Johnston’s break for President Donald Trump in 2016 led to its inclusion in a new book that hit stands this week.
“Trump’s Democrats,” written by University of Virginia historian Stephanie Muravchik and Claremont McKenna College associate professor Jon A. Shields, explores why a few, usually blue communities strayed from norms and supported Trump four years ago. The authors lived in three municipalities, including Johnston, to find answers on why such a Democratic stronghold flipped.
Prior to 2016, Johnston had not voted Republican in a presidential election since Richard Nixon in 1972. However, Shields noted in an email interview that Nixon’s win in 1972 and Ronald Reagan’s blowout victory in 1984 saw plenty of surprises as both came out in landslides.
Trump lost the popular vote four years ago, so Muravchik and Shields wanted to explore what made him different.
“We also noticed that many of the explanations for Trump’s victory had one thing in common: They all assumed that something must be seriously wrong with Trump voters,” Shields said. “They voted for him, we were told, because of racism, authoritarianism, status anxiety or some other defect. We wondered if the popularity of these explanations was partly a result of academics’ social and cultural isolation from the communities that supported Trump. And so we were eager to live in these communities so that we could better understand their local political cultures.”
Shields said Johnston wasn’t alone among New England communities that turned red in 2016, but they were drawn to the town because of its suburb status to a “major metropolitan city” like Providence. Shields said it “complicates the assumption” that Trump’s primary appeal was to rural or Rust Belt voters.
He said that he and Muravchik discovered that Trump didn’t feel like an outsider to Johnstonians, either.
“Instead, he resembled some of the most admired Democratic insiders,” Shields said. “This is because of a tradition of boss-centered politics in Johnston and some of the other places we studied. By that we mean some of the most powerful local leaders are patrons: In return for absolute loyalty, these leaders promise to take care of their people by cutting deals, and corners, if possible.”
Shields said that academics and journalists might be out of touch with the “boss tradition,” as it’s been weeded out of other political systems across the country.
“Therefore, the Democratic Party and political culture in communities like Johnston is much more Trumpian than it is in major cities and college towns,” Shields said. “But it still lives and clings for survival in more working-class communities. And it’s a reminder that the Democratic Party has not just been the party of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – it has also historically been the party of Democratic bosses like James Michael Curley, Richard Daley and Joe Polisena.”
Polisena strongly supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, and he proudly displays a photo taken of them during her trip to the town while she was on the campaign trail.
“We noticed that there were many Democratic communities that embraced Trump in New England,” Shields said. “We didn’t want to ignore these communities simply because they happened to be located in states that voted for Clinton, as many others have done. So, instead, we selected cases from different regions of the country.”
Shields said he and Muravchik spoke to people across the spectrum, including clergy, reporters and local politicians, as they “soaked up local culture” at meetings and popular hangouts like Brewed Awakenings.
“Trump is not just another businessman turned politician like Mitt Romney. His leadership style and person is not like the bosses of corporate America. It’s much more like the Democratic machine bosses that once ruled many American cities,” Shields said. “We miss the people we met there, and are forever grateful for their generosity. We disguise their identity in the book, but some will recognize their names in the acknowledgements.”
Shields said they discovered that Johnston residents are very tied in to local politics, and joked that their research made them “feel like such bad local citizens.” That proved to be a key thread to follow in uncovering why the town went red four years ago.
“We focus a lot on these differences in the book and believe that the localism in places like Johnston might be important to understanding Trump’s appeal,” Shields said. “Long before Trump promised to place America first, Johnstonians were putting Johnston first.”
Shields said he sees Johnston likely sticking with Trump this election as well, but offered a caveat at the same time.
“Our sense is that these communities are slowly becoming more Republican, partly because they’re watching more Fox since the 2016 election,” Shields said. “They’re also becoming more aware of the differences between the national Democratic Party and their local one. So, we think Johnston probably votes for Trump again. Then again, we social scientists struggle to understand the past and are not very good at predicting the future. So, we’ll see.”
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