The Making of a Trump Voter: Daniel Lentz

An Atlanta Millennial goes all in for the Republican

Donald Trump's election may have shocked the nation, but it was no surprise in Georgia. After the votes were counted the AJC dispatched eight journalists from the capital to the coast to the peanut fields in the south and the mountains in the north. Their mission: to meet the people who created the Trump groundswell. This is the third in a series of their reports.

As a Millennial — that ascendant group of selfie-absorbed Snapchatters, the “Me, Me, Me Generation” as once branded by Time Magazine — Daniel Lentz is an imperfect fit. Like a square Ethernet cable in a rectangular USB port.

For starters, if Donald Trump insists upon waging his ongoing battle for hearts and minds on Twitter, this young supporter is going to miss the message. Wonder of wonders, there exists a 28-year-old with no regard for social media.

True, he makes his living on the cutting edge and owes his supper to all things modern. Lentz’s businesses card introduces you to a Director of Corporate Relations for a trade association. He works in Technology Square near Georgia Tech. His cubicle is parked in a hive of innovation called the Centergy Building. How can you get savvier than that?

And yet, “No Twitter. No Facebook,” Lentz swears.

“I’m not missing out on anything. It frees up time for me to learn and read real things. There is so much garbage and chatter out there. It’s a waste of time.

“I just think with the amount of time you spend obsessing over someone else’s vacation photos or wedding photos or what they cooked for dinner, you could have read a book that makes a difference in your life.”

To emphasize, he reached for the book currently occupying the on-deck circle of his granite-topped coffee table. A real hardcover, paper-and-ink book. Titled “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”All about Louis Gerstner’s transformation of IBM.

A deep divide among Millennials

Elephants did indeed dance in November. Lentz was among the celebrants, spending a long election night with fellow Republican party members at the Buckhead Hyatt viewing party, and later listening in spellbound solitude to the longshot-turned-president-elect’s 3 a.m. victory speech on his car radio.

“In my (conservative) world, I thought we may be doing well, but I had no idea what the rest of the country was thinking,” he said, explaining his surprise that morning.

As the past year tested America’s vision of itself, it also forced upon its many demographic divisions a decision on whether to rally around the tried, true and evidently worn-out conventions of presidential politics or seek dramatically different ground. Trump’s victory did not come without some notable defections.

Take the Millennial voter — roughly of the generation born between 1980 and 2000. The youngest of voters had been drawn to the charismatic Barack Obama — in his 2012 re-election he attracted 60 percent of voters between 18 and 29.

Hillary Clinton picked up 55 percent of that bloc four years later, her support further diminished by a lesser turnout of Millennials and some significant third-party shopping (about 8 percent went for either the Green Party’s Jill Stein, Libertarian Gary Johnson or took the write-in route).

Among white voters between 18 and 29, Trump outpolled Clinton 48 percent to 43 percent, according to an analysis of exit poll data for the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.

A red voter on a blue island

When Lentz voted McCain-Palin in 2008 and Romney-Ryan four years later, he was more a generational outlier. And even this time, living as he does in downtown Atlanta, a blue island in a red state, he hardly could be considered typical of his surroundings.

But then no portrait is perfect. This particular single white male Millennial is a mélange of the familiar assumptions about his kind, with enough surprising ingredients — like the aversion to sharing himself with everyone with Internet access — to make him distinct.

On one hand Lentz’s experience has been like so many others’ his age: the struggle to find meaningful employment after college; the sense of falling behind the pace of personal progress set by his parents; the discomforting position of being up to the waist of his skinny slacks in student debt (nearly $30,000).

On the other, his tastes do not always conform to the norm. While they say Millennials are consumed by materialism, Lentz still drives the car his parents gave him in high school back in Fayetteville, an Explorer ready to roll over to 300,000 miles. While they say this generation is a hopeless addict to the latest invention and convention, his TV cabinet is a repurposed 18th-century dresser. Most of his furnishings are hidden treasures from auction and estate sales.

“I like well-made furniture,” he said. “I like craftsmanship whether it’s in furniture or food or cars. I like well-made American things.”

And to this particular urban Millennial, Donald John Trump fit into the class of well-made American products.

‘I still like what he says’

That was the vision of Trump Lentz formed early in the long, difficult march to Inauguration Day. When the debate stage sagged beneath the weight of Republican hopefuls, Lentz had one eye on Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and another on this tycoon with an appetite for eponymous skyscrapers and reality television.

Walker fell out early. Others peeled away. Trump only gained speed.

“As they continued to drop and narrow down I was like, ‘I still like what (Trump) says the most, so I kept on it with him,” Lentz said.

Nothing changed after the conventions and all through the Trump-Clinton rancor. Nothing could shake Lentz from his support.

Where some heard crass speech unbecoming of the free world's leader, Lentz heard a refreshing break from political correctness. The man was a native of Queens: of course he was going to speak in ways that might assault the Southerner's ear, he reasoned.

When an acquaintance from the other end of the political spectrum recounted the latest incendiary Tweet or old audio of Trump’s so-called “locker room talk,” Lentz went to work on his response.

“I had made up my mind once everyone had kind of drifted off on the Republican side — OK I’m going to vote for Trump. I made my decision and I got back to my life and my world. I wasn’t going to follow it every day and get caught up in the obsession with his Tweets and different things,” he said.

“Someone would ask, ‘Oh, did you hear what Trump said?’ I’d tell them no. I’d do the research and go back to my friends and say they were overreacting. That’s ridiculous. I’m still going to vote for him.”

It made for some interesting days around the old purified water dispenser at work.

Home, church and Rush Limbaugh

Lentz began at the non-profit where he works last April.

It wasn’t exactly the career track Lentz envisioned when he left home for Samford University in Birmingham. He was of a pre-med mind, until spending a disillusioning stint shadowing a doctor who warned the young man of the specter of something called Obamacare.

(Not that Lentz needed any conversion to conservatism. Both his father, who works for Delta, and his mother, an assistant to the music director at their home church, are politically to the right. Included in the background music of his childhood were the dulcet tones of Rush Limbaugh — his grandmother was such a Rush fan that she would tape his shows on a cassette recorder on those afternoons she was out.)

Departing Samford with a degree in public administration in 2011, Lentz was mystified when employers did not line up to hire him. Instead, he moved back home and worked for two years at the auto repair/emissions inspection business in Newnan his family also owns.

“It was a really big, eye-opening experience,” Lentz said. “There was the narrative of going to college, studying well, participating in extra-curricular leadership opportunities, graduating — and there will be a job waiting for you. That’s your ticket to the middle class. You’ll be able to start your career, purchase that first home, date and get on with your adult life.”

Gaining no traction early, left with the vague feeling that he had fallen behind schedule in life, Lentz was drawn to Trump’s economic message. “I see him hopefully allowing the economy to fully grow as it needs to so that the ships can all rise together,” he said.

That issue, to use a Trump-ism, was "huuuuuuge" among this generation. Weston Kirk, a 26-year-old business valuation consultant who began a Georgia Millennials for Trump Facebook page,said the economyranked with homeland security as the chief concerns he encountered.He could have been speaking about Lentz when he said, "You get out of college $30,000 in debut and try to survive typically in a city on $35,000 a year in salary in a non-growth environment. That's pretty disheartening to folks."

Good friends with … a Clinton supporter

Landing where he has professionally has afforded Lentz the chance to center both his work and private life in one condensed downtown area. From the window of his 800-square-foot very urban loft — all exposed ductwork and bare cement pillars — he can watch the empty trolley cars of Atlanta roll by while on the horizon work continues on the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

An inveterate networker, he has found fertile ground here, joining the Atlanta Leaders Council of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Atlanta Young Republicans and recently earning a spot on the board of Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association.

Lentz also found himself at a workplace where, like workplaces across the land, the presidential election plowed a deep furrow right down the middle. There was no formal poll taken — and who believes in polls, anyway — but the folks in the office, 33 strong, figure that there were split roughly 50-50.

And who did Lentz gravitate toward? One of the biggest Dems in the building, a woman who couldn’t have voted for Trump in an uncontested race for head of the neighborhood watch.

And the oddest thing happened.

Unlike the campaign itself, Lentz and Cara Snow found themselves discussing their views in a civil manner. Elevating themselves above the people they backed, they thoughtfully jousted whenever stuck in traffic on the way to an event or off on one of their weekly lunches. Snow was a mentor to Lentz in his new job and a willing partner in a circular debate in which no opinions would ever change.

‘He wanted to know if I was OK’

When Lentz went to a pre-election party at Snow’s house, he brought a bottle of wine with a Trump-Pence sticker attached. Pragmatism trumped politics: together, they laughed and drank it all down.

When the votes were counted, one of Lentz’s first acts was to text condolences to his friend. “He wanted to know if I was OK,” Snow, 38, said. “I told him I was sad but to continue having fun like young people should.”

She took a vacation day that Wednesday. To his credit, Lentz “did not spike the football” at the office that day, said another Clinton-voting co-worker, Shane Foster.

Just wondering, then, did Lentz’s thoughtful, low-key approach change anyone’s concept of the typical Trump supporter?

“I don’t think he altered it; I think he expanded it,” Snow said.

“I’m surprised that someone so intelligent would vote for Trump. But in our conversations over the weeks he shared some interesting things. He was more interested in sharing the ideals of the party and what they stood for than one person who was running as president.”

So, what now?

‘There’s no arguing anymore’

The young Trump supporter firmly believes his man will build that wall along the Mexican border, that it was not merely some metaphorical device. “It might be like a tourist attraction. Maybe people will run marathons on it,” Lentz chuckled.

The Russian hacking story? “I don’t see it as credible,” he said.

Trump not following up his campaign vow to further investigate irregularities with Clinton’s email and family foundation? “All that would do is continue to divide,” he said.

Possible conflicts of interest as Trump has yet to separate himself from his business interests, perhaps instead turning them over to his children? “That’s good enough for me,” he said.

“I am looking forward to him bringing some innovative thinking to our education system and other institutions that desperately need a fresh set of eyes,” Lentz said. “With him being an outsider, a businessman, and with the cabinet that he is pulling together, I am hoping to see change. Positive change, of course.”

And what of the co-workers left behind on the other side of the election?

“Trump can kind of do whatever he wants now,” a resigned Foster said. “They say there are checks and balances but Congress is full of Republicans who haven’t stood up to him in the last year and a half and won’t be standing up to him in the next two to four years because they’re trying to get elected, too.

“There’s no arguing anymore.”

Snow, the mentor, has instead redrawn the argument.

“I moved on really quickly,” she said, “and I’m already starting to talk to him about who I think should be mayor.”