Physicist Rob Sheldon explains why lots of Americans voted for Trump

Dr Sheldon

Rob Sheldon

Readers may remember Rob Sheldon from  “Science and the US election. Sheldon: Tell your European colleagues not to flee America, but instead emigrate here, because there probably will be a lot of job openings available.”

Now he explains how he coped with last Wednesday, when Trump’s win sunk in among middlebrow Republicans he knows:

I’ve had five conversations Wednesday that consumed about five hours, as I explained what I had learned from the Tuesday night elections. As usual, all that talking crystallized for me the key takeaway lessons, which is why I’m writing my first essay on politics 8 years after Obama’s victory.

“Trump destroyed the Republican party” is the refrain I hear from many of my conservative Republican friends, “and neither George W Bush nor I voted for Trump. What do you say about that?” I think there’s only one thing I can say, and that’s “Thank you.”

Let me give 3 reasons.

1) First, I was hopelessly naive about the elections, and thought that if a decent Republican candidate ran, say, a Marco Rubio or a Ted Cruz, why the contrast with Hillary would be so great they would have a cakewalk! Watching the returns on the amazingly capable NYTimes webpage, I realized the error of my assumptions. Hillary support ran deep and ran wide. The states that won the election for Trump: Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, were narrow victories. 100,000 in FL, 40,000 in PA, 10,000 in MI. Why even Jill Stein pulled in more votes than that! Would a Rubio or a Cruz have carried those states? All the high-tech polling models using data from the 2008 and 2012 elections said “No”, they would have gone for Hillary. Nor was Hillary sitting still, but spent upwards of $278 million on those states for “get out the vote” efforts–a.k.a. register and drive to the polling places any warm body they can find.

I had a cold wakeup shower as I watched the returns from the state of Virginia, where at 50% votes counted there was a 13 point lead for Republicans, only to vanish into a 2 point defeat at 98% of the vote count. Using a bit of useless statistical analysis, the random error in a number goes as the squareroot of the counts, so with half the vote counted, the error was at most, point-lead/1.414, so in a worst-case scenario, the lead might be only 8 points. Mathematically it wasn’t possible to switch 15 points after half the votes were counted. But it happened. Why? Because the precincts in Northern Virginia found 100,000 Democrats. According to residents of N. Va, busloads arrive at the polls discharging only Democrat voters. My mother-in-law moved to a new township outside Philadelphia, and despite not registering, she too was allowed to vote. So yes, the machine was ready for a Rubio or a Cruz, and the machine would have eaten him alive, just as it had McCain and Romney.

There was just one way to beat the machine. Swamp it with votes.

But couldn’t the machine be ginned up to make up the difference? Well yes, but there is the need for priming. You can’t just stuff the ballot box, you have to get a warm body to write their name on a piece a paper and pull the lever. And that requires organizers and buses and T-shirts and preparation. So if you are going to beat the machine, it will have to be an ambush.

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This was impossible. What was supposed to be a blowout for Hillary was instead looking like an ambush by Trump. What was happening?

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Nobody likes to be ambushed, and so both parties deployed the green-visor guys to poll and correlate the data. Google analytics makes no bones about supporting the Democratic vision, so they reported to the DNC their gigabytes of data on who searches for “Hillary” keywords and who searches for “Trump” keywords, all broken down by zip code and street address. There wasn’t a single Facebook page or Google search left uncorrelated. Your preferences are known down to the color of the boutonniere on your lapel. Staffers pored over the maps, estimating the level of voting participation from previous elections, the places to put the buses, the neighborhoods to bomb with placards. By the weekend of the election, the fruit of all their labor was evident–it was going to be a blowout Hillary vote. A gloom settled over the Republican headquarters. Pundits went on the air with their favorite “you didn’t listen to me” speeches. Trump staffers refused to tell him the bad news but privately told their friends.

The NYTimes built their amazing interactive web page, with every state broken down into counties and precincts. Statistics popped up wherever you put your cursor. A couple of dials with vibrating needles were placed at the bottom of the page, showing the real-time prediction of the models as the voting data updated their polling guesses. One dial showed “probability of president”, another “percentage of popular vote”. Handy gray lines showed the results of the 2008 and 2012 votes for reference–“D+5” and “D+3” respectively.

I logged into the site at 5pm, but none of the states had closed their polls, so the map was gray. The debacle of TV stations calling Florida for Gore before the panhandle voted still stung in their memory. Nobody was going to do that again. Then promptly at 7pm Eastern, the map went live. The needles vibrated, the gray states changed color, and something very dramatic happened. The “predicting president” needle crept toward the red, 55% certain for Trump, 60%. It wasn’t supposed to happen.

North Carolina popped up red. So did Florida, and Virginia. “Whoa!” I turned to my wife, “this doesn’t look good for Hillary!” Handy little op-ed links on the right-side of the NYTimes page led to the explanations. “Don’t be alarmed if early returns show Virginia in the red, the late returns almost always switch the vote,” they soothingly explained. Apparently in those sparsely populated rural counties, the voters rise early and the returns come in first. Sure enough, NC went blue immediately afterward. The first county reporting in PA was red, but the 2nd was Philadelphia, and the state went blue for the remainder of the night. I turned my attention to Florida.

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one pollster nailed it, even putting his reputation on the line. He reasoned that Trump supporters were lying to the pollsters. So he asked a clever question: “Who are your neighbors voting for?” Suddenly the reticent responder gushed with information. Calibrating this effect, he found that (a) Hillary supporters had no qualms revealing their position, and (b) women and college-educated millennials hid their Trump support, and (c) the effect was 3-9% of places like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

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Florida made a lot of changes after that fateful Bush-Gore election. One was voter ID. It makes it much harder on the machine. What took only days of preparation now takes weeks and months. The wide lead for Republicans began to shrink as Miami and Broward County started to send in their returns. I watched it like a hawk for 3 hours. At 80% votes counted the lead shrank to 1%, but then at 90% it widened to 1.5%. A sense of relief washed over me. The machine was failing.

But in between my anxious check on the number of reporting Broward county precincts, something strange was happening. At 8pm, when the Midwest states started closing their polls, Ohio popped up red, then Michigan and Iowa. Lower on the page, the NYTimes had broken down states by their historic voting preferences: deep blue on the left with NY and CA; light blue with MI and MN, battleground states with OH, PA, FL, CO; light red for Iowa and MO, and then deep red for my state AL and TX. As expected, the battleground states were a mixture of red and blue, and every few minutes, a state like NC or VA would change color. But there, in the middle of the light-blue column was a red interloper–MI was breaking the mold. This was impossible. What was supposed to be a blowout for Hillary was instead looking like an ambush by Trump. What was happening?

Down at the bottom of the page the vibrating needle was moving up to 70% for Trump. I didn’t know what to be more astonished at, the fact that Trump was beating all expectations, or the fact that NY Times was telling me this before a single TV commentator allowed the faintest suggestion of a Trump win. I briefly considered the possibility that the NYT was misleading me on purpose, but the data looked solid.

Finally at 11pm the Florida returns reached 100%. Trump had carried the state by 140,000 votes. Hillary was having a bad night, and I was having a good one. I went to bed, with a slight sense of sadness that the machine had conquered PA. Somewhere around 5:45am my alarm went off, but instead of hitting snooze, I tiptoed to the computer and looked. Ohio had gone red, as had Wisconsin, Iowa, North Carolina, and even Pennsylvania. It had truly been a good night. The pundits had really, really missed it. And I had no idea why.

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Obama made it an ideological point to destroy the coal industry for the good of the world, to stop global warming. And WV has not forgiven him. Likewise, the unions found themselves between a rock and a hard place, arm-twisted to support Obamacare, even though they had already negotiated cushy health-care packages 30 years ago, health-care that was bankrupting the autoindustry. So Obamacare took away their benefits, took away their jobs, took away whatever perks they had fought and struck for in the past 50 years, and replaced it with part-time jobs, opiate overdoses, and shuttered plants.

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Wednesday was a disaster for my productivity. I spent most of the day trying to understand the previous night. Why had all the polls missed it? Then around noon the radio sweep in my car caught Rush Limbaugh talking about the polls. He said one pollster nailed it, even putting his reputation on the line. He reasoned that Trump supporters were lying to the pollsters. So he asked a clever question: “Who are your neighbors voting for?” Suddenly the reticent responder gushed with information. Calibrating this effect, he found that (a) Hillary supporters had no qualms revealing their position, and (b) women and college-educated millennials hid their Trump support, and (c) the effect was 3-9% of places like Michigan and Pennsylvania.

But why would they be so scared? Well, obviously because they had been ridiculed at work and in public for holding such a view. “Everyone knows Trump is a misogynist, how can you, a woman, support him?” So they kept quiet, before the election anyway.

That was half the explanation of the surprising Trump win. But it doesn’t explain why this effect was so strong in PA, OH, MI, WI and Iowa, as the many post-mortem analyses showed. Why the Rust Belt?

The answer requires some history to overcome the prejudices that blind us to the obvious answer. So humor me as I recite some stories, it’s intended to make the medicine easier to swallow.

When Lincoln joined the “Young Republicans” it was in protest to the “moribund” Whig party, and the slave-holding, big plantation fat-cat Democrat party. The Republicans were the party of the “little guy”. This changed after the Civil War, and General Grant presided over an uncontrollably corrupt Republican administration. By the time Democrat Grover Cleveland had the presidency snatched from him in blatant voter fraud, the Democrats had become the party of the little guy. William Jennings Bryan reshaped the party by opening his arms to Catholics who had no representation in American society, making the Democratic party not just the party of populism, but the party of social conservatism. The rise of labor unions was naturally Democratic and resisted by the oil barons and their Republican banker friends. Likewise, it was progressive Republican ladies who led the fight for the women’s right to vote, the abolishing of alcohol and the necessity of birth control for poor Catholics. I say all this to remind you that party identities in 1916 were 180-degrees from party identities in 2016.

How did this reversal occur? One turning point was the Vietnam war and Woodstock. In 1968 the Democratic National Convention was taken over by left-wing ideologues who disenfranchised the Catholic party bosses through some clever rule changes. Suddenly the party of social conservatism was demanding abortion rights for all. It took 3 presidential election cycles for the rank and file voters to recognize that their party had left them, but when Ronald Reagan offered up a vision of a conservative, Christian government, the South abandoned the party wholesale and the realignment of the political parties began in a huge Reagan landslide.

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Into this wasteland came a man. He spoke their language, he had the same coarse humor. Sure he was rich, but he told them they could be rich too, the same way he gained his wealth. He knew about cheap labor, about undocumented, non-union workers that took their jobs. He said he would do something about it. And most of all, he didn’t look down on them. That man was Donald Trump.

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Still, the Rust Belt kept their Democrat heritage. A friend and fellow church member of mine grew up in the coal country of West Virginia, where his gratitude to the Democrat establishment knew no bounds. He bristled whenever I complained about Obama’s policies, and pointed out the historical wrongs of the Republican party. In the Eastern Kentucky coal country where I went to high school, there were whole towns owned by the Peabody coal company, which among other things, imported families with physically talented children so they could field a high school football team where the front line averaged over 300lb. In those company towns, the unions were the only and last resort for justice.

A few weeks ago that friend went back to WV to attend his 50th high-school reunion. The lawns were covered in Trump signs. The only Hillary sign was in the rented headquarters of the Democratic party downtown. In the election, WV among the 50 states had the highest percentage of Trump voters–70%. What had happened?

You know the answer. Obama made it an ideological point to destroy the coal industry for the good of the world, to stop global warming. And WV has not forgiven him. Likewise, the unions found themselves between a rock and a hard place, arm-twisted to support Obamacare, even though they had already negotiated cushy health-care packages 30 years ago, health-care that was bankrupting the auto industry. So Obamacare took away their benefits, took away their jobs, took away whatever perks they had fought and struck for in the past 50 years, and replaced it with part-time jobs, opiate overdoses, and shuttered plants.

But the green-visored pundits nevertheless put them down as “reliable blue” states because the union bosses were three generations worth of dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and there had been no complaints. Even the Republican party didn’t want them because they weren’t for free trade, they supported quotas and minimum wage and free health care. And worst of all, they had no class, no college education. Nobody seemed to care about them at all.

Into this wasteland came a man. He spoke their language, he had the same coarse humor. Sure he was rich, but he told them they could be rich too, the same way he gained his wealth. He knew about cheap labor, about undocumented, non-union workers that took their jobs. He said he would do something about it. And most of all, he didn’t look down on them. That man was Donald Trump.

And now you know why the ambush caught the machine by surprise. Even Google analytics and Facebook didn’t predict the insurrection. Why? Because no one respected them, and if you despise a group of people, you don’t think they will ever be a threat. “Vote Republican? Have the union boss give them the what-for. They’ll come back with their tail between their legs.”

So the first reason that we need to thank Donald Trump, is for connecting to disaffected Democrats who completely bush-whacked the machine and saved America from the Progressive Left and its dismantling of the Republic. Neither a Rubio nor a Cruz could have done it. How do I know? Because Mitt Romney tried and despite his business acumen, his governor experience, and his independent wealth, his army of statisticians, failed miserably, embarrassingly, and dramatically. Seriously, no one else could have done it. Think about it.

2) The second reason that we need thank Donald Trump, is for completing the Reagan Revolution. When the Left wing took over the Democratic party in 1968, the first to notice were the southern states. Perhaps for historical reasons, they are acutely sensitive to left wing ideology, and Reagan too had been burned by the Left. It was inevitable that their interests would coalesce. But the northern unions were far more comfortable with left-wing ideology, it hardly differed from the institutionalized antagonism between company and workers that described their relationship for the past 50 years. Reagan’s appeals fell on deaf ears.

But the Progressive Left was not content with a 1930’s glorification of the union worker. For one thing, concrete and steel were hopelessly passé, even South Korea no longer operated the steel mills that silenced the once great Bethlehem Steel company. Instead, countries like China and Mexico and Brazil had taken over the production of I-beams and concrete, leaving only small quantity specialty mills still viable. No, the export might of America was in aerospace and computing. Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Hughes, Apple, and Microsoft were the industries that balanced the trade deficit, and their workers were not tempted to join the UAW or the Teamster’s Union. Rather, their workers were college graduates, software programmers, engineers who worried about global warming and relaxed at the Burning Man Festival. They wanted to see the party moving out of polluting industries and into the utopia of a wireless, robotic, telecommuting, money-free economy. Thus the emphasis of the Obama administration on blocking pipelines, closing coal-fired power plants, enlarging wilderness areas, and otherwise destroying the jobs of the union man.

Finally, after 8 years of Clinton and 8 years of Obama, the unionized workers found an advocate. He didn’t have the charisma of Reagan, nor the pedigree of a Bush or the brains of a Cruz, but something even more valuable–the outrage. He knew what it meant to be lied to, to be used, to be helpless against the take-no-prisoners progressive ideology of the Left. By contrast, Republicans melted away in the fury of a “Black Lives Matter” protest. They could only splutter when accused of racism, they had no response to the land grab of the EPA. But as every union member learns from a tender age, you fight fire with fire. And Trump was a man on fire.

As the Democratic party continues its headlong plunge into the Abyss, somebody had to be there to gather the puzzled followers who wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid. Reagan couldn’t do it, nor could Bush. So we owe a huge debt to Donald Trump, who completed what no one else inside or outside the Beltway could have done, bringing into the Republican fold the unique positions and experiences of a union man.

Now if you are a traditional Republican, you have a knee-jerk reaction to the unions. You see them as proxies for the Soviet Union, willing accomplices in the war on freedom. But I beg you to look harder. The unions are a shadow of their former self, presiding over the vanishing, but still important, trades of steel, coal, machinery and transportation. It isn’t that an information economy doesn’t need steel and trucks, it is just that it is no longer a big part of the economy. You no longer spend 50% of your income on food, and if you shop at Aldi instead of Whole Foods, you probably spend only 10% of your income on food. But that doesn’t mean you can live without it. Likewise, there must be room in the Republican party for the humbled unions because there certainly isn’t any room in the ideologically pure Democratic party for them. Am I serious?

Absolutely. If unions can get past their institutionalized adversarial relationship, and work closely with management to provide a better working place, then Republicans can also get past their institutionalized aversion to unions, and work closely with them to minimize government bloat. Yes, harnessing the power of unions to shrink government and enlarge freedoms. And why not?

3) Finally, we come to perhaps the most important and the most uncertain reason for thanking Trump–the end of the Democratic party. Now before you hyperventilate about one-party states, I’m not advocating any such Stalinist future. Rather, I’m arguing for a way to defeat the law-breaking, ideological, religious crusade of the Progressive Left against the Republic of the people, by the people, for the people. The Tea-Party Party may fly yellow flags of a rattlesnake with the motto “don’t tread on me”, but in reality, they might as well decorate their doormat with the motto. When the IRS was shown to discriminate and punish the Party, a flood of op-eds vanished into the archives with nary a change. Instead, tea parties become more and more rare and then folded altogether. The Republican party prides itself in being the party of law-abiding citizens and therefore is no match for the bullies who abuse their power. It is just as Osama bin Laden said, “people prefer a strong horse”, especially to a squeaky wheel.

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The urban class is itself divided into two groups: the haves and the have-nots, the elites, and the welfare recipients. If we look at the sociology of South and Central America it is a familiar pattern–the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The elites hand out the dole to keep the allegiance of the poor. The poor need the money, and the rich need the votes. As many have pointed out, it is a plantation economy antithetical to the vision of the founding fathers.

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It is the same complaint registered in Psalm 11, “How can you say to my soul, “flee like a bird to your mountain?” For behold, the wicked bend the bow, they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart. If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

What can we do to stop the bulldozer of the Left that cares nothing for tradition, for investments, for human life, for God and country?

There’s a lot, actually. And Trump has already accomplished the crucial step.

Take a look at that color-coded map of county voting. Not the states, but the counties. For example, look at California, a huge blue state with 63% Hillary support, overwhelmingly blue. Now zoom in on the counties. There’s 4 blue dots in a sea of red. All that Hillary support is concentrated in the cities. That is true of Oregon, Washington, Pennsylvania and New York. Only rarely do you see a county without a city coming up blue. Colorado has some Indian reservations, Texas has some southern counties of mostly Latino extraction, and Alabama has “the Black Belt” across its middle where farmers are mostly African-American. So for every blue county, there appears to be a historical reason involving a persecuted minority preferring the Democratic party. But as we saw with the “Rust Belt”, those populations are being abandoned by the Democratic party in every election.

What does this mean? It means that America has divided into two classes: urban and rural. The urban class is itself divided into two groups: the haves and the have-nots, the elites, and the welfare recipients. If we look at the sociology of South and Central America it is a familiar pattern–the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The elites hand out the dole to keep the allegiance of the poor. The poor need the money, and the rich need the votes. As many have pointed out, it is a plantation economy antithetical to the vision of the founding fathers. In Abraham Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas, he argued that slavery eroded the very foundations of freedom and capitalism and individualism that defined America. So it is not a new complaint that this slide into servility, this “Road to Serfdom” must be opposed at any cost.

What Trump accomplished in completing the Reagan Revolution, was removing the last vestiges of populism from the Democratic party. It is now clearly perceived what it has become, the Urban Party that believes spaghetti grows on trees, and brown cows give chocolate milk. But over the past 30 years, Democratic mismanagement of cities like Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, and LA have led to increasing defaults on bonds and reliance on the federal government to keep the water running and the garbage collected. This was repaid in votes of course, but with governorships going 2/3 Republican as well as a sweep of the House, Senate and Presidency, the quid pro quo might just end. What then will become of the cities? What then will become of the Daley machine?

Without the money, the cities will fester. As with Detroit, the inhabitants will scatter, or riot, or die. And without inhabitants, who will provide the votes? And without the votes, who will send the checks? It is a death spiral for the machine, and there doesn’t appear to be any easy way to postpone the inevitable.

The Democratic party will have to reinvent itself. I suspect there are elements of the Republican Establishment that can be bought, Left wing agendas that can be repackaged or delayed, and thus a trickle of funds will always keep the machine on life support. But it will still be the Urban party, and therefore subject to the same forces that unleashed the French Revolution of 1789. Or, subject to the same Reformation forces that promoted the Glorious Revolution of England. What made the outcomes so vastly different? The church.

The isolation of the Democratic party to the cities gives us clarity of vision and a stark choice. We either take back the cities, or we suffer the consequences. The Republican party has been issued its marching orders. And you can thank Trump for that.

See also: NYT rededicates itself to reporting honestly? Earth to NYT’s Sulzberger: The whole world does not consist of serially abused wives

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