Nikole Hannah-Jones writes about her home state of Iowa and why white voters that made Barack Obama a household name by winning him the Iowa primary in 2008 turned their backs on the Democrats for Donald Trump.
Gretchen Douglas is a corrections officer from Marshalltown. The 53-year-old had been a Democrat her entire adult life and describes herself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative. She’s a supporter of unions and gay rights and abortion rights and said she doesn’t want to breathe dirty air. She proudly talked of her daughter’s success as a chemist, mentioning that not long ago the only options for women were teaching and nursing. She holds a degree in accounting and can tell you exactly the share of the national debt she and her husband carry.
Even as the recession caused Iowa to shed hundreds of state jobs, Douglas managed to hold onto hers. But in 2012, for the first time in her life, she registered as a Republican, and last week she voted for Trump. Douglas told me she had switched parties because she felt Obama had been irresponsible with spending, causing the national debt to soar. She said Democrats were spending too much on social programs for people who did not need them.
“I don’t want to throw Granny out in the snow, and I think the least of our brothers should be taken care of,” she said. “But I think that those who can work should.” Douglas said there was a time in her life where she was struggling, and so she applied for welfare for herself and her young children but was denied. She didn’t think that was fair, but she worked hard and turned her life around. But these days, she said, “I kind of think for some social programs there is no stigma.”
Douglas never mentioned race, but polls including a recent one of Trump supporters have shown that white Americans’ support for entitlement programs declines if they think black people are benefiting. And the longer Douglas talked, the more she revealed other reasons she had voted for Trump.
When Obama was elected, she hoped he would “bridge race relations, to help people in the middle of Iowa” see that black people “are decent hardworking people who want the same things that we want.” She said people in rural Iowa often don’t know many black people and unfairly stereotype them. But Obama really turned her off when after a vigilante killed a black teenager named Trayvon Martin, he said the boy could have been his son. She felt as if Obama was choosing a side in the racial divide, stirring up tensions. And then came the death of Michael Brown, shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo.
“I’m not saying that the struggles of black Americans aren’t real,” Douglas told me, “but I feel like the Michael Brown incident was violence against the police officer.”
The Black Lives Matter movement bothered her. Even as an Ivy League-educated, glamorous black couple lived in the White House, masses of black people were blocking highways and staging die-ins in malls, claiming that black people had it so hard. When she voiced her discomfort with that movement, she said, or pointed out that she disagreed with Obama’s policies, some of her more liberal friends on Facebook would call her racist. So, she shut her mouth — and simmered.
Trump clearly sensed the fragility of the coalition that Obama put together — that the president's support in heavily white areas was built not on racial egalitarianism but on a feeling of self-interest. Many white Americans were no longer feeling that belonging to this coalition benefited them. A recent study by sociologists from Harvard and Tufts found that white Americans believed that they experienced more discrimination than black Americans. Trump spoke openly to those Americans, articulating what many Iowans felt but could never say. It was liberating.
“Trump was crass, and he was abrupt,” Douglas said. “But I felt like he was going to take care of the things that mattered for me, and honestly I was very worried about our country.”
And she voted for Donald Trump.
As I said before, what I'm afraid of is that the next two years will be Democrats scrambling to try to win back Gretchen Douglas. When push came to shove, Gretchen Douglas decided that the racist who would "take care of her" was better than the black guy or the woman or the party who supported them. She was never a Democrat, only a potential Republican who finally showed the country who she really was.
And trying to win her will absolutely come at the expense of people of color. That I can guarantee you.