In a struggling former steel town that voted for President Trump, residents don’t blame him for failing to revive their communities or make good on other promises, said journalist Michael Kruse. They love him anyway.
Where Trump’s support endures
PAM SCHILLING IS the reason Donald Trump is the president. Schilling’s personal story is, in poignant miniature, the story of this area of western Pennsylvania as a whole—one of the longforgotten, woebegone spots in the middle of the country that gave Trump his unexpected victory last fall. She grew up in nearby Nanty Glo, the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners. She once had a union job packing meat at a grocery store, and then had to settle for less money at Walmart. Now she’s 60 and retired, and last year, in April, her 32-year-old son died of a heroin overdose.
Desperate for change, Schilling, like so many other once reliable Democrats in these parts, responded enthusiastically to what Trump was saying—building a wall on the Mexican border, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, bringing back jobs in steel and coal. That’s what Trump told them. At a raucous rally in late October, right downtown in their minorleague hockey arena, he vowed to restore the mines and the mills that had been the lifeblood of the region until they started closing some 40 years ago.
When Trump won, people here were ecstatic. But they’d heard generations of politicians make big promises before, and they were also impatient for him to deliver. “Six months to a year,” catering company owner Joey Del Signore told me when we met days after the election. “A couple months,” retired nurse Maggie Frear said, before saying it might take a couple of years. “He’s just got to follow through with what he said he was going to do,” Schilling said last November. Back then, there was an all-but-audible “or else.”
A year later, the local unemployment rate has ticked down, and activity in a few coal mines has ticked up. Beyond that, though, not much has changed—at least not for the better. Johnstown and the surrounding region are struggling in the same ways and for the same reasons. The drug problem is just as bad. “There’s nothing good in the area,” Schilling said the other day in her living room. Even so, her backing for Trump is utterly undiminished: “I’m a supporter of him, 100 percent.”
What I heard from Schilling is overwhelmingly what I heard in my follow-up conversations with people here whom I talked to last year as well. Over the course of three days this month, I revisited the president’s base—that 30-plus percent of the electorate who resolutely approve of the job he is doing. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how readily these same people had abandoned the contract he had made with them. Their satisfaction with Trump now seems untethered to the things they once said mattered to them the most.
“I don’t know that he has done a lot to help,” Frear told me. Last year, she said she wouldn’t vote for him again if he didn’t do what he said he was going to do. Last week, she matter-of-factly stated that she would. “Support Trump? Sure,” she said. “I like him.”
When I asked Del Signore about the past year here, he said he “didn’t see any change because we got a new president.” He nonetheless remains an ardent proponent. “He’s our answer.”
I asked Schilling what would happen if the next three years go the way the past one has. “I’m not going to blame him,” Schilling said. “Absolutely not.”
Is there anything that could change her mind about Trump? “Nope,” she said.
All this, perhaps, is not so surprising, considering polling continues to show that—in spite of his unprecedented unpopularity— nearly all people who voted for Trump would do it again. But as I compared this year’s answers to last year’s, it seemed clear that the basis of people’s support had morphed. Johnstown voters do not intend to hold the president accountable for the nonnegotiable pledges he made to them. It’s not that the people who made Trump president have generously moved the goalposts for him. It’s that they have eliminated the goalposts altogether.
This reality ought to get the attention of anyone who thinks they will win in 2018 or 2020 by running against Trump’s record.
His supporters here, it turns out, are energized by his bombast and his animus more than by any actual accomplishments. For them, it’s evidently not what he’s doing so much as it is the people he’s fighting. Trump is simply and unceasingly angry on their behalf, battling the people who vex them the worst—“obstructionist” Democrats, uncooperative establishment Republicans, the media, Black Lives Matter protesters, and NFL players (boy, oh boy, do they hate kneeling NFL players), whom they see as ungrateful, disrespectful millionaires.
And they love him for this.
DEL SIGNORE, BY his own admission, is not a person who’s focused on policy specifics. A short, stout, genial man who wears gold chains around his neck and rings on both pinkies, he last year did something for Trump he had never done for any other candidate. The 61-year-old Johnstown native proudly planted a Trump sign in the ground in front of his catering company. And nothing that’s happened in the past 12 months has lessened his enthusiasm for the man who so energized him.
“Everybody I talk to,” he said, “realizes it’s not Trump who’s dragging his feet. Trump’s probably the most diligent, hardest-working president we’ve ever had in our lifetimes. It’s not like he sleeps in till noon and goes golfing every weekend, like the last president did.”
I stopped him, informing him that, yes, Barack Obama liked to golf, but Trump in fact does golf a lot, too—more, in fact.
Del Signore was surprised to hear this.
“Does he?” he said. “Yes,” I said.
He did not linger on this topic, smiling and changing the subject with a quip. “If I was married to his wife,” Del Signore said, “I don’t think I’d go anywhere.”
A little more than a month after last year’s election, a 5-month-old baby starved to death in her bassinet after both her parents overdosed on fentanyl, a frighteningly potent sort of synthetic heroin. It was shocking even to a community that’s become all too familiar with the unremitting ravages of opioids.
There are some positives around here. Corsa Coal’s Acosta mine in neighboring Somerset County opened in June. So did Robindale Energy’s new Maple Springs mine. Rosebud Mining reportedly is working to reopen its facility in Cresson. The area’s unemployment rate stands at 5.2 percent, down a point from last year—but still higher than the state and national numbers. At Johnstown’s JWF Industries, a 450-employee manufacturing company, business hasn’t gone up this year, owner Bill Polacek told me, but he’s expecting a 30 percent jump next year. He chalks that up to Trump and his “pro-business” “mood.”
But even this optimistic stance highlights some of the deep-seated troubles here.
“Right now, if I could find 150 people, I’d put them to work,” Polacek said. He needs machinists and welders. “But it’s hard to find people,” he said—people with the skills, people who can pass a drug test.
SOMETHING I HEARD last week that I didn’t hear last year: resignation. Drapes drawn, Frear, the retired nurse, sat in her living room and told me there really wasn’t all that much Trump could do to help Johnstown and Cambria County.
“You know, we’re sort of a depressed area,” she said. “We’re just a little area, you know—but it’s a good area. Good people here. And I think he would, if he knew of a place that had a lot of problems, I think he would try to help. I don’t know what he could do, or would want to do, for Johnstown, you know?”
He said he was going to bring back the steel mills. “You’re never going to get those steel mills back,” she said.
“But he said he was going to,” I said.
“Yeah, but how’s he going to bring them back?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but it’s what he said, last year, and people voted for him because of it.”
“They always say they want to bring the steel mills back,” Frear said, “but they’re going to have to do a lot of work to bring the steel mills back.”
He hasn’t built the wall yet, either. “I don’t care about his wall,” said Frear, 76. “I mean, if he gets his wall—I don’t give a s---, you know? But he has a good idea: Keep ’em out.” He also hasn’t repealed Obamacare. “That’s Congress,” she said.
And the drug scourge here continues unabated. “And it’s not going to improve for a long time,” she said, “until people learn, which they won’t.”
“But I like him,” Frear reiterated. “Because he does what he says.”
ONE AFTERNOON I stopped to talk to a small group of people who had gathered on the sidewalk across the street from the Johnstown Planned Parenthood office. Gale Bala sat on a low rock wall and held a sign that said “Abortion kills children.” She voted for Obama in 2008. She voted for Romney in 2012. Her parents were Democrats, her steelworker husband was a Democrat, and she was a Democrat until two years ago. She voted for Trump last fall, and she’ll “definitely” vote for him in 2020, too.
“He’s kind of the last best hope, in my opinion,” said Bala, 65, a retired high school Spanish and reading teacher. “I haven’t run into anybody who’s said they’d never vote for him again.”
Next to Bala was a gray-haired man who told me he voted for Trump and was happy so far because “he’s kept his promises.”
I asked which ones. “Border security.” But there’s no wall yet. “No fault of his,” the man said. What else? “Getting rid of Obamacare.” But he hasn’t. “Well, he’s tried to.”
What else? “Defunding Planned Parenthood.” But he didn’t. “Not his fault again,” the man said.
More than anything, what seemed to upset the people I spoke with was the National Football League players who have knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
“Shame on them,” Del Signore, the catering company owner, said. “These clowns are out there, making millions of dollars a year, and they’re using some stupid excuse that they want equality—so I’ll kneel against the flag and the national anthem?”
“You’re not a fan of equality?” I asked.
“For people who deserve it and earn it,” he said. “All my ancestors, Italian, 100 percent Italian, the Irish, Germans, Polish, whatever— they all came over here, settled in places like this, they worked hard and they earned the success that they got. Some people don’t want to do that. They just want it handed to them.”
“Like NFL players?” I said.
“Well,” Del Signore responded, “I hate to say what the majority of them are....” He stopped himself short of what I thought he was about to say.
Pam Schilling and her husband, however, did not restrain themselves. “The thing that irritates me to no end is this NFL s---,” Schilling told me in her living room. “We do not watch no NFL now.”
Schilling looked at her husband, Dave McCabe, who’s 67 and a retired high school basketball coach. She nodded at me. “Tell him,” she said to McCabe, “what you said the NFL is....”
McCabe looked momentarily wary. He laughed a little. “I don’t remember saying that,” he said unconvincingly.
Schilling was having none of it. The NFL? “Niggers for life,” Schilling said.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Politico.com. Reprinted with permission. ■