Daniel Allott (left) and Jordan Allott (right).
Daniel and Jordan Allott are collaborators on “The Race to 2020,” a journalistic project documenting the political sentiment in nine counties across the United States. Daniel Allott was the Washington Examiner’s deputy commentary editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Politico, and other publications. Jordan Allott is a filmmaker and founder of In Altum Productions. His work covers themes ranging from domestic politics to religious minority rights in the Middle East.
Harvard Political Review: How did you choose the counties that you did?
Daniel Allott: We looked at some of the battleground states. Each of them has a different dynamic.
Jordan Allott: Let me give you an example: Robeson County, North Carolina. It is the poorest county of the 99 in the state. It is the most racially diverse rural county in the United States. It is 40 percent Lumbee Native American. In 2012, they voted for President Obama by a little over ten percentage points. Last year, they voted for Donald Trump by over five percentage points. The most racially diverse rural county voted for Donald Trump. We wanted to go there and meet those people, [many of whom] had been lifelong Democrats, and introduce them to the rest of the country.
HPR: Have you found anything that unites all of these places?
DA: One thing that stood out among the Trump voters is that for [many] of them, he was the candidate of hope. We did a video early on where we asked people to try to sum up in one word why they think their county voted for Trump. The two words we heard more than any others were “hope” and “change.” That [helps explain] why someone who voted for Obama would also vote for Trump.
There is a deep distrust of the media across the political spectrum. It is not just among conservatives, but it has become more acute and noticeable with President Trump. It seems like when he speaks and acts, a lot of the media hear and see one thing, and his supporters hear and see something else.
JA: Many members of the media do not know somebody well who would support Donald Trump. That is a problem. There is a big disconnect between the average American in a lot of parts of the country and the media.
HPR: What inspired you to undertake this project and in this manner?
DA: Many [members of] the media, including myself and my publication, got the election wrong. A lot of journalists dismissed his supporters as backward, bigoted, and deplorable. That did not ring true for us. We know people, among the best people we know, [who] ended up voting for Trump. [The project] is an effort to reconcile these two notions of the Trump voter: the bigoted, backward deplorable and the person whom I love, respect, and admire. I decided this deserves full-time treatment. It takes time to cultivate goodwill and trust among different people and communities.
HPR: How has visiting these counties and meeting these people informed your view of the Trump voter?
JA: One thing that stands out is [that] they value people and especially political candidates who are present and authentic. A lot of these communities are not used to a presidential candidate coming to their area of the country, visiting with them, and being present. Trump turned to these communities that are often ignored [or] mocked—by the media, by Hollywood, even by academia, and definitely by the political parties—and said, “I am going to listen to you.”
At local level races, there might be a Democrat who was expected to win, and the Republican beat them because they showed up and went into these communities. As far as authenticity, I just spent [a weekend] in Howard County, Iowa, which had one of the biggest swings. It supported Barack Obama five years ago by over 20 percentage points and swung to Donald Trump by 20 [percentage points]. That is a 40-point swing.
[It] was my first time hunting. [I spent] two or three days with a group of about ten guys; most of them voted for Donald Trump. They value authenticity. They appreciated that about Trump. They knew that he was telling [them] what he believed.
HPR: How have these voters’ perspectives changed over the last year?
DA: Not a lot. When I ask them, “Would you vote the same way you did?”, [almost all would] vote exactly the same way. Nothing has changed. He is who he said he was going to be.
We have met a lot of ethnic and racial minority voters who said that they supported Trump or voted for him. We met two women—Muslim, Syrian refugees—in Erie, Pennsylvania, whom we got to know quite well. I emailed [one of them] and said, “I know you cannot vote, but if you could, who would you vote for?” She said [she] would vote for Trump. She [is] a Muslim, a woman, a refugee, and an immigrant from Iraq. But she is not focused on Trump’s purported sexism or [comments about] immigration. She is focused on jobs. She thinks he is a good businessman [who] is going to help the economy. Who am I to tell her she is wrong?
HPR: Are there any events in the past year that have either changed their perspectives or been significant to these voters?
JA: People were focused on Obamacare. A lot of people who support Trump will blame Democrats or the Republican Party in that regard. [Trump] is seen as someone who is outside both parties.
DA: It is a lot of smaller issues, too, that are important to certain demographics. Macomb County, Michigan, has a lot of white, working class people but also a significant Chaldean population. Chaldeans are Iraqi Christians. Their religious leaders met with Trump, and he promised them that he would protect their co-religionists in Iraq who are undergoing a genocide and suggested he would create a safe-zone for religious minorities. [There are] 100,000 or 200,000 Chaldeans in the Detroit metropolitan area. If they get let down on that issue, that could swing the whole state.
HPR: On a more personal note, what has it been like to work with your brother?
DA: It is terrible. [Both laugh.]
JA: I did not expect a question like that.
DA: I am in these counties full-time. Luckily, he only comes in for three or four days at once, and now I am sending him to different places. With him doing the film and me being a writer, we are not competing. If we were both trying to be documentary filmmakers or something, the competition would be too much. A good thing is that we can bicker.
JA: We will still get the job done.
DA: He can threaten to end the project or something, but it is not going to happen. [We] are in it for the long haul.
JA: When we approach people, the first thing they do is look at us. They notice that they are seeing double.
DA: It lets people put their guard down a bit.
HPR: How has this experience been different from or similar to other projects you have done?
JA: I have spent ten or 15 years as a filmmaker doing some domestic political projects but focusing a lot on international human rights and religious freedom. I was in Syria just three weeks ago. I see a parallel, even though one week, I am in Upper Egypt, and then I am in rural Iowa. Throughout my career, I have tried to introduce a western audience to different situations. It could be religious or ethnic minorities and their plight in the Middle East, or it could be political prisoners in Cuba. [Trump voters] are not necessarily persecuted, but they are not given a voice, so we want to create a bridge between different communities.
DA: We do not have an agenda. The only criteria we have when we are interviewing people [is that] they have a connection to the county.
JA: One thing we hear a lot is, “Why do you want to hear my opinion?” This is exactly [the voice] we need to hear.
DA: I did opinion writing for 15 years. I got to the point where I felt like there was too much pontificating from inside the Beltway. That is necessary, but I just wanted to go out and do some reporting. I feel much more confident in the conclusions I am coming to when I can relate to different people in different areas. It has been liberating for me.
HPR: It seems like religion is an important guiding force for both of you. Could you talk about how your faith has influenced your work on this project or in general?
DA: We have many friends who are people of faith, and I know Christians who voted for Trump. He did better than past Republican presidential candidates [with that group]. Finding out what their reasoning was [for] voting for somebody who arguably personifies the Seven Deadly Sins was important. I took the time to say, “These people are not necessarily hypocrites.” They have their reasons.
JA: It is difficult to understand the perspective of somebody of faith if you do not have some sort of faith. I have done work in the Middle East, and listening to someone who is a devout Muslim is easier if you [have] a faith background. Traveling throughout the United States, time and time again, it is a huge influence. Faith, in different areas, drives people.
DA: And informs their votes.
JA: And their worldview about everything.
HPR: Many people have tried to explain the result of the presidential election. How does your project intervene in that debate?
JA: People do not like an outsider—whether it is a political candidate, the media, or Hollywood—dictating what their priorities should be. In rural North Carolina, they are saying, “We do not even have jobs, we have a huge drug problem, and other issues. Yet, we are told that we are bad people because we do not support transgender bathrooms.” They are saying that sometimes, empathy is a zero-sum-game: “Why do people not care about us, about our challenges and concerns in our community? They are not coming here to find out what is important to us.”
DA: People are less ideological than D.C. journalists [and] people in politics are and think others are. A lot of people vote, especially for president, for somebody they feel chemistry with or someone whose charisma they like. They vote for the person first and embrace their issues and policy prescriptions second.
JA: We heard a lot of people who would vote for Donald Trump and then vote Democratic down the line. That shows you how much the personality [of the candidate] has to do with it.
HPR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
DA: The key to understanding Trump’s America is love. It is easy to believe a caricature of a person, of a voter. If you are the family member or close friend of someone who believes in these things, you are forced to try and reconcile the caricature with the reality. It is easier to dismiss those voters, but if you are forced to struggle with it because you like this person and want a relationship with this person, that is empathy.
JA: It is about empathy.
DA: That is empathy and embracing struggle. We can do that in all areas of our lives, in politics, too. That is the key.
Image Credit: Daniel and Jordan Allott
This interview has been edited and condensed.