Editor’s Note: The author of this article is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This article appears in the latest magazine edition of Talk Business & Politics.
The magazine writer put an open solicitation on Twitter. Would Arkansas supporters of Donald Trump please get in touch with him at his email address? He wanted to try to understand them. It would help him in his work.
Soon came this response: “This sounds like a trap.”
The reply came from Bud Cummins, the narrowly losing Republican candidate for Congress from the Second District in 1996, a few years ahead of the great Arkansas reddening.
Later Cummins was the U.S. attorney in Little Rock from 2001 to 2006, until Tim Griffin, the Karl Rove apprentice and future congressman in the seat Cummins had sought, decided he wanted the politically appointed job.
Cummins and the magazine writer had a bit of contentious history from the 1996 race in the context of the writer’s main job as a left-of-center opinion columnist for the statewide daily newspaper.
It’s no trap, said the magazine writer. Opinion writing is one thing. But this request came in a different forum for a different venue. It transcended opinion. It was more akin to trend reporting: Trump had won the Arkansas Republican presidential primary and appeared possibly headed to the GOP nomination. He’d done it by seizing on to something – but what? – that had roused millions across the country. Conventional punditry had missed this big story altogether. A conventional pundit needed help.
Oh, all right, I’ll play, replied Cummins, the establishmentarian turned Trumpian, a man whose political journey had taken him from examining hanging chads in Florida for George W. Bush in 2000 to embracing, in Trump, the Bush family’s quintessential menace and very antithesis.
Cummins soon found himself sitting across from the magazine writer over a tall latte at a midtown Little Rock bakery.
First things first: Cummins actually is Arkansas chairman of the Trump campaign, a position that he said means nothing except that he was willing to have his name used. He said he met Trump only for a couple of minutes and introduced the New Yorker at a rally in Bentonville.
He stressed he was speaking as Bud, not officially or unofficially for Trump, who, clearly, speaks for himself, sometimes effectively, sometimes not quite.
What Cummins proceeded to relate was a reformed insider’s more informed version of what other Trump supporters have sought to express.
What’s happened to Cummins, specifically, is that he seems 20 years after his personal campaign foray, and a decade after being forced out as U.S. attorney by the George W. Bush White House, to have lowered his BS threshold very nearly to the ground.
Cummins said the country is in big trouble, “close to . . .,” and then stopped himself, explaining that he didn’t want to finish the phrase and risk overstating a condition of entrenched polarization between distant ideologies that reminds him of what he has read about irreconcilable Civil War-producing attitudes about slavery and abolition.
Cummins believes the usual politicians simply can’t turn things around doing their usual things. So he thinks maybe Trump could do some good, because he’s different, because he has changed the rules, and because people say that he, in private and in business, is a rational man – unlike how he often behaves publicly – who knows how to mobilize people and get a deal made and a project done.
He said it’s fair when a man who has lost his life’s work to another country comes to resent undocumented immigrants dragging down the value of whatever we have left domestically for him to do.
But Cummins said there might never actually be a wall at the Mexican border or the deportation of 11 million people. He said Trump is a negotiator and that one starts his negotiation at the outer limit and then works his way back.
To what? To where? Cummins doesn’t know.
“I didn’t come here to tell you I know what he’s going to do,” Cummins said. “Some of the stuff he says makes me very uncomfortable. I guess I’m just weary of some of the things we represent as Republicans that I’m not sure mean much anymore. All we do as Republicans is say ‘no’ all the time.”
He said that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio “artfully articulate” conservative principles, but that neither has ever actually done anything to impose any of those principles toward workable solutions.
Take Obamacare, he said, the intent of which Cummins actually respects. But he said it’s unsustainable financially for the taxpayers and for consumers. That doesn’t mean, he said, that the answer is simply to “repeal every word” of it, as Cruz incessantly promises. He said the answer is to accept that we already largely socialize our health care – Medicare, Medicaid, veteran’s health, uncompensated care – and then to find a way to achieve universal coverage that is less onerous in regulation, less generous in benefits and less exploding in costs.
When Trump said in a debate that he wouldn’t let people die in the streets, Cummins heard him “speaking in code” and saying “I get it,” meaning that he sees the health-care issue as Cummins sees it. “But it’s code, and unclear code, so I can’t be sure,” he says.
What Cummins likes most about Trump is that he upturns the conventional political and media world.
He said that as a congressional candidate in 1996 he tended to “cower and say I’m sorry” whenever the editorialists took him to task. He thought that was what he had to do. But he said he since has come to realize – with some degree of resentment, it seems – that he should have stood up for his himself and his supposed gaffes.
What Trump has done, Cummins said, by “not walking back” his several statements that the media proclaimed fatal missteps, is expose that the media “were making up the rules and there was no enforcement mechanism.”
Cummins is ready to engage in what he acknowledges is a calculated and calibrated roll of the dice.
A DISDAIN FOR POLITICAL ELITES
Stephen McIntyre, 60, is from Pine Bluff, where his family operated the now-closed Eden Park Country Club. He is unmarried, a former Walmart store manager, and lives in Maumelle with his 89-year-old aunt, Del Tyson, who was a clerical aide to Orval Faubus 60 years ago. He is her full-time caregiver.
McIntyre spends a lot of time online and reading books and periodicals about politics and government. He brought a bound packet of reading material to give to the inquiring magazine writer at their meeting at the International House of Pancakes on Maumelle Boulevard – a meeting sought by the magazine writer, the conventional pundit, as part of this effort to get himself educated, albeit late, on whatever it is that Trump’s powerfully insurgent presidential candidacy represents.
The most interesting reading in McIntyre’s gift packet was an essay from 1996 saying Patrick Buchanan’s presidential candidacy was a harbinger that reflected the real looming polarization in America – the political elites in Washington on one remote side and Middle America on the other.
McIntyre said Trump represents the inevitable arrival of that harbinger. “If not Trump this year, it would have been somebody else maybe in four years,” he said.
McIntyre said we’ve seen in his lifetime a rise of “the so-called professional politician,” representing a supposed elite and giving us an inadequate presidential candidate like young Rubio, who asserted that he had foreign policy experience based only on a partial Senate term’s committee membership and a few junkets.
McIntyre said these supposed political elites have accomplished nothing. A longtime Republican, he seems to harbor his greatest disdain for those of his own party who have promised much and accomplished zilch. He cited the irony that the most substantive single policy accomplishment of Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994 was welfare reform, which Bill Clinton got done.
That welfare reform proves the point that reform can only be achieved in a bipartisan spirit of compromise, and that a big problem in recent years has been that conservative Republican officeholders promise too much to the right-wing base and then concede not at all out of fear of that base … if McIntyre got that, or bought it, it was not clear.
He did concede, like Cummins, that modern-day Republicans offer only opposition and no solutions.
Because of debt and troubled entitlements and crumbled infrastructure and mismanaged foreign policy, McIntyre believes the state of the nation is so dire that we must shake things up big-time, which means with Trump.
He initially seemed to like the general idea of Trump or a version of Trump – or of anyone – mounting an angry and contemptuous outsider’s raid on the failed state of politics. But as he continued to talk, it became clear that he specifically likes and admires Trump.
He read “The Art of the Deal,” and liked it. While he sometimes wishes that Trump would “tone it down,” he has read that Trump is different in private – charming and persuasive. He likes that the conventional political money barons – the Kochs, the Club for Growth – have spent tens of millions of dollars attacking Trump conventionally, only to meet the same futility that conventional pundits have encountered in trying to explain Trump.
McIntyre said his hope is that “the office of president will mold him,” and that the rest of the political class will accede to the mandate for a shakeup that the voters will give Trump, and produce results – not just a repeal of Obamacare, for example, but a workable alternative to address rising health-care costs.
He disdains Obamacare although he freely concedes that he found his own health insurance on its exchange, and that it costs him only $133 a month after Obamacare’s subsidies cover the other $600 or so. His point is that health insurance shouldn’t cost anybody any $700 a month, and that the price is that unsustainably high precisely because of Obamacare’s regulation and mandates.
There was a time, he said, when you could go to the hospital or doctor and pay out of pocket without third-party intervention. It was a time to which a 60-year-old child of a more thriving Pine Bluff longs to see our nation restored, at least in some ways.
That is to say that what McIntyre wants is precisely the Trump refrain – for America to be again what he remembers as great.
ANOTHER SEES ‘TOTAL BETRAYAL’
In early April the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a conservative and usually Republican newspaper that editorially deplores Trump, published on its Voices page a fiery and splendidly literate letter in support of Trump. It came from Quincy Jackson of Rogers.
Jackson wrote: “Pro-Trump people, and I am one of them, support him with enthusiasm but don’t insist that others do. Anti-Trumpsters seem to exist for the sole purpose of derisively berating Trump and his supporters, with little regard for other candidates except as foils to Donald Trump.
“You’ve heard it: Trump is a smooth-talking con-artist carnival barker and we his supporters are stupid, gape-mouthed, drooling onlookers waiting breathlessly to see the Tattooed Woman with Three Bosoms.”
On the phone the day of the letter’s publication, Jackson declared himself unworthy of having his views sought by an interviewer for publication. (A letter to the editor was a different matter altogether, apparently.) But then Jackson warmed to the opportunity.
He is 76 years old, retired for more than 15 years from a rice and soybean farm in Northeast Arkansas, where, he said, he grew weary of the “game” of increasing acreage and leveraging government subsidies. So he took what money he had and moved to Rogers, where he still works full-time as a courier for an automotive parts company. He still holds a job, he said, because he needs to preserve his savings, pay for Medicare-supplemental health insurance and stay alive and vigorous. “I think if I ever just sat down in that rocking chair, that’d be the end,” he said.
Like other Trump supporters, Jackson observed the state of his nation and saw . . . guess what? You guessed it: doom.
He explained his support for Trump this way: “It’s a matter of belief among so many of us after being so betrayed by the Republican Party, which has as much as said they don’t care what we think. Those kinds of things sent us looking for somebody willing to do what it takes to take this country back from the brink.”
The brink? Cummins also hinted that the nation was there. So did McIntyre.
What in heaven’s name had the Republican establishment in Washington done to so betray a conservative mandate – beyond, that is, yield grudgingly to the political, mathematical and procedural realities in Congress that kept Obamacare from being repealed, and kept the budget from being cut deeply, and kept the debt from being reduced, and kept illegal immigration from being stopped?
Jackson replied: “When Barack Obama verified our worst fears, we saw that this thing had to be stopped. And the GOP establishment essentially told us to shove it. It’s total betrayal, not only on Obamacare and the deficit and immigration, but on this political correctness madness and Black Lives Matter and all the rest. We gave these Republicans specific instructions as to what we want. And they said, ‘To hell with it. We’ll just give in to him,’” meaning Obama.
Did Jackson seriously believe that Trump, if elected, would get a border wall built and that Mexico would pay for it and that 11 million illegal immigrants would be rounded up and deported?
“I can’t say I know that for sure,” Jackson said. “I believe he will make an effort in that regard. The effort has to be made and made seriously. Trump has made too much of it. He can’t just go in there and then blow it off.”
Jackson said he has to trust his instincts and that he has had some success in his life doing so. He said his instinct is that Trump, “by his wealth and nature,” will prove independent enough to do his level best to accomplish what he promises to seek to accomplish, unlike, in Jackson’s view, Ted Cruz.
“I don’t trust Ted Cruz, for reasons I can’t explain fully,” Jackson said. “It’s the same instinct I have that has me believing Donald Trump.”
Yes, even Cruz’s colleagues in Washington eschew him, calling him a grandstander not to be trusted.
“That’s not my basis for not trusting him. I actually like that about him,” Jackson said. “It’s just something else.”
ADMIRING WHAT TRUMP SAYS
Lest you think Trump is supported only by disaffected and aging conservative males, consider 81-year-old Dorothy Crockett of Osceola, who is neither male nor all that disaffected.
She is a longtime Republican activist, a mother of six who is retired from managing a medical office, and the current chairman of the Mississippi County Republican Committee. She is running to be a Trump delegate to the national convention, at which time she intends to vote for him on every ballot, presuming, as perhaps she safely can, that he will lead with a plurality if not majority of delegates.
She calls herself an “uncloseted” and “unabashed” Trump supporter.
“I like that he says we need to restore American industry,” she said. “I like that he says we need to keep out the Syrian refugees, at least without vetting, because ISIS is too smart not to try to infiltrate.”
She likes that Trump has never asked her for money while her email box has been filled with solicitations from everyone else running on the Republican side.
She is not deterred by any of Trump’s supposed missteps. “I’m a woman,” she said, “and I raised four boys. So I don’t take offense at anything he has said about women.”
She said she takes greater offense – invoking one of the Trump-backer themes – at political correctness.
She had nothing bad to say about any Republican – except one, Mitt Romney, who offended her with his anti-Trump speech and his indication he could not support Trump as the nominee. If Romney had given such a vigorous speech against Obama in 2012, she said, “we might have an incumbent Republican president today.”
A YOUNGER SUPPORTER
And lest you surmise that Trump supporters are older adults of either gender longing for an America they remember, consider the case of Richard Caster of Mountain Home.
At the age of 18 in 2009, Caster spearheaded the creation of the Ozark Tea Party and then got elected to the Baxter County Quorum Court at the age of 19.
Now 25, he graduates this spring from Hillsdale College in Michigan and will return to Mountain Home, and he backs Trump for president.
“The problem is that I think Republicans haven’t known how to act as a majority party, at least since Newt Gingrich,” Caster said. “With John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, we haven’t known how to negotiate from a position of strength – to say this is what we insist on, and then go from there. I have every faith Donald Trump is and will be that kind of negotiator.
“If not, then I fear we are going to find ourselves in a very bad place,” Caster said, continuing the doomsday theme.
He said he believed Trump would get a border wall built, and that it ought to be built. He said that any study of the leading thinkers and essayists of western civilization will show that there is ample historical precedent for the rightness and logic of a nation’s restricting citizenship.
As for making Mexico pay for the wall, Caster said his theory was that Trump was saying he effectively would get the cost of the fence defrayed by making better trade deals with Mexico.
Most of these conversations occurred before a dustup of Trump setbacks – his comment to Chris Matthews about punishing women who get abortions, the misdemeanor charge against his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, for grabbing a woman reporter, and the trouncing Trump endured from Cruz in Wisconsin.
Here is what Trump admirer McIntyre had to say about all of that in a follow-up conversation: “The Corey Lewandowski thing was so off the charts and, in my opinion, was blown totally out of proportion. I watched that video several times and did not see any evidence of anything close to what [the reporter] claimed in her police filing. I fully expect in the course of things for this to be thrown out.”
McIntyre said Trump’s abortion comments “were a mess.” But he said maybe Trump can learn from that debacle and “reset and focus on the basics” and rally in the stretch to salvage the nomination.
By the way, McIntyre mentioned, the news of that day was that United Healthcare was pulling out of the Obamcare exchange for Arkansas.
His point was that evidence mounted that things were in a holy mess and getting ever-messier, which, as we have seen, is the very foundation of Trump support.
So to summarize: Trump supporters cite common themes – that the nation is at the brink of calamity; that the Republican establishment promised to pull the country back from that brink but didn’t; that Trump sometimes says things they wouldn’t, but at least speaks his mind without concern for the political correctness that they consider a scourge on free expression; that Trump’s public bluster belies what they trust to be his conventional competence and vital negotiating skill; that it’s high time to upturn American politics, which has become a refuge for the glib talk and inaction of political careerists; and that Trump’s personal style along with his ability and willingness to fund his own campaign liberate him from conventional obligations and permit the bold independence necessary for these desperate times.
Trump supporters would tell you they’re not looking for a tattooed woman with three bosoms. They would tell you they’re only looking for a backbone.