A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Trump’s tent didn’t expand the GOP electorate; it’s white voters who are the difference

WASHINGTON – To be honest, I don’t watch Saturday Night Live any longer. The only thing that will keep me up that late watching television on a Saturday night is a ballgame that goes into extra innings.

But I’m certainly familiar with the show, going back to its original broadcast with George Carlin as host in 1975. Like anything that has been around that long it’s had its ups and downs. But the latest edition has folks in Kentucky talking.

It’s about the opening, which I watched over the internet machine. Alec Baldwin, portraying President Trump, is in Union, a town in Boone County, to address some of his loyal supporters, who are legion in the commonwealth.

Actor Alec Baldwin portrays Donald Trump visiting Union on last week’s SNL episode. (NBC Photo)

The concept was basically to show that his followers will stick with him for supporting the coal industry no matter what — even though he is purposefully taking steps to ruin their lives.

“In Trump’s America, men work in two places – coal mines and Goldman Sachs,’’ Trump, aka Baldwin, notes.

Folks expressing concerns about education, health care, jobs and other needs are summarily dismissed by Trump/Baldwin, telling one individual that he’s killing her healthcare but she should be happy because “You’ll never have to drive (long distances) to the doctor again.’’

Not exactly comedy gold but amusing enough. Yet it has drawn criticism from some quarters for portraying the good people of the commonwealth as rubes and hillbillies who blindly follow a charlatan.

Now, to be honest, the actors used to portray Kentuckians in the skit didn’t exactly come across as Junior Samples or even Boss Hogg. But it did establish, accurately, in my view, that many of the commonwealth’s fine citizens are eager to pledge their allegiance to someone who acts contrary to their self-interest.

On that score, Kentucky can be a perplexing place for those looking from the outside in, whether they be the east coast elites – the sort people seem intent on griping about — or an aircraft worker outside Seattle. It is a state of great natural beauty, yet it gave 62.5 percent of its votes in last year’s presidential election to a man bent on obliterating every conceivable environmental protection.

That same man wants to kill a health care program that has provided about 500,000 Kentuckians with insurance. He wants to put the kibosh on a program, the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports economic development and provides funds to meet that need.

The list is long but any fair analysis has to conclude that a rather high percentage of the better that 1.2 million Kentuckians who supported President Donald J. Trump last November voted against their own self-interests. And, while it may be purely conjecture, five will get you 10 that a substantial percentage of those 1.2 million are ready and willing to vote for the shyster again.

That’s basically what the SNL skit proposed, to the apparent chagrin of commonwealth loyalists. As Trump/Baldwin declares, “You people stand by me no matter what. It’s like you found a finger in your chili but you still eat the chili because you told everybody how much you love chili. It’s tremendous.’’

It’s true. And the skit raises a question worth exploring: Why?

In the view of Matt Jones, an active Democrat and the host of a popular show on Kentucky Sports Radio, it isn’t because those voters are wet behind the ears. It’s essentially because those old devils, the liberal elite, made fun of them and Trump didn’t.

“Because to me, most Trump supporters aren’t naive at all…instead they are people who are happy to finally have someone, anyone tell them their lives and areas of the country are important.’’

Perhaps, but it’s a hard case to make. If those Kentucky voters weren’t naïve, how did they manage to ignore all those stories that Trump was a cheap grifter and a fraud? That he stiffed workers on his projects ranging from great to small, that he left small businessmen begging to get paid and that he used bankruptcy laws to free himself of any debt?

All this was no secret. Instead he raised false hopes that under his administration the coal industry would rise like a phoenix from the ashes and that the hills and hollows would once again become awash in black gold. Buying such blatant hucksterism is the very definition of naiveté.

On top of that, they apparently thought The Donald was only kidding when he said he was going to take their health care away. Well, guess what?

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, for all her faults – and there were a few – laid out a $30 billion program aimed at assisting those declining coal communities make the transition by ensuring pensions and other benefits, reforming the black lung program, bolstering infrastructure and repurposing abandoned mine lands.

Trump’s plan was to let resource companies blow the tops off of mountains and permit them to dump the effluence in streams to no apparent benefit.

Clinton showed real concern while allowing the coal jobs weren’t coming back – some truth-telling that, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, they couldn’t handle. She lost Letcher County by about 5,751 votes, Perry County by 6,022 votes and Pike County by 15,497 votes.

So either these voters were naïve or they purposefully voted for a charlatan who would do them more harm than good. Which of these alternatives place them in a good light?

Regardless, as analyses have shown, the idea that Clinton lost because the white, blue collar vote magically floated over to the Trump camp is vastly overstated.

Here’s a statistic that may come as a surprise: The Democratic candidate for president has not won a majority of the white vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. It was Johnson, you may remember, who championed and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That night he told his press secretary, Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.’’

He was right. And thereafter other states, including Kentucky, followed suit. Republican Richard Nixon employed the “Southern Strategy’’ and a plea to the “Silent Majority’’ to win the presidency in 1968 and again in 1972, carrying the commonwealth both times.

In truth, Democrats haven’t held white, blue-collar voters, so-called Reagan Democrats, for years. What they managed to hold on to for the most part were union members, whose numbers are steadily declining in the private sector, resulting in fewer Democratic votes.

Republican candidates have received no less than 56.5 percent of the vote in each of the last five presidential elections in Kentucky. And given the demographics, that’s not going to change any time soon

In an interview last February with Salon, the online magazine, Cornell Belcher, who was the pollster for former President Barack Obama, asserted that Clinton lost because she failed to hold what he characterized as the “Obama coalition’’ – African Americans, Latinos, urban liberal whites. It is ridiculous to think, he said, that there are “millions upon millions of Trump-Obama voters.’’

“Trump didn’t expand the Republican tent,’’ Belcher said. “He didn’t bring in all these millions upon millions of new Republican voters. This was about Democrats losing, more so than Trump remaking the electorate and winning in some sort of profound and new way.’’

Republican candidates have received no less than 56.5 percent of the vote in each of the last five presidential elections in Kentucky. And given the demographics, that’s not going to change any time soon.

It can’t be stressed enough when analyzing presidential election that Kentucky’s population as of July 1, 2015, is 88.1 percent white. Interestingly, running counter to national trends, it is whiter now than it was in 2010, when it was 87.8 percent.

The Republican Party has become, for all intents and purposes, the white people’s party. Even 52 percent of white women, who many, including your humble servant, expected to line up behind Clinton, instead went for Trump.

Kentucky is 88.1 percent white. You do the math.

Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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