Red State Mysteries: Bud Light, Donald Trump

Billings, Montana

They got their country back. And they are welcome to it.

Colleagues in academia were commiserating last week after Donald Trump’s stunning presidential win. A couple of them stopped by my office for long talks as the results sank in. One wondered how she would explain to her kids that bullying and sexual predation are not OK, no matter what the president says. Another wondered what would happen to all of America’s designated outcasts: gays, Muslims, environmentalists and all those poor Latino children who came here illegally through no fault of their own.

“The bus to Canada leaves at midnight,” I shouted at one knot of colleagues huddled on the sidewalk.

“Can we still get on?” one replied.

Explanations for the Tuesday Night Massacre were all over the place, from Macedonian kids with fake news sites to Hillary Clinton’s emails, from white backlash to anti-feminism. But the consensus seemed to be settling around the theory that white working class voters, angry about feeling left out and left behind, struck back against government indifference, insider corruption, media elites and political correctness.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans said Trump was temperamentally unfit to be president, and 20 percent of them voted for him anyway. They wagered a high-stakes roll of the dice on a man they think should not have nuclear weapons at his fingertips.

I have spent nearly all of my life in red-state America, working and raising a family in towns the size of Billings and smaller. I have attended hundreds of public meetings in Texas and Montana, listened to thousands of people and covered dozens of elections. I think I get it.

But two things I will never understand about red-state Americans: Why do they drink Bud Light, and why did they vote for Donald Trump?

Take Garfield County, 99 percent white and the most Republican county in Montana in the last two presidential elections. This year, 90 percent of the county’s votes went to Trump. I spent a couple of weeks there covering the Freemen standoff in 1996, drinking Bud Light at the Hell Creek Bar and talking to dozens of people. I came away thinking they were raised the same way I was: always tell the truth, treat women and elders with respect, beware of city slickers, don’t cheat, don’t brag and don’t forget how hard it is for rich people to get into Heaven. In short, don’t be a Trump.

It’s not even as if Trump has much to offer his voters. Their fondest hope is that he will spur growth by cutting taxes, slashing regulations, restricting immigration and renegotiating trade deals to boost manufacturing.

But Trump supporters are likely to quickly notice a lot of empty air in those promises. Despite having the most expensive military and healthcare in the world, the United States is a cheap date: It ranks 24th among developed countries in terms of income tax burden per household. Getting cheaper won’t make us more attractive.

It’s true that the United States has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000, but production actually has increased during that time, and is near record levels. We manufacture as much as Germany, South Korea and Japan combined. Productivity and automation killed manufacturing jobs, not trade deals.

Nor is the United States particularly corrupt. Transparency International ranks us in the top 10 percent of countries considered to be least corrupt.

Gross Domestic Product grew only 2.6 percent in America last year, an unimpressive 115th among the world’s nations. But most of the countries who did better have tiny, developing economies. If it’s 8 percent GDP growth you want, move to Nauru, whose eight square miles in the Pacific Ocean are home to 10,000 people.

Of the few big countries ahead of us, Ireland had a one-time economic boost in 2015. In the first quarter of 2016, GDP growth there actually fell.

Fast-growing China is, as one analysis put it, is “a socialist-market economy with a single political party and no independent judiciary”—in other words, just the sort of things Trump backers are angry about. India is a famously difficult place to do business, and air pollution is so bad that just living in New Delhi is the equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

So 115th place in GDP growth doesn’t sound so bad, especially when you consider that we are ahead of the entire European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Israel.

Put it all together, and throw in our military might and long history of civil liberties, and we don’t look much like a failed state. You might even say we are great.

But that’s not what I came here to talk about. What gets my goat is the notion that Trump backers are justifiably angry because they get no respect from government and politically correct media. You know who gets no respect? Me.

I have listened to conservative talk radio for 25 years, and not only do I have no voice there, my views are never even mentioned except to be mocked. Why don’t I switch to liberal talk radio? You know why: It doesn’t exist in Yellowstone County.

I spent most of my career in a declining manufacturing industry—newspapers—but does Trump promise to bring newspaper jobs back? No. When he comes to town, he herds me in with the rest of the press into a fenced-off area, the better to point fingers at the “dishonest media.”

What’s worse, just weeks after I wrote that I was scratching Republicans off my November wish list, voters turned out in droves in support of my position. I’m not kidding. When you add up all the votes for president and both houses of Congress, more people voted for Democrats this year than for Republicans.

But the House is gerrymandered to suit Republican candidates, the Senate gives disproportionate weight to those thinly populated red states, and the presidency is ruled by the Electoral College, which Trump himself back in 2012 called a “sham and a travesty” and urged a march on Washington to oppose it.

I have defended the Electoral College for decades, and it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to criticize it now. But I have a couple of quarts of hypocrisy left in the tank, so I might as well burn one.

There’s just something fundamentally wrong when the party that gets the most votes loses all three branches of government (two down, with the Supreme Court still to go) and is no longer even considered a player, with not even a single committee chairmanship.

But you know what? Government doesn’t care about me, and that’s fine. I don’t care that Steve Daines refuses to return my phone calls. I don’t want politicians’ empathy. I want them to leave me alone and just run the country, with knowledge, with dedication and with at least some bare threads of manners.

I pay my taxes, I obey the law and, like a good Montanan, hold down multiple jobs.

Some days I get pissed off. But I don’t throw temper tantrums at the ballot box.

This piece first appeared at Last Best News.

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David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He published and edited The Billings Outpost, an alternative weekly newspaper in Billings, Montana, for 18 years before ceasing operations early in 2016, when he joined Last Best News, an independent online newspaper based in Billings.

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