Back in 2003, using a colorful descriptor, a political scientist identified a superset of voters who would one day help elect President Trump. But can he win again with this fickle constituency?
A veteran of Bill Clinton’s War Room, political scientist Stan Greenberg was advising the Kerry campaign in 2003 when he categorized a certain group of Republican voters “F-You Boys.” One of seven sets of Republican voters he identified, Dr. Greenberg distinguished this group from more familiar characters like “The Faithful” (evangelicals who attend church weekly), “Privileged Men” (wealthy voters motivated by tax cuts) or “Exurbia” voters (those in predominantly white, distant suburbs of cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Jacksonville).
The “F-You Boys” are white men under fifty without college degrees. They have a modest, though not necessarily poor, income. They’re married, with children.
They remember—or imagine, the reality might be different from the perception—a bygone era when 40-something white men were the king of the American hill. A man’s gender role and his wife’s were distinct. His industrial job was respected. His pay was sufficient for a car, insurance, and a vacation. And his self-respect came from providing well for his family.
The F-You Boy sees all that slipping away, while some undeserving people, the “wrong” type of people, receive food stamps or other aid. Still, he is counting on his social security, someday. Government tends to hinder, rather than help, with his goal of providing, while giving handouts to everyone else.
The F-You Boys, Greenberg wrote, feel that “it has been a long time since government has done anything with them in mind.”
The elites and their “system” are going to screw him, the backbone of America, while improving the lot of others? To all this, the F-You Boy says, “Fuck me? No, fuck you!” He is more than ready to throw a wrench in the works of a such a misguided, even immoral, system.
Recently, in these pages, Shane Ryan argued the futility of calling out Trump supporters on their apparent hypocrisies. For example, liberals complain Trump voters demanded transparency during the election, but brush off conflicts of interest pervading the White House. They point out how Trump voters cheered “draining the swamp” during the election, but now seem to shrug off a cabinet and staff studded with lobbyist. Ryan’s response is that most Trump voters acted on the basis of simple tribalism so presenting them with the contradictions in their thinking is worse than a waste of time.
The case of the F-You Boys slightly colors this. F-You Boys aren’t pure Republican tribalists; after all, they were classic Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura voters. But confronting them with hypocrisies or bookish arguments will probably be futile too. F-You Boys are anti-elite and anti-intellectual, Greenberg wrote. And they don’t follow politics closely. They did not vote on the basis of fine points of policy position or logical consistency. Even if one’s arguments didn’t sound like elitist sophistry, their vote was mainly an act of rebellion, not an attempt to realize a coherent political program.
Back in 2003, Dr. Greenberg observed that the “F-You Boys” were a tricky constituency with which to win elections because they are a small portion of the electorate. He put them at about 6% of all voters back then. (Though in a close-run 2016 election in which about 29% of all eligible voters chose the president, 6% counts for a lot.)
Besides, due to their feelings of disenfranchisement, F-You Boys historically have not shown up at the polls reliably. Still, Greenberg noted that the right kind of anti-establishment candidate could get them out, as Jesse Ventura did in his 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial campaign. In 2011, Dr. Greenberg presciently mused that Donald Trump might pull off a surprise as an independent in the Romney/Obama contest riding F-You Boys’ shoulders. When given the right candidate, he wrote, F-You Boys “have jumped at the chance to join political revolts.”
So, to what degree should Donald Trump thank the F-You Boys for carrying him over the finish line? It’s hard to say with certainty, since exit polls usually do not zero-in with enough detail to definitely pick out who were the F-You Boys, but part of the explanation for Trump’s surprise is that he won 72% of the non-college educated white males. They turned out for him in record numbers, crushing the total that voted for McCain or Romney, more traditional establishment characters. Trump also got vastly more support among non-college educated white women than Romney did.
Part of assessing the role of the F-You Boys in November 2016 is noting that they seemed far more activated than Clinton voters in just the right places. They showed up in manufacturing areas in Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, while many tens of thousands of former Obama voters stayed home for Clinton. The F-You Boys seem to have replaced the votes that Trump lost among wealthier former McCain and Romney voters, too.
How can President Trump please an “F them all” constituency? The F-You Boys were willing to head to the polls as an act of electoral revolution, but will they be willing to return four years after the insurgency was won? President Trump will have become the establishment, after all.
History does not provide much of a guide for this. Though he received 20 million votes, Ross Perot failed in 1992. Jesse Ventura did not run for re-election in Minnesota. Maine Governor Paul LePage seemed to have been helped into office by F-You Boys in 2010. He barely survived re-election in 2014 by 30,000 votes, though it appears the F-You Boys themselves came out in sufficient numbers.
Maybe if President Trump Fs enough of the right people—meaning the “wrong people”—the F-You Boys will return to the polls to reward him. Since they don’t follow politics closely, it could be that their president only needs to appear to be making big changes, tearing down the establishment, and F-ing immigrants and others whom the establishment, F-You Boys think, have favored. The F-You Boys are not going to read the text of this or that executive order; it might be enough that they see words like “Muslim ban” or “border wall” in the headlines for the next few years or hear the noise of establishment figures exasperated by their boy. Good thing for him, their boy is good at making noise.