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 were the causes and connections of the anger? Was it all real, or another inflated concept in this year of uncommon hype? Would the center hold, as it usually does? Was this “revolution” more like the original one, leading to a new era of liberty for we the people, as patriots from both left and right proclaim — or the French Revolution, with partisans effectively killing their own in the name of purity? Did all the noise of the campaign match the reality of how people were living their daily lives?
In search of answers, we traveled the country, attending rallies in airport hangars and high school gymnasiums, followed canvassers rounding up votes, observed Rotary Club breakfasts and fraternity-house debate-watch parties and morning coffee klatches and church sermons and sidewalk picket lines. All along the way, we listened to people talk in divergent ways about idealism and pragmatism and their concepts of America and what it means to be an American.
We heard the various expressions of anger, a cacophony of primal screams that spoke of both individual and group frustrations. But to define things only in those terms would be an oversimplification, reducing to easy stereotypes the contradictions and competing forces at play this political year.
For every disgruntled person out there who felt undone by the system and threatened by the way the country was changing, caught in the bind of stagnant wages or longing for an America of the past, we found someone who had endured decades of discrimination and hardship and yet still felt optimistic about the future and had no desire to go back. In this season of discontent, there were still as many expressions of hope as of fear. On a larger level, there were as many communities enjoying a sense of revival as there were fighting against deterioration and despair.
At the center of it all, amid the kaleidoscope of candidates and issues, stood Donald Trump, the New York provocateur who had seized the Republican Party from its bewildered establishment. What raging current in the American public could explain the rise of this say-anything man of wealth who was breaking every rule of modern politics? The answer was in the question, to a certain extent. Many people were done with convention, sick of political correctness and tired of waiting for the GOP to keep its unmet promises. Fear of the other was also a motivating factor, evident in individual discussions and the behavior of crowds at Trump rallies. But we also found an aspirational strain among his supporters. The evangelism of wealth — a respect for his authoritative vocabulary and monetary success, and a desire to follow him into a future of riches.
Despite the expressions of anger, this campaign was no dreary enterprise even among the self-identified discontented. Trump and Bernie Sanders channeled the most anger from opposite ends of the political spectrum, yet many of their supporters acknowledged the pleasurable dopamine effect of rallying around their man and listening to him speak.
Here came Daphne Papp, a mother whose kids were now grown and gone, scurrying down the icy parking lot outside the Executive Court Banquet Facility near the Manchester airport. In late January, she had driven north from Massachusetts with the idea of spending two days in New Hampshire. She ended up staying two weeks, loving every minute of her work as a Trump volunteer. It was two hours before the doors would open for Trump’s primary victory party, but Papp was eager to be in line early, no matter the subfreezing temperatures. This was the first time she had been involved in politics. She could not wipe the smile off her face. Listening to Trump made her feel ecstatic. Fabulous, she said. Fantastic.
And there went Zacharie Boisvert, with stringy black hair and beard, darting tirelessly around the crowd of Sanders supporters on a fenced-in demonstration lawn at the University of New Hampshire, down the street from the debate site where his candidate would take on Hillary Clinton. Boisvert's voice was unflagging, his relentless chants piercing the early-evening air. Hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate greed has got to go! Seventy-year-old Ree Katrak stood nearby, waving a sign and, between chants, telling students around her about the days when she and her generational cohorts helped end a war. Her smile was as broad as Papp's had been when thinking about Trump. Grass what? Grass roots! Who's got the power? We've got the power! Who feels the Bern? We feel the Bern!
Political campaign as tribal communion, with the thrill of live and unpredictable action. When the National Football League’s Super Bowl coincided with the final weekend before the New Hampshire primary, the Manchester Radisson had the same heady buzz you would experience in the team hotels of a Super Bowl host city. The packed lobby hallways throbbed with political tourists who had driven or flown in simply to gawk at the passing scene. Shrieks and shouts of delight resounded at the first distant glimpse of Trump’s trademark hair and orange face in the rear of JD’s Tavern when he emerged to be interviewed by Chris Matthews. The magic and mystery of American democracy.
Early on the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 30, television screens showed a jet descending out of the gray-and-white winter sky. It was a Boeing 757-200, the personal plane of Donald Trump, arriving at Dubuque Regional Airport as the first stop on his last swing through Iowa before the Monday-night caucuses. The local TV station kept its cameras zoomed in on Trump Force One, with its 24-karat-gold bathroom fixtures, as it made a flyby, circled around for a landing and taxied close to the crowd that had been waiting in the chilled hangar for two hours. In the modern American world of reality TV, no show now matches this year's season of politics, it seems.
In that crowd was Monty Alexander, a 38-year-old software salesman and protege of Cheryl Kramer, who was helping coordinate the county’s caucuses. As they waited, Kramer stepped up to the stage. She was 70, her thin brown hair teased up. The elder stateswoman of the Republican Party in Dubuque had been given a small job.
“Since we don’t have a flag with us, we are going to pretend like we have one,” Kramer told the crowd. She pointed to her right at the flat grounds of the airport tarmac.
“I pledge allegiance . . . ”
“Isn’t she awesome?” Alexander said. “She’s a legend.”
One chapter of the local Republican Party was closing, another opening. Over the next two days, Kramer planned to teach Alexander how to run a caucus. It would be her 11th, and his first. He was the new guard of the party in Dubuque — and the two poles had converged on one common thought: The principles that made them American were becoming as elusive as the imaginary flag they were saluting. They hoped a new president might restore them.
“Lately in this country,” Kramer had said earlier that morning, “there hasn’t been a lot to cheer for.”
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,” she said earlier that day. “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.”
Alexander dreamed of another Ronald Reagan, the president of his childhood who seemed to stand up for America. An ideal man. Not like the father who left his mother and him when he was a kid. Marco Rubio seemed too soft on immigration and too inexperienced. Jeb Bush represented the part of Washington that Alexander hated — old, moneyed and distant. He had narrowed his choice to Trump and Ted Cruz. He liked Trump’s brashness and capitalism, but was not sure that the real estate mogul really wanted the job. Cruz seemed to want it too much. Maybe seeing Trump in person would help Alexander decide.
There were swells of buttons on the coats of people all around him: “Bomb the S--- Out of Isis,” “Hot Chicks for Trump,” “Hillary for Prison in 2016.” Alexander’s political interests came to him late. His mother told him that all politicians were liars. He 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. Opposing gun control became Alexander’s first cause. He bought two handguns and an AR-15. He became so obsessed with Second Amendment rights that at one point he drew up a banner and stood on a Highway 20 overpass with it: IMPEACH OBAMA. Then he started listening to his boss and mentor, Rep. Rod Blum, a local congressman, who told him he had to become more reasoned in his political actions.
Alexander shared messages with Charlie Troy, his 63-year-old father-in-law, a Navy vet who had accompanied him to the airport to see Trump. They both were feeling isolated from their vision of America. Troy recalled an American Dream that seemed attainable and real. “They used to have these things called ranch homes. You could buy one for $6,000. You didn’t need to be rich, you didn’t need a lot, but you could watch the value grow and appreciate.”
“People worked for those houses, they worked,” Alexander responded. “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.”
“He has created a real divide in this country,” Troy said. “He is always calling out the rich so the poor people can get mad and vote for other people. The whole model is to divide and conquer us so he can get his way.”
The conversation veered toward race. Obama seemed too quick to judge white people, Troy said, and too quick to empathize with black residents in Ferguson, Mo., who complained of racial profiling, as opposed to supporting Darren Wilson, the police officer who was scrutinized for shooting down 18-year-old Michael Brown. “He didn’t have any of the facts, and he basically blamed us for everything,” Troy said. “And racism — it’s gone.”
“Now, I think racism still exists,” Alexander cautioned. “It’s just not as bad as it was 50 years ago. But it’s like anyone who doesn’t agree with him, he just makes it seem like we’re just . . . ”
They said together at the same time: “extremists.”
“I have no problem with black people — I have black friends,” Alexander said. “I don’t want to discriminate against gay people — I know people who are gay-married. But America, that was what it used to be about. How great America was. But now I hear all these terms. Racism.”
“Income inequality,” Alexander said. “That was a term I didn’t hear until eight years ago.”
Soon, the theme song from the Harrison Ford movie “Air Force One” was playing on the loudspeakers, and the jet emblazoned with “TRUMP” approached the hangar. With a theatrical sense of triumph, the candidate strode down the stairs, the emcee sounding like a Vegas showman introducing a heavyweight champ into the boxing ring. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the next president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.”
The candidate approached the microphone and began talking — about money.
“Three billion,” he told the crowd. That was the amount the federal government was set to pay to buy the president a new plane.
“Do you think I could have made a better deal?” he nodded with assurance.
All deals, all the time. Obama should have walked away from the deal with Iran to gain a stronger negotiating position — much as he did in the debate before the caucuses.
A group of protesters began to chant “Love trumps hate,” and Alexander joined the crowd in shouting them down. “U-S-A! U-S-A-! U-S-A!”
“Get them out of here,” Trump said to applause. That was strength, Alexander thought. Something the country had lost.
“Do we ever win?” Trump asked the crowd. “We’re like the big bully that keeps getting beat up all the time.”
“I hear you,” Alexander said from the crowd.
“We’re going to make the country great again . . . and strong again,” Trump said. Then he warned that some may not like his next line but that he would say it anyway. “And so rich. . . . We can’t be great unless we are rich.”
In the front row, Cheryl Kramer clapped. After his speech, Trump went around signing autographs with a black marker. He recognized Kramer and asked her, “So, what have you been doing?”
“Well, Mr. Trump, I’ve sent about 1,200 emails and made about 300 phone calls.”
“Good job,” he said. He grabbed the back of her hand and drew a check mark on it. The mark of Trump.
Monty Alexander made his way back to his baby-blue 2009 Chevrolet Silverado. “That plane, wow!” he said. “That’s a big plane for around here. If I was any happier, you’d have to drug-test me.”
At Sanders headquarters on Main Street, Justin Tauke watched the Trump rally on his computer. Not that he liked Trump — just the opposite, although he nonetheless empathized with some of the complaints he heard from Trump supporters he knew in town.
Tauke was 30, with his own little house and car and an IT job at a credit union, and the night before he had gone to the Grand River Center along the Mississippi to feel the Bern in the flesh. The arena was part of Dubuque’s thriving new riverfront, evidence of one of the contradictions in America today — that despite all the rhetoric about a nation in decline, Dubuque and scores of other cities were in the midst of a revival. Tauke stood near the rear wall, holding back tears, when Sanders, his hands conducting a symphony of anti-establishment argumentation, wound his way through the movements of a stump speech denouncing Wall Street and the corruption of politics by big money. The chords felt so right and true, the candidate’s words articulating so precisely what the young listener was thinking.
His father, Bob Tauke, had spent nearly a quarter-century at the packing house in town, hauling 70-pound slabs of pork loin off the conveyor belt and onto pallets. The business eventually was gobbled up by a larger company and then vanished, leaving employees like him scrambling through the maze of job retraining until he landed with a company installing water pumps in wells. This was a small business, and Bob began to think like a small-business man. He now worried about regulations and deficits and started voting Republican.
If the father did not see a larger picture of how and why Dubuque’s working class suffered, the son thought he did. It was partly through watching what was going on around him, but more than that it was through music. Justin Tauke saw a direct line from the Dead Kennedys and Dillinger Four and Against Me! and Fugazi and Smoke or Fire to the politics of Bernie Sanders.
“It seemed to express an urgency I felt,” Tauke said. “You have to do something now. And a lot of the music was kind of angry, too.”
But you’re no longer needed
The Dead Kennedys sang.
Or even cared about here
Machines can do a better job than you
This is what you get for asking questions
When the meatpacking plant was sold and then closed, Justin Tauke 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.” One small indication of their differing perceptions: Justin came home one day and told his dad that a worker at the Mexican restaurant he frequented had told him that he was going back to Mexico. Bob immediately assumed that the worker was illegal; Justin had only lamented that he was leaving.
Everything was connected, Tauke now believed, and that realization strengthened his sense of responsibility. Whatever decisions were to be made in Dubuque, he wanted to be part of the action. He started voting even in city council and school board elections, and would now attend his first presidential caucus — and stand for Bernie.
Who would stand for Hillary? The next morning, at the epicenter of the canvassing effort for Clinton at the Hockenberry home up the bluff near the University of Dubuque, Nicholas Hockenberry and Allison Simpson, his girlfriend, were running the show. To spend time with these two was to see the promise and peril of the Clinton campaign. Hockenberry and Simpson, both in their late 20s, were bright and engaging. Their operation was precise and well organized. Yet there was a sense of something missing.
Heart is what led Hockenberry and Simpson to work so hard for Obama eight years ago. It was largely in the belief that Clinton would best sustain the Obama legacy that they decided to work for her this year. Hockenberry called it “more like a placeholder type of thing.” Simpson said that she “felt ashamed to say I was for Hillary for a while,” and that she had to work up the courage to post her support on Facebook. “I understand the Bern phenomenon,” she said. “I know how it feels to get swept up. I still love Obama and have those strong feelings.”
In the end, Clinton aligned with the issues that meant the most to her, especially women’s rights and reproductive rights. Her parents got married when they were teenagers and had six children, and although Simpson would not have had it any other way, she nonetheless wanted women like her young mother to have alternatives. Her mother felt that way, too, and became a women’s advocate in Dubuque, sometimes facing the hostility of abortion opponents. There was one incident Simpson could not forget. She was a young girl leaving church with her family when someone shouted at her mother. “My dad was 15 and my mom was 16 when they were married, and someone is yelling ‘abortion lover’ at her. That stuck with me.”
So much of this campaign seemed to be about differing takes on what it meant to be an American. To Simpson, the defining characteristic was inclusion. “I think we have come so far and are so close to being able to bring people in no matter who they are to make them feel welcome here,” she said.
“But I still get so discouraged about the racism the Obamas have faced. On Facebook I saw a posting where they called Michelle a monkey. That appalled me. It had a personal meaning to me. I have a mixed-race cousin who was one of my best friends growing up. I remember one day I was in a Target with her and people called her nasty names. When she was 4 and I was 6.”
At midday on the eve of the caucuses, into the Hockenberry house walked two men who had driven to Dubuque from Milwaukee in a white Mercedes SUV. One of them was Ismail Fersat, who was from Turkey, and Muslim, and a successful entrepreneur who ran his own granite-countertop business. Once, back in Turkey, he was the national boxing champ. He came to America from Istanbul 16 years ago in hopes of becoming a professional boxer.
What did America mean to him? “For me, the key is democracy,” said Fersat, still two years away from citizenship. “I feel that if the people can tell honestly and confidently what they think without any fear, no matter what religion they belong to, what culture they belong to — that, to me, is democracy.” He had more than anything admired this about America — until he started to worry about it during this campaign.
For years in Wisconsin, he had thought that he should support the Republicans, because they would be best for business. Then along came Trump. “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!’ ”
The unintended consequences of the Trump phenomenon. It turned Fersat into an activist. Hockenberry gave Fersat and his friend Tamer Coruroglo instructions and a file of addresses that took them to a neighborhood of middle-class ranch houses like the ones Charlie Troy talked about. First stop, no one home. Second stop, no one home. Finally, Lorilee Hamel opened the door.
It was all perfunctory until Hamel heard that Fersat was from Turkey and was Muslim, and she lit up with interest and empathy. It turned out that she was the coordinator of English-as-a-second-language programs in the Dubuque schools. She told Fersat that she dealt with children and their parents from all over the world who were frightened and in need of help and understanding. That was what America was all about, she said. What did Hamel think of Trump? “Two things. One, he is embarrassing. Two, he is uncovering beliefs that are entrenched more than we want to believe. That is not good for the country, but it shows us we still have a lot of work to do.”
So much of what the Rev. Edward Mast's church in Dubuque was about was encapsulated in its name: Old Paths Baptist. It was a church where parishioners knew Scripture verse after Scripture verse, where the rafters filled with full-throated voices singing "Wonderful Grace of Jesus" in four-part harmony. The old-time religion was the best practice of religion, Mast believed, and it once led the United States to a position of moral certitude and prosperity.
But those days were long over, the pastor thought. So on the Sunday morning before the Iowa caucuses, as the faithful and the fearful drove to his tiny church, he made sure a special message was placed on the church’s front sign: “Only God Can Make America Great Again.”
With an easy smile, full beard and wide eyes, Mast looked younger than his 45 years. But the battle for the country’s soul, he said, had begun before his birth. It started with Bibles being taken out of public schools and hippies instilling godless values in their children. That led to a country that had elitist judges who approved of abortion and sodomy and same-sex marriage and a leader who seemed to embrace those sins.
Last summer, as it became clear to evangelicals that they were losing the legal battle over same-sex marriage, their national organizations vowed to galvanize their congregations to vote in higher numbers than ever. Ted Cruz, a senator from Texas, recruited them vigorously, finding at least one pastor in each of Iowa’s 99 counties to endorse him. Mast was his guy in Dubuque.
America’s problem was not so much economic or racial as spiritual, Mast told his flock, and the spiritual thing to do was to caucus the next day. “Don’t let anything sidetrack you,” he said. “One of the reasons our country is in the shape it’s in is because Christians have not come out.” After all, Proverbs 29:2 saith, “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.”
The next morning, caucus morning, Mast met with five members of his church at the Village Inn to drink coffee and talk about life and politics.
“It can’t be that we are alone,” said Victor Mowery, 43, a network engineer. Same-sex marriage, he said, was approved because of “a bunch of elitist judges.” He thought the news media was fluffing numbers showing that the majority of Americans supported it. There was no need to change America, he said, just a need to bring it back to what it once was.
“I think people want to cast us like we are wishing for a return to the ’50s,” Mast said. “We recognize those were simpler times, but what we’re asking for is a return to honoring of God and the Constitution.”
Look at what they’ve done to Thomas Jefferson, Mowery replied. Here was a man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as a great leader. “But instead, they teach the kids that he owned slaves. Yes, he did, but he was also a product of his time. And when he tried to abolish slavery, he didn’t have any support. How does teaching that he had slaves show a student to love their country?”
And evolution. “I’m not that old, but back when I was being taught, teachers told you evolution was a theory,” Mast said. “Our kids think that’s wrong” — that creationism has no place in the schools.
“They just think it’s because we’re old, but we’re just following the word,” Mast said. “Now I’m some kind of middle-aged, medieval tyrant. It’s just difficult to have everyone on a different page.”
The lunch table went silent.
“Sometimes I wonder if we are headed toward a cataclysm,” Mowery said. “I never said that out loud, but I’ve thought it.”
When the time for the Republican caucuses arrived that night, Monty Alexander still was not sure how he would vote. He had just seen a commercial suggesting that Trump wanted a health-care plan similar to Canada's. What if Trump was just pretending to be a conservative?
At 6:30 p.m., dozens of white-haired men and women piled into the cafeteria to confirm their registrations. Then came groups of college students by the dozen with “Marco Rubio” and “Rand Paul” stickers on their pullovers. Then families with young children. Alexander beamed. Four years ago, the Republicans could fit into the school auditorium, with its 837 seats, but now a spillover crowd was filling the bleachers in the nearby gym. Whatever else this election season has unleashed, it has undeniably let loose an energy among conservative voters unlike any in recent campaigns.
When it was time for him to cast his own ballot, Alexander was huffing and tapping his pen as he thought things through one last time. His 15-year-old son sat at his side. Alexander was cautious about going along with the masses. But Ted Cruz? Could he even beat Hillary Clinton? In a campaign with incessant ads, with information streaming through his cellphone and Facebook feed, he still had no clarity. He turned to his son.
“Who do you think I should vote for?” he asked.
“Trump,” the boy responded.
Alexander covered his ballot so others could not see it. Then wrote: T R U M P.
There were Democratic caucuses scattered around Dubuque, but when the counting was done, everyone was invited to congregate at one site, a long, low-slung tavern on the edge of town that was home to Precinct 1.
Justin Tauke sat at the bar, nursing a beer and watching the networks as Sanders edged closer to Clinton but could not quite catch her. Nicholas Hockenberry and Allison Simpson came in from their caucus downtown, checking reports from the candidate’s professional staff on their cellphones, their anxiety turning to relief. This was only the start of a long and uncertain process, and the news media was once again denouncing the weirdness of the caucuses.
It was freezing and windy outside. A winter storm was blowing in. And yet in this election season of discontent, the name of the establishment still somehow seemed appropriate. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of . . .