Gov. Mike Pence stood on the tarmac at Atlantic Aviation after one of the campaign’s last rallies and told me about the goals of a Trump administration. “It all begins with Donald Trump’s contract with the American voter,” he said. Pence discussed tax reform, ethics reform, infrastructure improvements, better trade deals and a cheaper replacement for Obamacare. No mention of building walls, rounding up illegal immigrants or banning Muslims.
Was he just playing the role of grace and steadiness to contrast Trump’s more outrageous rhetoric? Maybe. But Pence’s outline was not exactly the hell and brimstone that critics warned - and Trump often promised - a Trump presidency would bring to Washington’s institutions. Nor did it sound like it would furnish the radical break with the status quo that Trump supporters say they want. of Trump supporters as portrayed in so many news stories.
Over the past two years, though, I spoke to more than 3,000 voters in more than two dozen states. And the sense I picked up over and over was that they liked Trump for something deeper and less specific than the promises he made - “Make America great again” meant putting strength, grit and change on their side, not enacting a particular policy agenda. To a lot of his voters, that was the tangible benefit he offered. The policies he talked about were how he signaled he was on their side.
He made a raft of grand promises during the campaign, and he won’t be able to keep them all, even with a solid majority in the House and a slim one in the Senate. For them, as long as he shows that he has their back and makes a sincere effort to get things done - even if that requires compromise - his voters say they’ll keep faith in him.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Olympian
Yes, some Trump voters would love to see a border wall, and some of them do want refugees turned away. But what drove the Trump supporters I met on the campaign trail was a sense that the Obama administration - and Hillary Clinton by extension - hasn’t been on their side and that Trump would be.
Shelley Sullens, a Trump supporter from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has high hopes for the president-elect but not ridiculous expectations. “I have a pretty good idea how Washington works. It was designed to move at a snail’s pace,” she told me in October. The small-business woman said she never particularly agreed with Trump’s call for a wall on the border with Mexico or a ban on Muslims entering the country. “What I am looking for,” she said, “is a serious approach to picking jurists, working with Speaker [Paul] Ryan on fixing our health-care system and tax reform.”
Robert Hughes of Bulger, Pennsylvania, also said Trump should work with Congress. “I’m not looking for drama, I am looking for him to get behind closed doors and work with Ryan on taxes, regulation reform,” the retired military veteran said. Hughes also wants a Republican president making Supreme Court appointments.
All through the campaign, there was a gap between what Trump said and what he seemed to think he could actually achieve if he won. When I interviewed him in September , Trump came off as more serious than the flamboyant purveyor of blunt, sometimes racially insensitive rhetoric.
When I asked what he thought his initial focus would be in the first year, he cited nearly the same issues Pence did later: a comprehensive energy plan, taxes and Obamacare. “We have to start with healing the country by finding ways to work together,” he said. “One of those ways can be with rebuilding our infrastructure.”
In the early-morning hours Wednesday, when Trump delivered his victory speech, the only policy he mentioned was his aspiration to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.”
Would that work for Sullens? “Absolutely. This is a guy who said he had our back; working on our infrastructure is certainly an example of that. We, or at least I, never expected him to walk into the White House, turn on the switch and give America everything we want,” she said.
Presidents usually do try to keep their campaign promises, research has found, making a good-faith effort to do about two-thirds of what they said they would do while seeking the job. George W. Bush pledged that he would cut taxes and take steps to end “the soft bigotry of low expectations “ in schools, and he did both shortly after taking office. Barack Obama promised to address health care, and he pushed the Affordable Care Act through Congress.
One of Trump’s promises, of course, is to repeal that law and replace it - which may be a reminder that there can be a political cost to keeping promises just as much as breaking them. I met voters who had backed Obama in 2008 and 2012 but said they were supporting Trump this year because of the increase in insurance premiums since the law passed.
For a lot of Trump supporters, Obamacare contributed to a sense that Washington was no longer looking out for them. They believed their concerns burdening some people with new costs for the benefit of others wasn’t heeded.
They grew frustrated with mainstream Republicans, who won a majority in the House with a promise to scrap the law, even though they knew they couldn’t deliver with Obama still in the White House. The establishment Trump ran against in the primaries were the same as Democrats were, Trump’s voters felt - they just wanted to win. Trump sounded different.
Antonio Ripepi, a surgeon from Peter’s Township, Pennsylvania, said he went to bed smiling when he realized that Trump had won. “I started operating a couple of hours later still smiling,” he said. “I think there is this understanding in the press that we expect him to peel off everything he talked about doing as a candidate immediately as president. No. What was most appealing about Trump - for at least me - was that he had our back.”
For Ripepi and others, “having our back” is not about economic misfortune but rather a perceived loss of strength in the fabric of America. Not in terms of politics and policy, necessarily; he worries that his children and future grandchildren will not be able to experience the same things he did, while living in the same community that his father and his father’s father did. Will his kids be able to find livelihoods near home and enjoy the same traditions he did?
Under Obama, voters like Ripepi told me, people from less mobile, socially conservative places felt they had no voice. Under Trump, they believe they will.
To many voters, economic arguments were more important than Trump’s explosive rhetoric. When China subsidizes steel production, it cripples manufacturing and makes it impossible for American companies to compete, said Hughes, a registered Democrat, who spent the second half of his career in manufacturing in western Pennsylvania. During the campaign, Trump promised to crack down on China, which he said is manipulating its currency, by lifting domestic regulations on the steel industry and halting steel dumping.
But economists say that some of the trade policies Trump has proposed to punish China and Mexico for what he calls unfair practices would also hurt U.S. workers, potentially costing millions of jobs. Keeping that promise, then, might be in neither Trump’s interests nor his voters’.
How many Trump supporters really sound, now that he’s won the election, is hopeful - the same way Obama voters sounded after his victory in 2008. Eight years later, the people who backed the Republican candidate are the ones who think the capital will change to serve their needs better.
“If he takes it slow and steady and shows us he is working for everyone’s best interest rather than just special interests, we’ll be patient,” Hughes said. Mostly, Hughes thinks Trump will engage with everyone. “That was part of the problem with President Barack Obama,” he said, adding he never saw Obama talk to congressional members of his own party, let alone Republicans. “Even the suggestion that that kind of back and forth is happening is a solid beginning.”
Of course, Obama never managed to change the culture of Washington the way he pledged in his first “hope and change” campaign. On the other hand, his base never abandoned him for falling short.
Zito is a columnist for the New York Post and the Washington Examiner.