From here, deep inside the Bible Belt, Donald Trump’s seemingly improbable victory over the vaunted Clinton political machine wasn’t that improbable.
“Nobody thought he could do it. But I could see he wanted it,” a jubilant Rep. Billy Long said Tuesday evening. Holding court in the back of the Ramada Oasis Convention Center, Long epitomizes Trump’s America. A large man with a larger personality — like Trump — Long’s signature rhetorical move is the quick, easy simplification of issues that tie intellectuals into hand wringing emotional knots.
“People are fed up,” Long said simply of Trump’s victory. And they — the largely white, Christian working- and middle-class masses of middle America — have been for a while.
For years resentment has simmered been just beneath the affable, country demeanor of Trump’s America. Fueled by a mixture of racial tensions and a feeling that, rightly or wrongly, promises of perpetual economic and social prosperity had been made and broken, on Tuesday night white, middle America took its anger out on the system it believes has betrayed them.
“When I was elected six years ago the front of my signs said ‘Billy Long For Congress,’ the back side said ‘Fed Up?’ Like the ‘Got Milk?’ I had people stealing my signs and taking ‘em over to Illinois. They didn’t know who I was, but they knew they wanted a ‘Fed Up’ sign in their front yard. Because people are fed up in this part of the country, and they’re ready for a change,” Long said.
If the evidence was there, nobody in the media or the establishment wings of either party seemed to be paying much attention. Trump’s rallies had become massive, cultural events for much of white America, and people would drive across multiple states to wait in lines hours long to attend. And it wasn’t just rural America or the southern states. Huge crowds greeted Trump in suburban Philadelphia and Cleveland, Miami, and Chicago.
And for all the talk about Trump’s lack of a traditional campaign apparatus, Cambridge Analytica, the same firm that conducted polls in the United Kingdom for UKIP that predicted Brexit, polled for him. The firm adjusted its polling models to account for larger turnout from white, working-class men. The results, according to a source familiar with the data, made clear that his strategy was working — and that increases in Latino voters would be offset by depressed black voting levels. All Trump had to do was energize as many white men as possible.
Chris, a truck driver from the Springfield area who wouldn’t give his last name, was matter of fact when talking about his feeling of being neglected. “Oh yeah, the people with the money are the ones that get all the attention. They need to pay a lot more attention to the every day middle class,” he said simply. And like the several hundred people gathered at the convention center Tuesday night, Chris’ view of the country is dim. “The last eight years have been terrible. Doubling the national debt, 19 trillion in debt, 43 million people on food stamps, you know, it’s a disaster what Obama has done to this country,” he said.
Now, however, it’s different for Chris, thanks to the prospect of a Trump presidency. “I’m hopeful,” he said.
Across the country in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a once industrial city where Trump supporters — largely white, older, and with fewer college degrees — turned out in big numbers, the explanation for Trump's success was equally as simple.
"I think it was blue dog Democrats, the kind who voted for Ronald Reagan turning to Trump," said Lois Kaneshiki, chair of the Blair County Republican Committee.
"Particularly in the southwestern coal mining counties, you saw union coal miners hear that message from Trump," she said, upset over Hillary Clinton's stance on coal and displeased by the Obama administration's environmental regulations that they saw as being enacted without concern for their future.
"That vote right there is what will have shifted Pennsylvania to Trump," she said. She also credited Trump with bringing out new voters, who previously shied from the political process.
In the weeks ahead of the election, "I would go into the calling center and there would be all these new volunteers I didn't know, and I know everyone, usually," Altoona Republican city councilman Dave Butterbaugh said. "I believe we were seeing a lot of new voters at the polls. He has brought in so many people outside of politics to voting."
At the polls throughout the day in Altoona, the lines were steady and long in some precincts, but not overwhelming in a way that hinted at a shift in votes. The heart of Trump support in Pennsylvania is often locally called "the T" for the shape of the state with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia cut out. However, voting for Trump seemed to have turned the Pittsburgh corner of that map Republican red.
"I think a lot of the new voters ended up voting party line for Republican after they voted for Trump, and that probably helped the rest of the ticket too," Butterbaugh said.
Josh Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general-elect, was swept into office on a message aimed squarely at voters like Chris. His campaign site brands him prominently as a “political outsider,” and he leaned heavily on the sense that government has abandoned rural and exurban America.
A kinder, better looking version of Trump, Hawley is on the leading edge of a new generation of white, populist-minded politicians appealing to people “fed up politics as usual, [and] they’re fed up with the poll-tested bromides … they can tell somebody who shoots from straight.”
And Hawley said Tuesday night’s results could be only the beginning. “It doesn’t stop now. It doesn’t stop when you get their vote. If this is really going to be a movement that changes our state and changes our country, we’ve all got to stand together and keep it moving forward.”
John Stanton in Springfield, Missouri; Dan Vergano in Altoona, Pennsylvania.