Five of us student journalists climbed into an SUV on the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 8, not thinking we would be covering the election of Donald J. Trump that night.
It seemed to me the general consensus of the Western consciousness was Hillary Clinton was going to win. Most of the pre-election polls confirmed this, but besides all of that, it seemed impossible to comprehend the election of someone so blatantly offensive as Trump. After all, Trump is a celebrity and a businessman, and Clinton is a seasoned politician who was working her whole life towards the White House. So how did Trump win?
Perhaps being a Canadian made the election seem like no contest. Canadians came out in droves to vote for Justin Trudeau and his sunny ways last year, after our relationship with his predecessor Stephen Harper turned sour. We needed a change. After eight years of Obama, it seems that Americans needed a change too.
On that overcast Tuesday morning, we drove along the I-90, through New York and Pennsylvania to reach our destination of Cleveland, Ohio. At our first stop in New York, I spoke to Jason Zieba, a gas station attendant at the Angola Travel Plaza. He said he was going to vote for Trump when his shift was over because Clinton’s time as Senator of New York left him with a bad taste in his mouth.
When we got to Ohio, we decided to do our coverage from the Prosperity Social Club, a bar which was hosting a non-partisan election night viewing party. The bar is nestled in a residential neighbourhood that’s spotted with historic churches and Victorian houses. That’s where I spoke to Julie, a blue haired Ohio resident who told me was sick to her stomach because Trump won in Ohio.
Julie was worried that Trump’s behaviour was normalizing bigotry and misogyny. Her reaction to Trump’s impending victory was visceral, and affecting. When we got back to the hotel, I noticed that the woman working at the front desk was concealing a feeling of dejection not unlike Julie’s. A crestfallen expression sat upon the woman’s washed out complexion, and it spoke to me in a way that words could not. The president could have been a woman.
People have said that it was a silent majority who elected Trump, but I’m not sure that it is fair to say so — perhaps we just weren’t listening. On our trip back to Canada, we met Rebecca Stephens at a gas station outside of Erie, Pennsylvania. Stephens worked at the polling station in Knox, and she was both surprised and pleased that Trump won.
I asked Stephens what it was about Trump that appealed to her. Stephens explained that she is pro-life, and that her and her husband are “all American”, and they believe that everyone should be allowed to own a gun.
This election turned common decency on its head. All of the perceived positives about Clinton – her political qualifications and her backing from Obama –inevitably seemed to lead to her downfall, and the mountain of perceived negatives about Trump seemed to be what won him the election.
“(Trump’s) a non-political person. He’s not going to be warped by money. He’s abused the system and knows how to fix it so that other people can’t, hopefully,” said Stephens.
Matt Williams works at the gas station in Pennsylvania where we met Stephens. “I really don’t like Hillary…she’s just an Obama carbon copy to me. If we were to put Hillary in there, it would have all stayed the same,” said Williams.
My head was spinning when I got home from the United States. The outcome of the election caught me completely off guard. But after I pieced together the interviews we did and the opinions of the people we met, a picture of a discontent and divided, yet thoughtful population began to emerge.
It appeared that Trump voters are fed up with traditional politics, and Clinton is an old school politician. Trump’s populist rhetoric appealed to people. I asked Stephens why so many people voted for Trump, and she said they wanted change. “I think the people came out to show that they were voting against the government and how it’s been going for the past couple of years,” said Stephens.
It’s still a few months before Trump is sworn into office, and no one can say for sure what he is going to do. The disaffected voters backing Trump may or may not be happy with his decisions in four years—that just seems to be how it goes, you never know. But for me, the people we had a chance to speak to illuminated a divide that goes deeper than Republican or Democratic preferences.