On Monday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump campaigned in Youngstown, Ohio, where Democratic Party nominees have won virtually every significant election for decades.
Of the 109 city, Mahoning County and statewide elections held between 2000 and 2012, Democrats won all but five contests.
Yet Youngstown — where I spent three months conducting fieldwork for a broader study of white working-class politics — can be viewed as the epicenter of the Trump phenomenon.
Before Ohio’s presidential primaries in March, more than 6,000 Democrats in Mahoning County (which includes Youngstown) switched party affiliations to vote for Trump. This was close to 9 percent of all GOP primary voters. Another 21,801 county voters who had no party affiliation also voted Republican in the March primary.
Trump ultimately lost the Ohio primary to the state’s governor, John Kasich, by 11 percentage points. But Trump won Mahoning County by 13 points.
How has he turned so much of this bluest region red?
Youngstown, Steeltown USA of the Industrial Age, looks like a post-apocalyptic shell of its former splendor. Since the 1960s, the city has lost two-thirds of its population, as all the mills that once pumped day and night along the banks of the Mahoning River closed down.
Youngstowners today are consumed by a sense of loss — lost wealth, lost stability, lost influence and lost social status. The onetime embodiment of the American Dream, its remaining white working-class population now scrapes by in a city with one of the nation’s highest concentrations of poverty.
Historic ties to the labor movement had fostered a persistent legacy of Democratic voting in Youngstown. With no factories left to unionize, however, voters’ relationship with the Democratic Party has been tenuous for decades. Democratic policies appeal less and less to Youngstown’s protectionist and socially conservative population.
Yet the party continued to win there thanks to an aversion to well-heeled Republicans — an image the GOP has reinforced by nominating wealthy presidential candidates and maintaining an anemic local party infrastructure.
Trump offers a different direction — for which many Youngstown voters have yearned.
The steel barons, union bosses, politicians and organized crime interests who have long controlled Youngstown did little to prevent its dramatic collapse. No national party, the voters saw, stepped in to help since the first steel mill suddenly shut its doors one Monday, Sept. 19, 1977. Ever since, neither major party has meaningfully taken up the post-industrial, white working-class cause.
“The thing I like about Trump is that both sides hate him,” said a builder I met in Youngstown. “I guess I want things back to the way they were. And in his odd, crude way, he makes sense. I know he’s not a woman-hater, and he’s not going to reverse what liberalism has done for us the last 40 years. He just wants to get our country stabilized and back on track. … I know it’s never going to be like the way it was. But we need to concentrate on this country. We’re lowering our standards more than we’re raising standards in Third World countries. We can’t worry about other people’s problems.”
Isolationism and distrust pervades Youngstown and factory towns like it across the Rust Belt. In the Ohio primary, Trump won 29 of the 32 Ohio counties that the state designates as “geographically isolated and economically depressed.”
“They just don’t believe in promises, in the future of the community, leaders — they’re very skeptical about everything,” said a longtime aide to county and state Democrats. “We do focus groups with white working-class families and they’re highly antagonistic and have almost a fervor to get into an argument. They have a feeling that they’ve been battered. ... This was once a wealthy community, and it ain’t so wealthy anymore. People know it, and there’s a tremendous amount of resentment between the haves and the have-nots.”
Trump’s antiestablishment brand of politics cultivates and validates this distrust of authority. Even more aggressively, it attacks authority in the way Youngstowners — old unionists at heart — appreciate.
After all, this is the city that elected Representative Jim Traficant, the labor Democrat convicted on 10 counts of racketeering and corruption in 2002 — to nearly two decades in Congress.
“Jim Traficant couldn’t get elected in almost any other congressional district, and this situation set him up to be the king,” said one former Ohio public official. “People feel like they’ve been failed, and he had a message of ‘us against them.’ He made people feel like they were fighting back, despite the fact that he was one of the least effective congressmen in the history of the chamber.”
Trump also sends a message that he is fighting for them. The dark, dystopian image of America that he projected from 73 miles north in Cleveland during the Republican National Convention in July felt accurate for many white Rust Belt citizens.
It is unclear how much Trump fully understands his appeal in the Rust Belt, where he continues to trail in state polls in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. However, it is also unclear whether his understanding matters to voters.
His visit to Youngstown earlier this week heralded a policy of “extreme vetting” of immigrants in a region that is populated largely by second- and third-generation immigrants, whose relatives flocked to this once prosperous center of commerce.
But for many Trump supporters in Youngstown, his candidacy is an opportunity for white working-class voters to remind both Democrats and Republicans that their votes should not be taken for granted.