Jessica Harker is a 60-year-old registered nurse who works at the VA Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She believes God chose Donald Trump “to end America’s political dysfunction,” writes Ben Bradlee Jr. in “The Forgotten,” his engrossing and thorough new book about the voters who made Trump president.
Jessica first committed to both the church and the GOP through the influence of her husband, Ray, whom she married in 1997. Today, however, Ray, who is devoutly evangelical, cannot tolerate what he believes to be the president’s moral shortcomings. Trump is “a horrible role model for our congregations,” he tells Bradlee, a veteran reporter and former senior editor at the Globe.
So the couple have agreed, for the most part, to avoid talking about politics. “Strain,” Jessica says, “is too pleasant a word to describe what this has done to our marriage . . . We were, and still can be, in serious trouble if we talk about Trump.”
That’s the country in a nutshell.
Each time The New York Times publishes one of its periodic articles designed to take the temperature of Trump voters, the social media resistance shouts its outrage. We’ve heard time and again, as the argument goes, that the mostly white middle-class citizens who supported Trump felt threatened by the nation’s changing ethnic makeup and the globalization of production. Why keep banging the same note?
As Bradlee’s insightful work shows, it would behoove Democrats to keep listening. He zeroes in on Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania, a swing area in a key state for Trump, to examine the beliefs, hopes, and fears of a cross-section of voters. Luzerne, formerly a longtime, blue-collar Democratic stronghold, joined the red portions of the state’s political map, which includes virtually everything except the population centers of Philadelphia in the state’s southeastern corner and Pittsburgh to the southwest. The more rural portions of the state, he writes, are “less Northeast Corridor than Appalachia.”
Bradlee’s interview subjects include a lawyer, a restaurateur, a former labor organizer, a retired state police detective, a hair salon owner, a real estate investor, an Army veteran, and an unapologetic white nationalist. The reasons for their continued support of Trump are many: his America-first policies, his strong-on-trade stance, his commitment to building a border wall and reducing illegal immigration. Mostly, though, they like his fighter’s instincts.
“We were constantly being made to feel uneducated if we supported Trump,” says Lynette Villano, a 72-year-old widow. “We felt like elitists were laughing at us.”
You can practically hear Bradlee, whose previous books include biographies of Oliver North and Ted Williams, bending over backward to give his interviewees their say. He paraphrases much of their dialogue for readability’s sake, but there are stretches that feel like Studs Terkel-style oral history. There’s already a glut of books about the Trump administration, and a few that describe how we got to this place; “Hillbilly Elegy” and “White Trash” are both name-checked in “The Forgotten.” But few if any examine the ground-level voter phenomenon on this level of detail.
On occasion, Bradlee gently chides a source — noting, for instance, that one of them “wrongly believed that [Barack] Obama had shunned the annual National Prayer Breakfast.” When another complains of media bias against candidate Trump, the author cites a Shorenstein Center study that shows Hillary Clinton actually received more negative coverage than her opponent. Mostly, though, he steps aside and lets his subjects talk.
In a few cases, they seem to contradict themselves. Kim Woodrosky, the real estate investor, says she had no problem with Trump refusing to release his tax returns: “If he did not pay taxes, he took advantage of the tax code that Congress set up.” One page later, she says her city, Hazleton, has been “ruined” by an influx of immigrants “because not enough of the Hispanic majority is paying taxes.”
In his last chapter, Bradlee lets some Luzerne Democrats have their say. One, an activist who lives in a Republican-leaning suburb of Wilkes-Barre, laments that she didn’t work as hard for Clinton as she had for Obama during his campaigns. Of her neighbors who put Trump signs in their yards, she says, “[T]o me they were such rednecks . . . The people that I know that voted for Trump were either very racist or, I hate to say this, the losers.”
One thing seems certain: In this polarized moment, no one is mincing words. Democrats who want to win back the middle class, Bradlee warns, “will have to curb the tendency of many of [their] leaders to use a broad brush to paint most Trump voters as bigots.”
The key to Trump’s election, Bradlee concludes, were the voters who felt aggrieved by their economic marginalization, “and by a dominant liberal culture that condescends to them and mocks their way of life.”
In a book full of hard truths, that one might be the hardest of all.
How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America
By Ben Bradlee Jr.
Little, Brown, 295 pp., illustrated, $28
James Sullivan is a frequent contributor to the Globe. His newest book, “Which Side Are You On?”, comes out in December. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.