Trump Supporters Are Desperately Trying to Convince Themselves Hillary Would Have Been Worse
Wayne Bisher, a lifelong Democrat, says he looks forward to voting for a Democrat for president again someday.
But when the 68-year-old heard Donald Trump’s message on the campaign trail last year, promising to protect American manufacturing and control immigration, there was no doubt whom he would vote for.
He took early retirement from his job at a pharmaceuticals plant 14 years ago, when cheap Chinese vitamin C flooded the American market, so Trump’s populist “America First” message resonated strongly with him.
And there was another major factor: Hillary Clinton.
“I voted for Trump because Hillary Clinton was so deceptive,” Bisher said. “What I told women: did they really want Hillary Clinton to be the first female president of the United States? That wasn’t a good idea. I would’ve voted for other women for president, but not Hillary Clinton.”
Six months after Trump’s inauguration, with a daily war raging over the president’s own alleged deceptions and major campaign promises going unfulfilled, a perceptible shift in mood has set in among Trump voters interviewed for an ongoing Guardian series in Northampton County, Pennsylvania.
The thrill of victory, for many Trump backers, has been replaced by something closer to disgust – the kind of disgust that makes people turn off the news.
They still back the president. But they express sharp resentment of the president’s perceived enemies in the media and official Washington, and describe fatigue from defending a political figure who does not always make it easy. In a striking number of interviews, the conversation eventually turns to the candidate Trump beat eight months ago – Clinton – whose alleged trespasses are brandished to answer questions about Trump’s alleged trespasses.
To the extent that Trump may be corrupt, his supporters say, Clinton would have been worse – so much worse, to the thinking of some Trump voters, that even if Trump had cheated to win the election, it was worth it.
For now, any Trump voters who might be nursing doubts about the president are mostly not advertising that sentiment to the media. “They don’t want to admit that they may be wrong,” explained Cathy Robinson, 70.
Robinson was attending a hot-rod show in East Bangor on Saturday night with her husband, John. While she referred to Trump supporters as “they”, Robinson, a registered Democrat, said she had “not necessarily” voted for Clinton for president – although she had indeed voted.
“That’s a hard thing for us as humans to admit that somebody took us over the barrel and we went in there with all the good intentions of changing things, because that’s what this person promised he was going to do,” Robinson said. “And now we look at it six months later, and we’re no better off six months later than we were when Obama was in office.
“People do not want to admit that somebody actually fooled them that well.”
Almost every one of the Trump voters approached by the Guardian said they approved of the president’s performance to this point. Allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, for example, do not concern them much – meaning, among other things, that the nonstop focus on the issue by the media strikes Trump voters as both annoying and corrupt.
“About two weeks ago, I stopped watching the news,” said Bisher. “Because it was just like, it was too depressing. They’re still bitching about the Russia thing, which is still not going to amount to anything.
“I feel so much better, for the last two weeks.”
Bisher was atypical, for allowing that Trump was a “a bit of a nut” and saying of a potential Trump 2020 presidential bid: “Based on what he does this first term, I’d say well, if he really is screwing everything up, I wouldn’t want him back.”
Many Trump supporters give the president far more latitude than Bisher, with some saying that even if Trump had cheated in the election with Russia, the result was still preferable to a Clinton presidency.
“I don’t know what all was done,” said Jack Artley, 43, a machine operator at the Biospectra pharmaceuticals plant in Bangor. “No matter how it comes out, even if it comes out that there was some shady business going on there, I’d rather Trump in there than Clinton. So, whether he had to cheat or not to get in, I’m OK with that.”
“If they did, I’m actually glad they did,” John Picard, a carpenter, said of alleged Russian tampering in the election. “I feel that you shouldn’t bother somebody else’s country. But the idea that they got all this information and they let it slip out – I’m happy if that’s true. We got some real good documents on some people who were really messed up, so why not?”
‘I’m very upset’
Even as they remain steadfast in their support for the president, many Trump voters have begun to express a disaffectation that extends blob-like in every direction. The political establishment is trying to destroy Trump, they say, by flogging what they see as a dubious Russia collusion story, while denying the problem of Democrats they believe have been involved in alleged homegrown election fraud.
Congress and the justice department are wasting millions of dollars on a politically motivated witch hunt to destroy the president, they feel, after the same establishment gave a pass to the alleged crimes of Clinton and Obama.
The media has dropped all pretense of even-handedness to devote itself full time to the president’s destruction, they think, driven by a revenge lust for the defeat of Clinton, their preferred candidate.
“They can play all these games all they like, but the Trump supporters are not going to ever turn around and say we’re concerned about something that has been part of the political process for decades,” Tom Carroll, a conservative grassroots activist from Bethlehem said of Trump Jr’s meeting with Russians to get dirt on Clinton. (Political activists in both parties have called the meeting extraordinary and possibly unique.)
Carroll, a criminal defense lawyer and a vice-chairman of the local Tea Party, spoke with the Guardian in a late afternoon interview on his back deck.
“You really talk to people and – you know what drove a lot of people?” Carroll said. “Believe it or not, they won’t leave Trump for anything. But it’s not because they love Trump, it’s because they love their families, they love their country, and they were fearful of what was gonna happen if Hillary Clinton got elected president.”
It is remarkable how Clinton, who has largely stepped away from the national stage after her November loss, still looms in the minds of many Trump voters. A conversation inside the Trolley Shop restaurant in Bangor about whether US intelligence agencies can be trusted – not really, was the general consensus – suddenly turned to Clinton.
“Hillary Clinton hurt herself,” said Mickie Jones, who owns the oldest business in Bangor – a tombstone business – with her husband, Keith. “She hurt her party, between lies and things that she did. They haven’t accepted that. I think she’s a liar. And these people don’t see that.”
Keith Jones, an air force veteran who was stationed in Korea right after the war, said the relationship between Clinton and the media went a long way to explaining the perceived media bias against Trump.
“The press has an agenda, and it isn’t the same agenda as his,” Jones said. “Hillary was their darling, Obama was their darling. And you kick them in the shins there, and they get a little ornery. They’re ornery, and they’re trying to run Trump into the ground.”
Bruce Garis, 75, is a retired heavy equipment operator from Bangor and was a lifelong Democrat, he said, until he voted for Trump.
“I switched from Democrat to Republican, because the Democratic party went so far left that they are no more for the working man,” he said. “And I feel as if we need somebody in there for the lower-class man.
“For all the harassment that’s going on, I believe that he’s doing what he can do. There’s a lot of hindrance there, that shouldn’t be. But I’m very upset. This is not the America I grew up in. And I’d just like things to get better.
“We got fake news, like Trump said, and I’m upset with the news. I won’t even turn on the television any more.”
'Signs of fraying'
July in Northampton County is sunny and leafy, prime time for the pleasures of summer. The highway is a daisy chain of farm stands, yard sales and fire department fund-drives. Thousands of people turn out for an antique tractor show, where gawkers can nose up to 100-year-old flywheels moving at amputation speeds. Hot-rod enthusiasts gather for a car show where locals dance to a three-piece band playing Ernest Tubb and Jim Reeves tunes. After a certain hour, every county resident under 15 is addled on ice cream.
Christopher Borick, a professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College institute of public opinion in Allentown, strolled to the town square in Nazareth, where he lives, to meet with the Guardian under an immense maple tree.
“I think on the whole, most Trump supporters are still Trump supporters,” Borick said. “Many of them continue to say that Trump’s problems, if they exist, are manufactured by the media and Democrats who are being obstructionist. So most of the Trump support that we saw last fall in Northampton County still exists, largely as it was.
“But if you pull a little bit away under the covers, you see some signs of fraying. And the signs that I see are among those Trump supporters who did so grudgingly last fall. They have some sunken cost in Donald Trump. They supported him. They may have even taken some heat for supporting him from non-Trump supporters in the area. And as they try to hold on to their reasoning and their support and make their case, I think they feel a little weariness, a little tired in their explanation.”
Many Trump supporters said that they would abandon their support for the president if undeniable evidence of criminal activity in the Russia matter surfaced – the “undeniable” bit, of course, being extremely subjective.
An issue where Trump seems to be much more vulnerable is healthcare. And unlike on other issues, where chatting with Trump supporters can feel like scrolling through the president’s Twitter feed – “fake news”, “witch hunt”, “illegal leaks”, “voter fraud”, “Crooked Hillary” – Trump voters in Northampton County talk about healthcare with notable measures of nuance, restraint, and human sympathy.
“This health issue is a major problem,” said Mickie Jones. “I really think they should be settling on that issue. Because there are so many elderly people around the country, and here we are, fighting each other.
“They have to do something. They have to. They just have to. And it seems like they’re stalling on it.”
Prospero T Zito, 74, is another Northampton Democrat who voted for Trump. “He needs a little more time to get his priorities together,” Zito said of the president.
He believes in the need for health reform, but is worried about the impact on the sick and the poor. “I think this healthcare is just a little bit out of hand right now. But the people who really need it, that’s what I’m looking out for. I think they’ll straighten it out. Both parties, they’ll have to come together.”
John Griffin, a retired elevator technician and a Republican who voted for Trump, said he was not holding his breath for a bipartisan solution. “Not gonna happen. It’ll never happen,” he said.
“They’ll never get together and do it. But if they can get together and do something for the people – not for themselves, but for the people – I’ll go along with it.”
Borick, the political scientist, said the healthcare issue could damage Republicans or the president in upcoming elections.
“We’ve polled this issue really heavily for six years,” said Borick. “Like many places, Obamacare has reached its zenith in popularity in the commonwealth [of Pennsylvania]. It’s never been more popular, and the congressional proposals were very unpopular.
“That remains a vexing issue for Republicans. And a vexing issue for the president. Talk about issues that could be incredibly damaging, there’s a point where people will see in the next two years what kind of effect those changes or lack of changes have.
“On the whole it holds enormous peril, much more peril than promise for both the Republicans and the president. As we come to that midterm election, if people are feeling very negative about that issue as they are now, that can resonate.
“That can have substantial effect.”
'He's for us'
Little Creek Bar B Cue (“You can’t beat our meat!”) in Washington Township is in its ninth year. The restaurant has cooked competitively in 14 different states and twice placed first for barbecue ribs in contests with over 100 teams. Pulled pork is their number one seller.
“We’re selling a lot of brisket lately. I’ve learned how to cook brisket pretty decent, almost as good as those guys down in Texas,” said Rich Green, 50, who owns the place with his wife, Kim. “I’ll put my brisket against them Texas people any day of the week.”
Green is a professional ironworker as well as a chef, and a gun enthusiast who said he expanded his inventory aggressively when he thought Clinton was going to win the election.
He took a break from cooking last weekend to muse on how, exactly, the Russians were supposed to have tricked him into voting for Trump.
“I don’t know how it would be possible. Nobody called me,” he said. “I’ve never voted before, this was the first time I voted – nobody called me and said who to vote for.”
Apart from their distrust of the media and the Washington establishment, one good reason Trump voters might not believe the Russia collusion story is because they all know someone who voted for Trump without any tampering by Russia, they think: the person in the mirror.
Despite his strong support for Trump, Green said he would vote for a Democrat in the future, “if it was the right person, and they were doing the right thing”.
“I would go more towards the person, than the party, myself. I’m more about, let’s do the right thing here,” Green said. “It is kind of stupid to be diehard Democrat or Republican.”
Kim Green, 52, agreed that Trump the man – his personal sympathies and his policy priorities – was more important than Trump the Republican.
“Because he’s for the common man,” she said. “And I don’t care what anybody says about how much money he has and everything else. He’s just like everybody else, he’s for us.”
“Or it’s the biggest scam America’s ever fell for,” Rich Green interjected. “One of the two.”