Salena Zito: Columnist and Author of “The Great Revolt”

12 Nov 2021

BUCK: We have, as promised, Salena Zito with us right now. She is a reporter for the Washington Examiner and a columnist for the New York Post and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She is also the author of The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics. Salena, thanks so much for being with us.

ZITO: Are you kidding me? Thanks so much for having me. It’s really good to talk to you guys.

BUCK: So I’ve known your work and we’ve known each other for a while, and you do this fascinating thing for someone who covers national politics. You actually go into places that aren’t D.C. within two-hour drive, New York City within a two-hour drive. You go to other places and talk to people. Well, given that that’s your area of focus, what are the American people feeling right now? When you’re on Main Street, what are people saying about the Biden administration? What are their concerns? What are the things going right? What’s going on wrong? What are you hearing?

ZITO: So what I have been hearing — and I think probably what keeps me grounded is that I live in western Pennsylvania, sort of the Paris of Appalachia and the beginning of the Midwest. And so I have a different perspective than someone who lives in the super ZIP Codes in this country. I see people differently because I’ve shared their lives. We have shared life experiences.

So this will be interesting, I think, maybe to you; but I saw a change in people’s point of view about President Biden back in August during — in the sort of days leading up and the weeks after — what’s happened in Afghanistan. Now, it’s not… There’s a nuance here. It’s not that people did or did not want to leave Afghanistan. That was not the central core of this breakaway.

But it was the negligence in which was handled that started to peel away voters who had decided to vote for Biden and/or just sit it out, which is part of conservative populism. And they started to think, “Look, this is not what we bought into. This is not what was promised,” and so what you started to see were — and I wrote about this — there is this 13 beers, the 13 glasses of wine, the 13 plates set up at tables.

And then you started to see 13 chairs on the side of the road in front of people’s houses. There was this sort of response that was not seen by the national press, but it was very real and very tangible. And it then continued with what happened with the Haitian refugees in Texas. And then by the time sort of this whole bill came across the wire and the details at what we somewhat know started to leak out, voters had decided that they sent the Democrats and Biden to D.C., and they sent a message that we wanted things to return to normal, and Democrats misread that message and thought, “Oh, we can do whatever we want. They love us!”

No. They were just liked Republicans less at that moment. And I would argue that the blue wave that was expected to happen in November 2020 — and I’ve written about this — never really happened. In fact, if you look down ballot at races across the country or even in my home state of Pennsylvania, Republicans and conservative candidates won down ballot in the beginning of a red wave that you started to see continue in mayor’s races and special elections in Texas and in Virginia and New Jersey, that was sort of the wake-up call, I think, for the rest of the press.

But I had been down in Virginia for months, and while I saw what the issues were very localized, the thing that the press got wrong and the thing that the Democrats got wrong is that they continue to believe that this election was about Donald Trump. Voters are very forward thinking, whether they liked him, they loved him, or they loathed him, they have moved on and were thinking their community, their children, their grandchildren. And that’s what they were voting on.

CLAY: Salena, I appreciate you coming out. One of the things that I’ve been doing is I’m on the road the entire fall doing a college football tour for Fox Sports.

ZITO: Yes. I’ve been following it. It’s amazing.

CLAY: Well, I appreciate that. And one of the things that I love about it is all the face-to-face interaction I have with people from a variety of different parts of the South and hearing what they are paying attention to. And what I find, Salena — and I’m curious in your reporting what you find — is most people aren’t following things that go on in Washington, D.C., on a day-to-day basis. They’re busy in their own lives.

They’ve got kids, grandkids, jobs, responsibilities, everything else. But what they do have is a general sense for whether or not they trust someone to do a good job. And at this point in time, it seems to me that the vast majority of the American public has decided for a variety of different reasons that they do not trust Joe Biden to do a good job. Now, we’ve seen this happen before. 1994, Bill Clinton gets snowed under in the midterms.

Same thing happens with Barack Obama in 2010. But those guys were adroit enough politicians to build themselves back to an electable position in 1996 and in 2012. Joe Biden doesn’t seem capable of that. If you were trying to assess what you are seeing across the country as well, how does Biden reverse the impressions that exist among voters now of him? Is that, in your mind, possible, given his set of political talents?

ZITO: I don’t think it’s possible. A number of reasons. First — and I have to commend you the work that you do because I really follow it and it’s kind of joyful, and that’s how I find reporting in the Midwest, Mid Atlantic, all across the country.

CLAY: Yes.

ZITO: It’s joyful. You get out on the road. I don’t fly. I don’t take interstates. I only take back roads. You get out there, and you’re like, “We are in a totally different world than what you see on social media.”

CLAY: Yes.

ZITO: A completely different world. People are much more aspirational. I think the die is already cast for President Biden. I don’t think there is redemption available. And the reason why is he’s going to be unwilling to ask for it. The problem in our country is, and not just in government but also in our cultural curators, the people who run the corporations, the National Football League, Major League Baseball, entertainment, Hollywood, and the larger news organization is that they don’t have a connection to the people who sit in their seats or who they serve.

CLAY: Yes.

ZITO: And they are unwilling to change that. A lot of that has to with, as I said before, they all live in the same sort of super ZIP Codes. They all went to the same schools, and they all know only people just like themselves. They don’t really know people that believe that the life issue is important. They don’t know anybody who owns a gun. They don’t know anybody who knows how to use a gun or sits in a pew every Sunday.

So there’s no connection into understanding these people, and there is no recognition that they should. So that’s why this will continue. That’s why Joe Biden has a problem in redeeming himself with voters because he doesn’t believe he has a problem. And that is sort of mind-blowing to me as I just watch people sort of peel off away from him, and/or go towards conservatives, because there are people that just sat it out last year.

BUCK: We’re speaking to Salena Zito, reporter for the Washington Examiner and author of The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics. Salena, one thing that doesn’t get as much attention, it seems, in the news cycle in general as one would think — based upon polling that shows concerns of the American people — is illegal immigration.

This is not a story that the Biden administration seems very interested in people following closely. Just as I’m talking to you now, CNN has been running all of the insurrection coverage for the last couple hours, right after talking about the hundreds of thousands of people entering the United States illegally month after month in the Biden administration. Do you get a sense from talking to people in places that the media doesn’t focus on that immigration, illegal immigration specifically is the kind of issue that might have a major impact in the midterms? Because the polling usually shows it to be a top three or four issue.

ZITO: Yeah, absolutely, and there’s nuance out here. So out here in western Pennsylvania or Ohio or Michigan or Wisconsin or any of these states that I cover, illegal immigration is viewed through the prism of the opioid and fentanyl problem, the addiction problem. Is one of… You know, people don’t talk about this, either. It’s one of the larger problems of why we don’t have a workforce in this country.

We have a really bad opioid problem out here, and it’s only gotten worse during the pandemic, and it was something that Donald Trump was very willing to sort of talk about in a very realistic way in 2016. We saw a drop in addictions in 2017 and 2018, and now there has been a surge. Not only people in Appalachia where you think there’s towns with despair and all the jobs have left but also in the upper middle class to wealthy neighborhoods. They know their kids are being exposed to it, and they don’t like it. And so that’s how they view illegal immigration.

CLAY: So you said, Salena, that you don’t think Biden can reverse the trajectory that his administration is on, and I know certainly 2020 and beyond has made fools of anyone trying to predict where we are headed. But in your mind, based on what you see in the Upper Midwest, in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Michigan and sort of the backbone of the Big Ten states is the way I would describe it — I’m all over the SEC states right now. But there’s a certain affinity for football, for being outdoors, for a lifestyle in the Big Ten and SEC states that isn’t necessarily reflected in the east and West Coast. Where are we headed in your mind in 2022 and in ’24 for the Biden administration going forward?

ZITO: Well, I think it might be interesting to take a look at off-year election results just in my state of Pennsylvania alone, the sort of red wave that began down ballot in my state last November where statehouses, state Senate seats that were supposed to be lost and majorities that were supposed to be lost were not only held, but more seats were gained. But this state went incredibly more red, if it’s at all possible, in this off-year election.

And those sort of granular, small races for sheriff, for district attorney, for ROW offices, for county ROW offices are incredibly important. And I would point to Erie, Pennsylvania. Erie, Pennsylvania, is a postindustrial city who has not gained population since the seventies and went for Donald Trump for the first time a Republican in decades and went back to Biden in 2020, barely.

And it voted for county executive, a Republican county executive, one who ran on drawing businesses into the county as opposed to the Democrat who ran on transgender issues and cultural issues and had been the school board president. And I think that that sort of shows that this is still holding onto its conservative roots. Just because Trump left the presidency does not mean it has not continued to go red, and you saw it in Michigan and Wisconsin and Ohio as well.

CLAY: Salena, fantastic, as always, and we’ll talk to you again soon.

ZITO: That would be great. If people can go to my website, SalenaZito.com, and sign up for emails, they’re free, they’re fun, they’re not fattening, and they can follow my stories.

CLAY: Outstanding. We appreciate it, and have a good weekend.

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