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Opinion What I learned in Trump Country

Hillary Clinton pauses while speaking Wednesday after her loss in the 2016 presidential election. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Anyone out there? Anyone at all?

That’s what the John Lithgow character says in the movie “The Day After” after trying to raise someone on the radio in the wake of a nuclear attack on Kansas City. A friend mentioned the movie to me Wednesday as we chatted on the sidewalk in downtown D.C. This city is dazed. This is not Trump Country. But now Donald Trump is coming to town, and as Hillary Clinton said in her (classy, composed, presidential) concession speech, “Donald Trump is going to be our president.”

I know a lot of people who are extremely distraught about this reality. They are fearful and feeling personally endangered. Their emotions are not a trivial outcome of the election: The country has just elected as president someone supported by the alt-right and endorsed by the KKK, someone whose dog whistles could be heard by everyone. When you’re a parent, you field calls from kids who are upset about something and want reassurance, and your job is to say, in some form or other, “It’s not the end of the world.” This is harder to articulate on the eve of Doomsday. I skew optimistic, even in moments like this, but recognize this as a character weakness that inhibits me from doing the rational thing, which is digging a bomb shelter.

All this is typed here in full acknowledgment that words no longer matter. It’s like truth: Another irrelevant concept, obviated by events. Two plus two equals five. There, I’ve said it.

Also, by the way, all experts in the world of politics, from strategists to pundits to pollsters, should resign immediately, as a matter of personal honor. This should be the official end of the worship of Big Data. Seriously, who would want to look at a poll ever again? (One stunning factoid in the wake of Tuesday’s vote is that Clinton made exactly zero trips to Wisconsin during the general-election campaign.)

Election Derangement Syndrome and how we got here

There are some voices lurking in my notebook — quotes scribbled a 1½ weeks ago during a trip to southern Ohio, which is Trump Country. I asked people whom they were going to vote for, and why.

Deborah, a Trump voter, 58: “I’m tired of what’s in Washington. He’s an everyday person. He’s like us.”

Ron, a Trump voter, 56: “I don’t trust her.”

Tim, a Trump voter, 52: “She lied” (about her emails).

Geri, a Trump voter, 69: “Family values. We wholeheartedly are pro-life.”

Jerri, a Clinton voter, 44: “Experience. And she’s a woman. . . . She’s for hard-working people.”

Four years ago, I spoke to hundreds of voters for stories in The Washington Post about the swing states. I traveled around Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida. In the past 24 hours, I’ve read punditry saying that journalists are in a bubble and need to get out more, and I don’t disagree with that, except there are limits to what you can learn anecdotally with drive-by interviews. Parachuting into a place is not the same thing as living there.

And here’s the dirty secret: People make up their minds for all kinds of reasons. It’s impossible to ignore the racism, sexism and xenophobia of Trump’s campaign. There are single-issue voters, too: They don’t believe in abortion, for example, or they fear a “gun-grabber” and follow the voting directives of the National Rifle Association. Or they think that globalization and free trade has killed their manufacturing economy, and they look to the candidate whose position on trade seemed to fit their self-interest (and was very much like Sen. Bernie Sanders’s position, during the Democratic primary cycle).

The electorate is like a foaming sea. There are not orderly sets of waves.

People are tribal, though. They often make decisions based on the simple calculation of which candidate is part of their tribe. This leads to the “whitelash” argument, but that analysis is complicated by the voting patterns of 2008 and 2012 in southern Ohio, where Obama got nearly as many votes as Republican challengers John McCain and Mitt Romney. In Ross County, for example, Obama received 45.4 percent of the vote in 2008 — and then he actually improved on that, to 48.3 percent, in 2012. Clinton this year got only 34.2 percent. Study the map, and you’ll see that pattern all over the Ohio River Valley and the Rust Belt generally. There were legions of “Obama-Trump” voters.

I asked a very smart colleague why Clinton lost.

“They don’t like her,” she said.

A lot of this was personal. Clinton has had more enmity directed against her, and for longer, than anyone in recent memory. Almost a quarter-century ago, I wrote a piece in The Post’s Style section about the new first lady after people began fussing about her name. She had been “Hillary Rodham” in Arkansas many years earlier, but after Bill Clinton lost a reelection bid she began going by “Hillary Clinton.” After Bill Clinton won the presidency, her office began referring to her as “Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Controversy! That middle name made people uncomfortable! There were polls about this. News stories reported that a majority of people thought she should be just “Hillary Clinton.” When I asked her press secretary, Lisa Caputo, why her boss was going by “Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Caputo answered, “Hillary Rodham Clinton is her name.”

You would think that would settle the matter, but no: Clinton was, and is, a pioneer, and life is hard on the frontier.

She faced one backlash after another. Her reflexive secretiveness didn’t help; it was a politically fatal flaw. But it was always striking how much the anti-Clinton fervor of the 1990s was directed more against her than him. There were so many “Hillary haters.” And the thing they disliked about her the most, it seemed, was her ambition. A first lady was not supposed to be so ambitious. The key allegation against her was that she wanted to be president herself.

And that was true. She never quit, she kept coming back, she was the Revenant. She almost got there. So close.

I doubt it is any great consolation to Clinton that more Americans voted for her than voted for Trump.

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