Party crashers: Why Trump-inspired Americans overthrew the GOP
Models of thought
Polk County, Ga., is one of the most pro-Trump corners of the nation. Here's what these voters say about their Republican Party coup and what they expect from their party.
Danny Forsyth, who's selling a $750 dune buggy at a flea market on Saturday, takes a moment to savor his role in one of the greatest political upsets in United States history: the bucking of the GOP establishment in Washington via the looming presidential nomination of an unapologetic Queens billionaire.
Mr. Forsyth is one of at least 20-million-and-counting party-crashers – many who never or rarely vote – who made Donald Trump, a real estate mogul and former reality TV star, the presumptive GOP nominee this week.
“It’s a movement alright,” says Forsyth of Rockmart, Ga. “It’s called a groundswell of dissatisfaction.”
That dissatisfaction fueled a stunning coup within the Republican Party, yanking power away from Washington king-makers and handing it to a trash-talking New York moderate and “America first” dealmaker who has never held public office.
Believing Trump to be a disastrous and losing choice, some party leaders have already begun peering at the 2020 presidential election. But many political scientists are now reexamining their assumptions about a Trump candidacy.
“This is a movement that has gone unnoticed and underneath the radar … and it has committed a hostile takeover of a major political party,” says Jacob Neiheisel, a political scientist at the State University of New York in Buffalo. “What we don’t know yet is if this is as far as this movement can get or whether they constitute some kind of silent majority, as they may want to claim.”
Trump has touched something deep among those, like Forsyth, who feel ideology – both conservative and liberal – has trumped the American ideal “of being the best and the baddest.”
Now, he says, “we have to pivot, before it’s too late.”
To be sure, Polk County, Ga., is one of the most pro-Trump corners of the country. While the Manhattan mogul polled at about 40 percent across Georgia in the March primary, he took a majority of GOP votes here on the Alabama border.
The county's median household income is about $10,000 below the national average. Racially, it looks much like the American average: A little over 70 percent white, 13 percent African-American and 11 percent Hispanic. It's a county of rolling hills, large manicured lawns in front of set-back ranches, and a few remaining manufacturing industries, including a large concrete plant. The town of Aragon is named after local deposits of aragonite, which is used as a soil conditioner.
Finding a Trump voter here is as easy as saying, "Hi."
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Mr. Grogan, a retired ex-Marine and Zac Brown look-alike who “does God’s work by slinging barbecue,” is set up at the Aragon flea market on a cool May morning. He says Trump is far from an ideal candidate. But for him, and many others, he’s the one who has the best chance of beating Hillary Clinton in the November election.
“We need a leader, not an ideologue,” he says. Support for Trump, he says, “is a testament to how much change the people really want.”
Adds Wayne Bailey, another Polk County resident and Trump supporter: “He’s not just going to sit around and see what’s going to happen. He’s not going to tell people just what they want to hear.”
From the vantage point of people here on the exurban fringe of Atlanta, the handwringing among the GOP party elites is both humorous and disconcerting. Attempts by party chieftains to hobble or even bypass Trump’s candidacy seem particularly galling – emblematic, to some here, of a “we know best” mindset in Washington that has contributed to down-pressure on wages, shaky national security, and trade imbalances.
Brimming with “satisfaction” over Trump’s victory, Trump voter Ronnie Stansbury takes umbrage that voters like him somehow ruined the election for the GOP. But such complaints also highlight what he sees as a central point: That political leaders only heed voters when they need them, and dismiss them as “rubes” when they don’t.
“Hostile takeover?” says Mr. Stansbury, a local mortuary worker. “I thought this was a democracy. We lecture other countries about democracy and fair elections, and here we are in the US, and they’re the ones trying to override what the people want.”
Certainly, Trump’s strategy of harnessing anger, fear, and resentment among primary voters by lashing out at Muslims and illegal immigrants may yet backfire in a general election. In other words, for Trump’s movement to expand his appeal, political history suggests that he has to build a more realistic and cogent agenda that goes beyond one-liners and shout-outs at raucous rallies.
“It’s an impressive primary victory under very specialized conditions, and it does show that there’s a different way to win,” says Peter Feaver, a former national security adviser to President George W. Bush and now a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “But you can’t say that he’s won the argument that his policy prescriptions are wiser and that his platform makes more sense in an empirical sense. What [Trump] has done is persuaded a plurality of primary voters – in the latest states, a majority – to vote for him. That’s not nothing, but it doesn’t mean that the rest of his platform has been vindicated.”
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What may be surprising to some, however, is that Trump, to many red-state conservatives, represents a more moderate and pro-Main Street outlook.
“In some ways, Trump is a liberalizer, which I think we need,” says Mr. Grogan. A rock-solid Baptist who says he’d never vote for a Democrat, he notes, “Whether it's same sex marriage or NAFTA, we have to be open to change.”
Like Trump, Republicans interviewed here in Polk County largely support same-sex marriage rights, want clear national security interests to be laid out before sending troops into battle, and want America – in part by boosting the struggling working class with better trade deals and tougher immigration enforcement – to regain its swagger and self-confidence on the global stage.
“In the '50s, '60s and '70s, everybody was very cut and dried” on social and economic issues, says Stansbury. “Heck, I was cut and dried. But I’ve changed, and I’ve come to realize that we’re all in this boat together.”
Nevertheless, large parts of the Republican establishment can’t believe that primary voters fell for Trump. Some, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, say they won’t support the presumptive nominee at all.
Such recalcitrance – even open disgust – underscores how difficult it has been for the Republican establishment to understand that Trump has tapped into a fundamental frustration (and hope) for many voters – the idea of a more idealized America, worth fighting for.
“I remember telling a local party official last year that it’s hard to believe GOP voters are so angry that they would cut off their nose to spite their face, and it turns out my friend was right: They were angry enough to cut off their nose to spite their face,” says Professor Feaver. “At the same time, a lot of those voters believe that experts like me are wrong. And we have been wrong so far, so maybe they’re right.”
To be sure, voters like Forsyth have emerged as a potent X factor. Already, voter registration efforts are setting records in many states, both on the Democratic and Republican side. Trump boosted primary turnout by more than 300 percent in many states.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” says Mr. Neiheisel at SUNY Buffalo. “If we’re looking at pure economic or political models of who should be winning the general election – things like the state of the economy or voter fatigue, for example, where it’s tough for a party to earn a third term in the White House – it’s a toss-up. But if you run over to the betting markets, they’re saying a 70-30 split, with 70 percent favoring Hillary, which means people who are putting their money on this think they know something else.”
Those odds make Trump and his supporters underdogs. But that’s a role many of these party-crashers have already embraced.
“People around here are tired of losing,” says Forsyth. “They want to win again.”