In 2016, Donald Trump found Utah a hard sell. Then, Hillary Clinton and Evan McMullin together received almost 50% of Utah’s votes. Trump received under 46%. More Utahns voted against Trump than for him.
Trump’s underwhelming 2016 success did not surprise. Trump was too bombastic, too unconventional. In 2016, Utahns never warmed to the big-city easterner sporting a thousand-dollar dye job, spewing a witches’ brew of vulgarity, shameless self-promotion and crude insults against fellow Republicans and defenseless immigrants. Sen. Mitt Romney called him a fraudster who was “playing the American public for suckers.” Most Utahns agreed with Romney then. But in 2020, Trump crushed Biden with 58% of the vote to just 38% for Biden (minor candidates received the rest). The landslide for Trump runs contrary to my 60 years of experience with Utah.
That experience began in November 1960 when my family moved from New Jersey to Brigham City. We drove into town as the Kennedy-Nixon election ended (Nixon received 55% of Utah’s vote). I made friends quickly at Box Elder High. My new classmates were, almost without exception, neighborly and welcoming. My exposure to Brigham City nice was incurable. Moreover, most of Utah was like Brigham City in 1960.
The Beehive State in those days represented the best of mid-century rural America. Sure, Utahns were still human. Social and economic discrimination existed against Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans, but it was less obnoxious than elsewhere. Lynching and assaulting people of color never caught on as spectator sports here.
Inevitably, 1960s’ teenagers became parents with children of their own and so on. These folks sent to Washington a steady stream of generally honest, center-right Democratic and Republican politicians who mirrored the moderate electorate which chose them. Firebrands, Bible-thumpers and rabble rousers needed not to apply.
Washington whispered that some Utah politicians came equipped with moral backbones. When Alan Drury, the author of the 1960 novel about Washington, “Advice and Consent,” needed a fictional character with integrity, he created Sen. Brigham Anderson of Utah. This was art imitating life. In 1954 Vice President Nixon picked U.S. Sen. Arthur Watkins of Utah to chair a select committee on the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Nixon chose Watkins because he played by the rules and inspired trust on both sides. Utah senators, past and present, generated bipartisan Watkins-like respect and trust included nationally known Sens. Bob Bennett, Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney.
Given Utah’s voting history, Trump’s 2020 landslide baffles. I believe that yesterday’s Utahns not only would not have wanted him as their president, they would not have even wanted him as their neighbor.
How can we account for the 2020 electorate’s apparent break with Utah’s moderate voting history? No one forced their vote. They could have voted for Biden, someone else, or not voted at all. Obviously, they overlooked Trump’s personality because they liked his achievements, possibly his judicial appointments, pro-business deregulation or America First policy.
But whatever Trump achieved (and many would argue his achievements were considerable), they were not worth the price. History tells us with each passing day, those achievements — as great as they now seem — get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. What looms larger and larger is character. Yesterday’s Utahns knew that. They may not have remembered or even known where our two greatest presidents, Washington and Lincoln, stood on taxes or judicial appointments. They assessed greatness by broader measures. They revered Washington and Lincoln as truth-tellers and unifiers. Washington was known as the man “who could not tell a lie.” Lincoln was known as “Honest Abe.” Washington almost singlehandedly created the Union. Lincoln preserved the Union “with malice toward none.”
Measured by the Washington-Lincoln gold standard, yesterday’s Utahns, in my opinion, would have weighed Mr. Trump in the balance and found him wanting. Indeed, Trump’s trajectory is so far from the course of other presidents that he is in his own orbit. As his time ends, President Trump departs with the distinction of being one of the greatest individual threats to the Union since Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.
Lawrence J. Leigh has a Ph.D. in government from the University of Arizona. He once taught political science at Weber State University. He also is a former assistant United States attorney for Utah and Northern California.