'The Great Revolt' by Salena Zito & Brad Todd

'The Great Revolt' by Salena Zito & Brad Todd
AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this new RealClearBooks series, RealClear Book of the Week, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. In this first pick, RealClearPolitics Washington Bureau Chief Carl Cannon discusses “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics” by Salena Zito and Brad Todd.

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In late September 2016, six weeks before Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency, Pittsburgh-based journalist Salena Zito deciphered the riddle that stumped media elites and the power-brokers in both major political parties. The puzzle, as the establishment saw it, was basic: Why didn’t Republican voters see through the candidate’s relentless blarney and bluster?

In an Atlantic essay addressing this question, Zito recounted Trump’s erroneous assertion  one he made frequently  that 58 percent of African-American youths were unemployed. She then provided this now-famous explanation: “When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

Bingo! This insight did not entirely clarify what was unfolding in our country, but it wasn’t supposed to be a complete answer. What was most instructive about it, is that Zito  on a limited budget, working mostly as a freelancer  was doing what most other political journalists were not: talking to voters.

A generation ago, this was a time-honored method in campaign coverage. It’s unclear why it lapsed into disuse, although in Zito’s case, it was partly a matter of necessity. After 11 years at the struggling Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, she took a buyout that summer. But realizing she was sitting on a big story  a populist counter-revolt against both Republican and Democratic Party elites  she cobbled things together, mainly with freelance assignments in The Atlantic and regular columns in the New York Post and kept reporting. Lacking money to travel regularly with the candidates, Zito focused on the restive American electorate.

When the campaign ended, most observers had egg on their face. Zito didn’t. She had a body of work to be proud of. Afterwards, with help from co-author Brad Todd, a Republican political consultant, Zito expanded her coverage into a book, “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.” This work not only helps explain the earthquake of 2016, it should also be required reading for any aspiring political writer.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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