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Feeling Left Behind, White Working-Class Voters Turned Out For Trump


It was an election for the ages. Donald Trump broke all the old rules of presidential politics and made an almost clean sweep of the American Rustbelt, states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where manufacturing plants have been shuttered and white working-class voters have been left feeling disconnected from the global economy.

Many of these Americans voted for Barack Obama - some twice. But this time around, Donald Trump was their candidate, and they voted for him overwhelmingly. Alec MacGillis is a reporter for ProPublica, and he spent a lot of time talking with Trump supporters in this part of the country.

ALEC MACGILLIS: They're disconnected economically in the sense that these towns and cities have fallen so far behind the sort of coastal, prosperous bubbles of Washington, New York, San Francisco - these kind of places that have moved so far beyond these places in the last few years. Those gaps have really grown. They feel completely disconnected from the sort of mass mainstream media. And then they feel completely disconnected from Washington.

MARTIN: And they saw Donald Trump, a billionaire from Manhattan (laughter), as their champion.

MACGILLIS: I know that's sort of hard to conceive of, but it actually makes some sense if you look at it another way. If they feel so much on the outs from mainstream society, the mainstream economy - along comes this guy - who, yes, he's a he's a billionaire - but he's so clearly not part of that elite that they feel such remove from him. He is, himself, scorned by that elite - and he is. He's a maybe-billionaire. But he's kind of a crass billionaire. He's not at all part of the real kind of moneyed elite that, in some ways, makes him seem more on their side than the kind of Mitt Romney elite that was running four years ago.

MARTIN: How did that manifest in conversations? When you talked with these people, what did they say they wanted him to do? Was it just about finding someone who's going to blow up the system? Or were you led to believe that people really expect tangible changes in their lives and they think he can deliver them?

MACGILLIS: It was a mix. And for some of them, it very much was a tangible thing. Just last week, I was in the hills of, you know, Appalachian southeast Ohio attending a graduation ceremony for a heroin addiction program, an opiate addiction recovery program. And I was talking to four young women who are all still in this opiate addiction recovery program. All four of them were about 30, you know, mid-30s and had not - never voted before. And they were all voting, for the first time, for Donald Trump.

And one of them said that I am voting to save my boyfriend's job. My boyfriend works at a GE plant nearby here that makes lightbulbs. It's one of the last plants in the country making lightbulbs. And they keep losing production lines at this plant to Mexico. And she sees her vote for Donald Trump as a simple transaction to try to save her boyfriend's job.

MARTIN: Immigration and immigration reform was such a huge part of the campaign. And Donald Trump - the way he talked about immigration was inflammatory and divisive to many people. How did the Trump supporters you met talk about the issue of immigration? Did they talk about race and race relations?

MACGILLIS: Well, immigration did come up quite a bit when I spoke with them, but it was interesting. Very often, it would quickly - when I would ask about immigration, it would quickly overlap into other issues. In a lot of these places, immigrants and - or undocumented immigrants are not really that much of an issue. What the conversation with them quickly leapt into was, A, national security. But the other thing that these - their answers would often come back with were answers about heroin. One of the great overlooked issues of this campaign is the devastation that opiate addiction is wreaking in a lot of these communities. And Donald Trump was very effective at speaking to that and talking about the Mexican suppliers of heroin.

And so when he talks about building the wall and keeping these people out, for a lot of these people, that means keeping the heroin out that is killing their family members and friends.

MARTIN: Did you ask people what they would do if Donald Trump doesn't deliver?

MACGILLIS: For a lot of people, electing Donald Trump was just a way to prove that they mattered. I had an extraordinary interview with this woman by the name of Tracie St. Martin who voted for Barack Obama, as many of these people did, staunch Democrat and union member and single woman with three daughters. For all these reasons, she should be a Hillary Clinton supporter. But she was viscerally opposed to Hillary Clinton. And for her, electing Donald Trump - she was just thrilled. There was like this sign that people like her - she and her neighbors and her co-workers - that they actually counted.

And the victory in itself was so hugely significant that I am not sure if it even matters so much what comes after it.

MARTIN: Alec MacGillis is a reporter with ProPublica. Thanks so much for talking with us, Alec.

MACGILLIS: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.