MEDIA
08/30/2018 12:43 am ET

Take Salena Zito Neither Seriously Nor Literally On Trump Voters

Is the populist whisperer of Trump Country full of crap?
Donald Trump supporters at his Sept. 28, 2015, news conference at Trump Tower in New York.
DOMINICK REUTER/AFP via Getty Images
Donald Trump supporters at his Sept. 28, 2015, news conference at Trump Tower in New York.

You might not know who Salena Zito is off the top of your head, but you’re almost certainly familiar with her work. She writes in publications such as the New York Post and the Washington Examiner about such varied topics as “Why Democrats in Western Pennsylvania Are Voting Trump,” “Why the Generation After Millennials Will Vote Republican” and “Why the Rust Belt Just Gave Donald Trump a Hero’s Welcome.” Or maybe you read her September 2016 piece in The Atlantic in which she famously pointed out that Donald Trump supporters took the candidate seriously, not literally, while the national press did the reverse.

Seriously, not literally: a nice phrase, and a bit of a conjuring trick. It flipped around the usual dynamics of our political culture; the voters had wised up beyond any care for truth, and the simple-minded media were being played for suckers.

The observation hasn’t held up well — Trump has literally done what he literally said he would do — but analytical rigor wasn’t really the point. This was about excusing Trump voters, part of the media’s excruciating and relentless project to understand the mind of the Trumper without ever talking about racism. Zito was more than happy to provide the liberal world with countless portraits of rational, eloquent, Democratic-curious Trump voters who are always just this close to going blue. She even got a book deal and a Harvard teaching fellowship out of it.

Unfortunately, as people have been pointing out with increasing frequency, a lot of it appears to be bullshit. 

Most recently, a few threads on Twitter calling a number of aspects of her work into question have been making the rounds.

The critiques amount to a wholesale demolition of the Zito method. Her shtick — which, as she has told us time and again, is absolutely not a shtick — consists of driving to blue-collar Rust Belt towns and letting regular folks tell her in their own words why they support Donald Trump. Thus does she fashion herself as the antithesis of the fake-news coastal elite.

Much of her gimmick rests on the idea that her interlocutors are apostate populist Democrats who swung to the Republican Party. This is the story many conservatives prefer to tell about Trump — that he is a populist phenomenon, not the product of regular country-clubs-and-chambers-of-commerce Republicanism. Certainly these left-to-right populists exist in America, but Zito has a knack for finding the ones who, apparently unbeknownst to her, have become Republican Party officials. This is why the criticisms of her are so damning. Zito is supposed to be the one telling you how it actually is. 

There are two lines of attack on her journalism. The first is the straightforward accusation that she makes stuff up. A number of people have pointed to her always on-the-nose quotations.

This is basically unprovable without access to the recordings that Zito insists she always makes.

Harder to discount, though, are the instances in which she misrepresents exactly who it is she’s interviewing. And it’s that line of questioning that really began to pick up steam, particularly after a series of tweets on Friday from someone calling himself or herself Inanimate Carbon Rod.

By Sunday, Zito had yet to comment, so that evening I sent her a link to the tweets and asked her if she might have some time to answer a few questions. Instead, the following afternoon, Zito sent me an email — apparently similar to the one she sent to the website Contemptor — with her literary agent cc’d. In it she attempted to refute a selection of the tweets. Her message was scattered with red text, as if the passages had been pasted in from another source.

Below, I’ve laid out the sharpest of the criticisms of her work and, where appropriate, her responses to them. It’s my considered opinion that Zito is to be taken neither literally nor seriously.

The Case Of The Persuadable Suburban Woman (Who Works For The Local GOP)

Both in her book, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, and in a New York Post article titled “No, Not All Women Are Democrats,” Zito points to Amy Maurer from Kenosha, Wisconsin, as an example of the kind of “civically minded professional suburban women who had any number of reasons to take their practical, moderate votes away from the Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump, and give them to Hillary Clinton.” 

In a column for The New York Times, based on Zito’s Post piece, S.E. Cupp repeated Zito’s claim that Clinton had tried and failed to target women like Maurer. After Cupp’s Times piece ran, it didn’t take long for writer Tom Scocca, my former editor at Gizmodo Media Group, to dig up evidence that Maurer isn’t just a Republican-leaning voter — she’s a Republican Party official. Supposedly persuadable populist Amy Maurer is on the executive board of the Republican Party of Kenosha County. The Times ultimately appended an editor’s note saying that the article had “omitted a relevant detail.” 

Here’s Zito’s response:

gmail

There are a few issues here. The first is that not identifying Maurer as a Republican isn’t the problem as much as not identifying her as a Republican Party official. Another is that Cupp actually said that she was basing her column about Amy Maurer on one of Zito’s New York Post columns, not on her book (co-authored with Republican strategist Brad Todd, who contributed polling data).

In that column, Maurer is never identified as a Republican or as a Republican Party official. (In the book, she is identified as a Republican, though there’s no mention that she’s a Republican Party official in Kenosha County). Here’s what Zito says about Maurer in her Post column: 

Maurer, 43, is the married, educated, suburban mom whom experts missed in the 2016 election — and still don’t get today. As a gun owner and strong defender of the Second Amendment, she based her vote entirely on the Supreme Court vacancy and who would fill it.

The Clinton campaign tried hard to win over voters like Maurer with ads highlighting Trump’s most misogynistic remarks, casting him as an unhinged troglodyte no self-respecting woman could support.

And here’s what you see when you look up Maurer in the LexisNexis database:

LexisNexis

It’s one thing to say that the Clinton campaign tried to win over wealthy, conservative-leaning suburban women. It’s another thing entirely to hold up an active party official as someone Clinton tried to get but just couldn’t convince.

The Case Of The Potential Swing Voter (Who Calls Trump The Savior Of Our Nation)

In a review of Zito’s book for The Associated Press, Will Lester described David Rubbico as “a longtime union Democrat from Erie County, Pennsylvania,” based on Zito’s reporting, but as Inanimate Carbon Rod noted, Rubbico is also currently an elected Republican committee member.

gmail

It appears that Rubbico did indeed run as a Republican for a local committee position in 2018. This obviously would have been after Zito interviewed him. The problem here is with Zito’s characterization of Rubbico as some sort of swing voter. Toward the end of her chapter on Rubbico, Zito writes: “Trump’s outspokenness, which caused many suburban Republicans to blush, blanch, and perhaps even defect from him to vote for Clinton or a third-party candidate, was an asset for voters like Rubbico who mince few words themselves. It’s these voters, in this new coalition more because of style than ideology, who could either turn hard against the congressional GOP during the 2018 elections or swing back to voting Democratic once Trump is done.”

Now, as the original Twitter thread points out, here’s what Rubbico wrote in a letter to his local paper in January 2017: “Sorry to hear that you are yet another sore loser, bleeding-heart liberal who would rather overthrow the government by thrusting us into another Civil War instead of being mature, responsible adults and accepting the outcome of the election and giving President Trump a chance to serve everyone. He is not a racist for saying that immigrants should be legal. He is holding America first by wanting to stop the invasion of illegal immigrants and Syrian refugees, both groups that are embedded with terrorists. Merry Christmas and happy New Year. None of that happy holidays stuff, thanks to Trump, the savior of our nation, which has been decimated by President Barack Obama over the last eight years.”

I asked Zito if she was saying that the person who wrote that letter is the type of voter who might vote Democratic in 2018. She did not answer. 

The Case Of The Independent Suburban Voter (Who Was Also A GOP Delegate)

Next we have Cynthia Sacco, described in Zito’s book as an “independent-minded suburban voter” who is “of Hillary Clinton’s generation” and who “spent most of her adult life voting mostly Democrat.” This is not the kind of person you might expect to have been a GOP delegate in 1994

In her email to me, Zito wrote:

gmail

First, it’s not Cynthia Sacco’s husband who was the GOP delegate in 1994—it was Cynthia Sacco herself. This would certainly seem worth mentioning when otherwise framing someone as an “independent-minded suburban voter.” And as for Zito’s efforts to describe Sacco as someone who’s particularly conflicted party-wise, her Facebook likes leave us with a markedly different impression: 

Facebook

In response to the above screenshot, Zito wrote in a subsequent email: “On page 209 Sacco says she grew up in a Democratic family who said she spent most of her adult life voting mostly Democrat then began switching back and forth as she got older ’Then I just flipped back and forth. Safety and security were big issues for me, so I would vote the person, especially locally.’” In fairness, Clinton probably could have won over voters like Sacco — she just needed to run as a Republican. 

The Case Of The Clinton High-Priority Target (Who Thinks Obama’s A Muslim)

In discussing Patty Bloomstine of Erie County, Pennsylvania, Zito asserts that Bloomstine is “exactly the kind of voter who was at the top of Hillary Clinton’s persuasion-target list during the 2016 campaign.” As Inanimate Carbon Rod found, Bloomstine is also on her local Republican committee — though, in fairness to Zito, this appears to be a recent development and thus couldn’t have been included in the book.

gmail

Zito claims that Patty Bloomstine “switched parties from Democrat to Republican” in 2010, but the only other candidate Bloomstine has ever given money to besides Kathy Dahlkemper was former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum, to whom she gave $500 in 2006. Rick Santorum.

What’s more, the characterization of Bloomstine as someone who was high on Clinton’s priority list doesn’t exactly comport with what Bloomstine was sharing on her Facebook page in 2012:

Facebook
Facebook
Facebook

To the above screenshots, Zito responded: “People ticket split all of the time it is not unusual on the life issue (Santorum and Dahlkemper) are both prolife. She says in the book if you read it that she switched from Dem to GOP in 2010 away from Dahlkemper because she began voting with the Dem leadership and then started voting republican.” In other words, Zito appears to be arguing that someone who would turn against a politician for voting with Democrats is just the type of person who might vote for Democrats. 

The Case Of Salena Zito

In her initial email to me, Zito closed with the following:

gmail

Maybe this was her wildest mischaracterization yet. Zito likes to paint herself as a beacon of empiricism and old-fashioned, just-the-facts reporting. This is a difficult posture to strike for someone who once sat on the board of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media & Public Policy. But she’s only doing to herself what she did to all those alleged populist Democrats who became Republican Party officials. She’s cosplaying.

After a few more attempts at contact, Zito and I texted:  

Text message

A photographer might back up Zito’s version of events, putting a number of credibility questions to bed. Certainly she’d be eager for the scrutiny to end. So I asked: 

Text message

I have yet to receive a response.

Later that night, Zito went on to post a winding Twitter thread rehashing many of the same talking points from her email. 

With all that research she’s apparently doing, one would think she’d have used some of it.

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