“Oh, my. ‘Shit hole countries’? Dan, now I am concerned.”
That was the brief email message I received last week from Mark Locklear, a member of the Lumbee Native American Tribe from Robeson County, N.C. Locklear voted for Barack Obama twice and still keeps a framed portrait of the former first family in his home office.
But he gave Donald Trump a shot in 2016. Locklear told me last February that he voted for Trump because of his promises to “drain the swamp” and repeal and replace Obamacare. “Has Donald Trump earned the people’s respect yet? I don’t think so. He hasn’t earned mine,” Locklear said back then. “But with that being said, I am willing to give him a chance.”
Eleven months later, Locklear credits Trump with helping to put the economy on an upward trajectory. But he is still deeply ambivalent about the president, in large part because of the incendiary remarks Trump can’t seem to avoid making, such as last week’s reference to some poor nations as “shithole countries.”
Locklear explained that his feelings toward Trump are like a pendulum. “There are days I sway in a positive direction, then he tweets stupidity and my thought changes to negativity.”
Locklear is one of 50 people from across the country I recently contacted for their thoughts on Trump’s first year in office. I asked everyone the same question: “Describe President Trump’s first year in office in one word.” (Locklear’s word: “pendulum.”) I told them they could elaborate if they wanted, but to start with a single word.
My group of respondents is made up of people I have met over the course of the last year while reporting from eight counties that were pivotal in the 2016 presidential election. Some I met through friends or political or activist organizations, but most I encountered at county fairs or festivals, churches, bars or restaurants. My sample skews somewhat toward Trump voters and supporters, but there are also plenty of Democrats.
As I expected, most of my respondents had either only good or bad things to say about the president’s first year. Among the positive one-word responses were: “diligent,” “decisive,” “action,” “finally,” “perseverance,” “impressed,” “amazing!” “leader,” “relief,” “powerful,” and “success!”
Bryan Ward, sheriff of Hardy County, W.Va., used the word “refreshing” to describe Trump’s approach to politics and governance. “We West Virginians have a low number of Ph.D.'s per capita, but our BS meters work flawlessly,” he wrote, adding:
Being unpolished, and unapologetic, despite the occasional compulsive tweets, are attributes that make [Trump] and effective ambassador for our nation. He's said what he intends to do, and does it. Debate his style all day, but style doesn't make us a strong nation. His policy will. I'm proud of my president.
Among Trump’s critics, I heard words such as “catastrophic,” “shit-show,” “unpatriotic,” “disgraceful,” “horrible,” “crappy,” “embarrassing,” “mockery,” and “disappointing.” Macomb County, Mich., resident Darryl Howard compared Trump to the cruel and cowardly Joffrey from Game of Thrones.
In December, I met with a group of five Mormon women in Salt Lake City. None of them struck me as a hard-core liberal. In fact, some are registered Republicans. But they all judged the president’s first year harshly. “Horrified,” “fear,” and “dystopian” were among the words I heard in response to my question. They all agreed that Trump’s main accomplishment has been to activate those who oppose him, including themselves.
The women are founding members of a public policy group called Mormon Women for Ethical Government. Founded in the wake of Trump’s election, MWEG is “dedicated to the ideals of decency, honor, accountability, transparency, and justice in governing.”
When I sent my question to Chris Danou, a Democrat who used to represent Trempealeau County in the Wisconsin State Assembly, he wrote back asking, “Can you use ‘shit show’ in your paper?” He wrote that the election of Trump, and the support he continues to receive, “has really undermined my faith in a large portion of humanity."
I also heard quite a few more nuanced responses, including words such as “different,” “unprecedented,” “change,” “noisy,” “engaging,” and “exhausted.”
Craig Howard of Grant County, W.Va., used the word “conflicted.” He explained that while he agrees with most of Trump’s economic policies, and applauds some of the president’s early attempts to reach across the political aisle, he is exasperated by Trump’s arrogance and tweeting.
Echoing Howard was Greg Johnson of Salt Lake County, Utah, who used the word “awkward.” An evangelical pastor and Republican, Johnson said Trump has been “brilliant” on his court appointments, efforts to deregulate the economy, and in signing the tax reform bill. But, he said of Trump: “at times he has seemed petty, impulsive, and divisive. Our nation is ripping apart because of how many seem to hate Trump versus those who want to support him. We need Trump to be less awkward in 2018.”
An interesting subgroup of respondents consisted of a half-dozen or so respondents who voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012 then for Trump in 2016.
Most of these Obama-Trump voters said Trump’s first year had validated their support for him. Jim McCuen of Volusia County, Fla., used the word “consequential” to describe Trump’s first year. “No other president in my memory has done more to shed light on the dark and fetid corners of the state than Donald Trump,” he said. “And nobody matches his mastery of controlling the dialogue, especially with respect to the prancing media marionettes.”
In response to my question about whether Trump’s “shithole” comment bothered him, Obama-Trump voter George Martin said that while the president is not a pleasant person, “pleasantry … is not a requirement to be president.” Howard said that Trump’s policies, not his words, would determine whether he votes for Trump again in 2020.
This wasn’t the first one-word survey I have conducted. When my twin brother, Jordan Allott, and I started traveling the country last February, we asked scores of people to describe Trump’s victory in one word.
We got many of the answers you’d expect — “jobs,” “economy,” “Hillary,” “judges” — all fairly self-explanatory. But the most common responses are two words more often associated with Trump’s predecessor than with Trump: hope and change.
Though Trump was often portrayed as offering a cynical vision of America, to many of his voters, he represented optimism. Of course, Trump represented a different sort of hope and change than Obama.
It was a hope in Trump’s ability to revive America’s manufacturing sector, secure the border, and diminish the size and scope of government. It was a hope that the forgotten man would be forgotten no longer. In short, millions of voters put their hope in Trump’s ability to restore America’s greatness. We heard this word — “hope” — from Republicans and Democrats, politicians, political science professors, out of work manufacturing workers, and newly arrived immigrants.
When I met him back in June, Mike Gooder of Howard County, Iowa, said he had voted for Trump in part because he hoped the deal-making businessman would create an environment in which bipartisanship was possible again.
When I asked him now whether that hope was still alive, Gooder acknowledged that Trump’s first year had been extraordinarily partisan.
But he said the real test of bipartisanship would come in 2018 with debates over DACA, an infrastructure bill, and healthcare. “Let’s hope that the next year brings about this realignment. But with the mid-terms ahead, we will likely see both sides remain polarized,” Gooder said.
Perhaps our most interesting subgroup was made up of those who voted for Trump but now either regret or are questioning their support.
Pramit Patel, an Indian-American hotel owner in Robeson County, N.C., voted for Trump out of an appreciation for his business acumen and with the hope that he would protect the country. Though he is pleased with the tax reform bill, Patel labeled the president’s first year “erratic” and is afraid Trump’s divisive rhetoric will lead to an international disaster.
Sumar Khalasawi joined thousands of other Macomb County, Mich., Chaldeans (Iraqi Christians) in voting for Trump, in large part on the promise that he would protect them and create a safe zone for their brethren in Iraq.
But since June, Sumar’s husband Hadeel and nearly 200 other Chaldeans with criminal records have been jailed at an immigration detention center in Ohio. There, they await deportation to Iraq, a country many scarcely know and where they say they face near-certain death at the hands of Islamic extremists. “We voted for Trump because the things he said and he lied to us,” Sumar told me when I met her at her family’s kabob restaurant in Macomb County, Mich., in August. “I’m so embarrassed to say this, but our president lied to us.”
Last week, when I asked Sumar via text for her one word, she replied with “destruction.” She wrote that her three children are depressed after witnessing their father being torn from their home.
After 11 months of reporting from Trump’s America, I have been struck by how few people have changed their mind about the president. With Trump, the battle lines were drawn early on in his presidency, and opinions of him have become deeply entrenched.
I haven’t encountered anyone who didn’t vote for Trump who now supports him. And most of the more than 100 Trump voters I’ve spoken with say they would vote the same way if they could.
But Trump’s support is faltering with some of his voters — people such as Locklear, Patel, and Khalasawi — who reside in counties that were instrumental in delivering the presidency to Trump and on whom Trump’s 2020 prospects may ultimately hinge.
Daniel Allott (@DanielAllott) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. Previously he was an author of the Examiner's Race to 2020 project and deputy commentary editor at the Examiner.
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