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Trump Was Always the Result of the Conservative Populist Coalition, Not the Cause

Salena Zito on

NEW ALEXANDRIA, Pennsylvania -- Ever since former President Donald Trump lost to President Joe Biden in 2020, there has been a flag hanging from a home not far from where I live that reads "Trump 2024" -- one of the thousands I have seen across the country in the past two years. But yesterday, when I drove past this home, that sign was gone.

The Trump flag is a phenomenon I have written about for years. I have noted that it wasn't really about Trump himself. It was mostly about the conservative populist movement, using the name of its only standard-bearer to let people know they were not going anywhere. At that point, no one else had stepped up to fill the void. And so, the flag bore the Trump name.

When the "Let's Go Brandon" moment happened, many of those Trump signs were replaced with Brandon signs. If you've never understood the conservative populist movement, the significance might escape you. It was always about being a part of something. And for a time, that was about supporting Trump.

I do not know if the owner removed that flag or whether it fell to the elements after two years because no one opened the door to answer that question for me. But it did make me wonder, one week after the election, when plenty of his voters blamed him for the red wave that fell short, whether that sentiment faded for some of them. Could it be that some or many of Trump's die-hards were ready to move on?

What made Trump inspire voters in places like central Appalachia is that he recognized their strengths, which had been long ignored and often ridiculed by the cultural elite. The media, the political parties, the corporations, Hollywood and academia looked down their noses at ordinary people who live here and basically anywhere more than 20 minutes outside of major metropolitan areas. These people, however, have their pride. They still hold dear the resourcefulness their parents and grandparents taught them to survive when economic lows creep into their hometowns. They know how to hunt for their meat and smoke it, raise chickens, keep a family budget and work all day with their hands. They rarely expected a handout, let alone believed they were entitled to one or entitled to anything at all.

While many of those voters were a generation away from some of those traditions or crafts their parents practiced, they were still very much part of their cultural identity. Their coalition formed long before Trump descended that escalator in 2015. He was never the cause; they were already there, just waiting for the right person to speak up for them. He was the result.

 

They showed up and voted in the midterm elections in 2006 against the Republican establishment. Some of them voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because of his aspirational message, then voted Republican two years later because he did not live up to the ideals he had run on.

They were uninspired by Mitt Romney in 2012, so they sat back -- Obama became the rare president who earned fewer votes in his reelection than he did in his first run. But they showed up in force in the 2014 midterm elections, and by 2016, they had settled on Trump as the only one who understood their potential. His message was about them, not him. And it worked.

By 2020, that message was all about him. After the election, it was even more about him. But the voters didn't leave in the way political observers thought they would because there was no one there to fill that vacuum. So, they stayed. That all started to unravel as governors in Georgia, Florida and New Hampshire showed their prowess in taking on the cultural curators while still being able to govern. When all three of them, along with Gov. Mike DeWine in Ohio, won massively in their home states last week, some voters started voicing out loud they were ready to move on.

A lot of them stayed home last Tuesday because of Trump's decision to make the midterm election results all about him. They worried his picks would be beholden to his every whim rather than what was important to them, and the red wave died on the vine.

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