President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden discussed many important issues during their first presidential debate on September 29, but some of the most important ones weren’t even mentioned.
The words “abortion,” “guns,” “marriage,” “religion” and “immigration” weren’t uttered at all. Which was odd, because these are the issues that animate millions of voters.
And as I traveled the country for three years reporting for my book, “On the Road in Trump’s America: A Journey Into the Heart of a Divided Nation,” I learned that Democrats are increasingly seen as being out of step with residents of rural and industrial America because of their positions on these cultural issues.
One day last fall, I listened as the chairman of the Democratic Party of Erie County, Pennsylvania, explained why his county had voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after twice supporting Barack Obama for president.
He said that many blue-collar and rural residents there had voted for Trump because “they’re caught up in what I like to call the ‘non-issues.’”
I asked him what those “non-issues” were.
“The guns and the abortion thing,” he said. “It’s a heavily Catholic area.”
“But are those really non-issues?” I asked. “They’re important to those people.”
“Well not for those folks they’re not non-issues,” he said. “I call them ‘non-issues’ because it’s not health care, it’s not the economy. It’s not the things that we really need to be talking about right now.”
The chairman’s casual dismissal of issues such as guns and abortion spoke volumes and highlighted a trend.
In Macomb County, Michigan, former Obama voter Catherine Bolder explained that the Democrats’ embrace of late-term abortion and race-based identity politics pushed her to support Trump.
“I was always pro-choice,” she said when I interviewed her in 2018. “I still am. But with New York and Virginia approving them to abort babies after they’ve been born — look, if you carry a child for nine months and only then decide you don’t want it …” she said, trailing off then shaking her head in exasperation. “[The Democrats] have become radical on a lot of issues.”
More from OpinionIn Howard County, Iowa, Joe Wacha told me his swing from Obama to Trump had been prompted by the Democrats’ leftward drift on cultural issues. “The reason I didn’t vote as a Democrat, and I am a registered Democrat, was I felt like they’re no longer the party they were thirty years ago,” he told me.
Today’s Republican Party “is more like the way the Democratic Party was thirty or forty years ago,” Wacha, who is in his early sixties, added.
In Robeson County, North Carolina, a plurality of voters are members of the Lumbee Native American Tribe. Their overwhelming support for Trump in 2016 proved crucial to his winning the county and state.
Trade was an important factor. One researcher estimated that Robeson County lost as many as 10,000 jobs due to NAFTA — more than any other rural county in America. So, Trump’s abject hostility toward NAFTA made him an attractive candidate.
But in talking to scores of people throughout the county, it was clear that social issues mattered most.
Jarrod Lowery said Republicans’ social conservatism and emphasis on law and order resonate with the Lumbee, whose values focus on faith, family, and traditional mores. “When the Democratic Party in America took that hard left on social issues, Lumbee people started backing up,” he explained.
I met with Virgil Lowery and McDuffie Cummings, Lumbee elders who I was told had a better sense for local politics than just about anyone in the area. “The Democrat party is too left for the grassroots people,” said Cummings. “They’ve gone with all these liberal ideas.”
“You saw it with [Joe] Biden,” Virgil added. “He used to be a moderate on abortion. Now he’s moved all the way to the left with AOC…. We have a lot of conservative people in this county as far as their morals on homosexuality.”
Even Channing Jones, executive director for the Robeson County Office of Economic Development, emphasized the supremacy of social issues. When I met with him in late January, he told me Robeson’s economic indicators were “tremendous” and called the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the NAFTA replacement that Trump signed into law on the very day we met, “a great thing” for his county.
Even so, he said that Trump’s positions on “some very significant moral issues, faith-based issues” would be the most important factors working in the president’s favor.
“Remember, we’re in the Bible Belt down here,” Jones said. “And it’s going to be hard for many people to not think about that when they go to the polls.”
Each of the counties mentioned above twice voted for Obama before turning to Trump. Based on my research in these counties and others like them, Democrats will have a hard time winning them back this year.
That’s because around the time of Obama’s election as president, the Democratic Party began to embrace positions that only a couple of years earlier had been regarded as extreme, even among Democrats.
Once-fringe positions – including race-based reparations for slavery, decriminalization of illegal border crossings, government confiscation of certain types of guns and defunding of police departments – have suddenly become not only mainstream but almost mandatory for any candidate running for high office in the Democratic Party.
And previously acceptable positions – opposition to same-sex marriage, any restrictions on abortion and support for even modest enforcement of immigration law, for example – are now verboten for any Democrat aspiring to lead the party.
“Those kind of issues stirs the folks in this area and causes them all to vote and vote against the Democrats,” Cummings explained. “The Democrats are just…they’re out of sync.”
This op-ed is adapted from “On the Road in Trump’s America: A Journey Into the Heart of a Divided Country” (Republic Book Publishers, October 20, 2020).