we profiled in our book are far better public servants than our president. Joe Polisena, for example, cares deeply for the town of Johnston and has, in many ways, been an excellent mayor. Trump is only a hollow, cartoonish version of men like Polisena.
Whether Trump’s Democrats will discern the difference between admirable political bosses like Polisena and posers like Trump in the upcoming election, is still anyone’s guess. One thing is more certain: If liberals hope to pull these working-class whites back into the Democratic fold, it would help if they don’t reduce enthusiasm for Trump to merely racist or authoritarian impulses. Doing so promises to deepen the diploma divide, one that increasingly separates blue communities like San Francisco and Wellesley from places like Ottumwa, Elliott, and Johnston.
Perhaps Biden would win the election in November without appealing to Trump’s Democrats simply by increasing turnout among minorities and suburban voters. Polling data suggests Biden might be well on his way to doing so. But even if that turns out to be true, the Democratic Party still needs to ask itself a more existential question: What kind of party does it want to become? Does it want to try to rebuild a broad-based working-class party? If so, it needs to better understand the lure of boss politics that once helped to anchor the New Deal coalition.
The GOP, meanwhile, has an opportunity to turn these Democrat Trump loyalists into reliable Republicans. If they are successful, Republicans must somehow make room for a constituency with strong misgivings about free trade. New Republican voters in 2016–those who either did not vote or supported Obama–were especially like to favor protectionist policies. More generally, Republicans must make peace with the large social welfare state Democrats have made, especially Obamacare. Republicans’ biggest challenge, though, may be more rhetorical than substantive. The party must eventually distance itself from a loathsome president, while also courting a constituency that idolizes him.
This essay is an excerpt from Trump’s Democrats, by Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields