The making of a Trump voter: Janelle Jones

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 agricultural south to the mountainous north. Their mission: to meet the people who created the Trump groundswell. This is the first in a series of their reports.

Janelle Jones can pinpoint the moment when she saw the light.

She had been a closet Republican, happy to be aboard the Donald Trump train but afraid to admit it publicly.

She is young, gifted and black — not the typical profile of a Trump voter leading up to the nastiest and most racially contentious election in recent history.

But there she was in her East Point home one night in mid-August, catching up on the news, when she heard Trump say this:

“Look at how much African American communities are suffering from Democratic control. To those I say the following: What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump? What do you have to lose? You live in your poverty, your schools are no good. You have no jobs. Fifty-eight percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”

For most black voters, it was the final nail in a Trump campaign that was already dead to them. They had long since painted Trump as a racist — a man who had been accused of housing discrimination against blacks, who only referred to them as “the blacks,” and most egregiously, led the birther movement, which questioned the legitimacy of the country’s first black president.

Like millions of black voters, Jones jumped out of her seat when she heard the comments. But the impact on her was vastly different. She had long since abandoned Barack Obama and had no love for Hillary Clinton, who was trying to become America’s first woman president.

“Finally, someone was speaking to a community of people who were overlooked – by not just Democrats, but by upper and middle-class black folks who move into their big houses and act like the hood doesn’t exist,” Jones said. “Trump was saying, I am going to speak to those who need to hear this the most. The stuff that he is talking about is really happening, but we would rather sit and act like it doesn’t exist.”

And with that, she was out of the closet and it didn’t matter who knew. She was backing Donald Trump for president and doing it loudly.

“We have been giving all of our votes to Democrats for years, but what have they really done for us? As black Americans, I don’t think we are as politically educated as other cultures. We go in the direction of our black leaders and we don’t really ask questions and we don’t consider the contradictions,” Jones said. “Trump might be a bit uncomfortable, but it is a good discomfort.”

Janelle Jones looks as Leo Smith, the Minority Engagement Director for the Georgia Republican Party, talks at Georgia Republican Party Headquarters on Tuesday, December 20, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘What she is doing is brave’ 

By all accounts, Jones was a political oddity in 2016.

Ninety-four percent of black female voters cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton, compared to only 4 percent for Trump. Overall, Trump got just 8 percent of the black vote.

The staggering figure — coupled with the fact that only 43 percent of white women voted for Clinton nationally — prompted a story in The Root titled: “Black Women Were the Only Ones Who Tried to Save the World.”

Jones, who is working on a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology, was not one of them. And for that, she has been ridiculed, threatened and mocked on social media.

“I would wonder how a black woman could cast her vote for a man that refers to her as ‘the African American?’ When the person who she casts her vote stated he would bring back stop and frisk?” said Melanie Floyd, 43, a black IT professional in Atlanta.

At the same time, however, political pundits and insiders see Jones as a future face of the Republican Party and want to groom her for party leadership.

“What she is doing is brave, because black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. Janelle is one of the few people willing to step off that plantation and say to them, ‘Tell me why I need to support you,’” said radio talk show host Robert Patillo, the host of “People, Passion, Politics” on WAOK in Atlanta. “She is young, educated, articulate and unique. And if you listen to her, really listen to her, she makes sense.”

Jones has heard all of that before from both sides, on social media and in her face.

“And I don’t care what people think about me,” Jones said.

On Tuesday, a day after the Electoral College confirmed Trump’s victory, Jones found herself in a small conference room in Buckhead meeting with Leo Smith, the Georgia GOP’s minority engagement director.

In a room filled with elephants and portraits of old white men — including Ronald Reagan — Smith was trying to convince a 32-year-old black woman to become interim chair of the Black Republican Council — in large part because of her unabashed support of Trump and what he calls her increasing “bandwidth.”

“That is one of the things I found really impressive about Janelle. She is clear on her commitment to Republican principles, because she is clearly committed to black uplift,” Smith said. “Because she is so committed, she didn’t care about the Trump narratives. She is more focused on the basic building blocks of life and family. It takes a deeper kind of love of your people to say I will care for my people enough to ignore narrative and look at reality.”

Smith rattled off the names of former council chairs who have risen in the party. She could be next he said. He could see her in his position one day he said. Or he could see her running for office.

Jones accepted the position.

Janelle Jones smiles with her boyfriend Alexander Gothard as they meet for a lunch at White House Restaurant in Buckhead on Tuesday, December 20, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘She is not afraid to stand on her own’ 

Janelle Jones doesn’t “look” like a Republican. If there is a look.

She doesn’t act like one, either. And for black Republicans, it is even starker — the stereotypical image of someone who has purposely separated herself from most other black people. Or in the case of Internet stars like “Silk and Diamond,” someone who is so over the top that it becomes a sad joke.

Jones is neither.

She readily quotes Frederick Douglass but loves trap music.

Her favorite television shows range from “House of Cards” to “A Different World.”

Her love for Fox New’s Megyn Kelly is rivaled only by her love of Wendy Williams.

While one of her favorite restaurants is a quaint diner in Buckhead, where the waitresses call her sugar, another is a loud joint that specializes in chitlins.

But Jones can also be harshly critical of both sides. She said that while “whites have a lack of understanding of black culture,” some blacks are stuck paying homage to the “civil rights industry,” which she says feeds off racial division.

“When I moved to Atlanta (in 2007), I had to adjust to being around white people,” Jones said. “The majority of my life, I have been around black people.”

Alexander Gothard, an East Point city councilman, was surprised to learn what Jones’ political leanings were when they met two years ago at a party.

“We started talking and the sparks started flying. I noticed that she was smart and very pretty. I asked her if she was a Republican and she said yes,” Gothard said. “She knows who she is and won’t let anyone compromise her values and principles. That is one of the reasons I am so attracted to her. She is not afraid to stand on her own.”

The two have been dating ever since and now co-manage a Decatur-based construction company.

Leo Smith, the Minority Engagement Director for the Georgia Republican Party, talks to Janelle Jones during a meeting with Georgia Black Republican Council at Georgia Republican Party Headquarters in Buckhead on Tuesday, December 20, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘Always lived our lives as believers’ 

Jones grew up relatively middle-class in Tarboro, in an Eastern North Carolina county where 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

The county seat of Edgecombe County is 57 percent black. The family moved there in 1993, after the Lord told her father, evangelical minister William Jones, that he needed to move his family there from New Haven, Conn.

For William and Janice Jones, religion was always first and politics were an afterthought. William Jones was the founding pastor of Oneness of God Apostolic Church.

“All three of my children were raised conservative, because we are Christian,” said Janice Jones, who now lives in Charlotte with her husband, where she runs a private tutoring agency. “We always believed that God is first and lived our lives as believers. That is how she spent her childhood.”

Jones became the first in her family to attend college when, in 2002, she went to North Carolina A&T State University. Major: psychology.

“A&T,” as it is commonly called, is one of the largest and most important black colleges in the country, having produced Jesse Jackson, astronaut Ronald McNair and the Greensboro Four, who launched the 1960 sit-in movement.

Jones quickly started an organization on campus called “Youth Taking Charge,” which discouraged drinking and drug use in favor of bowling, Bible study and community service.

“She was just the funky girl down the hall,” said Adrienne Jones (no relation). “The first time I met her, I told her that I had an issue with my roommate. So she invited me to Bible study. We ended up hanging out and she let me sleep on her floor in the room. She always had a giving heart, but she wasn’t political at all.”

Janelle Jones leads a meeting with members of Millennial Round Table of GA at Urban Grind coffeehouse in Atlanta on Tuesday, December 20, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

An Obama voter turns toward the GOP 

Jones awakened to politics in 2008, when Barack Obama ran for president.

The Obama campaign electrified young people nationwide and made voting relevant to her for the first time.

“Every black person felt compelled to vote for the first black president. It was the excitement of hope and change,” Jones said. “Especially for the black community.”

Jones cast her first-ever presidential vote for Obama. But her admiration of Obama didn’t survive his first term.

“I realized that a lot of what Barack Obama stood for is not what I stood for. Just because he was a step in the right direction doesn’t mean that he was the best choice for America,” Jones said. “There was a lot of emphasis put on the LGBTQ, the Latino community and even the Native American community. But not enough meaningful attention was paid to the black community. For him, as an African-American, I found it a little disheartening that there was so much energy put in those directions.”

By 2010, she was done Obama.

“The Democrats have given us nothing but poverty, unemployment and a horrible education,” Jones said. “They have our guaranteed votes, but they don’t give anything back to our neighborhoods.”

Jones blamed the Democrats for taking black votes for granted, while never delivering on promises. And she blames black voters for their reflexive support of practically any Democrat.

Janelle Jones talks as other members of Millennial Round Table of GA (clockwise from left) Tony Gonzalez, Christopher Perlera, Leonte Benton, Greg Clay and Otis Threatt listen at Urban Grind coffeehouse in Atlanta on Tuesday, December 20, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Kicking the closet door down 

In 2012, she quietly voted for Mitt Romney for president. During the 2016 primaries, she initially put her hopes behind Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Clinton and the Democrats were always an afterthought. And after that mid-August night, Trump was everything.

Jones constantly mentions that she was “in the closet” as a Trump supporter. Being out could be dangerous in the Trump Age.

But when she got out of the closet, she kicked the door down. She stumped for Trump and took to social media and the radio to vocally show her support for the man who famously called Hillary Clinton, “a nasty woman.”

On Election Night, she was the only Trump supporter at a public watch party. She cheered. Loudly.

Since the election, she has become even more vocal. Her social media accounts are littered with political opinions and praise for the president-elect. She is appearing on radio and podcasts more and is becoming a recognizable Republican. Organizations are asking her to come speak to them.

Janelle Jones smiles during a meeting with Georgia Black Republican Council at Georgia Republican Party Headquarters in Buckhead on Tuesday, December 20, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Backing Trump ‘makes you deplorable’ 

And with it, comes the requisite hate mail and vitriol.

“Oddly enough, most of it comes from African Americans. If you look at the comments, they are calling her everything you can think of,” said Patillo, who features Jones on his radio show and new podcast, “Straight, No Chaser.” It is disheartening. Instead of listening to what she has to say, that is the immediate knee-jerk reaction because she supported Trump.”

After a Facebook Live interview about Trump posted shortly after the election – while there was some support for her – most of the comments were brutal.

“Just because he’s not a typical politician doesn’t exempt him from being morally bankrupt and lack human decency @!!! For you to identify with him makes you deplorable!!!!” 

“How does a woman, especially a woman of color cosign that level of intolerance?” 

“I couldn’t finish listening to a black woman sing the praises of a man who thinks its okay to grab you between your legs because he’s rich. If that’s what you learned attending an HBCU then go back because you forgot your education.” 

William and Janice Jones read the comments and cringe and worry about their daughter.

Janelle Jones reads them, regularly responds, and goes about her day.

“I don’t try to convert anybody,” Jones said.

Janelle Jones greets Tony Gonzalez (left) and Greg Clay before their meeting at Urban Grind coffeehouse in Atlanta on Tuesday, December 20, 2016. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

‘I want Trump to support Americans’ 

On Tuesday, after her meeting with Smith, Jones has a quick lunch with Gothard before heading to a coffee shop downtown to meet with the Millennial Round Table, a diverse group of up-and-comers she founded last year.

Jones said the group teaches her “how not to be so into my partisanship,” but it is very clear to everybody that she is a Trump supporter.

“What makes it easy for us is knowing deeply what [Jones] cares about and not confusing it with what happened on the campaign trail,” said management consultant and group member Tony Gonzalez.

With less than a month before her man is sworn into office, Jones acknowledges that black Americans have deep concerns about economic, social and educational issues. But she is confident that Trump will address them — in his own way.

“As black Republicans, we do not expect anything from the government that we feel that we cannot do for ourselves,” Jones said.

“When it comes to many of the issues, I want Trump to support Americans. Yes, I am black, but I am an American. So whatever opportunities come down the line for all Americans, I expect that to fit me as well. I don’t have to be completely separated.”

Other articles in the “Making of a Trump voter” series:

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