How the Obama phenomenon and Trump earthquake happened

How the Obama phenomenon and Trump earthquake happened
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Swift County, a small rural enclave about two and a half hours west of the Twin Cities, voted for President Obama twice, in 2008 and 2012. But in 2016, President Trump attracted 60 percent of the county’s vote. And he just missed becoming the first Republican president to win Minnesota’s electoral votes since Richard Nixon in 1972.

The shifting political terrain in Swift County offers a window into the nation’s broader political tectonics, shifts that have shaken up Washington on an increasingly frequent basis, shifts that gave us President Obama — and President Trump.


The series of stories to follow, Changing America, explores the trends at work that have altered our politics. The Hill spent months digging deep into decades of data that illustrate the nation’s changing demographics, economics, culture and politics.

In Swift County, hope dimmed when the Prairie Correctional Facility closed in 2010. More than 350 people lost their jobs, in a county of about 9,700. The unemployment rate jumped more than 2 percentage points virtually overnight, to almost 10 percent. But the community believed that an economic recovery would lift them once again.

“A number of people, quite a significant number of former employees out there, were holding on as long as they could before they eventually moved away, hoping that facility would open,” said Gary Hendrickx, a Swift County commissioner. 

But Mark Dayton, the Democratic governor of Minnesota, threatened to veto legislation to reopen the prison. And the Obama administration said the federal government would cut back its use of private prisons. People left Swift County, the poverty rate grew and farmers felt the pinch when corn, wheat and soybean prices cratered along with the global commodity market.

At the same time, Hennepin County, the state’s largest and home to Minneapolis, is booming. The Twin Cities are attracting a new generation of migrants, both from places like Swift County and from overseas. Hennepin County has 2,000 more manufacturing jobs than it did five years ago. In that time, the annual median income has increased some $4,500.

Where Swift County shifted toward Trump, Hennepin turned a deeper shade of blue. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump retweets personal attacks on Clinton, Pelosi, Abrams Biden swipes at Trump: 'Presidency is about a lot more than tweeting from your golf cart' GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill MORE took more votes, and a higher percentage of the vote, than Obama did in 2012. Trump scored 50,000 fewer votes there than Mitt Romney did four years ago.

The election that sent Trump to the White House is replete with juxtaposing examples like those of Swift and Hennepin counties. Those glimpses of a changing America are evidence of a series of countervailing demographic, political and economic forces that have long exerted themselves on the nation — and now define the quadrennial struggle between two sides of the political aisle that are deeply polarized along race, class, economic and educational lines.

On one side are aging rural and exurban counties, struggling to rebound from the worst economic collapse in modern times. On the other are large metropolitan powerhouses, increasingly diverse drivers of the American economy. 

One side hates trade but depends upon it for economic success. The other embraces cultural liberalism and reaps the economic rewards of an ever more globalized system. One feels left behind. The other feels hindered as it strives for the future.

At the center of the divide are two sets of divergent trends. 

The first set contrasts the changing face of America, which is being hastened by the rising influence of the most diverse generation in American history, with a radical political shift among the nation’s still-dominant cohort of older whites, who now act as a more homogenous voting bloc than ever before.

The second set reflects the changing nature of how Americans live, work and build economic power. A generations-long trend toward wage stagnation, automation and globalization is in the final stages of exterminating the blue-collar manufacturing jobs that once sustained America’s middle class in the heartland. At the same time, the nation’s largest cities are booming, creating staggering amounts of wealth and opportunity for those able to participate.

Together, these two sets of trends tell the story of the last half-century, an era in which a gap in what experts call the “lived reality” of different classes of Americans has diverged more than at any time since the Civil War. 

That gap, fostered simultaneously by global economic trends and self-interested politicians, has conspired to create the poisonous partisan climate in which we now live. 

It also offers hints about the options from which Americans must now choose: whether we will pursue the difficult course of unity and common prosperity, or the easy path of blame, division and a growing chasm between those in a position to take advantage of the evolving economy and those destined to be left behind.

In the course of reporting this series, we interviewed more than three dozen experts, including top demographers and leading economic thinkers, political leaders and their strategists, labor leaders and business executives.

The story they told is remarkably consistent. It is the story of a nation in flux — not just this year, or for the last decade, but for more than half a century. 

There are questions that define the American experiment: Who is an American? What does it mean to be an American? What is necessary to succeed in America today? Will my children live a better life than I have had? 

The answers to those questions, these experts almost unanimously agree, are being redefined, creating new winners and new losers, and in the process upsetting a delicate political balance that existed for two generations. 

The resulting uncertainty, anxiety and opportunity has created a nation almost equally divided along partisan lines, in which the battle for control of the White House, the Congress and states across the country is up for grabs in virtually every election. 

This series does not aim to determine why Trump won, or why Clinton lost. Any of a hundred factors could have swung an election that produced a president who won 306 electoral votes but lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes. 

But it will seek to understand how we got to this point, in which the nation is so narrowly divided that every election becomes fraught with possibility, and peril. 

The divergent trends, the shifting answers to questions fundamental to American identity and the evidence of what is at stake is demonstrated in towns like Appleton, Minn., and Sacramento, Calif.: One is dying. The latter is thriving. 

The impacts of the past are obvious in Miami, where a new generation of political leaders is beginning to take office, and in Detroit, where unoccupied homes in what was once America’s manufacturing hub are being demolished. 

And the potential for the future is evident in Las Vegas, where Ruben Kihuen, a formerly undocumented immigrant, now holds a seat in Congress, and in rural eastern Connecticut, where automation is eliminating some of the best-paying jobs around.

These are stories of a changing America, represented in a thousand other communities across the country, towns and counties and cities where sharply different economic opportunities are changing the way we live, work and vote. 

A half-century of changing economic prospects has led to the rise of dual-income households, a dramatic delay in the time when average Americans start their families and an explosion of credit card and student debt. 

In some cases, that has led to clearly different experiences along class lines, setting those facing an economic tailwind against those who struggle to succeed as their parents did. 

In others, it has led to a remarkably similar experience along racial lines, albeit an experience that is interpreted entirely differently: The children of blue-collar white workers believe their offspring will have a less successful life than they did. The children of those who suffered terrible discrimination in the Jim Crow South see the election of the nation’s first African-American president, and their own improving economic fortunes, as evidence that their offspring will live a better life than their own.

This series, Changing America, will explore those stories.