The following is an excerpt from The Great Revolt: Inside The Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics Copyright © 2018 by Salena Zito and Brad Todd. Published by Crown Forum, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
In 2016, the Democratic coalition that claimed a plurality of the national vote was concentrated in two narrow strips of coastal real estate, bounded by I-95 and I-5, and the urban centers scattered in between. [Hillary] Clinton, in defeat, claimed larger local wins than [President] Obama had in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco, and San Diego, but got no additional electoral votes for the bonus. Clinton’s national popular vote margin was produced in the country’s three largest cities alone—in states she could have won without even winning those cities at all.
“In the long run, Republicans have a demographic problem and Democrats have a geographic problem,” says [Atlantic Media's Ron] Brownstein, who believes that while Trump’s bombastic style may yield near-term victories for Republicans, it will leave the party permanently behind among the millennial generation. “I think Trump represents this enormous gamble because he comes at this moment of transition. A majority of public school students are nonwhite. Shortly after 2020 a majority of the population will be nonwhite. There’s no doubt his vision has this potential to increase margins among whites, but I just don’t see how that’s sustainable.”
The theory of the coming dominance of the coalition of the ascendant — specifically racial minorities, millennials, immigrants, and the highly educated whites who take a multiculturalist, globalist view — is one that has been adopted not just by the Democratic Party but also by major national brands. After decades of avoiding political controversy, it is now normal to see national consumer brand companies such as Delta, Starbucks, Target, or Dick’s Sporting Goods weigh in on hot-button social and political issues, and almost always on the liberal side.
When challenged at a shareholder meeting about Starbucks’ decision to corporately back a state gay marriage referendum — and the boycott by conservatives that decision sparked — the company’s CEO, Howard Schultz, challenged any shareholder who disagreed to divest his stock. “It is not an economic decision to me,” Schultz reportedly said. “We want to embrace diversity. Of all kinds.”
Press reports show that Target, the national discount chain, saw sales decline in the three quarters after a boycott petition was signed by 1.4 million people following the company’s announcement in April 2016 that transgender customers would be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice while at Target outlets.
Public pollster Morning Consult found fast backlash against companies that cut business ties with the National Rifle Association in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. One such company, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, saw its net favorability rating cut in half overall, driven by Republicans’ rating of the firm crashing from a net positive rating of 52 percent before the action, to a net negative rating of 9 percent after.
[Pollster Stan] Greenberg, [businessman Mark] Cuban, and Brownstein agree that protests like these, and the potential for more backlash from Trump voters, will not deter brand leaders from siding with the cultural Left.
“I believe corporate America is betting that Trump isn’t long for the road, that Trump is largely driven by anxiety about changing demography, and that ultimately demography wins,” says Brownstein, citing the coming clout of millennials, who have yet to hit their peak consumer-spending years. “That’s their future consumer and they think it is more important, indispensable even, to be seen as welcoming that and in no way seen as holding it back. I think they are making a clear generational bet.”
Cuban says that Trump is not a unifying enough force to build a coalition that can change economics enough to make brand leaders reverse course. “With Trump, it’s him. There is no team. There is no one else with him. That puts a time limit on his stay in office. That makes it a countdown rather than a systemic change.”
That presents a central question about Trump’s effect: Was his coalition the product of a candidacy or did he, as a candidate, benefit from a cause that succeeded in spite of him?
The Trump voters interviewed for this book clearly believe that they are part of a cause that is larger than a president, and one that began before the last election. The sense of mission to right the wrongs put upon middle-class Americans by the indifference of big business, big media, and big government is expressed independently of their trust in a man most admit is flawed.
But the fact that their private, anonymous survey responses indicate a far greater level of trust in Trump than in congressional Republicans — and the intensity of the galvanization his presidency has engendered among Democrats — has to make Republican leaders in Congress and the party structure more than a little nervous about their chances of keeping populists and conservatives pulling in the same direction, and with the same shared effort, for long.
Well into the first year of the Trump presidency, the tension between him and Republican congressional leaders was higher than one would expect from a president still in what should have been the honeymoon phase. Having shown no hesitance to deride wayward incumbent Republican lawmakers by name, with the same or greater heat as he does Democrats, Trump may be adding more anchors to his marketplace positioning as a pragmatic outsider.
Democratic strategists are making a big bet on their ability to lash Trump’s personal negatives to every congressional Republican on the midterm ballot in 2018, but if Trump succeeds in continuing to define himself separately from, and as a check on, both parties, that strategy may be perilous for Democrats.
Conversely, if Trump’s bluster and nonstop controversy demoralizes the normal-order conservatives while his occasional railing against congressional Republicans demotivates his most ardent, but irregularly voting, devotees, the GOP could find itself squeezed between the catalyzing heat of the party’s new energy source and the mathematical reality of difficult coalition politics.
The same group of voters in the swing states of the Great Lakes region swept both the Democrats in 2008 and the Republicans in 2016 to complete control of both branches of the federal government. The migration of these voters — first in the congressional elections of 2010 and 2014, and then ultimately to Trump’s side in 2016 — has fundamentally altered the American political landscape for the foreseeable future.
Democratic political experts have decided to try to outrun this revolt and form a new coalition of the self-styled enlightened that looks far different from the New Deal framework on which the party functioned for nearly a century.
The demand of these newly mobile populist voters for cultural respect, their resistance to multilateralism abroad and multiculturalism at home, their siege-like defiance of the loudest voices in American corporate and societal life, and the intensity of the Left’s reaction to them, will now animate not just our politics but our nation’s debates about commercial and societal norms.
“What happened in 2016 is only the beginning; in fact, the truth is it is not even that, because there is no turning back,” says Ed Harry, the former union boss from northeast Pennsylvania, punching his hands into the pockets of his Penn State sweatshirt as if to drive home an important point.
“And honestly, it is bigger than Trump. I’ll be watching him to make sure he does not screw this up . . . but whatever he does, as far as this goes” — he motions all around him, to no one in particular — “well, I don’t think there is any way to put what happened in 2016 back into some neat place. This is the new normal, people just don’t know that yet. Or maybe they just don’t want to know.”