‘Donald Trump won because it was time we spoke up’

Voters in Pennsylvania explain the appeal of the Republican president-elect

 

When Al Heller went into his polling booth last week, he took the vote he had given to Barack Obama and handed it, enthusiastically, to Donald Trump.

For this proud independent, it felt like a natural decision.

“I guess I went with Obama because he touted change, compared to the way it was,” says Heller, a 63-year-old former factory worker who now works a night cleaning shift at a local supermarket.

In 2004, half-way through George W Bush’s presidency, Heller and more than 2,000 other workers lost their jobs when the Tecnoglass TV company, a longtime employer in this town of about 40,000 people in northeastern Pennsylvania, moved its manufacturing plant to China.

“It was tough work, but the company really took care of you. Great health plan. Good money – $16 an hour. The whole bit. I would have retired from there.”

Heller was tired of Bush in any case but, after the trauma of losing a job he loved, there was no chance he was going to vote for another Republican.

“I was sick and tired of the Washington people in there all the time – career politicians. Obama promised to change all that.”

Eight years on, it was Trump who embodied change.

“It was the same old game with Obama,” says Heller. “He talked a good game. But I think we’re worse off now with Obama than we have been in a long time.”

Heavy toll

As the years passed, Heller felt he could see more clearly what had caused him and his friends to lose their jobs: he blamed the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) – which was signed by the then US president Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

Now the choice was between Clinton’s wife, with “four more years of the same”, and an insurgent outsider who was promising to reverse the trends that had taken such a heavy toll on places such as Wilkes-Barre.

“Nafta just killed this country,” Heller says, strolling along the quiet streets off the town’s central square.

“All the jobs left. That’s one of the reasons people here voted for Trump. He said he’s going to bring jobs back.”

To understand why Trump won and Clinton lost, Wilkes-Barre is a good place to start.

The town is the heart of Luzerne County, which recorded the biggest swing from the Democrats to the Republicans in all of Pennsylvania – a vital swing state that Trump won for the Republicans for the first time since 1988.

In 2012, Obama beat the Republican Mitt Romney in Luzerne County by 52 per cent to 47 per cent.

Last week, Trump comfortably defeated Clinton by a stunning 58 per cent to 39 per cent.

The gap between the two candidates in Luzerne made up more than 40 per cent of Trump’s statewide margin of victory of 68,000 votes.

Wilkes-Barre, in the shadow of the Pocono Mountains in the Wyoming Valley and just a short drive from Scranton, the birthplace of US vice-president Joe Biden, grew rapidly in the 19th-century as hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe flocked to work in its coal mines.

Foreign competition

At its peak in the first half of the 20th-century, the population hit 86,000 – double what it is today.

But in the postwar years, heavy industry began to collapse and a decline set in. The trend accelerated from the 1970s, when foreign competition virtually finished off the region’s clothing and electronics factories.

Efforts to revitalise Wilkes-Barre and its hinterland have had mixed results. New casinos have opened in recent years and landmark buildings in the city centre have been renovated, but an attempt in the early 2000s to lure financial firms to the area had little success.

The unemployment rate in the county is 6.2 per cent – higher than the Pennsylvania average – and many of those jobs are low-paid service positions.

Nonetheless, the divide between Trump and Clinton voters reflects a broader divergence of opinion over quite how bad things are in Wilkes-Barre.

“I’m seeing a great deal of development,” says Anna Mae Stanley, a Clinton voter who works with victims of domestic violence.

“There are a lot of major companies that have facilities around here – Amazon, American Eagle. There’s a lot more opportunity around here, I feel, than there was when I left college here 30 years ago. I’m seeing it.”

Yet when, during the election campaign, she spoke to friends in California – where she spent 30 years of her life – Stanley would tell them that she could see Trump winning.

“A lot of people like him, and I think she [Clinton] just had too much accumulated baggage,” she says, sipping coffee in the sunshine on her work break.

“Trump was appealing to working-class white Americans. All his talk of making the country great again seems to have resonated. She couldn’t really find a way to make herself resonate with any one group of people.”

Politically incorrect language

For Thomas Baldino, a professor of political science at Wilkes University, Trump found a receptive audience in a county where his base – older, whiter, less educated – was well-represented.

He succeeded in portraying some of Obama’s biggest achievements, such as Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation measures, as failures, and his simple, politically incorrect language went down well.

“When Trump criticised Obama’s weak leadership skills and said America had suffered in the international community, that was tapping into another dimension of voters here,” says Baldino.

“Many people in this county have either served in the military or have family members who have served. When these same people hear that their sacrifices mean less because of weak leadership, they want someone who will deliver a strong America. Trump was very successful in making that argument.”

It was an election about change, he adds, yet Clinton – campaigning as “essentially a third term for Obama” – struggled to claim that mantle.

Even though it was Clinton who had the more sophisticated national field operation, residents in Wilkes-Barre say the Trump campaign was much more visible here.

He twice visited the town (Clinton did not visit), and “there were Trump signs all over the area”, says Karen Baranoski, a retired teacher who volunteered for the Clinton campaign.

“She was overconfident,” says Heller. “They say it was the angry white males, but it was the middle class that’s hurting real bad because of these deals. She kept talking about the poor and I think she kind of forgot about the middle class.”

Immigration

Behind Trump’s economic messages were ideas that appealed to different sections of the community in Wilkes-Barre. Heller says Trumps’s proposals on immigration were important to him.

“I don’t know if Obama’s a Muslim or not, but he loves his Muslims and he keeps bringing ’em in here,” he says.

Rick Berry, who has run a florist shop in the town for 35 years, was drawn to Trump partly by the property magnate’s full-throated support of gun rights.

And, having seen his health insurance premium rise from $900 to $1,320 in one year, he was glad of the opportunity to strike out against Obamacare.

But, above all, Berry says his vote for Trump was a call to be heard.

“People in Los Angeles, in New York, in all these major cities – they think just because they’re heavily populated that they’re going to control the country. No.

“There’s a vast expanse between New York and LA where it’s every day middle-class America. We were upset because we have been abused for too long. It was time we spoke up. And that’s what happened.”

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