Craig Ziemke has voted for Democrats all his life, including twice for President Barack Obama. Not this year.
“The whole country is going to hell,” the 66-year-old retired factory worker said, standing against the bleachers at a high school gymnasium while waiting for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to arrive. Ziemke’s fury is deep: Roads and bridges in the U.S. are falling apart, jobs are scarce and the U.S. border is wide open, he says.
“We’re letting all these people into the country. No one even knows who the hell they are,” he said. “We don’t need any more Arabs. The United States, anymore, is just a dumping ground for everyone.”
Ziemke plans to caucus for a Republican on Monday – and likely for Trump, “the only one with brains,” he said.
If Obama’s 2008 campaign in Iowa and beyond defined the election as one of “hope and change,” this year may well be described as the politics of rage.
In interviews with dozens of voters in both parties, the driving motivation across the state is anger and uprising. They’re fed up with lawmakers in Washington, who seem to work two or three days a week and get little done aside from raising money to stay in office. They’re mad about stagnant wages, companies sending jobs overseas and terrorists sneaking in across the border.
The rage is driving the campaigns of the “outsiders.” For Republicans, that’s the bombastic Trump and his chief rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, with verbal assaults against his own Republican colleagues.
Trump rallies can be boisterous affairs, with the audience turning on hecklers as Trump urges security to “get ’em the hell out of here.” News cameras captured several white men in November apparently kicking and punching a Black Lives Matter protester at a Trump event. In Vermont in January, he called on his security guards to “confiscate” a protester’s coat. “You know it’s about 10 degrees below zero outside,” he said from the stage. “You can keep his coat. Tell him we’ll send it to him in a couple of weeks.”
On the Democratic side, the discontent fuels the insurgent campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who vows a political revolution to fix what he says is a system skewed to favor the rich.
“I plead guilty. I am angry,” Sanders recently told an audience in Maquoketa, Iowa, pushing back against former President Bill Clinton’s critique that voters need “not anger, but answers.”
I plead guilty. I am angry.
Sanders continued: “I am angry and millions of Americans are angry. We are angry that our people are working longer hours for lower wages. We are angry that our criminal justice system is broken. And we’re angry that we have a corrupt campaign-finance system that allows billionaires to buy elections.”
The appeal resonates with voters furious over the role of money in politics: “I can’t even stand it, when I hear how much money they’re all willing to spend to run for office, but not provide day care for children,” said Monica McCarthy, waiting in a crowded union hall in Des Moines to hear Sanders speak. “It’s all rich guys who want to take over this country giving to other rich guys to help the rich.”
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The irate, discontent electorate is apparent in polls: More than 6 in 10 people think that either all or most Americans are angry with Washington, according to a recent Monmouth University survey.
Republicans are more likely than independents or Democrats to think that the majority of their fellow citizens are teed off at their government.
And it’s not just aimed at Washington.
Yet if Americans agree that their elected officials make them furious, they’re divided on the cure: Fifty percent say elected officials who are not willing to compromise are the cause of the problem, while 40 percent say elected officials who don’t stand up for their principles are to blame.
“We have reached the point where many feel that the opposite side of the political aisle poses an existential threat to the country itself,” said Patrick Murray, director of the polling institute in West Long Branch, N.J. “It is not clear how Washington can be fixed when Republicans and Democrats don’t even agree on what the problem is.”
This deep anger is fed by power lurching back and forth between Republicans and Democrats over the past decade, raising hopes among Americans who favor one side, then dashing them when little changes thanks to mounting dysfunction in Washington, said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York.
“It’s just been too many times, and they just feel nothing has worked,” Miringoff said.
That anger has prompted a look outside of politics; way outside. Previously, he said, governors were considered “outsider” candidates for the presidential nomination. Now outsiders have scarcely any political experience.
“Our politics have changed,” Miringoff said, adding “there’s a growing mistrust of institutions,” including government, the health care system, and the media and pollsters.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last November found deep frustration, with nearly 7 in 10 Americans agreeing they were angry that the political system “seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington.”
The fury has establishment Republicans worried: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley warned fellow Republicans against following “the siren call of the angriest voices” when she delivered the party’s response to Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this month.
She didn’t name Trump. But he happily brushed off the rebuke at a Republican debate days later, saying he was “very angry because our country is being run horribly” and would “gladly accept the mantle of anger.”
Tim Leake, 18, who works at his family’s car lot in Marshalltown, will caucus for the first time and is casting his vote for Trump.
“I’m fed up,” Leake said, sporting a “Hillary for Prison 2016” button on his jacket as he waited in the cold to hear Trump speak. “I’m fed up with all the bull crap and all the lying. They’re spending us into debt and not doing anything they promised they would do.”
I’m fed up with all the bull crap and all the lying.
Tim Leake, 18, an Iowa voter
Cruz also seeks to channel the anger, as he did at a rally in West Des Moines this week when he complained that Republican majorities “haven’t delivered for conservatives” and Americans “feel a profound sense of betrayal.”
Adam Bauer, who brought his wife and their four young children along, is one of those Americans.
“I know I’m frustrated. I’ve heard Trump supporters are crazy mad,” Bauer said. “We’re frustrated where our current president has taken us and with the Republican leadership.”