Unlocking Trump’s Strategy and his Appeal to Voters with Jared Yates Sexton

Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, concerned citizens have been trying to figure out what exactly happened and what lessons can be learned from the ordeal. President Trump has quickly redefined what it means to be the President of the United States.

To shed more light into the Trump presidency and the 2016 campaign, CDS’ Director of Communications, Jeremiah Pariag, spoke with reporter and author Jared Yates Sexton, who has some of the most significant insight into how Donald Trump became the leader of the free world.

Beginning in 2015, Sexton started covering the 2016 U.S. presidential election, attending multiple rallies for both candidates, including over 20 Trump rallies. From this, he has a unique perspective on Trump’s strategy, as well as the mentality of his voters. Jared also authored a book on the 2016 election titled, The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage, and has also been a contributor to the Washington Post, the New York Times, Politico, and others.


Jeremiah: You’re very well known for attending and covering Trump rallies. How many rallies have you been to overall?


Jared: That’s a good question. I think it’s somewhere in the area of eight, nine, or ten. You know, those are the Trump rallies, the Trump events. Overall, during the 2016 campaign, I’ve been to somewhere in the area of 20 rallies.


Jeremiah: What surprised you most about these rallies?


Jared: Well, it depends. You know, these things are malleable situations – the Trump rallies. The thing that initially surprised me the most, which has sort of become commonplace and understood over time, and you might remember that when Donald Trump was first emerging on the political scene, he was treated very much as a side show. It was this thing where he would come out, and he would ramble on for an hour-and-a-half, or two hours, and the cable news channels would basically put their cameras on him. When I started going to these rallies, nobody was really reporting on the crowds, or really how he was connecting with them. They just sort of looked at them sort of as yokels who wandered-in off the street or something. What I ended up finding was a surprising combination, which was that the rallies themselves were never actually about Donald Trump.


What we’re seeing now, since he’s been holding these ludicrous rallies as President, is that his rallies are sort of boring. He runs off topic all the time. He doesn’t hold the attention of the crowd. In a way, it turns into a waiting game where people are waiting for these phrases like “lock her up,” or “Mexico’s going to build the wall” or rants about NFL players. So what I actually found was that Trump turned into sort of a mobile center that these people could come together around. The movement that he represented was a group of people who had basically been shamed or socially punished for political correctness, and anger, and incorrect positions, and Trump allowed them to see that there were other people like them, who felt like them.


Jeremiah: So Trump sort of galvanized these people and validated their political identities?


Jared: Yes, that’s the exact right word, he galvanized, metastasized, however you want to look at it. He sort of gave them a meeting spot, and then eventually, he became the symbol of it. It wasn’t about his politics, it was about the identity of being a Trump supporter. It wasn’t about having the identity of, you know, wearing the “Make America Great Again” hat, it was about the persona about it, as opposed to the political aspect of it. The more that I watched that, the more that I realized, it really wouldn’t matter what he does, politically, or how many scandals he has, or often he fails, as long as he’s there for them to latch their identity onto. So it was actually less of a political thing, and more about a cultural event.


Jeremiah: On that note, with the so-called Trumpism, do you think that Donald Trump is more of a symptom, or is he a product of a type of mentality that existed long before he came onto the political scene?


Jared: Well, I actually think one of the biggest mistakes that pundits, or experts, or anybody in the supposed “know” have made, has been saying that Trump is somehow an aberration. He’s not. He’s not the disease, right, he’s the symptom of that. We have a real problem in America, and pretty much everything boils down to this – it’s the narrative myth of America, which starts with this legal foundation, the constitution, with all these enlightened thinkers who say they’re for freedom and equality, when in actuality, you have a document that is not about freedom or equality at all, but instead  sets up a hierarchical  and racist system. So America’s real problem is, that for generations, we’ve had all of these inequalities, and we also have a group that, for lack of a better term, believes in fascist ideals. So when Trump starts pushing them towards “fascism,” he’s not actually pushing them there, he’s actually reflecting this anti-freedom, anti-equality rhetoric and philosophy that’s been in the American mind since its founding. And this is a problem that we’ve always been in denial of, and we’ve always pretended like we’re arcing towards justice, but in truth, this has always been a condition that we’ve been fighting, and the fact is that we won’t admit that based on a constructed narrative of ourselves. I think, eventually, this is why someone like Trump could even become President.


Jeremiah: I want to return to that later. I want to return to the rallies for a moment. Being a member of the media, and someone who was monitoring these rallies from an outside perspective, did you ever feel threatened or unsafe about attending these events?


Jared: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, one thing that would happen at all these rallies is that there’s a lot of paranoia. The Trump supporters believe that, and we’ve seen this with the rise of the Q-Anon situation, and we’ve seen it with the violence that has taken place at these rallies, and marches, and protests. They fundamentally believe that they are living in a society where there is this mass conspiracy against them and their cousin, and their families, and their livelihoods– they’re constantly in danger. This is why Alex Jones has gained a following and makes millions of dollars. They firmly believed that they were being infiltrated, there were going to be these undercover agents who were going to be there to possibly to kill them, possibly to undermine what they were doing. What I saw a lot of the time was I would watch a lot of intimidation. I would watch Trump supporters gather around people and say, “I know that you’re not here to support Trump,” or ask, “are you a spy?” They would get in their faces and threaten them with bodily harm. The protesters were threatened constantly, the people outside were threatened constantly; and, to be honest, the only reason that I was able to do what I was able to do is because I am a white man, and I come from a working-class, mid-western family. And, so, when I dress, or how I present myself, is how these people look and present themselves. So as a result, they sort of had these xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic paranoias where they automatically believed that if you’re a white man in this audience, dressed a certain way, then they didn’t necessarily have to worry about you. But I did have to do a lot of code switching, I had to do a lot of control over how I reacted to some of the more terrible things I would hear. It was a little touch-and-go, there, and certainly there was a lot of harassment that came from the reporting I did.


Jeremiah: For sure. So looking Twitter, I noticed that you have received hundreds, if not thousands, of death threats because of your opinions. I’m sure that for someone in your position, it’s not always an easy situation to deal with.Considering that you are still covering the administration quite a bit and weighing in on things like Justice Kavanaugh’s hearings, have any of the threats ever made you want to stop working or anything like that?


Jared: You know, I sort of had to face a realisation, and I was actually talking about this with somebody the other day, eventually it happens so much that you just sort of become immune to it, it just sort of becomes the norm of your life. In the very beginning, there were some people showing up at my house, there were some things showing up online that were very specific, and, you know, I live in South-Eastern Georgia, and this is sort of the country where neo-Nazis and confederates groups live. So, it was a little touch-and-go for a while, but I reached this moment where, weirdly enough, I started to realize that the times I got threats were the moments that I had actually touched a nerve. And so it ended up becoming a thermometer of sorts, where I realized that with the reporting that I was doing,  either on rising fascism, or these sort of trends in the country, I started to realize that I was actually reporting on stuff that people didn’t want people reporting on. As a result, and I’ve talked to other reporters who’ve had this new situation, it just got to the point where I could almost take the pressure of the moment and understand what that meant, and recognize that there were going to be a certain amount of harassments or threats.


Jeremiah: Thank you for doing that. One of the other things I noticed from looking at replies to you on Twitter is that a lot of people who were critical of you often believe that America is in the midst of a Civil War. How much do you believe or buy into that rhetoric?


Jared: Well, I mean, not to get too far in the weeds, here, but I think a civil war is less of a conflict than it is a state of mind. I would hesitate to say civil war. I would probably say that we’re in the middle of an existential crisis. People will say, now, that we’re divided on issues. I don’t think we’re necessarily divided on issues, we’re divided in terms of realities. And this perception is sort of a dissolving of what we would originally call objective reality. e’re sort of splintering enlightenment ideals and I think we’re witnessing a changing of total thought. So, Civil Wars? Obviously you know we’re not having hundreds of people die in the streets every day, but this is a situation that I believe is a little bit more dangerous and a little bit more tentative than a lot of people would like to admit. I would not rule out the possibility of it getting worse or it getting more dangerous.


Jeremiah: Over the last year or so there have been several books written on the inside workings of the Trump administration. Omarosa, Michael Wolf and now Bob Woodward have published books that would have likely been devastating to any other president. You published a book on Trump rallies paints a pretty grim picture of the Trump campaign and its supporters. Why do you think the Trump administration has proven to be so resilient among his base despite these revelations and publications?


Jared: Well I think it’s a combination of a couple of things. First of all, especially when I was reviewing the election, I saw that Trump made a pretty ingenious filter which he used to insulate his supporters away from any contradictory reports or any criticisms. And so the moment this fake news thing was taken over by Trump, he took over the Republicans early on, by sort of becoming  an arbiter of truth. I think he started filtering out the arguments and facts  of his opposition, so his base I don’t think would leave him for anything. But I also think that there’s this other sort of problem that’s taking place, which is that American political media would really like our politics to be like a television show or like a novel. We want our politicians to have narrative arcs, we want them to have personalities and flaws, and eventually what we do with everybody is that we reduce them to caricatures.  And I think for Donald Trump, having all of these scandals and all of this dysfunction at some point eventually  turns it into its own reality and people say, well that’s what he thrives on, dysfunction, he drives on scandal— this is who he is as a person, as a politician. And it sort of takes the sting out of it. We’ve become malleable to moments of narrative and right now we happen to have an incompetent president who might very well be a criminal and because we sort of allow these narratives and myths to take over, that’s where we are, and we have allowed our government to become a television show. I think that really doesn’t speak very well for us or our ability process nuance.


Jeremiah:  Definitely. It has seemed especially concerning to us in Canada. The news and rhetoric in the States has been mind-blowing. You just spoke about scandals, and I want your take on the anonymous Op-Ed that was published in the New York Times recently. There is a line in there that mentions that there are adults in the room. As an American and as someone in the media, does that reassure you at all?


Jared: It doesn’t. The one thing I can tell you from being a journalist is that I’ve been overwhelmed by former Trump campaign staffers and Trump staffers who are looking for anybody in the world to tell their story that they’re the ones standing up to Trump. We have a lot of people who are concerned how they’re going to be seen when Trump leaves office or how history will judge them and so I think they’re trying to get on the right side of all of that. I actually think that line of thinking has been incredibly dangerous, especially to the Republican party. I bet that if you got Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell off the record, away from cameras, they would tell you that they’re doing their part to keep Trump from his worst Demons. I actually think that this sort of rationalization has caused  a lot of problems, and it’s allowed a lot of this dysfunction to continue. I think that these people who think they’re the heroes of the story have stood by aided, and abetted, and empowered Trump. I saw the op-ed and I really felt that was another instance of that. I do not think that there are adults in the room and if they’re in the room they should probably walk out.


Jeremiah: Thank you, I really appreciate how honest answer was, and that’s kind of how I felt when reading through it as well. The whole idea there is two-track presidency; the track that Donald Trump thinks that it’s on, and reality. I’m not sure if that’s reassuring in the slightest.


Jared:  Look, they’re all soft coups going on—no one wants to talk about that. There are these derelictions of duty where people are betraying orders, or stealing notes. We’re talking about these instances where the actual foundations of our republic are being taken for granted and being broken. I don’t take a lot of comfort or a lot of reassurance from any of that.


Jeremiah: For sure. No, it’s pretty troubling overall and am very curious to see how the Republican Party in general under the administration can recover through this. So on that, Robert Mueller’s investigation seems to be coming to an end and you think that the results from that could have an impact on the opinions of Trump voters. Do you think that could be the final nail in the coffin for his support?


Jared: I think that there’s a finer point to be made here which is that everyone talks about Trump’s base. I think the last poll that I saw put him at 36% approval. I have a really hard time believing that trump’s base represents 36% of the American voting public. I think Trump’s die-hard base, those who you would  call Trumpists, represent probably 25% of the population. Then we have another group I think is starting to splinter and fray. From  the people I know– I come from a family that overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, who’ve been waiting for someone like him for decades — I started to notice them  say things like “I hope we have better choices next time.” They don’t regret voting for Trump, because they weren’t going to vote for Hillary Clinton, but they want some sort of alternative and I think that they understand is Donald Trump is dysfunctional and probably shouldn’t be President. Trump’s base, however, the ones who are diehard, these are the same people. I will never forget my father saying, that Richard Nixon didn’t do that anything that any other President didn’t do, he just got caught. And that sort of rationalization, or that sort of mental gymnastics, in terms of blaming these people, I think that they’ll simply rationalize anything that Trump gets accused of or convicted of as either being a setup or, again, being something that everybody does and he got caught. So no, I don’t think there’s anything he can do to lose that 20% to 25% of his diehards. I think that that pie is baked, and everyone else will have to build a coalition to work around those people, going forward.


Jeremiah: I know that, especially with the midterms coming up, the idea of an impeachment has become more prevalent, especially with the media. Hypothetically, if Trump is impeached, what can you expect from his base. Do you think that Trumpism will continue, surge, or die off?


Jared: I have a really big concern, and I differ from a lot of people in this regard. I don’t necessarily think that the Mueller investigation is a silver bullet. I think there is a real possibility he could be impeached, and removed from office. But, I also have a hard time believing that would be a peaceful transfer of power. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this, but his tweets after Mitt Romney lost to Obama in 2012 are really concerning. Mitt Romney was the nominee that Trump didn’t really support that much, and he was tweeting that we should be in the streets, marching on Washington. The idea that he could be removed from office without some show of power and desperation, I don’t think that that would happen. And I think his base, going back to the idea of civil war, would react violently—I really, firmly believe that. The Republican party, sadly enough,would soldier on and try to repair themselves, but I really think that what they have done so far in this situation really makes the reconstruction of the GOP a necessity. I would really like to see the more rational actors on that side form a new, more reasonable party.  I think that they would automatically say that Trump was never one of them. They all had their questions day, they wrote op-eds, they talked behind the scenes. It would be a really murky time in history, and I’m a little bit more anxious about that than a lot of my colleagues are.


Jeremiah: Speaking of that, do you think that the Republican Party has a chance to rebuild its centrist position, or are the days of Republicans like John McCain a thing of the past?


Jared: They absolutely do. I was one of those firmly anti-Iraq war voices back in 2003, and eventually when it came out that the weapons of mass destruction weren’t there and that this was a political folly, I always expected the actors to be held responsible and for America to scorn the people who led us into that war. What I saw there is just an incredible ability to pave over history. And with this whole situation, I really think Republicans are going to say Trump was never one of us, he never actually had our support, and that all of us were very very wary of him. I think the Republican Party could probably rebuild itself and there’s even a possibility that you can see libertarianism take over the party. But, this faux-populism I think is what will eventually do the party in, and what will eventually lead to some sort of change.


Jeremiah: Okay, so on that note again, I want to talk about how this could be done. Do you have any ideas for how the current state of politics, not just in America but overall in the world— could be fixed at all?


Jared: In America or the world?


Jeremiah: A little bit of both. We are seeing a rise in populism everywhere. We are seeing these more right-wing leaders popping up on a global scale. Do you know any ways in which this can be fixed or how the scales can become more balanced in the future instead of the two political sides continuing to shift farther and farther away from each other?


Jared: I think one of the main problems we currently have is a lack of political imagination. Our elections, and our process has looked the exact same for a very long time, which is one of the I think reasons why think Donald Trump was able to come along. You have all of these millionaires and billionaires, who succeed because  they see a trend and then they buck it. And this whole system has just been very stale for very long time. The problem right now, I think, especially in America, is that you have two parties that are beholden to a corporate system of donors and fundraising that has pretty much made them fight on social issues, but not much else. What I would really like to see is sort of a new movement towards reinvesting in public works and reinvesting in public projects. I think that would happen under the current economic climate, which is like, don’t spook the corporations. Never ever upset them. They could possibly leave and take everything with them. I would really like to see a moment of economic patriotism. I would like to see a moment where, you know this could be Democrats or Republicans, this is up for whoever wants it, actually call on these corporations to pay their due taxes in order to make schools and roads better, and these public works and infrastructure that we all need to succeed. I think eventually changing the dynamic of, arguing over abortion or immigration,  towards one over the things that obviously have not been working and haven’t been [unintelligible] towards society. I would love to see a bottom-up approach where—one of the parties come out and say, for the midterms, “what were focusing on is making our roads and transportation better.” I would love to see them say, “you know what, you don’t trust big political entities, so what we’re going to do is we’re going to go into your towns and fix your roads. We’re going to all of a sudden build this up from the bottom again and make you trust us again.” I think that these social issues and these divisive postures that we have makes this almost impossible and makes politics  a zero-sum game.


Jeremiah: I totally agree with that. A lot of the time the arguments are very much reduced to the social issues and not much focus on anything else, and a lot of the electorate tends to vote on those issues alone. But I think I agree with you in the sense that there are other things on the table that we need to work towards, collectively, as a country.


Jared: Exactly. And the moment that we do that, we can call a moratorium on a lot of this stuff. If I’m talking to you and I’m pro-choice and your pro-life, there’s no conversation to be had that is the end of it; but, the moment that we start talking about mass transportation and replacing infrastructure in schools, and all of this, it changes the entire dynamic.


Jeremiah: The urban planner idealist in me hopes that you’re right.


Jared: Public works – my spouse is in public works –  is so important and I think it is spurring a lot of that idealism on.


Jeremiah: And there’s a lot that can be done and a lot that needs to be done on those fronts as well. So I think it’s a good place that people need to step up on.


Jared: One-hundred percent.


Jeremiah: Another important part of the dialogue is that the Democrats, and a lot of people on the left over the last few years, have been declaring that this is the year of the so-called Bluewave. Do you think that this is little premature?


Jared: Oh, 100 percent, I don’t trust the Democratic Party to not screw up these elections. You know, I really think that there is an echo of the Trump election, right? At one point– which we say with the Hillary Clinton campaign– is what  happened with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, is that at some point she wanted to run up the score. She was out in Arizona, so she was in these state that she wasn’t going to win, but she was out there in hopes that she could possibly earn an overall mandate. And there’s, sort of putting the cart before the horse in this situation . There’s every chance in the world the Democrats are going to be extremely disappointed by the results in November, simply because I do not know what their universal rhetoric is, I don’t know what they’re call for action is. I know that a lot of the time they’re talking about, “should we talk about this, or should we talk about that?” And I don’t think that that necessarily is an overall winning strategy. When Republicans win midterms, it’s because they have a call to action. And I don’t think that that’s there right now for the Democrats.


Jeremiah: What worries me is that there seems to be a certain level of infighting—maybe not as much as in 2016—but definitely level of infighting within the Democratic Party between the so-called establishment Democrats, and the side that is more associated with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Do you see that being a problem moving forward?


Jared: I see it always being problem. This has been a factor in democratic party politics since there has been a democratic party. It started in 1968, this current iteration that we have, and heated up in 1972 and it hasn’t cooled down. I think this is the big question and the problem is because they’re uneasy bedfellows. You basically have one group, the Bernie Sanders side, that basically wants a literal revolution. They don’t just want economic change, they want to turn the entire system on its head. And you have another group that has held power for so long that their main interest is the maintaining their mechanisms  for power. And I don’t think that those two things work, especially when the machinery of the whole thing is owned by the establishment. There is an actual critique to be made on the 2016 primary process of the Democratic Party and I think that they lost out on a lot of potential voters who possibly could have created a new coalition. This is going to be the major issue with the Democratic Party in 2020, and we’re likely to see anywhere from five to ten major candidates on the stage for the primary debates. Onone side you’re going to see the median age be around 70, and on the other side maybe 38—I think it could be really stark.


Jeremiah: Do you think that the Republican party is more able to rally around the GOP candidate, regardless of who the Candidate is, as opposed to the democratic party, which is more known for allowing the infighting to continue all the way to the general election?


Jared: Oh, absolutely. This has always been the case. One of the reasons why they had such a problem with Donald Trump wasn’t necessarily his rhetoric, it’s because the Republican Party is all about who is next in line and that’s the way their primaries have always worked. Mitt Romney didn’t get it this year, he’ll get it the next year. John McCain didn’t get it now, he’ll get it later. I’ve spent a lot of time for my book researching the psychology and the inner workings of the Republican Party and conservatives, and they definitely come together under leadership and under a singular umbrella a lot easier than liberals do— I mean, it’s not even a comparison. If Donald Trump is the candidate, he might get a primary with someone like Jeff Flake or any number of people— possibly Kasich. I think that they’ll go ahead and coalesce behind him even if they have major problems with his operating style. I think the Republicans have a much easier time of doing that.


Photo: raschau/flickr