When I first saw Kraig Moss and his guitar, he was standing outside a school in Council Bluffs, Iowa, wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots. From the “Trump President” badge pinned on his 10-gallon hat, it was clear that he was one of hundreds of fans who had come to see the then would-be Republican presidential nominee campaign before the all-important Iowa caucus in February. We chatted briefly as we waited for Trump but I then forgot about Moss until, six weeks later, I spotted those unmistakable cowboy boots outside a rally in Boca Raton, Florida.
“Kraig?” I shouted. “We met in Council Bluffs!” After a blast of his signature “Trump for President” song, Moss told me he was trailing Trump around America to put purpose in his life after the death of his son from a heroin overdose. The candidate had won him over, first with his vow to secure the border, and then with the following: “He came out from behind the podium to the front of the stage and said ‘I want to let you know that I’m sorry for your loss. I know it must be hard’,” Moss recalled. “I was crying at the time, and he said ‘You need to calm down, it is going to be OK. This is a good father right here.’ I was torn up in tears.”
Soon after, Moss sold his John Deere tractor for $20,000 and paid his way to more than 40 rallies in almost 20 states. By the time we met again at the Republican convention in July, Moss, by then known as “The Trump Troubadour”, was performing for the crowds at the political event.
On the spectrum of Trump fans I’ve encountered over this election cycle — from the white working-class men who see him as their saviour, to moderate Republicans who support him only because they detest Hillary Clinton more — Moss was a true believer. So, following Trump’s recent fall in the polls, after the emergence of a video in which he described groping women and subsequent sexual assault allegations, I called to see whether the Trump Troubadour was still happy riding on the Trump Train.
Moss was driving a truck through Appalachia when I reached him. As a Christian, he said, the revelations had caused him some heartburn. But the man who has met more Trump voters than most said that he, and the other hardcore fans, were undeterred. Trump’s message about reversing economic decline and making America great again still outweighed everything else for them.
Imagine an ordinary American, he told me, who had spent a fortune paying builders to fix a leak in his house, only to find that they walked away with his money without solving the problem. “All of a sudden here comes this guy who is highly recommended and has a track record of success. He dresses shabbily, has a foul mouth and talks like a sailor. He is not a person that I agree with on everything,” explained Moss. “But the thing is nobody has been able to fix my problem and this man tells me that he can. I believe him and I am going to hire him to do the job. We Donald Trump supporters don’t agree with everything that he has done in the past and we all wish that he would make it easier for us to stand up and fight for him but the Trump Train continues to grow and grow and grow.”
For people who loathe Trump, such steadfast loyalty is hard to fathom. How, they ask, can anyone continue to support a man who has insulted everyone from immigrants to women to handicapped people to war heroes? If Trump loses on November 8 — an outcome the polls suggest is probable — it is more likely to be because his rhetoric has repelled independents than because he has lost hardcore supporters such as Moss. Win or lose, the sheer devotion of many of Trump’s followers is testament to a new type of politics that will continue to resonate beyond November.
Trump has sparked a populist fire that has already radically altered the landscape of US politics. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, the GOP vowed to reach out to Hispanics and other minorities. Now many establishment Republicans worry that Trump’s campaign rhetoric, tapping into a community that feels abandoned by the political elite and fears that their white culture is under threat, has dramatically turned back the clocks on that effort. After the election the Republican party will face a bitter fight for its soul, as the pro-trade wing led by Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, faces the wrath of the anti-establishment Tea Party and the anti-trade and anti-immigrant Trump supporters.
David Gergen, a politics expert who has advised four presidents, stressed that the 2016 race had completely upended American politics. “An Arab ambassador emailed me a few months ago to say, ‘We have reached a new milestone. For the first time in history, it is easier to understand the politics of the Middle East than the politics of America,’ ” he said.
“Trump has essentially run as an outsider who staged a hostile takeover of the Republican party. If he loses, as is expected, he will still have won the votes of some 50m voters or more, and they will represent a continuing, potent force, roiling with resentments.
“Before Donald Trump brought his wrecking ball to the party, one might have thought it highly likely that Republicans could reunite after yet another losing election. But one of Trump’s many, ugly legacies is that the chances of the party losing its coherence — or even breaking up — now seem better than 50:50.”
“Trump took the Tea Party and made it the Trump Party,” said John Feehery, a former top Republican congressional aide, causing a “major realignment” of the GOP. If Clinton wins the presidency, Ryan will find himself in an impossible position, since trying to deal with the growing anti-establishment, pro-Trump caucus inside his party will complicate any efforts by the ambitious politician to work with the White House towards implementing his preferred tax- and trade-related policies.
Grotesque income inequality in the US — illustrated by the fact that fewer than half of American households are now considered middle class — coupled with the pessimism that emerged from the lingering effects of the financial crisis, created a perfect storm that allowed a candidate like Trump to emerge.
The fact that a New York tycoon with an opulent lifestyle has captured the hearts of large parts of working-class America is a throwback to the days when people admired the rich and successful, not because they had anything in common but because they believed that the American Dream would ultimately give them, or their kids, a chance to achieve the same.
“It shows you the deep psychological impact of the 2008 crash,” said Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman from Philadelphia. “People feel that ‘I am doing a little better now but it could be taken away in a moment’s notice.’ ”
Trump has harnessed that insecurity with a nativist pitch that blames the rest of the world for America’s woes. Matt Borges has spent hours thinking about that message. As head of the Ohio Republican party, his aim was to help Trump win the crucial swing state. But he has found himself in the crosshairs after he urged the candidate to tone down his rhetoric — a plea he initially made privately before going public — sparking the ire of the campaign.
Borges originally backed John Kasich, his friend and Ohio governor, for president, and still struggles with some of Trump’s comments. His wife Kate is not a fan. “The thing that people embrace is that he doesn’t have anybody in his pocket,” she told me as we sat in their Columbus home, which has no Trump sign in the front yard. “Well, no, he just has himself, so he can do whatever he wants, and that’s scary.”
By the time I sat down with Matt and Kate after the video emerged, Trump seemed to have finally crossed a line that would end his streak of defying political gravity. “To liberals he crossed the line . . . when he said ‘I’m running for president as a Republican’. To some people, like John Kasich, he crossed the line when he talked about . . . Putin and about trade deals,” said Matt. “Obviously he crossed the line with my wife at some point. A lot of people feel like he crossed the line when that revelation came out.” The video had sent the Republican establishment into a spiral. Some politicians pulled their support, but others withdrew their endorsements only to reinstate them after feeling the wrath of Trump voters.
The indecisive stance taken by some Republicans reinforced yet again how Washington elites have repeatedly misunderstood the Trump phenomenon. Borges stressed that while some of Trump’s rhetoric was “completely indefensible”, the Republican party needed to embrace the lessons from his unlikely rise, which saw the tycoon secure a record number of votes in the Republican primary even as he competed against an unprecedented 16 rivals.
“It’s not about border walls, it’s not about Muslim bans, it’s not about a lot of the negative and divisive things that he embraced. It’s about giving a voice to people who feel like they haven’t had a voice in a long, long time,” said Borges. “It’s about bringing people across and saying . . . ‘Washington hasn’t worked for a long time, we know that, so we’re going to go and do it completely differently than it’s ever been done before.’ That’s what people were dying, begging to hear.”
Lou Mavrakis is one of those people. The 78-year-old Greek-Italian is mayor of Monessen, a former steel city in Pennsylvania that has seen much better days. When I met the lifelong Democrat, who had invited Trump to speak after President Barack Obama did not reply to letters for help, he described his city in apocalyptic terms: “If Isis was to come to Monessen, they’d keep on going. They’d say someone already bombed the goddamn place.”
Mavrakis believes that the political establishment in Washington is out of touch with the conditions in places such as Monessen. “These people are living in a third world country,” he said. “You’ve seen it yourself, first-hand, when they’re dodging rats and they’re dodging all kinds of critters and snakes and everything.”
Mavrakis was working out at the YMCA one day in June last year when he heard that Trump had launched his campaign for the Republican nomination. None of his gym friends thought Trump had a chance but they were intrigued nonetheless. “The general consensus was it would be refreshing to have somebody like Trump . . . So when he becomes the nominee, these people were all kind of, ‘Well, he’s the guy for us.’ ”
Monessen lies across the border from eastern Ohio, where thousands of Democrats from former industrial strongholds are now crossing party lines for Trump. Just as Ronald Reagan won over a generation of blue-collar Democrats in the 1980s, Trump is bringing anti-trade voters into the party of free trade.
“You will get a lot of working-class voters who did not vote before who will become involved. Elements of the Democratic party will join the Republican party and some Romney-Bush Republicans will join the Democratic party,” said John Feehery, the former Republican aide.
For Mavrakis, this move between parties is indicative of the fact that many people are tired of being taken for granted. When we talked in early October, he hoped that Barack Obama, who was about to visit Pittsburgh, would at least call him with support. But no call came. When I asked the White House if Obama had received any of the three letters that Mavrakis had sent, they had no reply.
Before Trump came to town in June, the last big politician to visit Monessen was John F Kennedy in 1962. Mavrakis would have considered voting for Clinton if she had come, or if Obama had called him. While he has complaints about Trump and does not believe the tycoon can fulfil all his promises, he appreciates that he showed up in the Democratic stronghold.
“That’s like putting your head in the lion’s mouth. When you start taking people for granted you lose them, and that’s what’s happening with the Democratic party here in our area,” Mavrakis said, before adding angrily that Democratic fundraisers had recently called him asking for cash. “These people have got to be idiots. You see a man with one leg and you’re walking around with new shoes on, and you’re asking him for money. What the hell has this country come to?”
Donald Trump’s appeal doesn’t extend only to blue-collar workers or people facing the repercussions of the financial crisis. At the Trump rally in Monessen I met Laura and Gary Schisler, a middle-class couple whose perspective on Trump helped to explain how he has defied the odds. Laura is a retired teacher who was raised in Japan, and Gary is a retired air force pilot. For this evangelical Christian couple, Trump was not their first, or even second, choice in the GOP primary. “I was probably a Never Trump person because I did think that he was pretty obnoxious,” Laura said when I visited their home near Pittsburgh recently. “We probably thought it was a joke, just because he was so arrogant,” she continued. “As time went on, we started to realise that he wasn’t the typical politician . . . He wasn’t afraid to step outside of the box.”
Gary is voting for Trump as the lesser of two evils, because “Hillary Clinton is in this for Hillary Clinton”. As a military man, he was appalled when Trump disparaged John McCain, the Arizona senator and war hero, for being captured in Vietnam, but he will still hold his nose and tick his name this November. “I just wish the man would think for about three seconds before he opens his mouth. [But] I think that Donald Trump can do more for America once we overlook his social ill graces.”
The Schislers also clearly illustrate how, win or lose, Trump has transformed the political landscape for future candidates. Laura thinks that the GOP will face a bigger fight if Trump wins, as establishment politicians will feel under threat. If he loses, she wants to see a tamer version in four years. “I certainly hope that we get a non-traditional candidate like Trump, but one with better credentials, a ‘cleaner’ background without skeletons in the closet, and one who speaks more carefully.”
Trump has been anything but careful in the final weeks of the campaign, most recently with his suggestion that he might not accept the election result. If he loses, it will be because moderate Republicans such as Gary and Laura have decided that they can no longer hold their noses. Keeping educated young Republicans like Jessica Fernandez and Armando Ibarra in his camp is also crucial.
I met the Cuban-American couple in early 2015, before Marco Rubio, the Florida senator, launched his campaign. Fernandez, president of Miami Young Republicans, and her boyfriend Ibarra, who trained in finance and economics at MIT, were two of the most passionate volunteers I saw during 19 months on the trail. Over beers, they argued — with the kind of zeal then completely absent from Jeb Bush fans — about their belief that Rubio, a telegenic Cuban-American, was the next Ronald Reagan. Their dejected faces when we met in March at a Rubio rally in West Miami are an indelible memory. It had become clear that he would lose the Florida primary the next day, ending his campaign. I saw Fernandez, 31, again at the Republican convention, where she recalled the pain of seeing Rubio lose and appeared only lukewarm in her support for Trump.
This October, however, Fernandez explained how she had come around to supporting a man who — as Ibarra put it — they originally thought was “a jerk”. She was swayed by “seeing his children and hearing his children talk about him . . . it softened my heart”. Both she and Ibarra came to the conclusion that they had been too removed from what was happening between the east and west coasts of the US and that the country needed political disruption.
“I don’t think it was until after Marco lost that I realised that maybe I was too close to the political class,” Fernandez explained. “There was a bit of distance from what I thought was really people’s thoughts and fears and challenges in daily life and what Donald Trump was able to actually put his finger on . . . It took some time for me to realise that.”
Fernandez is not fazed by his rhetoric about women. She says a misogynist would not hire a woman, as Trump has done, as his campaign manager. And she adds that her four brothers make Trump’s language seem mild. Like many Cuban-Americans, she is also not overly concerned about Trump’s immigration rhetoric. She argues that his extreme remarks actually give people “more space to have relatively more moderate views” without being pegged as “Hitler-type” racists.
Ibarra, 32, who took longer to come around to Trump, said he believes America is facing the same schism that sparked Brexit in the UK. “I didn’t understand the mood of working-class voters in the rust belt,” he told me. “As I really thought about it, I started grasping that perhaps it’s not Donald Trump that’s wrong.”
Later, he tells me that the Trump movement will continue to have an impact, even if he loses. “The question is whether this movement becomes an independent entity, or whether the Republican party adapts its ideology to integrate this movement into its agenda.” Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman, also thinks that the GOP faces a huge fight. “I still think that the traditional Republican party is going to win, but I can’t say for sure.”
Ibarra argues that one positive outcome of Trump’s candidacy may be that it has “loosened the ideological rigidity” of the Republican party in ways that will allow it to respond better to Middle America. Looking ahead to 2020, when Rubio may run again, he thinks “a smart and more polished establishment conservative will reposition himself to incorporate a defiant attitude and more nationalist perspective that speaks to Middle America.”
Whether 2020 ends up pitting a President Clinton against a less bombastic version of Trump, or another combination of candidates, Mavrakis holds out no hope for this November, which boasts the two most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. “When these people get inside the 495 Beltway [that runs around Washington], I don’t know whether it’s the damn air, the water or what the hell it is, they become stupid and forget about the rest of the country,” he said. “This may be the first time I go into the booth and write Lou Mavrakis in for President. Really and truly, I’m serious.”
Demetri Sevastopulo is the FT’s Washington bureau chief