This new book explores why the town of Johnston voted for Trump in 2016

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Happy Tuesday and welcome to Rhode Map, your daily guide to everything happening in the Ocean State. I’m Dan McGowan and I can’t believe “Goodfellas” is 30 years old. Follow me on Twitter @DanMcGowan or send tips to Dan.McGowan@globe.com.

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When Johnston voters backed Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, the outcome was help up as a microcosm for why Trump won the race nationally. The simple thinking: The Democrats overlooked blue-collar communities that have traditionally voted for Democrats, giving Trump an opening to target residents who felt they had been left behind.

So, was it true?

In “Trump’s Democrats,” a new book out next week, Jon Shields and Stephanie Muravchik take a deep dive into the minds of residents in Johnston, Ottumwa, Iowa, and Elliott County, Kentucky, all communities that supported Trump in 2016.

Here’s a quick Q&A with the authors on what they learned.

Q: Aside from supporting President Trump in 2016, were there similar characteristics that popped up across the communities?

Shields & Muravchik: Trump was not an oddity in these communities. Many of the most beloved Democratic leaders in these places are Trumpian: They are hot-tempered, thin-skinned, and never let an insult slide. Nepotism is also accepted, since extended family ties are the basis of common enterprises, including politics.

Politics in these places is also transactional and oriented toward the local. Long before Trump ran on the slogan America First, for example, Johnstonians were preaching Johnston First. And their nationalism is partly a localism writ large. But even though these places are Trumpian, their leaders are far better public servants than Trump. Trump is a hollow, cartoonish version of politicians like Johnston’s mayor, Joe Polisena.

Q: In one section of the book, a Johnston resident complained to you about how Governor Gina Raimondo has hired too many out-of-staters, and you write, “To citizens of Johnston, even Americans from Connecticut are outsiders and undeserving line-cutters.” What conclusions did you draw from those beliefs?

Shields & Muravchik: In Johnston – and the other places we studied – political boundaries are not just lines on a map. They define communities, creating worlds with their own moral economy. Thus, residents from other states are always outsiders. They don’t deserve these plum jobs, because they have made no sacrifices for Rhode Island. They’ve contributed nothing to its well-being, and therefore are less deserving of its fruits.

We noticed this sensibility in all the communities we studied. In small Elliott County, Kentucky, residents were upset when a good job in their school district was offered to a “foreigner” from a neighboring county. In Ottumwa, locals prefer to buy goods in town even though it’s often cheaper to do so in Des Moines. And in Johnston, town officials make residents from Cranston wait when their basketball courts become crowded.

Thus, citizens in all these places feel special obligations to one another - their mantra is Johnston First and Elliott First. And when these locals turn their attention to their place in their state and nation, their thinking is shaped by a political imagination that grows up from this localism, hence the complaint about Raimondo.

Q: There’s another section in the book where a Johnston resident suggests the town may have supported Trump because “this town likes a bully.” Did you come away thinking that mentality was in the town’s DNA or did something change over time?

Shields & Muravchik: It has been there a long time, and not just in Johnston. It will be familiar to Rhode Islanders who remember Buddy Cianci, Providence’s former mayor. He used to hang a poster in his office that read, “It’s better to be the stomper than the stompee.”

Cianci, Johnstonians, and many working-class communities throughout the United States have been shaped by an “honor culture.” Citizens in this culture prize a social reputation for toughness, which they see as necessary to defend one’s honor and interests. Critics of honor culture – like the one you quote – see it as a culture that cultivates bullies. Defenders see that same culture as a way to check bullies. As one Democratic leader in Ottumwa put it, “I’m a bully-bully.” It probably cuts both ways.

Q: Interestingly, Johnston has voted for a Republican for governor four times since 1998, each time with a male candidate beating a female candidate. Did you ever get a sense that sexism could have played a role in Johnston voters backing Trump over Clinton?

Shields & Muravchik: Yes, but much depends on how one conceives of sexism. Like Johnstonians generally, Trump embraces the values of an honor culture. His philosophy of leadership is to never show weakness, to never let any slight slide. As Trump once put it: “Real power is fear. It’s all about strength. Never show weakness. You’ve always got to be strong. Don’t be bullied. There is no choice.”

By behaving in ways prescribed by an honor culture, Trump modeled a masculine leadership style that is perhaps easier for male candidates to convincingly emulate. Even so, we suspect Johnstonians might embrace a female presidential candidate, especially if she showed some affinity for Johnston’s cultural sensibilities. A Johnstonian version of the “iron lady” might play well.


Rhode Map wants to hear from you. If you’ve got a scoop or a link to an interesting news story in Rhode Island, e-mail us at RInews@globe.com.

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⚓ Elsewhere: The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board continues to criticize US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s ongoing campaign against the Republicans' effort to stack the federal courts with conservative judges.


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Law enforcement: After years of starts and stops, will Boston reform its police department this time around?


Each day, Rhode Map offers a cheat sheet breaking down what’s happening in Rhode Island. Have an idea? E-mail us at RInews@globe.com.

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⚓ This sounds interesting. Brown University is hosting a virtual lecture at 4 p.m. with a researcher who studies lottery shenanigans.

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