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This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Nothing about Governor Steve Bullock bears a resemblance to President Donald Trump. The son of educators, he had a humble, unremarkable upbringing in the Rocky Mountain town of Helena, Montana’s state capital. He is less than comfortable in front of flashbulbs. A Columbia-trained attorney, Bullock is happiest being left alone to study his briefing notes or the minutiae of legislation in his quiet office. His interactions with constituents come across as a little forced but, humble and solicitous, his earnestness shines through. Bullock opened his first State of the State address in 2013 by saying, “My name is Steve and I work for the state.”
While Hillary Clinton lost Montana by more than 20 points in 2016, Bullock was narrowly re-elected, winning by a margin of 50 percent to 46 percent.
He is cautious about interviews with the press—not because he overtly distrusts reporters, but because he wants to ensure he is fully prepared for any question that may arise. So when I interviewed him in the governor’s capitol chamber, my first question must have been some kind of nightmare.
“What do you and Donald Trump have in common?” I asked.
Shifting in his seat, he began to shuffle through the pages of prearranged notes sitting tidily on his lap. Finding nothing especially pertinent, he peered out a window, seeking a diplomatic but satisfying response from an unseasonably warm February afternoon. None came to mind.
“I’ve never spent time with Donald Trump, and I don’t govern the same way,” he finally said. Quizzically, the second-term Democrat added, “20 percent of my voters supported him on the same ballot though.”
“Well, that’s just it,” I said. “Surely, they must see something they like in both of you.”
“I think Montanans knew that I was fighting for them. I spoke about public education, public lands, public money, and those are things that affect us all. We hunt, we fish, and I asked whether we are promoting all Montanans’ interests or only narrow special interests, and how we are going to build folks up individually.”
Perhaps realizing that this doesn’t exactly coincide with most people’s impression of the president, he added, “If there is overlap, it’s making people know that I will fight for them, and that I work for them. I’m not sure that the values are that different in Manhattan, Montana; Manhattan, Kansas; or Manhattan, New York. People want to feel safe, have good schools, and want their kids to do better than they did.”
Bullock’s party colleagues in Washington are in a desperate search for ways they can appeal to those multiple Manhattans, but particularly to white working-class people—a label that could apply to nearly all of Montana, and a constituency that Republicans dominated to flip swing states and salvage contested House and Senate seats in the 2016 election. Indeed, the more white, rural, and sparsely populated the district, the less likely a Democratic House or Senate candidate was to win it.
In the race for the White House, the Democratic presidential candidate has won steadily fewer U.S. counties with average incomes under the national median and with populations that are more than 85 percent white in every general election since 1996. Concentrated in the Midwest, Appalachia, and the upper Rocky Mountains, there are 660 such counties today. Hillary Clinton won two of them.
More optimistically, the party’s performance with white working-class voters can hardly get much worse. Even so, Hillary Clinton’s fate was decided by fewer than 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—where white working-class people are abundant. Imagine if her campaign had made any inroads with this constituency at all.
So what does Steve Bullock know that Hillary Clinton’s army of consultants and advisers missed? Indeed, how can local politics inform a more national strategy for general elections and down-ballot races? In a predominantly white working-class state, Democrats have won four straight gubernatorial races, maintained one U.S. Senate seat since 1913, and recently won a series of other statewide races until losing the incumbent secretary of state and attorney general last autumn. Do Montana Democrats have a template that can be applied elsewhere?
GREAT FALLS IS A GRITTY, working-class town on the banks of the Missouri River, a hundred miles north of Helena. Its story is one heard in post-traumatic cities across the United States and Western Europe. An industrial hub that was once oriented around an Anaconda Company refinery, Great Falls understands loss.
Once America’s fourth-largest corporation, with railroad, logging, mining, and refining operations across Montana, Anaconda at one time provided a third of the state’s paychecks. For nearly a century, its towering smokestack defined Great Falls’ northern skyline and stood as a 506-foot monument to the city’s industrial history, even after its associated factory was shuttered for ten years. After “the Stack” was deemed structurally unsound in 1982, it was demolished in front of 40,000 witnesses—who watched as if it were the execution of a martyr. When the carefully set dynamite failed to collapse the hulking cylinder, leaving a stubborn shard of brick and mortar, onlookers rejoiced in triumphant defiance.
However, Great Falls has not been able to resist global trends. Its manufacturing sector has shrunk, unions were undercut, the surrounding landscape of ranchers now supplies an international market for meat and grain, and a once reliably Democratic region is far more contested by Republicans and frustrated by the status quo. Trump voters who also supported Governor Steve Bullock abound.
In interviews with locals, I found exhaustion with detached national Democrats, and a pervasive appreciation of straight talk. Bullock is connecting with his brand of progressive populism—a focus on providing solid public education to level the playing field, protecting access to public lands, and maintaining public services without increasing taxes or instituting a sales tax.
Tom Conners has run the Stein Haus, a bar on 1st Avenue, for 39 years. For four general-election cycles, the 69-year-old has supported the Republican presidential candidate and a Democrat for governor.
Ticket Splitter: Dan Mathis, an active homesteader and nutrition retail salesman, voted for Trump—yet is deeply loyal to Governor Bullock.
“One thing’s for sure,” he said from his perch on a barstool. “Trump’ll [discomfort] all those politicians who are out for themselves and not for the country. I’m for the independent guy who doesn’t bend over for this guy and that guy. I want to focus on this country. You can’t solve the world’s problems. And I think white working-class people have a better chance with him. He has surrounded himself with people who are smarter than him. And they’re people who know how to balance a budget and get things done like a business. I don’t care about the wall, but I do care about infrastructure and focusing on this country. The reason why Donald Trump got elected is because the general working guy is infuriated by what’s happened in Washington.”
“But Bullock is different?” I asked, as Conners fed his customers’ parking meters out front.
“Bullock isn’t wishy-washy. Yeah, he’s vetoed a few things since he’s been in there, but he understands that you’ve got to take care of the dough. I was in debt once, but I made it work. You just don’t buy your pet cup of coffee for a while. He gets that.”
Amanda Sanne is a 25-year-old front-desk manager at a roadside hotel. She and her husband both cast Trump-Bullock ballots last November.
“Donald Trump tried to make sure that you knew that your hard-earned tax dollars were going to go to Americans,” she said while shopping at a sporting goods store. “There are so many people living on assistance, and so much money goes out of the country. I just want a living wage and my rights. Hillary Clinton was very snobbish. She wanted to show that she’s strong, but she was trying too hard to reach women and Mexicans. I think that sends a big message that she’s more interested in their votes than those of the actual American people.”
Lynn Berryhill is a 64-year-old interior designer and registered Democrat who voted for Bullock but could not bring herself to support Hillary Clinton. She voted for Gary Johnson instead.
“None of them know what it’s like to scrounge, what normal people go through, living paycheck to paycheck, working day and night without having someone home to take care of the kids,” she said. “So they lost the support of people who need the help. Politics is turning into high school gossip, and I’m giving up.”
Dan Mathis is a 30-year-old nutrition retail salesman. Burly and blunt, he is an active homesteader, a Western tradition of settling wilderness for subsistence living. He voted for Donald Trump.
“There’s just too much of a gap between my life and what Hillary Clinton does,” he explained from the electrical aisle of a Great Falls farm store. “It is so isolated here. Most people never leave. So it’s very hard to relate for the average person.”
However, Mathis is deeply loyal to Bullock. He called the governor’s office when Montana’s child protection agency dillydallied his partner’s application for custody of his stepdaughter. Bullock’s staff responded immediately.
“I thought I would leave a message and hear back in six months, but it was like that distance wasn’t even there. It was almost personal, the way he was able to do that. At the time, I felt like I had no voice. Those little girls mean the world to me,” he said, tearing up. “So I would go to the end of the earth for the governor.”
WHAT MAKES GOVERNOR Bullock such an interesting case study for the Democratic Party is that he isn’t exactly a unicorn—that rare, transcendent candidate whose personality crosses social divides. He simply combines a reassuring cultural style with a practical progressive message on issues that people care about. That recipe seems to work for more than one personality type.
The rather unassuming Bullock was preceded by the charismatic and bombastic Brian Schweitzer, a Democratic governor whose plain-spoken swagger appealed to Montanans and frustrated his rivals. Schweitzer famously wielded branding irons to publicly veto bills passed by a Republican-controlled legislature.
“I do best at explaining things by telling a story,” Schweitzer told me by phone from Arizona. “Young people approach me who want to go into politics, and they ask me what to do. I would change your major out of political science or law. Get a practical trade, study science or math. Go out and try to change the world in the private sector. Start a business and lose it. Start a family. … Do not learn how to run this country by working for people who already do. Look at congressional staffers. In 20 years, they’ll all be in office themselves—looking, talking, and droning on like the ones we have right now.”
Schweitzer wasn’t referring to Bullock, but the governor could be forgiven for thinking so. Were he in Washington, D.C., Bullock would fit right in. Though gregarious, he is also cerebral, measured, even wonkish. After law school, he worked as a legal counsel to the Montana secretary of state, and was later promoted to executive assistant attorney general and chief deputy attorney general before being elected Montana’s attorney general in 2008.
I asked Bullock if Schweitzer, whose name has been mentioned in 2020 presidential chatter, offered any memorable pieces of guidance before he was term-limited in 2012. “We lead in different ways,” he said.
However, it is Bullock’s way that Democrats are more capable of reproducing elsewhere. Without being that once-in-a-generation politician, he is able to connect with rural and working-class white voters with symbolic messaging and a customized platform.
While I was in Great Falls, Bullock came to the A.T. Klemens metal shop to promote a new bill that would give tax credits to businesses that hired apprentices and veterans. He would later tour the workshop machinery and observe the craft of several young apprentices. It was all a bit forced, but what Bullock lacked in magnetism, he compensated for with his propensity to honor the past before pursuing the future.
“Hey, college isn’t for everyone,” a workshop supervisor told Bullock in a brief exchange. “It’s a good living here, and you don’t have loans to pay back. Sheet metalwork is a lost art. There’s a shortage of labor supply in the trades. The kids just want electronics and college these days. They don’t want to use their hands and work.”
While many Democrats would roll their eyes, Bullock engaged him. “We look on the horizon and we think that’s what’s going to limit our growth is a shortage of guys like this. But that extends to other sectors like IT, too.” Bullock was celebrating both Montana’s past and its future—and honoring people who work with their hands.
White working-class people are accustomed to being considered anachronisms with no place in America’s high-tech information economy, foot-draggers slowing our evolution into a new economic and social era. In the 2016 election, Trump was the first presidential candidate in a generation to make a deliberate appeal to this constituency and envision an economy that valued their contribution. Clinton was the establishment candidate, but also one who heralded and symbolized a future that reoriented the country’s workplace, society, and relationship with a globalized world. The election was a referendum on America’s past.
Indeed, promising to “Make America Great Again” means something wholly different than promising to “Make America Great.” The former overtly implies that America was once great, but no longer is. This specifically appeals to white people, who were not subject to the United States’ history of racial oppression and discrimination, particularly white working-class people who have seen their well-being and social status plummet since the 1970s.
Based on a nationally representative poll of white Americans just before the 2016 primaries, new research shows that voters most attracted to Donald Trump and the far right perceive the greatest discrepancy between their status in today’s society and the status of people like them 30 years before. Their sense of deprivation is nostalgic.
“Steve’s been able to honor industries of the past,” said Nancy Keenan, a past president of NARAL who now leads the Montana Democratic Party. “Timber, mining, coal. He has said that’s part of who we are, but also talked about how do we grow and what the future looks like. He has been able to keep a foot in each of those worlds.
“He just recognizes economically a changing world. The days of mining—I grew up in a mining town, it’s all we knew—you’ll still have them as part of Montana’s economy but it’ll change because of technology and a global marketplace. It goes back to trust. They trust him, and trust that he has their best interests at heart.”
Bullock has earned that trust by first identifying with Montanans, and that has lent him the credibility to veto 124 bills in the 2013 and 2015 legislative sessions—more vetoes over two consecutive sessions than any Montana governor in more than 40 years—and also pass progressive litmus tests without alienating too many social conservatives. He has voted against broadening access to guns, enrolled Montana in Obamacare, pushed for universal preschool, new funding for infrastructure, and was honored with an award from Planned Parenthood while I was in town. Meanwhile, bills like the apprenticeship tax incentive serve veterans and Montanans without university educations, and keep business owners happy.
Bar Keep: Tom Conners, who runs the Stein Haus, voted for Bullock but thinks "white working-class people have a better chance" with Trump.
In linking past with present, Bullock also resists national Democrats’ propensity for all-or-nothing thinking. “Let’s use coal as an example,” he said. “It’s not just about what I say, but what I do. We’re outdoors people and we see how our climate is changing. I think it’s a false choice between addressing climate change and continuing to produce energy from fossil fuels.”
In so doing, Bullock eases his constituents into a progressive future by weaning them off the past instead of insisting on a sharp break.
POLICY PLATFORMS ASIDE, Keenan insisted that her candidates can’t win statewide office in Montana without a story. What is Steve Bullock’s?
“I think Steve does connect with white working-class voters,” she said, “with his knowledge of Montana. He grew up here. He hunts and he fishes.”
I asked the same question to Dave Hunter, a Montana political strategist since 1978. “White working-class men like to hunt, and they like to fish,” he said. “Fifty percent of Montana residents have a fishing license; 20 percent have a hunting license, and Bullock does too.”
Even Andrew Bardwell, a 40-year-old bison rancher whom I met in a farm store, said, “Bullock represents average Montanans. He hunts, he fishes, he’s a businessman.”
If it isn’t abundantly clear, Bullock is from Montana. He likes to hunt. And he likes to fish.
“The irony is that I don’t think he does,” Hunter confessed. “Yeah, he’s hunted, but not for a while. But it is the cultural messaging.”
“I mean, he can produce pictures of him and his buddies hunting,” he continued. “They put them up on Facebook, but I haven’t seen one for four years. There’s both a cultural test that is ethnocentric, and then you need an economic message. If you really are one of us, then people will listen to the economic message. If you’re not really one of us, then nothing else matters.”
Bullock’s campaign exploited this ethnocentrism by drawing attention to his 2016 Republican opponent businessman Greg Gianforte’s roots in New Jersey and California. Gianforte might as well have been from Syria.
Every successful statewide Montana Democrat has been able to sell himself as an average, local man—and they all have been local men—even when there is countervailing evidence about how average they are. Not only do they revere the region’s heritage; they embed themselves in it.
Montana’s former at-large congressman, Pat Williams, served in the House of Representatives for 18 years and consistently made references to his jobs as a miner, sewer serviceman, and track layer for the Butte-Anaconda-Pacific railroad that hauled ore to smelters. Never mind that he held all those jobs before he graduated from college.
Longtime U.S. Senator Max Baucus came from one of Montana’s wealthiest families, but is known as a rancher from north of Helena who once walked 800 miles across Montana while campaigning.
Current Senator John Tester actively farms 1,800 acres northeast of Great Falls and is prone to poking fun at city folk.
“It’s authenticity,” Keenan said. “Candidates have to be true to themselves. People want you be authentic, to share their experiences. When grain prices fall through the floor and the entire community is feeling the pinch, Montanans want you to understand that. You don’t have to always agree with them, but you do need to look them in the eye and be honest with them. John Tester says, ‘Don’t tell me something’s not happening with the climate; my crops are harvesting three weeks ahead.’ His hands are in the dirt.”
“The Democratic Party is full of these damned do-gooders,” Keenan carried on. “A lot of the people who run as Democrats think that if we could just get into the depths and detail of the policy and make people understand it, then we’ll get elected. Oh, hell no! The detail doesn’t matter, people! What’s the first rule of politics? Show up. Everywhere. The second rule is: Show up where they didn’t want or ask you to come. I used to show up at the stock growers’ convention or the Chamber of Commerce conventions, and they’d all ask, ‘What the hell is she doing here?’” She guffawed. “And I’d tell everyone how terrific it was to be with them.”
In an eerie echo, when I asked Bullock what national Democrats need to do, he said: “They need to recognize that there are no such things as national issues; they’re all local. It’s not about pigeonholing issues to score votes. Rule number one is to show up, and if you’re just going to write off parts of the country, your success will be limited. I think that we need to have a 50-state strategy. In 2008, you’d be tripping over Obama people [in Montana]. President Obama brought his wife and kids to the Butte Fourth of July Parade. They lost Montana by 2 points, and he came after the primary.”
Get Us Good Jobs: Governor Bullock listens to Shane McCune, a tanner apprentice at the A.T. Klemens metal shop in Great Falls.
Sitting inside Electric City Coffee in Great Falls, I listened to a conversation between two old friends: Ken, a retired state transportation worker who is a Democratic-leaning independent, and Pat, a recently retired Army warehouse chief who voted for Bullock and wrote in “Justin Trudeau” rather than support Hillary Clinton.
“This isn’t the party or the state I grew up with,” Pat lamented. “We don’t have two railroads, the unions are all but dead, the things that I remember in my formative years no longer exist. I think back to my sophomore year of high school, and Max Baucus came to our basketball game.”
“Believe it or not, he came to work with us one day,” Ken recalled. “We were painting stripes for the day, and we got him a hard hat and vest. That was in character with the guy. It showed he cares. You got any questions, he was there.”
In an era when so much of politics is mediated by cable news, scripted social media missives, and airbrushed web profiles, showing up reveals candidates’ humanity. It is where bonds are born.
BUT CAN STORIES LACED with American nostalgia create bonds in coastal communities acutely aware of history’s social ills, or in economic powerhouses forging a digital future? What bonds can emerge when the candidate who shows up is a shotgun-toting, coal-dusted, grain-farming moderate? Perhaps the Democratic Party is simply too unwieldy a coalition.
The January 21 post-inaugural protests revealed a leftist coalition composed of everything from dreadlocks to Drybar, people part of labor unions and civil unions, arriving via transit but also Teslas. Can such an eclectic community expand to include the voices of marginalized white working-class people from post-industrial spaces?
“You can’t,” Dave Hunter said. “There is a disconnect between the things a Democratic candidate has to do to win primaries in California and New York, and what is culturally acceptable for white persuadable voters in Montana. Look at Tester and Baucus, they are always running away from the national party. They pitch themselves as an independent voice for Montana. There isn’t any national messaging. Running on a national party platform is death. In a state that is almost exclusively white, the imagery of the national Democratic Party as a multicultural, liberal, gun control, anti-coal party is tough messaging.”
“In Montana, yes, there is very little racial diversity, aside from Native Americans [who comprise about 6 percent of the state’s population],” Keenan told me. “But the other part is that folks never leave their county. They never go to a city. They might go to Billings, but I’d love to know the statistics about how many go to New York, D.C., or Atlanta, because that’s how you see what the rest of this country looks like. Republicans are much more homogenous.”
That same homogeneity benefits Democrats in Montana. For example, whereas Georgia Democrats must bond with Atlanta’s cosmopolitans and African Americans before rural white voters down the I-75 corridor, Montana Democrats’ focus is undivided.
“Yeah, I suppose it’s a benefit, the homogeneity,” Bullock told me, upon reflection. “But if the premise is that Democrats have lost white working-class men, then that could be a [national] problem, yeah. In 2020, you could weave together a coalition based on identity politics. If that’s the bedrock foundation, you might win the presidency, but you’ll lose the country. I don’t want to be part of a party that ideologically only reflects the East and West Coasts. And while our experiences are different, I think a Native American, Latino, or me, as parents, have the same aspirations for our kids. Your hopes are the same.”
However, many Democrats believe that broadening their party further only thins the glue that holds them together. Recent research by Matt Grossmann and David A. Hopkins shows that Democrats are a coalition of diverse identity groups—African Americans, Latinos, youth, and women—to whom the party directly sells its policies. The social group that makes up Democratic activists binds them to the party, leaving little space for other interests who don’t identify.
Currently, searching for rural Democrats in the national party caucus is, as they say in Montana, diggin’ where there ain’t no taters. There is little space for Pat Williams who was broadly against gun control, Brian Schweitzer who supported the construction of oil pipelines, John Tester who pushed for the once-endangered gray wolf to be fair game. In turn, the party of diversity appears quite exclusive and inhospitable for key electoral constituencies, like the working-class voters of Montana.
The Montana experience suggests that Democrats must either compromise or risk being ideologically “pure” but confined to their strongholds in coastal cities. But the last great compromise put the national party at odds with these voters.
THAT IDEOLOGICAL compromise, set in the late 1980s, came with the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council and the party’s profitable alignment with the financial class. Both an embrace of globalization and a strategy for American campaign financing, Democrats’ cultivation of liberal, urban cosmopolitans and professionals complicated their relationship with unions and working people who supported far more protectionist positions. And as Democrats further embraced free trade, labor immigration, and cozied up to multinational corporations, the economic policy distinctions between Democrats and Republicans became murkier and white working-class people found less and less to like.
“Step by step, Democrats tried to broaden their base at the expense of working-class families,” said Leo Gerard, the president of the Steelworkers Union. “You didn’t lose the  election because you had a shortage of rich white voters; you lost because working-class people, unionists, had nowhere to go.”
I think of these white working-class people as the “Exasperated,” as I wrote in Politico in February: “They feel betrayed by the countless politicians who have stood in front of shuttered mills and smelters and promised to bring manufacturing and mining economies back to life. It’s why they have swung from party to party, from year to year—often reacting to the failures of previous candidates to deliver.” They choose to sit elections out. “They are not ‘Independent’ so much as they are just constantly disappointed. The Exasperated voted against Clinton in 2016 because, as a longtime member of the Washington establishment, she portended more broken promises. They voted for Trump because he was the first politician in a generation to make a deliberate, authentic pitch for their support.”
What is so frustrating to older leftists is that Trump resurrected the David versus Goliath themes that once characterized the Democratic identity of yesteryear. Certainly, Democrats still support the wage standards, infrastructure, and redistributive policy prescriptions they once touted and that have since been mimicked by the president.
Why are these principles no longer credible to enough working-class people—regardless of whether they are white?
I posed this question to Celinda Lake, Brad Martin, and Joe Lamson, strategists who have worked extensively in Montana. The consensus is that progressive platforms cannot be proposed without the cultural symbolism that “shows” rather than “tells” the white working class that they matter, that they belong.
“America is not a pretty place when things are contracting,” said Lake, who hails from Montana and now runs a prominent polling firm in Washington, D.C. “Racism and sexism emerge when people think that America is losing its place—when things start to feel zero-sum. And identity politics accentuates that. We articulated ‘Stronger Together’ with a divisive candidate and ‘Together’ didn’t seem to include white, blue-collar types. They don’t think they’re part of that togetherness.”
“Hillary’s campaign could not fathom losing the Rust Belt,” and they weren’t speaking to their particular issues, said Lamson. “People just couldn’t relate to her because they thought that she would take away their guns and shut down the natural resource industry. It was hard to go anywhere after that. … I mean, why are we spending all of our time talking about bathrooms? It’s not that it’s not important; it’s just a matter of perspective.”
Lake recalled a line Brian Schweitzer liked to use: “Yeah, I’m for gay marriage rights, but I think you care a whole lot more about whether there’s grain on the High Line.”
DONALD TRUMP IS NOT from Montana. He does not like to hunt. He does not like to fish.
That a New York City aristocrat is recognized as the national voice of white working-class people reveals how exasperated his supporters truly are, and how empty the field really is for candidates who want to compete with him for white working-class support. It is noteworthy that Obama lost Montana by a mere 2 points in 2008. Bill Clinton won Montana in 1992.
And many Trump supporters in Montana remain wary.
Shane McCune is a 27-year-old tanner apprentice who spoke with Governor Bullock during his visit to the metal shop. “What do Democrats need to do to win white working-class votes?” I asked him.
“Get us good jobs,” he replied immediately. “Plain and simple. Seems like I got to work my butt off, and I barely get by. And then I see people on benefits having it so good. Stop giving them handouts. Around job sites, that’s what people talk about. [Democrats] just need to get together, come up with some ideas, and follow through with them. It’s a lot of little ideas. I don’t know if Trump can do it.”
“What if Trump fails to deliver?” I prodded.
“Then it’s just another president. If there had been a better opponent, I may not have voted for Trump in the first place.”
McCune’s responses reveal the contingency of his support for Trump, but also the persistent challenge for Democrats—showing that not only is there tension between white working-class people and other disadvantaged groups, but that their fates are actually linked.
Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
Andrew Bardwell, the bison rancher, acknowledges this linked fate. He and his wife, Annie, met at a hunting camp and work as farmhands in Choteau, 50 miles northwest of Great Falls. Both are Bullock voters, but were dissatisfied by Hillary Clinton’s candidacy:
I can’t think of a single [trucking] rig with a Trump sticker on it, and I think most people don’t think that Donald Trump is doing people like us any favors.None of his jobs are coming here. He wasn’t talking about building elevators on the High Line. We export everything we produce—our wheat, our barley, our children—so his anti-trade thing is going to kill us. I just think that people around here are scared shitless about Hillary Clinton taking their guns away. And I know that sounds trite, but they are scared shitless. She connected with no one.
A lot of the time, there is an impression that Republicans represent independent, flag-waving Americans. But in a rural environment, we have to realize that we are highly dependent on public services. The kids are going to be the only ones on a school bus that takes them 25 miles to the nearest school. We use roads that are built into the countryside to serve just a few people.
Many Trump voters are close friends and family of mine. And I think they fail to see the irony. You can’t sit there and complain about freeloaders. They think they’re doing God’s work and feeding the people, but we overproduce and export most of our goods. And they don’t realize how much the government does. Think of price supports on grain, which has an effect on the cost of beef. And so while Christianity and the Second Amendment are core values for us, it doesn’t trump our other values.
MERE MONTHS AGO, the conventional wisdom was that it was the Republican Party that was near implosion. Whether authors were referring to the Republican Party’s electoral chances or its historic profile as a party of small government, fiscal responsibility, foreign engagement, and neoliberalism, the message was clear: Donald Trump has crafted a Republican Party that marginalizes the people who believed in these bedrock principles, and narrowed its focus to a hard core of bitter white people who yearn for yesteryear. What few anticipated was the power of partisan ties, and Hillary Clinton could not poach moderate Republicans and independents to the extent many expected.
What if moderate white voters had turned out and voted Democratic in slightly higher numbers? What if anyone other than Hillary Clinton had been running? What if Democrats made a more deliberate appeal to white working-class voters in order to keep those on the partisan margins? What if Trump disappoints a significant share of the Exasperated?
Unless Democrats meaningfully reach out and connect with these groups, we will never know.
President Obama’s victories lulled many Democrats into a complacency induced by the slogan “demography is destiny”—the idea that a rising electorate of various minorities was the new majority. However, demographic change is a slow process and this all ignores the unique context of Obama’s success—a pervasive sense of desperation in 2008 and a 2012 opponent who profited from offshoring and layoffs.
Integrating Montana’s template into Democratic success will entail integrating Montana’s constituents—white, working-class, often rural voters who, despite their cultural differences, face many of the same frustrations with debt, health care, and labor as other working-class people in the Democratic coalition.
No doubt, much of the national partisan landscape depends on how Donald Trump and congressional Republicans govern. But for Democrats, this is also a question of how inclusive their party really is.