What Happened To The Trump ‘Base?’
If you really and truly want to understand what Trump is and always has been all about, consider this: One of Trump’s closest political advisers was Dick Morris, whose father had been Trump’s real-estate lawyer and was also a cousin of Roy Cohn, who had been Trump’s attorney until he came down with AIDS.
Should you judge someone by the company he keeps? How else can you judge them? Ask yourself what images come to mind when you think about Dick Morris and Roy Cohn. And let’s not forget Michael Cohen — that’s Cohn with an ‘e.’
I have just finished reading Michael Bender’s new book, “Frankly, We Did Win This Election,” which is where I learned about the connection between Morris, Cohn and Trump. The book is filled with all kinds of brief asides about the sleaze and corruption which surrounds Trump. But the biggest sleaze of all is what Bender doesn’t discuss or even mention, namely, the sleaze about the so-called existence and importance of the Trump ‘base.’
Trump’s 2016 campaign was unique in many ways, but perhaps it’s most innovative feature was the development of a brand — Make America Great Again — which allowed Trump to make a buck off of everyone who bought a MAGA cap or MAGA t-shirt or MAGA banner at one of his rallies, or purchased the same kind of crap online.
You can’t copyright your name if you are a politician and engage in political campaigns because you operate in the public domain. But you can copyright words which if you use them as a campaign logo, allows you to sell any type of product with that logo, as well as preventing anyone else from doing the same. Trump’s MAGA brand is still being sold online, although the brand has obviously become somewhat tattered after so many MAGA flags were being carried up the steps of the Capitol on January 6th.
Remember that if Trump was a real estate developer, he also used his real estate activities to become the builder of the Trump brand — Trump clothing, Trump steaks, Trump golf courses, Trump Air. I’m surprised he didn’t try to name the World Football League after himself.
If Trump had just used MAGA as a quick and easy way to make a few bucks, nobody would have complained, and nobody would have noticed it at all. But from the beginning of the 2016 campaign, Trump began promoting the idea that MAGA was not just a slogan, it was also a ‘movement’ which was growing by leaps and bounds every day. And as Trump began crisscrossing across the country astonishing everyone, particularly the liberal media, by drawing large and extremely enthusiastic crowds, the idea that MAGA was something more than a way to cover some of the campaign’s cost began to take off.
Very early on in the campaign, the liberal media christened Trump’s supporters as his ‘base.’ The base would do whatever Trump wanted them to do. They would always be loyal, they would follow and support him no matter what he said, they didn’t care of everything he said was a lie, and most of all, they agreed with him about the ‘treason’ of the Deep State, the mainstream media being the ‘enemy of the people,’ and the necessity to get rid of everyone who was born outside the United States and if they were born here, get rid of them anyway if they weren’t White.
The Republicans have been playing the race card since Goldwater called himself a supporters of ‘states rights’ in 1964. They began playing it up with a vengeance with the Willie Horton ads in 1988. But no GOP Presidential candidate ever weighed in so heavily and obviously as Trump, a messaging which started with his endless fixation on the ‘birther’ issue even before he ever entered a Presidential race. And when Obama produced a birth certificate, Trump doubled down on the birther nonsense and applied it to Ted Cruz.
The racist rhetoric went hand-in-hand with a casual acceptance of far-White extremism and Trump’s seeming inability to disassociate himself from groups like the Proud Boys, the Three-Percenters and even the Ku Klux Klan. Whenever he was asked by staff to put some distance between himself and the extreme right-wing, he would always back away from such an effort because, as he said, it might offend his ‘base.’
In fact, the existence and strength of the Trump ‘base’ not only was the basic explanation about how Trump talked both before, during and after the 2016 campaign, but it remains to this day a frequent reason why Trump retains so much presence within the GOP, at least according to the liberal media and press. The enthusiasm and commitment of the Trump ‘base’ was also cited as the reason he would eke out another electoral victory in 2020, even though the pre-election polls showed him to be consistently lagging behind.
There is only one problem with this narrative about the importance and decisive impact of what some call MAGA and others call the Trump ‘base.’ And the problem is that when I look at how the voting came out both in 2016 and 2020, I don’t find anything which convinces me that the argument about how Trump built a new national ‘movement’ that will continue to play a critical role in the shape and direction of the GOP has any solid basis in facts. Let’s look at the numbers.
In 2016, Trump won the election because he flipped what were usually three dependable blue states: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Michigan had been blue in every national election since 1976. This was also the case with Pennsylvania. Wisconsin had even escaped the schneid in 1976 and had been blue back to 1968.
If Hillary had held these three states the way everyone assumed she would hold them in 2016, she would have ended up in the Oval Office, and not as a spouse of her husband this time around. These three states were not the only states that had voted blue but then turned red in 2016. But they were the most reliably-blue states coming into the 2016 race.
Trump held 47 mass rallies in these three states during the 2015–2016 campaign. If you are willing to assume that some attendees would drive 100 miles each way to come to a Trump rally, the number of rallies in those three states would top more than 60 events.
It was the outpouring of Trump supporters in these states, mostly decked out in MAGA hats and hoisting MAGA banners, which became the picture-postcard to explain the appearance of a unique Trump ‘base.’ Many of the media people who covered these events hadn’t even been born the last time that states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin voted red. And since the rallies tended to be held away from the large metro areas and were easily reachable from surrounding rural zones, the idea that Trump’s ‘base’ was this White, largely forgotten rural and small-town population not only caught on, but was how Trump described these rally-goers as well.
The total 2016 votes cast in those three states was 13,940,912. Of that total, Trump pulled 6,655,560 votes, or 47.7% of all votes cast. Hillary received 6,577,816 votes, or 47.2% of the three-state, total votes. Trump became the 45th President by one-half of one percent of the votes cast in three states. Let’s dig down a little further.
In pre-election polls covering these three states, Hillary stayed in the lead but the gap was shrinking, and in the last week before the election she was ahead by 3–4 points. Together, Hillary and Trump were registering 90% of the vote, and in two-person polls the ‘undecided’ vote was around 10%, which is why nobody was willing to call the race in the final days.
However, in the few state-level polls which included Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein from the Greens, she was garnering around 1% of the vote and Johnson was getting between 5% and 7%.
What happened on November 8, 2016? I have already given you the totals for Clinton and Trump. Stein received exactly what the pre-election polls said she would receive — 1% of the total vote.
Ready? In Michigan, Johnson received 3.6%, in Pennsylvania he pulled 2.4% and in Wisconsin his total was 3.6%. Deduct those numbers from Johnson’s pre-election polls and you have the reason that Trump won all three states. Obviously, roughly half the voters who were going to vote the Libertarian line realized that rather than just doing a ‘protest’ vote, that they could elect someone who maybe wasn’t one of their people, but compared to Hillary was certainly a better choice.
It should also be noted that Trump’s vote total in those all-important states was 451,904 votes, or 7% higher than what Romney received in 2012. Clinton’s 2016 total was 598,012 or 8% less than Obama’s numbers in 2012. Bottom line: the 2016 election numbers do not support the narrative about some all-of-a-sudden explosion of a so-called populist movement that came out of the back woods and small towns to vote for Trump.
Now let’s take a look at Pennsylvania, another state that was and is on the Trump ‘steal’ list. In 2016, Trump beat Clinton by 44,292 votes. Because Johnson and Stein between them tallied just short of 200,000, Trump’s winning total was 48.18% of the statewide vote.
In 2020, Biden received 3,458,229 votes to 3,377,674 for Trump and won the state by almost twice as many votes (80,555) as what Trump received to beat Clinton in 2016. Biden’s total was also 50.01% of all statewide votes; Trump’s percentage in 2020 was almost exactly what he registered in 2016.
Biden’s raw vote total for Pennsylvania in 2020 represented an increase of 18% over Clinton’s 2016 total; Trump’s raw total in 2020 was 13% higher than the raw votes he received in 2016. The 2020 difference for Pennsylvania in the increase for Biden over Trump was almost exactly the difference between the national vote totals for Biden versus Trump.
When we drill down to the county level, we see an even more interesting trend which does not appear to have caught the attention of the mainstream media or press. In 2016, Trump won 54 counties, Clinton won 11. In 2020, Biden added one more county and ended up the winner in 12 county returns.
But in many of the rural counties that went for Trump in 2016 and again in 2020, the percentage of his victory over Biden was more or less the same than what it had been in 2016. So, for example, in Westmoreland County, Trump received 63.5% of the vote in 2016, in 2020 he got 63.6%. In Clearfield County, he went from 72.2% to 74.1%
On the other hand, in the counties where Clinton had gotten a majority of the votes in 2016, Biden’s increase was substantially greater than what Trump did in the reliably-red parts of the state. Clinton won Chester County with 51% of the vote in 2016; Biden carried Chester County by almost 60% of the vote. Clinton and Biden each carried 11 counties in Pennsylvania, but Clinton only carried 6 counties with more than 50% of the vote. Biden carried 10 of 11 counties with a majority of all votes.
If there is something called a Trump ‘base,’ statistically speaking, it is not large enough to have been a factor in either Presidential election where Trump has been on the top of the GOP line. Trump won in 2016 because Clinton was unable to maintain Obama’s 2012 voting numbers in critical, battleground states. In 2020, while Trump increased his total vote by 11 million votes, the Democratic national total increased by more than 15 million votes.
How many of the additional 79 electoral votes that Biden grabbed in 2020 reflected the unique voting environment created by the Covid-19 Pandemic, in particular voting by mail rather than standing in line either before or on election day? One of the interesting issues which is mentioned not only in Bender’s book, but also in the book b y Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, I Alone Can Fix It, Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, is that many of Trump’s campaign advisers believed that by attacking mail-in ballots as fraud, that Trump was actually suppressing the Republican vote!
Although the percentage of eligible voters who voted in 2020 (66.7 %) was the highest since 1900, we do not have any hard data on how many of these votes represented in-person voting versus voting by mail. But a very detailed analysis of voting behavior conducted by the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, appears to indicate that while Democratic mail ballots exceeded GOP mail ballots by a 2–1 margin, many of the reliably-red states — Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Idaho, Montana — registered mail-in ballots upwards of 40% of all recorded votes. Even states like West Virginia, Kentucky and North Dakota counted more than 30% of all votes coming in by mail.
How many of these Republican voters who, in many instances, were voting for the first time elected to exercise their franchise because they were members of the MAGA ‘base?’ We don’t know. But it is simply not possible to believe that the increase in votes recorded by both parties can be explained without factoring in the absentee voting behavior due to Covid-19.
And yet, despite the fact that Trump just squeaked by in 2016, he not only refused to look beyond the desires of his so-called base in planning the 2020 campaign, but if anything, he doubled down and tried to energize his ‘base’ by becoming even more extreme. This was particularly a function of the way in which he described and/or attacked anyone from either political party who voiced disagreements with him. His critics were ‘stupid,’ ‘blind,’ ‘dumb,’ or worse. They were given childish, insulting nicknames, their views and their statements were invariably misstated or completely invented out of thin air.
Worst of all was the racism which, as regards Black Americans, was couched in somewhat less obvious terms after the murder of George Floyd, but was vented full blast at other people of color, particularly Asians, with the spread of Covid-19. Calling the pandemic the ‘Chinese flu,’ wasn’t bad enough. As things went from bad to worse in terms of how the federal government responded to the crisis, Trump began referring to the pandemic as the ‘Kung flu.’
How often did Trump pull out all the rhetorical stops to appeal to his ‘base?’ He held over 50 large rallies between his inauguration and the 2018 campaign, an average of one rally every other week. Over the 75 weeks covering the 2020 campaign, he held 70 rallies, an average of almost one every week. The rallies were always blasted out over social media as well.
Even as his 2020 pre-election poll numbers continued to drift downward instead of moving up in the way they had changed in 2016, Trump refused every suggestion from his campaign managers to alter the tone or the content of his increasingly harsh and extreme rhetoric that he employed on the campaign trail. His defense of this style, according to the Waldman and the Leonnig-Rucker accounts, was his belief that not only was his ‘base’ more energized than it had ever been, but that the number of people showing up at his rallies was ‘proof’ that his ‘base’ was growing by leaps and bounds, and far and wide.
What may have given Trump more impetus for defining his entire campaign messaging around appeals to his ‘base,’ was the degree to which his critics in the media often appeared to be buying his pitch about the strength and reach of the MAGA ‘movement’ as well. Just three days before the 2020 election, Paul Krugman summed it up this way: “This strategy may or may not work; this year it probably won’t. But either way, it will poison America’s political life for many years to come.”
What’s ‘poison’ to Krugman, however, is music to Trump’s ears. After all, the whole point of his political persona was that he was ‘outside’ the mainstream of both parties and it was this injection of a hateful and racist rhetoric into the political narrative which excited and energized his ‘base.’
We have to assume that the 30,000 people who showed up in D.C. for the January 6th rally represented far and away the most fervent, dedicated and devoted members of Trump’s ‘base.’ We don’t know where they all came from, but if the home addresses of the men and women who were indicted for rioting in and around the Capitol is at all representative of the geographic distribution of the entire bunch, only 4 of the more than 300 charged to date live in the states that are adjacent to D.C.
If Trump’s ‘base’ was so large and getting bigger all the time, how come he couldn’t pull 30,000 people just from southern Virginia or western Maryland alone? How come most of the rioters had to travel at least one thousand miles each way to come to D.C. for the big event? And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if many of the 30,000 who showed up to ‘stop the steal’ or ‘make America great again’ or whatever motivated them to gather in the Ellipse and cheer Rudy Giuliani’s call for ‘armed combat’ were the same people who showed up again and again at Trump rallies all over the United States.
I had a little inkling of this steadfast, repetitive appearance of the same people at one Trump rally after another when a friend of mine told me that he noticed many of the same people showing up at a Trump rally in Worcester, MA and then appearing at another Trump rally in New Hampshire several weeks later on. But Michael Bender discovered a whole battalion of MAGA-ites who made a point of sitting up front at multiple rallies and even developed an unofficial club called the ‘Front Row Joes.’ Remember the Deadheads who followed the Grateful Dead around beginning in 1969 and even had a mailing list with more than 40,000 names?
Every time one of Trump’s people told him that he was falling further and further behind Biden during the 2020 campaign, according to Leonnig and Rucker’s book, Trump would dismiss the claim by bragging that the crowd at his most recent rally was so large that they couldn’t even find room for people standing outside the gates. Trump wasn’t just fixated on the size and boisterousness of his rally crowds; it became a powerful narcotic and a fix.
Except there was only one little problem. The fact that Trump drew large crowds, many of whom bought MAGA hats and MAGA flags which helped Trump offset the costs of his campaign and stuff some dough into his own pockets, didn’t mean that these folks all represented some kind of loyal ‘base’ whose expectations and desires were used by Trump to define and justify his entire approach to the 2020 campaign.
So, who belongs to the Trump ‘base?’ Or better said, where do we find Americans who will go along with Trump’s racist and belligerent rhetoric no matter how bad it is? And after we answer that question, we also need to try and figure out how many people are out there who will not compromise with anything less than total complete devotion to the MAGA line?
An answer to the first question has been provided by bits and pieces of research published since 2016. For example, the Cook Report stated that Trump would be re-elected if he could turn out more working-class, White voters who, according to Cook, accounted for more than 2 million non-voting residents in Pennsylvania alone.
The problem, however, is that the term ‘working class’ means something much different today than when it first started to be seen as a critical voting bloc because so many union members refused to follow their leadership and voted for Reagan in 1980. What seems to be a more nuanced definition of ‘working-class’ voters combines income with educational levels, i.e., generally speaking, Whites who earn less than $150,000 a year and did not go to college tend to vote GOP.
But to move from the working class to the MAGA class requires an even greater degree of nuanced data in order to understand the range and strength of MAGA beliefs. We have to assume that the men and women who were indicted after the January 6th riot were the most dedicated and motivated members of the Trump ‘base.’ And out turns out that most of those facing charges happen to live not in smaller towns and decaying industrial locations that have been ‘forgotten’ or ‘left behind.’ To the contrary, most of the rioters happen to live in — ready? — counties which gave a majority of their 2020 votes to Kammie and Joe. Huh?
The states which contributed the largest numbers of individuals to the miscreants charged with various crimes committed on January 6th were New York, California, Pennsylvania and Texas, three of those four states voted blue. And in those four states, along with the other locations known for the first 375 of what is now 550 arrests, two-thirds lived in counties in which at least 50% of the residents in those counties did not vote for Trump but did vote the blue line on their ballots.
What this data appears to indicate is that White resentment against the gradual growth of non-White Americans, which is supposed to result in a country which is no longer majority White by 2035, is the anger and emotions that Trump tapped before, during and after the 2016 campaign. But that’s not the entire story — it’s the nuances which count.
I lived and went to high school in New York City from 1948 to 1962. Some of my classmates lived in the borough (county) of Queens and I would often take the subway to their homes where we would hang out together for the afternoon or sometimes overnight. To go from Manhattan to Queens you take either the E or the F train. Between 1958 and 1962 I must have taken this train at least 50 times.
What I remember very clearly in those years was that my fellow-passengers on the E and F trains were all-White. Many were Jewish like me who were going to neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, Kew Gardens, Jamaica and Flushing which were bastions of the Jewish middle class in those years. When I got off the E train at Union Turnpike or Parsons Avenue, I only saw Whites.
The racial homogeneity of Queens began to change slightly in the 1970’s, as a few Blacks were able to move out of inner-city neighborhoods in Brooklyn and found a few affordable houses in Jamaica. By the 1980’s, Queens started to become the location for other ethnic groups whose roots lay outside of western Europe, particularly China and the Far East.
Several years ago I happened to take the E train from Manhattan out to Queens and on that occasion I was the only White person in my subway car. As of 2010, when Queens had a total population of 2.3 million, more than 800,000 were of Asian descent and at least another 250,000 residents were from the Asian sub-continent, largely from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The neighborhood known as Astoria, which had been overwhelmingly Greek-American with a large number of Jews (my grandparents initially settle in Astoria after arriving here in 1923) was now predominantly Arab-based, with large groups from Morocco, Syria, Egypt and Lebanese.
Here is a map with a partial listing of languages currently spoken in Queens:
This map only covers a part of Queens from Maspeth, Sunnyside, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. If I were to include the rest of Queens County, the map would be twice as large and contain at least twice as many languages currently spoken in apartments, stores and homes.
In this respect, Queens County is much more diverse than most other urban locations, largely because it is located adjacent to JFK Airport, which is a gateway for overseas populations coming to the United States. But while Queens may hold many more distinct language and cultural groups, cities like Los Angeles have even higher percentages of residents who were born somewhere else.
Most Americans who were residing in what had been mostly White, European-bred neighborhoods had little, if any problems accepting the cultural changes that occurred when new, non-Anglo immigrants began to appear. In fact, many of the older ‘ethnic’ neighborhoods were reborn with new shopping streets and rehabbed housing as more recently-arrived immigrants moved in.
But in any human community, there are always people who don’t want things to change, who don’t like ‘strangers,’ who don’t believe that the new is at least as good as the old. Want to see this attitude expressed in popular culture? Try Clint Eastwood’s ‘Gran Torino’ movie released in 2008.
After you watch Gran Torino, take a look at Donald Trump’s childhood home. It’s a neighborhood in Queens known as Jamaica Estates. There are no estates in Jamaica Estates. There are a bunch of nice, middle-class houses and if you walk 3 blocks from the Trump house, you can get on the F Train and ride into New York City and go to work.
Jamaica Estates is exactly the kind of neighborhood that has become a magnet for new immigrants who come to the United States, work a few years in some cousin’s deli or dry-cleaning store, save up enough money and embark on the American dream. Are there people like the guy played by Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino who didn’t want these newcomers coming around?
Trump’s a Queens guy. His most ardent supporters and close friends describe him that way now. This is why he knows exactly what to say and how to say it to audiences that follow him around the country and feel nothing but admiration for a politician who knows how to talk to ‘them.’
There’s only one little problem with this fanciful and romantic version of Trump’s ability to ‘connect’ to his ‘base.’ It won the first time out because Hillary completely screwed up her campaign. The turnout of this vast ‘base’ didn’t get him him re-elected even with a doubling in 2020 of what he spent to get out the vote.
In the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump spent $340 million to pull out 63 million votes, or $5.39 per vote. He pushed his total to just slightly more than 74 million votes in 2020, but that cost him $808 million, or $10.91 per vote. His national total went up by 17% in the 2020 race, but his per-vote cost more than doubled from 2016.
Biden’s campaign spent more per-vote money than Trump. His total disbursements were just over 1 billion dollars, which works out to $13.21 per vote. But Biden also raised more than $150 million from 500,000 donors who gave between $299 and $499 to his campaign, Trump picked up $110 million from 350,000 small-end individual donations to his campaign.
The point is that the whole notion of Trump leading a new ‘movement’ of average people who felt ‘left behind’ or somehow ‘screwed’ by the political elite has made for a popular media narrative over the past five years but it’s not true. If anything, it was the 2020 Biden campaign which produced a new and energized political coalition that augurs well for the Democrats in 2024.
Let’s just hope they don’t screw it up.