Three years ago, Daniel Allott left his job to travel around America talking to voters across the political spectrum, from farmers to students to refugees. He went to America’s most politically interesting areas, including America’s most racially diverse rural county; and a county in Iowa that voted for both Obama and Trump by a landslide 20 percentage points.
In this episode, Allott tells us about his journey and what he found, which he’s documented in a new book, “On the Road in Trump’s America: A Journey Into the Heart of a Divided Nation.”
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Daniel Allott, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Daniel Allott: Good to be with you.
Mr. Jekielek: So Daniel, you’ve been “On the Road in Trump’s America,” the title of your book which I’ve just been reading, which is, frankly, a wonderful, wonderful read, and frankly, too few people are doing this kind of work right now to actually understand what’s going on in the heartland and Middle America. Tell me about your travels.
Mr. Allott: Shortly after the 2017 inauguration of President Trump, I set out on the road traveling to, and reporting from, and living in nine counties across the country, in nine different states, from Florida up through Appalachia, in the rust belt through the upper Midwest and out west to Utah and California. I lived in these places. I’ve returned again and again, kind of formed relationships with people, and got to know people.
The great thing about being able to do that, spend so much time in these places, was that over time, I think I built up a level of credibility and trust and people’s guard started to come down. Because as you know, there’s a great deal of distrust in the media and in a lot of places. At first, I could tell people were sort of reluctant. I’m coming in from D.C. What’s this guy about? And then as they saw me again and again, I kept hanging out, staying at their neighbor’s house, maybe being friends with their friend. People said, “OK, maybe I can talk to this guy,” and I hope I got to a deeper level of understanding because of it.
Mr. Jekielek: No, clearly you did. You’ve so many wonderful anecdotes in your book, you can actually chart the progression of the development of some of these relationships that you’ve had. You really focused on some very specific counties across the nation. I want you to tell me about that.
Mr. Allott: I focused on nine counties out of, I think, 3100 in the country. But I chose them because a lot of them are in swing states that were really important in 2016, in the election in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. But actually, six of the nine are Obama-Trump counties, so they had voted for Barack Obama and then swung to Trump, which is of great interest to a lot of people. Two other counties actually swung the other way. They’re historically Republican in Salt Lake County, Utah, and Orange County, California. But in 2016, they went for Hillary Clinton and they’re becoming more progressive, more Democratic, as they become more diverse racially.
Then there was one county, Grant County, West Virginia, which is very deep, deep red. I think it had the highest percentage of Trump voters of any county in West Virginia, which is a very pro-Trump state. The chapter on Grant County actually became a case study on the opioid epidemic because I found that issue superseded the whole Trump narrative for me. I just began talking to people about politics and sooner or later, every conversation became about the opioid epidemic and how people’s families, and lives, and livelihoods have been devastated by overdose and abuse.
Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t we talk about Grant County a little bit because this is also an issue that’s incredibly important to me personally. Tell me the story. Tell me what you discovered over time there.
Mr. Allott: Grant County is a very rural county on the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. The county seat is Petersburg. It’s a very poor county, has a high level of fractured families, and a lot of problems with healthcare and education. This is a poor place and I found that opioids had really just taken over the whole place. There’s actually a documentary that had been made called, “Overdose,” focused on Petersberg, which I didn’t know until I got there. I just started talking to people and then they would reveal, “Oh, my son died of overdose,” or “My marriage broke apart because of addiction.” Everyone I talked to, almost everyone, had been devastated by this disease.
I followed a woman named Brenda in the book. The good thing about being on the road for so long, and returning to these communities again and again was I got to follow people over three years. And for her, I followed her on the ups and downs of her addiction. She went through recovery, then she went to prison and relapsed, and so I think it’s a story. It’s a really sad story but there are reasons for hope as well within that.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s also very fascinating. This is the question that I’m going to keep coming back to because this is actually the interesting thing about your book, is what’s going to happen in 2020 in these different places. For example, in Grant County, it’s obviously been devastated and it’s only coming back in this tiniest of ways, from what I understand. What are people there thinking right now?
Mr. Allott: As far as 2020, Grant County and a few of the other counties that I visited are rural places, and Donald Trump has a lock on rural America. I think we’re going to find that out on election day that he has forged a bond of trust and goodwill with rural residents for a variety of reasons. It has to do with the economy. It has to do with his approach to politics. It also has to do with cultural issues. His vision of American patriotism, and his position on a lot of social issues resonated with rural America, and that bond has only grown stronger over time—over Trump’s first term.
The word I kept hearing again and again with Trump in terms of rural America from rural residents was, “He listened to us.” He conveyed somehow that he kind of knew about their plight. He cared about their plight. He recognized their work as being important. Their values, he didn’t mock their values. A lot of people feel like the left, the elites, Hollywood, the media, the culture, looks down upon them and their values, whether it’s family or religion, old fashioned conceptions of religion, or being pro-life and these other positions. And Trump didn’t do that. Ironically, in some ways, because he’s a New York guy, he has New York values, but he conveyed to them that he was listening and that he cared about their way of life. That, again, has only grown stronger based on the policies that he’s advanced.
Mr. Jekielek: So something really fascinating here for me is how the farmers that you spoke with are responding. Because, as we know, there was what’s called the US-China trade war. I don’t even know if I agree with that name for it. But certainly, if anyone’s taken a hit, right, it’s been the American farmers. And there’s a big question mark out there. How are farmers responding to this? Are farmers going to change their vote because of this cost on the manufacturing and farming communities and so forth? But you found something that isn’t necessarily expected.
Mr. Allott: Trump won an estimated 70 percent of the farm vote in 2016 and that surprised a lot of people because of who he is. He’s not somebody you can imagine sitting atop a tractor or working in a field. Actually, the farming community is historically quite Democratic or independent, and I met a lot of Democrats. But a lot of them did vote for Trump.
In 2018 and 2019, we’re engaged in a trade war with China. Where for decades, American presidents have said to China, “Look, don’t play unfairly, don’t steal our intellectual property, don’t erect these tariffs and manipulate your currency,” and they always would. And then the American president would never follow through with anything. Finally, Trump did. He said, “Fine. You’re going to do that, then we’re going to erect our own tariffs on your goods.” So in reciprocity for that, the Chinese government put up tariffs on U.S. agricultural commodities in the Midwest, coming out with soybeans, pork, corn, things like that, in order to hurt Trump in some of these very politically sensitive areas—Iowa, Wisconsin, even North Carolina and places like that.
At the time, I remember I was living in rural Wisconsin. I was staying there and a lot of the pieces that were being written in a lot of mainstream media was, “OK. Their prices are going down. These farmers are angry at Trump because he’s started this trade war and they may vote against him next time, and I just didn’t find that to be true. I talked to a lot of farmers, including Democrats, who just said, “Look, we appreciate that finally, a U.S. president is following through on his threats and this gets back to the issue of fairness. Look, we need our foreign allies and adversaries to play fairly. We need to hold them accountable.”
That’s a really big important issue especially for conservatives, for all people, I think; especially with farmers. A lot of them almost saw their declining commodity prices as something like an act of patriotism, and so they said, “Look, we agree with his approach and we think it’s going to work out in the end. So we support that.”
I even talked to Democrats. I remember talking to a man named Bernie Killian who’s a Wisconsin soybean and chicken farmer, and he hates everything about Trump. You couldn’t imagine somebody who’s more anti-Trump. But on the issue of China and the trade war, he was actually supportive. He said, “Heck, yes, I agree with what he did on that and I wish other previous presidents had held China accountable. So good for him on that.”
Even if you look at the polling at the time, in 2018 and 2019, Trump’s approval rating among farmers actually increased during the trade war and the majority of them supported what he was doing with China. So again, to me, the real lesson of that episode is why are the media going in with their narratives already written about what’s happening there? Are they actually talking to a broad spectrum of farmers to find out what’s really going on?
Mr. Jekielek: That is very interesting. One of the themes I found that came out in the book is this idea of fairness. In many contexts actually, and you can correct me if I’m wrong here, I felt like there’s a lot of people in the heartland of various persuasions, who feel like they’ve just been treated unfairly over a significant period of time and that somehow Trump has changed that. Your thoughts?
Mr. Allott: Yes, I think people feel like, again, that they’ve been looked down upon, especially in rural areas where they feel like all the decisions, all the power, resides in the cities, whether it’s a state capital or the U.S. capital. They’re paying their taxes. They’re living under the regulations and edicts that are coming down from the state capital or the national capital, but yet, they’re not getting their fair share of resources. They’re not getting their respect for the work that they do. Their roads are in terrible shape. Their schools are underfunded. They’re not getting the health care that they want. Their kids are going away to college in the state capitol or some city. They’re being indoctrinated with liberal values, and they don’t come back. The places where they live are dying out and they’re resentful of that.
Often, one of the questions I would ask people in rural areas was, “Do you resent people in the cities? Do you resent the cities?” I was surprised by how often people would say, “Heck, yes, I do.” Because of that, they feel like they’re not getting their fair share, and Trump tapped into it. He said, “Look, I recognize the work that you do is important to make America great again. We can’t just survive on a combination of service jobs and high tech jobs. We need the middle. We need farming, we need the truck drivers, the rural manufacturing, and all of that in order to move ahead.”
And then of course, they agree with Trump on all the cultural and social issues on top of it, guns, immigration, abortion, and religious freedom that Trump and Pence have tapped into. I go into these areas and the big question in a lot of the media is, “Why did they shift from Obama to Trump in rural Iowa, rural Wisconsin, and rural Pennsylvania?” The better question is, “How the heck did they vote for Obama in the first place?” You walk around rural America, it’s a very culturally conservative place, and given how far to the left that the Democratic Party has moved in recent years, I don’t think there’s a chance that they can win them back.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s actually very interesting. You actually explored a little bit about the thinking behind some of these candidates. They said they voted 20 plus 20 for Obama and for good reason, it would seem, as you described. Tell me about that, actually.
Mr. Allott: I talked to a lot of Obama-Trump voters. Six of the nine counties are Obama-Trump counties, but I followed 16 Obama-Trump voters—those who voted for Obama once or in most cases, twice, and then flip to Trump. A fascinating group of people. Two very different candidates on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
What I found, a lot of people voted for Obama because he had promised, if you remember 12 years ago, that he was going to be the post-partisan president. He was going to reach across the aisle to Republicans, and that he was going to be the post-racial president. He was going to reconcile some of the racial divides, and a lot of them feel like they were duped. A lot of them who subsequently voted for Trump believe that Obama was basically lying and making these promises, and they feel like they were duped, they’re sold a bill of goods, and that he didn’t govern as a more centrist president, and so they were very open to Trump’s candidacy when he came along.
Again, it gets back to, in rural places, a lot of people are registered Democrats. They’ve voted for generations for the Democratic Party but they feel like the party’s move so far to the left that they no longer recognize it. I remember talking to a man in Howard County, Iowa—Howard County is a very interesting place. It’s the only county in America that voted for Barack Obama by more than 20 points in 2012, and then for Donald Trump by more than 20 points in 2016. So it flipped 41 points. It’s a rural county, two stop lights in the whole place, fewer than 10,000 people, 99 percent white, farming community.
And I talked to a lot of those Obama-Trump voters, and almost to a person, they felt like the Democratic Party had just left them behind. One guy I met was Joe Walker in 2017 at the Howard County Fair. He’s a man in his early 60s. He said, “Well, the way that the Democratic Party was 30 years ago, where they were, that’s kind of where I still am,” and that’s where the Republican Party is now. The parties are always shifting but Joe Walker hasn’t moved at all. What he believes, his priorities and his ideology hasn’t changed since he was in his 20s and 30s, but the parties have shifted and now he feels more comfortable in the Republican Party, and I don’t think he’s alone.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re making me think right now about—I forget right now the name of the county but not all these counties are as Howard is, 99 percent white. Some of them, the demographics have changed substantially even over the last 10-15 years. So how does it look? You’ll have to remind me of the name of the county.
Mr. Allott: Orange County, California?
Mr. Jekielek: I’m thinking of Robeson.
Mr. Allott: Robeson County, North Carolina, is probably the most interesting place I’ve visited. It’s the most racially diverse rural county in America. It’s also the poorest county in North Carolina. It’s right on the border with South Carolina. If you’ve ever driven down Highway 95 from let’s say, Washington to Florida or whatever, you go through Lumberton which is the county seat of Robeson County.
It’s a very poor, quite violent place too, unfortunately, but it has a plurality of Native American voters and residents from the Lumbee Native American tribe. It’s about 25 percent black, and about 30 percent white. Very diverse. Historically, very democratic up until recently. I think seven to one, Democrat to Republican voter registration, but that’s been changing. It’s also in the Bible Belt, so very socially conservative on issues of same-sex marriage, abortion, guns, all that.
But the big issue for them was NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]. Again, it gets back to the issue of listening and how Trump listens to people in rural America. They were a big textile manufacturing hub, and then NAFTA came along and they’ve lost over 10,000 jobs. The most per capita of any rural county in America by one study. That’s one of the reasons why they’re so poor now. All those jobs left and a lot of people are left to work at McDonald’s in Lumberton on I-95. A lot of people were left without jobs.
So when Trump came along as a unique candidate saying, “This is the worst trade deal ever, NAFTA. We need to ditch these free trade deals or renegotiate them.” That told the residents there that, “Hey, this guy’s listening to us. He cares about our plight,” because both parties have largely been very pro-free trade. He signaled to them that he was going his own way, he was kind of a freethinker on trade, and that’s why so many voted for him.
I was actually in Lumberton, in Robeson County, and on the day that Trump signed the revised version of NAFTA, the US MCA [United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement], talking to the economic director for the county—and this was before the pandemic, this was, I think, in February or March—and he said, “Things are going great. People have ‘Now Hiring’ signs along every road. Businesses are moving in.” And so on the economy, places like that felt that Trump is listening to them and that he’d done a very good job.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. I know that you’ve kept in touch with Mark Locklear who is, I guess, part of the native band there. Actually, I understand that you’ve been communicating with them recently. I’m very curious how that perspective has changed, or not, since you talked to them in March.
Mr. Allott: I mentioned that I had kept track of 16 of these Obama-Trump voters over the course of three years. And to make a long story short, 14 of the 16 are committed to voting for Trump again, and the two that aren’t were sort of undecided and ambivalent about Trump. One of those voters, it’s probably the most interesting interview that I had, Mark Locklear, a member of the Lumbee Native American tribe in Robeson County. Mark, like his tribe, his county, and his state, voted twice for Obama before swinging to Trump. When I first met with him, I talked to him probably a dozen times over three years in person, phone, text, everything. And he liked a lot of what Obama had done but he said, “Look, Trump came along, I like what he’s saying, and has he earned my trust yet, Trump?” He said, “No, he hasn’t, but I’m willing to give him a chance.”
That issue of trust came up again and again. And every time something would happen in the news, a new policy, or some Tweet that Trump would Tweet, he would text me or I call him and he’d described his feelings for Trump as being like a pendulum, swinging back from positivity to negativity with every Tweet and new policy, and every development in the Trump presidency. He was always quite ambivalent, which is quite unique among the people I followed. Everyone, for the most part, was pretty entrenched in their tribe but Mark, being an actual member of a tribe, was actually not that way, it wasn’t tribal, and he was a true swing voter. He’s a registered Democrat but voted for Republicans before.
When I talked to him in March, he mentioned that he was a bit worried about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. At that time, Trump was saying that anybody who wanted to get a test could get one. And Mark’s wife had exhibited some of the symptoms and couldn’t get a test, and he said, “OK, they brought up the issue of trust again.” But then he was still ambivalent, and then I just texted him yesterday, I got a text from Mark Locklear and he said, “Again, I just can’t handle all the chaos and controversy that surrounds Trump. I can’t trust him.” I was a bit surprised by that and I asked him if he was open to voting for Biden here next month, and he said, “99 percent I’m going to vote for Biden.”
I think that underscores to me the real battle lines. People ask, “Is Trump going to win? Do you think Trump is going to win based on the people you’ve talked to?” I think if people walk into the voting booth or mark their ballots at home thinking about Trump’s policies, he’ll win because his policies are largely popular and people appreciate that he was very clear about what he wanted to do, and that he actually accomplished a lot of it. If they vote thinking about his personality, his character, I think he’ll lose. I think there’s a level of Trump fatigue, exhaustion, with all of the controversy and drama that we see everyday coming from the White House. And it’s not all his fault that people feel this way, but he’s certainly a part of it. A lot of people just want to get back to a certain sense of normalcy and a normal president, and I think Mark Locklear is not alone in feeling that way.
Mr. Jekielek: In general, do you feel like Mark’s perspective is representative of the others in that area?
Mr. Allott: No, in fact, he said that he was sure that Trump would win the Lumbee vote. In the Lumbee area, basically in Robeson County, the white residents tend to vote Republican, the black residents tend to vote Democratic. So the Lumbee are the swing and they all went for Obama, and then they swung to Trump. He said that he’s sure that they’re going to vote for Trump again and that doesn’t surprise me because it’s a rural area, socially conservative, and he’s come through on a lot of these manufacturing issues, on trade issues.
I remember talking to him a few months ago, he was driving in his car and he drove by a few houses, and he saw Trump signs out and he said, “Oh! Never seen that before. I didn’t think that guy was a Trump supporter.” It just reinforced to him how the other members of his tribe are fully on board with Trump and that they’re going to vote for him, but he’s not. He just can’t handle the drama and the personality issues that arise with Trump.
Mr. Jekielek: Interesting. So I’m thinking now about some of the messaging—Democratic and Republican messaging. The Democratic messaging is something along the lines of, Trump really fumbled the coronavirus and actually tanked the economy. The Republican messaging is more along the lines of, he really made a really vibrant economy—it’s not his fault that tanked. And now he’s going to do it again and bring it back. Where are people landing?
Mr. Allott: I think on the coronavirus, people have come down, in terms of assessing Trump’s handling of the virus, exactly how they’ve come down in every other issue. It’s very tribal among the people I talked to, I texted, called, and talked in person with many people in May and June, and since. And if they were Trump supporters before, they think he’s done a great job. If they were Trump critics and opposed Trump before, they think this is just one more reason why he’s unfit to be president, and that gets to tribalism.
It’s funny, over time, over the years that I was out there, I found that I could accurately predict how people would come down on almost any issue related to politics. It could be impeachment, the Judge Brett Kavanaugh hearings, the NFL protests, Black Lives Matter, or even the coronavirus. I could predict where they would come down based on their response to one question: How do you feel about Donald Trump? Based on that answer, I can predict where you’re going to come down on everything else with 99 percent accuracy.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s absolutely fascinating. You mentioned Orange County earlier. We were talking about the trade war, and just a very interesting section in the Orange County chapter is you talking to Chinese immigrant voters. I thought that theme came out a few times, you mentioned it earlier, about the movement towards a more socialist society and concern around that. Tell me about what you found there.
Mr. Allott: I was in Orange County for five weeks in 2019. I went to a few local Republican meetings and started to notice there were a lot of Asian Americans involved at the local level for the Republican Party, predominantly Chinese Americans. So I started talking to a lot of them and I found that they had been compelled to get involved in politics, and for the Republican Party, because they’ve grown concerned about how far left the Democratic Party had moved in their embrace of some socialistic policies like government takeover of large sections of the economy, and partial birth abortion, and not allowing any dissent in terms of free speech on college campuses, and things like that.
A lot of the people in California that I’ve met out of the Chinese Americans had initially got involved in politics because there is an amendment that was proposed, a constitutional amendment, to reverse a ban on affirmative action in admissions to college, and that would have disproportionately hurt the high achieving children of these Chinese American immigrants. So they all banded together and they got very involved. They were demonstrating on the streets, they were doing all the local grassroots activism that you imagine, letters to the editor, and this was all stuff that they couldn’t imagine doing back in China—and they won.
So the amendment was voted down in the referendum and that sort of encouraged them to get further involved. I met a man named Benjamin Yu who is running for local office, and some others who are really getting involved, and I feel like there is a fear—and you see this with other communities, Cuban Americans—that the Democratic Party is just embracing socialism and even communist policies, which was the reason why they fled these countries in the first place. They don’t want that to follow them here to the U.S.
Mr. Jekielek: Very, very interesting. There’s one line in the book that jumped out at me, which I don’t think is necessarily obvious to all of us. Basically, you wrote, “Geography, more than race or class, has become the crucial dividing line in politics today.” I’m sure there’s some people that know this to be true but that’s certainly not what you hear as the major narratives out there in society. Tell me about how you came to this?
Mr. Allott: If you are from the city and you go to rural areas, it’s a completely different type of life: different values, different priorities, different things that you do for fun, different music that you listen to, different shows you watch on TV, different clothes that you wear when you want to show that you’re doing well, or different hobbies—and the same for urban America. I think increasingly, people who live in one or the other are not spending very much time— If you’re in the city, how much time do you spend on the farm? If you’re living in a rural area, how much time do you really spend in the city taking in that kind of life?
So when you talk about issues of race, or the gun culture, things like that, some of these really important issues, and just the empathy and understanding of how people feel about those issues, I think a lot of it has to do with geography. One of the questions that I would ask people in formal interviews was, “How would you describe race relations in your community?” A lot of people had different responses.
But in rural areas, sometimes it was met with a quizzical look because if you’re living in an area that’s 99.8 percent white, as one woman put it to me, she just said, “What race relations? There aren’t a lot of race relations going on here.” So when they look at a lot of the racial issues that have come to the fore with racial injustice, and police brutality, and Black Lives Matter, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to them because they don’t encounter it very much at all, and so a lot of people would describe that as “racism”—I would not.
The idea that people who are living in racially isolated places are, as a consequence of that isolation, necessarily “racist” is wrong. But it can lead to a degree of insensitivity, a lack of empathy, because you just don’t get it. Because maybe you don’t have any friends or family members who are of a different race, or coworkers, and so it just doesn’t make sense to you.
But it’s no different than people living in the cities who may not understand what the rural gun culture is like, or what the challenges that farmers face—I didn’t. I remember just going to a farm, and I’ve lived in rural areas when I was younger. But after 20 years living in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, being on a farm is just kind of surprising, a bit shocking. “Wow! This is what that life is like. This is where my food comes from.” I didn’t quite connect the dots there.
I think when we talk about the issue of tribalism, I think geographic tribalism is a big part of that. And then when you talk about the media, 90 percent of online media employees reside in counties that Hillary Clinton won. They reside in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., like where we are right now, or in the cities, or other places. In order for reporters and editors to truly be able to cover those places accurately, they need to have an understanding, and it helps to have people on staff in the newsroom that maybe have lived in rural areas, who have grown up, who have empathy, and understanding, and sensitivity to what’s going on there. That kind of change needs to happen, I think.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to get back to the media in a moment as well. You had some interesting findings about how non-white people felt in some of these counties—a bunch of interesting observations which aren’t necessarily intuitive.
Mr. Allott: It does actually touch on the media, too. I think there’s a narrative out there that, and you can Google this, places that are rural, places in Middle America, and places where Donald Trump is popular are violently inhospitable to immigrants, to refugees, to anyone who isn’t white. This is a white guy saying this so ticked out first, the main premise by saying that.
But I sought out and talked to as many minorities, people who are different in any community and with immigrants, almost without exception, they felt embraced, welcomed in these places, whether it’s Erie, Pennsylvania, Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, Howard County, Iowa, or Grant County, West Virginia. I met immigrants from all over the world and they felt welcomed. They felt like they had a lot more opportunities than they would ever have back home or in a different country. Were there incidents of discrimination? They felt, “Sure. Here or there, but not that many.”
Overall, they were really frightened at the prospect of having to leave because they really enjoyed living there and they felt welcomed. A lot of them had heard about the stereotype from people that they knew maybe living in Washington or New York saying, “Oh, you don’t want to go to Erie, Pennsylvania. That’s redneck territory. You’re going to be killed or you’re going to be discriminated against,” and they found the opposite.
I remember talking to two young women in Erie County. They’re Muslim immigrants from Iraq, and they were just bowled over at how welcoming people were at their jobs and in the public. One of the young women kidded that she was treated better in public whenever she wore her hijab than when she didn’t, which I think just underscored how welcoming people tried to be. When you get to middle America, frankly, people are just friendlier than they are on the coasts, and I found that myself. So that’s part of it. Also, they want to dispel that idea that they’re xenophobic or bigoted.
Mr. Jekielek: Perfect segue here. How does middle America consider the mainstream media?
Mr. Allott: There’s a deep level of distrust. Some of the counties I visited had gotten attention after the 2016 election because they swung from Obama to Trump and they were really important places. I remember going to Erie, Pennsylvania, and people from the county executive and the mayor, down to manufacturing workers and people who were out of work, mentioned how the media had gotten their story wrong. Some media outlets that visited in early 2017 had written this narrative about, “Oh, it’s doom and gloom. They’ve lost all these manufacturing jobs, they’re desperate, they’re fearful, that’s why they voted for Trump,” and they said that they only told half the story. It wasn’t that it was completely wrong, but it’s only half the story. They implored me coming in, knowing I was a reporter, “Please spend time here. Tell the complete story. Don’t just tell one narrative.”
There’s like a block, a row in 12th Street in Erie that is old—rusted out factories. Things are perfect for a videographer to just take photos and to show how much they’ve lost the manufacturing sector. But then there are plenty of good things happening that they would ignore. These are people that cared about their city and they wanted it to be represented accurately.
I think when it comes to Trump, there’s even a deeper level of distrust among his supporters. I came to the metaphor I used with Trump, and the media, and his supporters is, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I think if everything that Trump does is “terrible, and horrible, and impeachable,” then when he actually may do something that is terrible, or horrible, or impeachable, nobody will know, because the media has lost so much credibility. They’ve cried wolf so many times, that no one’s going to come running, because they don’t believe them. There’s no trust in the media to be the neutral arbiters of what is the truth, of what is newsworthy, and that’s, I think, where we’re at right now.
Mr. Jekielek: Just one thing that I noticed as I was reading, you obviously got this a while earlier, but there was a man named Cyrus in Orange County. He was predicting that Trump would engineer a peace deal between Iran and Israel. I thought that was really interesting, in a sense, … he didn’t get it quite right but the Abraham Accords were engineered, so to speak. I found that very interesting. So what do you think is the most important finding that you made?
Mr. Allott: Probably the most important finding that I had in my three years was just how few people have actually changed their minds about Donald Trump, with very few exceptions. Those who supported him in 2016 still support him today, and those who opposed him four years ago still oppose him today. It’s not to say that people’s views of Trump haven’t changed but where they have, that changes have all been in one direction, toward a more extreme, and I would say deeply entrenched, conception of the president.
I would put that down to how tribal we’ve become as a society in terms of our politics. People use words like, “Oh, we’re divided,” or “polarized” i think, is another word. But I think “tribal” is better and what I mean by that is that in a tribal society, you’re loyal to your own tribe, no matter what. So those inside the tribe are to be protected, defended at all costs, and those outside the tribe are to be shunned or even attacked. I think when it comes to Trump, in our current politics, I found an inability of people to allow for any kind of nuance in assessing the president. So in formal interviews, if they were Trump supporters, I’d say, “Well, is there anything about the president you don’t like or any of his policies that you oppose?” If I was talking to a Trump critic, I’d say, “OK, you don’t like the president. Is there anything about him you admire or any of his policies that you supported?” Often, we’d be having a free flowing conversation but it would halt right there on that question and they would struggle to think of anything that contradicted their overall view of the president. It would be 10, 15, 20 seconds would go by of complete silence, and every time I could predict it—not all the time but enough where it was sort of a trend.
I’d be talking to maybe an evangelical Christian who just couldn’t allow that Trump has some character deficiencies at all, or I’d be talking to a progressive who wouldn’t give Trump any credit for the economy, the state of the economy, when it was doing so well before the pandemic. Again, I think that just reinforced how tribal we’ve become. We can’t even allow a zero sum—he’s either all good or all bad.
I even met people who were practicing, what I would call, “geographic tribalism.” In three instances that I chronicled in the book, there were progressive men living in Obama-Trump county. So they were living in Obama places that they thought were pretty progressive, and then all of a sudden, they shifted to Trump, and they woke up one morning and thought, “I don’t know who you people are anymore. I don’t feel comfortable or welcome anymore,” and they ended up all moving away to bigger cities.
One of them was in Macomb county, ended up moving to Detroit—moving to bigger cities, more diverse places. I thought that was really a shame because if we’re deciding where to live based on politics, and we don’t want to even interact and have neighbors who think differently than we do, that’s really troublesome in my mind. I even texted with a man, a very progressive guy, living in rural Iowa last night and I was encouraging him, I said, “You need to move back to Howard County which was an Obama-Trump county.” People need those who think differently than them. I think it’s important that we engage with one another, and with those who think differently and live different lives. But he was happy in the bigger cities.
Mr. Jekielek: So what’s the root of this?
Mr. Allott: A lot of people blame tribalism on Trump, and I think Trump should be seen not as a cause but more as a consequence of how tribal we’ve become. I think the real causes are much more deeply rooted in our society. You and I are part of the media, I think we could start there.
I’ve worked at several places and follow the media for a long time, and know that sometimes thoughtful, nuanced debate, an argument, is not rewarded. Expressions of outrage and controversy are rewarded, and I would call that a broken media model. Social media tends to bring out the worst in people. We have partisan redistricting which really tends to bring out the worst candidates, and they get elected to office having these very extreme views. Even if you look deeper than all that, if you look at public opinion polling on trust in our major institutions, trust in government, trust in the media, trust in the judicial system, and trust in organized religion they have plummeted in recent decades, in recent years. I think in a society where trust is lacking, tribalism can flourish.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. Never considered that gerrymandering could be actually contributing to the church division.
Mr. Allott: If you’re running for office in a 90 percent Democratic district, you’re going to be probably electing more extreme candidates. A centrist candidate is not going to win there.
Mr. Jekielek: Again, fascinating.
Mr. Allott: You and I talked about it earlier about people feeling forced into a tribe. There are a lot of people who don’t and it gives me hope, but also makes me sad that they do have some nuanced views of politics. They don’t want to admit it. They feel like they need to be in one tribe or the other in order to survive. That’s not where we want to be, I think, as a society.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve gone on quite the journey, both literally, physically through America. Also, I can see a lot of growth happening in the book. I don’t know if you see that as so much, but maybe tell me a little bit about your inspiration to do this in the first place and now, what it’s taught you in a broader sense, maybe even as a journalist, as a person.
Mr. Allott: I think the 2016 election highlighted a real disconnect between the Washington media and the rest of the country. Very few journalists predicted Trump’s rise or his election victory. Too few, I think wanted to truly understand what motivated his voters. The premise of my book is, in order to really understand a place, you have to spend a lot of time there, you have to talk to a lot of people, you have to listen, and you need to approach with a degree of modesty and humility. And to acknowledge that maybe I don’t have it all figured out by the time I get there; maybe it’s going to take a while before I can start drawing my conclusions. So that’s what I did, living in these places and returning, talking to the same people many times.
That was really the rewarding thing, just forming those relationships, conveying to people that I really cared about what they thought and what their lives are like. I did that by, again, I think just being there for so much time and giving people the time to speak. Also, I wrote articles along the way that were published and people say, “OK, he’s not changing what I say, he’s accurately representing what I believe and what’s going on here,” and so that continued. I was able to build up an amount of goodwill and trust by doing that, and people’s guards started to come down after a while.
Mr. Jekielek: How did it change you?
Mr. Allott: I think it reinforced for me the importance of engaging. I’m not just a journalist, I’m a voter, I’m a citizen and a resident of Northern Virginia, and I could be just as tribal as anyone else. I get tribalism. I have my own strong views about things but engaging with people, and especially people who maybe didn’t fit the narrative or people who disagreed even with me, and trying to engage with them to understand, having those conversations, and trying to leave my own biases aside, and I think more reporters, more people, should do it.
People are, I think, prone to want to push away those who think differently. I think we should bring them closer. If you’re living in a progressive area and you have heard people say, “Oh, I’ve got just one colleague who’s a Trump supporter. I can’t stand him. I thought he was my friend and I found out.” No, no, no, don’t shun them. Bring them closer. You respect them already, they’re your colleagues, you’ve gotten to know them before you knew their politics, so use that as a basis to try and understand, and don’t try to win arguments with them. Just be open to whatever their experiences and what they’re bringing to the table—I think we need more of that. And I encourage people to engage less on social media and more one on one, and over time, keep those relationships up.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Mr. Allott, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Allott: Thank you for having me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.