How did Donald Trump win in 2016? There have been endless attempts to answer that question, but veteran newspaper editor Ben Bradlee Jr. has taken a fresh and illuminating approach in his new book, The Forgotten: How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America. Bradlee looked deep into one county in Pennsylvania, which was expected to be part of Hillary Clinton’s winning coalition, and looked into why it went for Trump. With the same keen reporting and intelligent analysis that the Boston Globe brought to its Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of sex abuse in the Catholic Church – which Bradlee oversaw as the Globe’s deputy managing editor – The Forgotten digs up some unexpected, and sometimes uncomfortable, truths lying under the surface of American life. Bradlee spoke with The National about Trump, Trump supporters, and the political landscape that produced . . . Trump.
Q: Ben Bradlee, thank you for taking the time to talk with The National. Your last book was a much-lauded biography of Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams and you are also closely associated with the Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. How did your next project end up being a book on Trump voters in the middle of Pennsylvania?
A: Like so many others, I was fascinated that a candidate as unusual as Trump -- someone who offended so many and said things that would have disqualified any other candidate -- nonetheless was somehow elected president. I was looking for a different way to write about the Trump phenomenon, and hope I found it in Luzerne County, a traditionally Democratic county in northeast Pennsylvania which had voted for Obama twice, but which surged in the opposite direction in 2016 to Trump. He beat Hillary Clinton there by nearly 20 points -- so much so that it proved to be nearly 60 percent of his narrow victory margin in Pennsylvania. The Forgotten is a deep dive into why the white working class of Luzerne and writ large, America, jettisoned the Democratic party and embraced Trump.
Q: In a striking page and a half you quote a letter from a Trump supporter detailing a litany of complaints with liberals that helped fuel Donald Trump’s election. How deep is that resentment among Republican constituencies? Will Democrats ever be able to win back disgruntled white voters?
A: The resentment is deep and Trump was the perfect candidate to stir the resentment pot. Democrats might be able to win back some voters who supported the president, but they will need to listen to those voters more, and not assume that anyone who voted for Trump is a racist. It might also help if the next Democratic nominee for president has more of a heartland sensibility, and more blue-collar cred than Hillary Clinton had.
Q: Most of your interviewees come off as decent, rational people who give Trump high marks for achieving conservative policy objectives. As a member of the “fake news media,” how were you able to earn their trust enough to be so open with you about their backgrounds, disappointments, political views, and evaluations of Trump after a year in office?
A: I tried to listen hard. In fact, most of the book is “listening reporting’’ where people spoke honestly about themselves and their frustrations. I found there was value in listening to the ground truths of their daily lives. And while the voters I talked to may have been initially wary of me because I come from a deep blue state (Massachusetts), I think they came to respect the fact that I was listening to them without judgment. And my experience as a journalist is that if you ask people to tell their stories, they usually want to oblige.
Q: The Forgotten, as its name suggests, focuses on neglected voters, many of them blue collar, who have felt powerless over the past several presidential election cycles. Is there a parallel version of this story behind Trump’s surprise election among prosperous suburbanites? Why did they gravitate to Trump?
A: Many prosperous suburbanites are conservative Republicans who tend to vote their pocketbook, so it was not surprising that a good portion of them voted for the Republican nominee; plus, many simply did not like Hillary Clinton. But most of Trump’s base was clearly the non-college educated white working class.
Q: When Obama beat McCain in 2008 the Republican Party famously conducted its own internal post-mortem on the election and drew some existential demographic conclusions about its future political prospects. What kind of official soul-searching has the Democratic Party done since Trump’s election?
A: It hasn’t done much. Democratic congressional readers are making an economic pitch called a “Better Deal,’’ which would increase regulation of big business and adopt a sweeping infrastructure program designed to be a boon for jobs. But others think the 2020 election will be won less on economics than on cultural issues like race and immigration, which voters in Luzerne County and elsewhere proved were pivotal in electing Trump.
Q: Throughout the book Trump’s supporters lament the shameful way that the Democrats and the press treat the President. Yet they seem oblivious to the slings and arrows that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each endured throughout their terms in office. Did you ever encounter an awareness that this has lamentably become the permanent political climate regardless of who holds the White House?
A: Very little. People have short memories, and forget that the press was tough on Bill Clinton, Obama, and Hillary Clinton too. Trump has become an expert at demonizing the media and getting his base to blame them for much of his troubles. Facts are no longer accepted as facts by a great portion of the country; now there are “alternative facts’’ to consider as well, and the president has been able to create his own alternate reality that his base readily accepts and believes in.