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Conservative populism stronger than ever despite Trump’s election loss

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While President Trump failed to win reelection, his coalition of conservative populist voters has grown and diversified. His backing among African Americans this year jumped by 4 percentage points, while Hispanics from a huge range of backgrounds — with families hailing from Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela — increased their support for Trump by double digits. 

Republicans also did well down-ballot. Democrats, who had expected a “blue wave” on Election Day, got a stinging rebuke instead. They lost at least a dozen House seats, significantly shrinking their majority in that chamber, and also losing key Senate races in states they were forecast to win, such as North Carolina and Maine. 

The Maine polls were so far off, they predicted a loss for GOP incumbent Susan Collins by 5 percentage points, when she in fact won her fifth term by 9. 

The new GOP coalition was so strong, it overrode Democratic money and influence — led by former President Barack Obama — to make gains in the state legislative chambers of Arizona, Minnesota, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. 

This success of the Republican Party coupled with the loss of Trump proves that the GOP doesn’t need the president at the top of the ticket to hold its coalition together. And while the nation’s elite fervently hoped that conservative populism would disappear with Trump, 2020 proved this new voting bloc isn’t going anywhere. 

Even now, elites still fail to understand why people vote the way they do, and continue to portray conservative populists as uneducated whites driven by anger and resentment. Once again, they are missing the strength and diversity of this coalition. 

Trump was never the cause of this movement, he was the result of it. Here, five GOP voters demonstrate the diversity and resilience of this bloc, which will continue to upend partisan politics and reject the globalism, secularism and coastal elitism symbolized by the American Left. 

Salena Zito is the author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.”

Realigning Roots 

Jim Custer
Jim Custer

Sheriff Jim Custer is as Fayette County, Pa., as it gets — all the way down to practically being born into the Democrat Party. 

“You registered Democrat … because that’s how everybody was in the county,” said Custer, 55. 

“There were stories that if you wanted to get hired in Fayette County, it didn’t matter what was on your resume. All the leaders at the top did was go down to the election bureau, check your registration, and if you were Democrat you got the job,” he said. 

This October, for the first time in modern politics, Fayette County switched from being dominated by registered Democrats to being outnumbered by registered Republicans. Custer — who was elected to office as a Democrat — moved with them and changed parties. 

Nobody was outraged, he said. No one from the local party even called to ask why he made that decision. 

The retired Air Force veteran said Trump didn’t bring him to the party — he’d been privately voting for Republicans for 20 years — but now he’s out and proud. 

“I’ve always considered myself a grassroots conservative even as a registered Democrat,” said the married father of two. “Now that I am an elected leader I want the people to know this is what you’re getting. Like it or not, this is who I am now.”

Gen Z GOP

Emilee Borowski
Emilee Borowski

Emilee Borowski didn’t think much about politics four years ago. Then, she was 16, still in high school and enjoyed drawing, hanging outdoors or being with friends and family — pretty standard stuff for a teenager growing up in small-town Wisconsin. 

Today, she’s a 20-year-old University of Wisconsin (Eau-Claire) marketing major and more politically engaged than she ever could have imagined. 

“I attended a College Republicans meeting back in September, and it really helped me finally set in stone the candidate I would be supporting,” she said of Donald Trump. 

“I was already pro-life and a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” she said, but current events also swayed her toward the GOP. 

“The brute force that ultimately ended George Floyd’s life is not acceptable in any way, shape or form, but the answer is not to defund our police forces,” she said of the Minneapolis police killing of Floyd and anti-cop protests that roiled the country this summer. 

Borowski is now a member of the Eau Claire College Republicans. She also served as a field organizer for the county party in the 2020 elections. 

Young people, more than any group, felt the most pressure to vote against Trump — as progressive messaging on social media and constant street marches, led by their peers, demanded they vote Democrat. 

But even though she has lost friendships over her political leanings, Borowski said she is certain about where she belongs. 

“Trump lost, but that doesn’t mean conservatism lost. I’d argue we’ve gained support. As for me, I’m a conservative. No amount of social media posts or bullying will change that.”

The Switcher

Barbara Clark
Barbara Clark

At 64, Barbara Clark is 17 years clean from her drug addiction, closer to her faith and children than ever, and far removed from her role as the director of Ohio’s chapter of ACORN — once one of the nation’s largest social justice organizations of low and moderate-income families. Back in 2008, Clark led the charge in getting people to vote for Barack Obama.

The Columbus, Ohio, native said her support for Obama that year was simple: First, he was a black man going for the highest office in the land, and secondly, “he talked about hope and change. And me working in the community as an outreach person, we needed hope and change.”

Clark supported his re-election in 2012 with the group AFL-CIO’s Working America, another progressive get-out-the-vote organization. In 2016, she did not volunteer for Hillary Clinton, but she did vote for her.

For her whole life, Clark said, she thought the Democratic Party reflected the needs of the entire community. But then she said she had a political awakening: “I looked around my community and thought, ‘This is what we get?’ There has got to be something more, because hope and change never made it here.”

Her decision to switch from Democrat to Republican turned out to be easier than she imagined.

“Me being from a black community, I just went along [with] what everybody else said: ‘You’re supposed to be a Democrat.’ But when I started thinking, ‘What does the Democrat Party get me?’, it’s the same thing every election: ‘We’re going to fix schools, we’re going to fix prisons, we’re going to fix jobs, and we’re going to make sure you’ll be able to start your own businesses.’

“We never got it.”

Clark didn’t just switch parties, she actually worked for the Trump campaign in 2020. While her state rewarded Republicans with more seats in the state legislature and gave Trump a healthy 9 percentage point victory this year, his overall loss was hard for Clark to accept. But her newfound conservatism isn’t going anywhere.

“I believe that I will be Republican the rest of my life,” she said.

The New-Wave Hispanic

Maria Trent
Maria Trent
Phelan M. Ebenhack

Maria Trent breaks all sorts of conventional wisdom. 

Born in Puerto Rico, raised Catholic by a single widowed mother, she is now a Latter Day Saint, a small-business owner and a Republican. 

“My mother was from the generation where you didn’t talk about your politics and I actually have no idea how she voted,” said Trent, 48, who is married with a blended family of six children all living in Daytona Beach, Fla. “I just gravitated towards the Republican Party naturally.” 

Now the chairwoman for the Volusia County Republican National Hispanic Assembly, Trent’s reasons for voting GOP are clear: “Lower taxes, fairer trade deals, judges, the right to life, national security.” 

This year, Hispanic voters like Trent sent a shock wave to Democrats in her home state of Florida as well as in Texas — not just by fully embracing Trump but also down-ballot Republicans running for office. 

“The Democrats look at all Hispanics as one big voting bloc,” she said. “Republicans understand there is a variety of different Hispanic voters, with different needs and experiences in this country from how they got here to what we have done once we have.” 

While disappointed about Trump’s loss, Trent said the alignment between Hispanics and the GOP will only get stronger. 

“There is a real opportunity for Republicans to gain more support in our communities because they care about the things we care about,” she said. “They understand our aspirations, because they are shared American aspirations. 

“It has inspired more of us and a more diverse group of people to run for office. That’s the result that I see from the Trump presidency.”

The not-so-shy suburban voter

Claire Mahoney
Claire Mahoney

Smart, educated, opinionated, Claire Mahoney is a wealthy 62-year-old who lives in the lush, leafy Eastover neighborhood of Charlotte, NC. She is just the kind of suburban female voter who Democrats hoped to steer away from Trump this year.

A born and raised Texan, Mahoney has led a cosmopolitan life, as her husband’s finance career has taken them all over the country.

“I have lived East Coast, West Coast and now Charlotte — all in cities,” she said.

But her politics have never budged. “I have always been a Republican,” she said, adding that she has spent years volunteering or fundraising for GOP candidates no matter where she has lived.

But in 2016, Trump was not her first pick.

“Oh, I was a Marco Rubio supporter and Trump’s manner of doing things was very hard for me. But then I realized, wait, this is just what the country is clamoring for.”

And while Democrats flooded North Carolina with ads to sweep the state’s legislature this year, the only seat that turned blue was the governor’s. “They threw all the money in the world at us to shame us from voting for Trump or any Republican for that matter,” Mahoney said. “Especially suburban women. They tried to shame us for just being us.

You see, that’s the problem, they underestimate us. They thought we’d just walk away from our values.

“It backfired.”

Mahoney said she’s optimistic about the future of her party.

“I can’t wait to see what’s next. I think the experts will always underestimate us, always miscalculate who we are. To be honest, I’d rather be us than them.”

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