Each presidential campaign has its own rhythm and meaning, but this one unfolded with dizzying intensity, an exaggeration of everything that came before. It felt like the culmination of so many long-emerging trends in American life. The decomposition of traditional institutions. The descent of politics into reality-TV entertainment. Demographic and economic shifts quickening the impulses of inclusion and exclusion and us vs. them. All of it leading to this moment of great unsettling, with the Republican Party unraveling, the Democrats barely keeping it together, and both moving farther away from each other by the week, reflecting the splintering not only of the body politic but of the national ideal.
The newest voters of 2016 were in elementary school when Barack Obama was first elected. Many of their parents were toddlers when Richard Nixon flew off on a helicopter, or when young antiwar legions went “clean for Gene” and helped Eugene McCarthy uproot the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. The two generations were joined in this violent election year, in Chicago, where antiwar protesters clashed with the police in ’68, and where a multiethnic assembly of demonstrators collided with a Donald Trump rally in ’16.
The sensibility of this year shares something with those days when everything seemed up in the air, unresolved, and when the rhetoric was juiced with words like establishment and anti-establishment and revolution and rebellion and silent majority, and people were challenging a rigged system or trying to take the country back.
What's happening in America? What does it mean to be an American? These are questions defining a campaign unlike any other. For nearly 35 days, we crossed the nation looking for answers. This is what we found.
What supporters of Donald Trump told us:
Cheryl Kramer, 70, is elder stateswoman of the Republican Party in Dubuque.
She trusted George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq but felt wronged when she learned that thousands of troops had lost their lives fighting under false pretenses. On Obama she didn’t know where to start: his inability to lead, his liberal streak and those executive orders. She believed he steered the country into a moral and economic tailspin.
“People are surprised when I tell people I’m for Mr. Trump. We just have to admit that our government let us down. We’ve tried it the Washington way all this time, so maybe we need another way.”
Monty Alexander, a 38-year-old software salesman in Iowa, had voted once before, for Obama in 2008, but quickly grew to regret it, thinking that Obama had gone too far in seeking gun control.. He dreamed of another Ronald Reagan, the president of his childhood who seemed to stand up for America.
“People worked for those houses, they worked. Now people just keep on getting all this free stuff. And Obama, he doesn’t seem to care. He just thinks the rich have too much.”
For Jason Powrozek, an earnest 17-year-old senior at Anchor Bay High School in Michigan, support for Trump was rooted in personality more than the construction of a wall.
“I have always looked up to Mr. Trump. I like how when he walks into a room, he commands the room. I enjoyed [‘The Apprentice’]. He was almost like a role model for me. That show was able to convey his personality and charismatic appeal. I would like to become more like him. I am currently not that way, but in my own progression I would like to develop my personality more like Mr. Trump’s. I would like to become successful and help other people become successful.”
Ken Matiyow is a longtime political aide to Michigan state Sen. Jack Brandenburg, the first Michigan senator to endorse Trump. If you wonder what the Trump phenomenon said about America, Matiyow advised that you spend time knocking on doors in Macomb County. The feedback at address after address was the same. All anti-immigration, all the time.
“Man, does that strike a nerve. It gets an incredible response when you get to talking about illegal immigration. People don’t want them to ever be legal citizens.”
Rick Cruz, a 62-year-old self-employed entrepreneur in Michigan, had read many of Trump’s books, including “Midas Touch” and “Why We Want You to Be Rich,” and had taken courses Trump sponsored in real estate and wealth development.
“I admire success.”
What supporters of Bernie Sanders told us:
Justin Tauke of Dubuque, Iowa, is 30, with his own little house and car and an IT job at a credit union.
When the meatpacking plant was sold and then closed, he saw it as a manifestation of corporate indifference toward everything but profit. “My father would not see the correlation between that and his own life. He would be more likely to blame it on immigrants. That blame is more readily available to him.”
Jon Brown, 19, a civil-engineering student who had started volunteering for Sanders.
“If you look at Republicans or Democrats, you are looking at 10 years of things people don’t trust. Before, we could trust our government, but then we had the NSA wiretapping, and while the world is getting bigger, our politics are getting so much smaller and more corrupt.”
Paul Garver, 75, is a retired union organizer from the Boston suburbs who was volunteering in New Hampshire.
“Your generation’s debt is our generation’s draft,” he said to students.
Ben Kreider, a 32-year-old with a dirty-blond goatee, is a graduate student at Brandeis.
“Bernie’s ideologically pure. People know Republicans have been bought by special interests, and there’s a feeling that Hillary might be bought, too. But Bernie is definitely not bought.”
Steven Siegel, a bespectacled 26-year-old working on an MBA in nonprofit management, exists outside the gender binary.
“I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity that I could as being a perceived man and white, and still I feel straddled,” Siegel said.
At South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, Nikeeya Ali’s goal for this election season was to stay “woke.”
“I have two brothers, and it bears on my soul every day. It’s always in the back of my head that something might happen to them. He might not even have to open his mouth — just by the color of his skin. I want a politician who will address that and mean it.”
What supporters of Hillary Clinton told us:
Allison Simpson of Dubuque is her late 20s and with her boyfriend, Nicholas Hockenberry, worked hard for Obama in 2008. Both believe Clinton would best sustain the Obama legacy.
“I understand the Bern phenomenon. I know how it feels to get swept up. I still love Obama and have those strong feelings.”
Ismail Fersat came from Turkey 16 years ago and lives in Milwaukee. He’s still two years away from citizenship.
“When Trump came out, I felt offended by the comment he made. The Muslim is blah, blah. That hurt me in a big way. I see democracy as something else. When Trump came out, boom, no more. I’m done with the Republicans. I said, ‘I’m on the wrong side!’ ”
Nakea Pennant, 19, is a biology major at South Carolina State University.
“I’m personally excited to see her. She’s the one who can get the job done. She has years of experience.”
Choco Meza is the top volunteer at Clinton headquarters in San Antonio. She was an immigrant herself, arriving in Texas in the early 1950s at age 3 with her parents and four siblings from Zaragoza in the Mexican province of Coahuila.
“I can think of all these ways that I could have been held back, but I had to work through it, we have to work through it. Just because things don’t happen right away is not reason to be belligerent to our own country. We may not be a perfect country, but we certainly are a great country.”
Rosie Castro got involved in politics in San Antonio, bringing her twin boys with her to meetings and rallies all over town. Her twin sons, now 41, are Joaquin and Julian Castro. One served in the Texas legislature and is now a congressman. The other, after being mayor of San Antonio, now works in President Obama’s Cabinet as secretary of housing and urban development and is on the shortlist of potential running mates for Hillary Clinton.
“I just so fundamentally believe in the ideals of America. I believe that fundamentally Americans are good people. Even though we face difficulties, in a democracy there is a way to change things. You have to be engaged. You have to understand that things don’t just happen.”
Joaquin Castro, the congressman, talked about hope and fear.
“In the era of Donald Trump, you can’t stay quiet. They are talking about us. The people of this neighborhood. And a lot of that talk started in Texas. This was ground zero.”