Historians know that the causes of historical events are complex and the result of multiple factors. The Trump phenomenon is no exception. Although numerous factors led to Trump’s victory in November 2016, one important reason is the return of “Reagan Democrats.”
From the 1930s to the 1970s, white, working-class voters in the North and Midwest tended to vote for the Democratic Party. In the 1980s, though, many in this group came to support Ronald Reagan and the Republicans.
There were many reasons for this shift. During the 1960s, the U.S. was fighting two wars, a war abroad in Vietnam and a war at home to defeat poverty. In Vietnam, American officials believed they could fight a limited war and use their technological superiority to ensure victory, but the U.S. eventually suffered a humiliating defeat. At home, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson created the Great Society to try to end poverty. However, these programs led to frustration as the government increased its power and spending.
In addition, the “Rust Belt” (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania) was especially hit hard economically during the 1970s. Reagan was able to reach previously reliable Democratic working-class voters and win their votes in 1980 and 1984 by promoting limited government and a strong economy, by providing leadership that America longed for, and by instilling confidence in a shaken system.
Some believed that the influence of the Reagan Democrats disappeared in the 1990s and 2000s. But they returned to Trump and the Republicans in the 2016 election. One place this can be seen is in Macomb County, Michigan. This county turned out for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, but in 2008 and 2012, Obama was able to win Macomb County easily. In 2016, Trump won the county by 48,000 votes which helped propelled Trump to win the state of Michigan by just 11,000 votes.
Although America today faces different issues than in 1980 and 1984, one commonality is that many people are desperate for change in government. Macomb County is full of working- and middle-class citizens who are hard-working, family-oriented, and who hold closely to the liberties protected under the Constitution. With the platform Trump used, he was able to hone in on people’s frustrations with the Obama administration and give Americans a message they wanted to hear. He promoted the importance of American jobs, a smart foreign policy, and protecting Constitutional rights, include the right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment. In addition, he advocated for secure borders, lower taxes, and a stronger economy. Much like Reagan, Trump did not win the support of “Reagan Democrats” because they whole-heartedly agreed with every one of his positions, but because people were ready for a change.
In 1980, during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Reagan declared: “The Federal Government exists to serve the American people and to be accountable to the American people. On January 20, we are going to reestablish the truth.” Fast forward to 2016 and Trump’s acceptance speech: “America is a nation of believers, dreamers and strivers that is being led by a group of censors, critics and cynics…. I am with you, I will fight for you, and I will win for you.”
Both Reagan and Trump focused on becoming the champion that America needed. It is not an easy task to acquire voters of another party. However just like Reagan, through focusing on current frustrations with the government and having confidence in the change to come, Trump was able to acquire the votes of white, working- and middle-class citizens in places like Macomb County, Michigan and throughout the “Rust Belt” of America.