Angry Young Men: Trump’s Hold on Blue-Collar America

Donald Trump has managed to alienate almost every sub-group of voters, including Latinos, black people, Muslims and women. But his appeal among one demographic—working-class white people—remains strong. Niha Masih
07 October, 2016

In rural Youngstown, a borough in western Pennsylvania, the entire exterior of a house has been painted with a wraparound mural of the American flag. Flanked by a giant “Trump 2016” sign and a towering metal replica of Donald Trump, this red, white and blue shrine to the presidential candidate—called “Trump House”—is located in Westmoreland County. The county falls in the Rust Belt: a region that was once the industrial heartland of the United States, spanning several north-eastern and mid-western states. Now, the Rust Belt is known for urban decline, abandoned factories and angry voters—many of whom are rooting for Trump.

On the rainy afternoon of 29 September, in a tent outside Trump House, I met one such voter: 29-year-old Rocky Anthony Naples. A fourth-generation steelworker, he has been laid off twice in the six years since he joined the workforce. Before we met in person, he told me over the phone that finding a job had been “sheer hell.”

Donald Trump has managed to alienate almost every sub-group of voters, including Latinos, black people, Muslims and women. But his appeal among one demographic—working-class white people—remains strong. The research and polling agency Gallup found his supporters to be “less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations.” In September, a CNN poll measured Trump’s support amongst “whites who do not hold college degrees” at a whopping 68 percent, to the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s 24 percent. This lead holds up even withnon-college white women voters, although less so than with non-college white men

I was curious to understand the appeal, amongst this working-class demographic, of a billionaire real-estate magnate whose failed business ventureshave resulted in thousands of laid-off workers, and who may not have paid taxes in over 18 years. In Pennsylvania, a swing state—where the two main candidates have lately been locked in a close race, and Trump’s rhetoric has gotten increasingly heated—the Republican’s cultivation of support among working-class voters is especially crucial for him. My trip to Westmoreland in the last week of September revealed that the strong support for Trump in such post-industrial counties is often based on deep-rooted economic frustration.

It took me 12 hours, two bus trips and a cab ride through rural farmland to reach Trump House from New York City. Naples met me in early evening after he got off work, just as it started to pour. Dressed in a grey sweatshirt and khaki shorts, he was tall and lanky, with a shaved head. Naples did not have enough petrol in his car to drive me to his house, and Uber doesn’t service the area, so we sat down inside a tent pitched next to Trump House, and he began by telling me his story.

Naples spent his adolescence in Ohio, another swing state in the Rust Belt, in a town—also named Youngstown—with a once-booming steel industry. After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps, as his family could not afford to send him to college. In 2010, soon after leaving the military, he found a steady factory job as a hydraulics mechanic in Pennsylvania. Though it didn’t pay too well, he made ends meet by working overtime. Three years later, he was fired in a mass layoff.

Describing that time, he said that after losing one’s job, life “changes so much—not just financially, but physically. You feel like a lower individual, you feel like you're basically worthless. If I'm not working, I don't feel like I'm earning my keep.”

For two years, Naples did odd jobs at various manufacturing units. In August 2015, he found another factory job, as an installing mechanic. He earned $25 an hour there, much more than at his previous job. That didn’t last either. Last November, the company laid off 20 people, including him, and he was unemployed again. “It was just because of lack of work and so many outsourced jobs in our country,” he said. “That’s been the downfall of the American steel industry. Different politicians with free-trade agreements. NAFTA—that hurt the steel industry like crazy back in the ‘90s. It still hasn’t gotten above its crutch,” he said angrily, adding that the same thing had happened to other manufacturing industries, such as coal, plastic and lumber.

The contentious NAFTA, or the North American Free Trade Agreement, was signed under the Democratic presidency of Bill Clinton, in 1993, though it was initially negotiated by the Republican president George HW Bush. It sought to encourage free trade by lowering tariffs between the United States, Canada and Mexico. Left-leaning groups such as the Economic Policy Institute estimate that NAFTA caused the displacement of over half a million jobs, while other studies, such as one by the Congressional Research Service, claim that NAFTA’s effect on the US economy has been “relatively modest.”

Naples now works at a valve-manufacturing factory. With an edge in his voice, he said, “The rich get richer and poor get poorer. There is no middle class anymore. Our government has done such a great job in belittling us and getting rid of the middle class.” While the US economyhas recovered in the past eight years since the financial crisis, with unemployment rates nearing pre-recession levels and aggregate Gross Domestic Product expansion over 10 percent, people such as Naples have not felt the benefits of this upsurge.

Incidentally, Trump House is the brainchild of Leslie Baum Rossi, a 47-year-old woman from an affluent family—one of the few in the region who remained insulated from the economic downturn. Dressed in a bright orange dress and a grey sweatshirt, with dangling golden earrings, she was greeting a steady stream of people entering the house when I met her, earlier that same day. “Welcome to the Trump House. Please sign in if you haven’t. If you’re not registered to vote, there’s forms on the wall. You’re welcome to have a shirt or hat, pens—there’s beer cozies, bumper stickers. I have sizes up to 4x,” she said, while directing the delivery of incoming cartons of merchandise. The items were all free for visitors to take.

Rossi makes her money by buying, remodelling and renting out property. Six months ago, she created Trump House by getting the outside of a decrepit property painted. Now, it has become a focal point for Trump supporters around the area. The day I visited, according to Rossi’s sign-up sheets, approximately 400 people had showed up. She told me that her highest visitor count yet had been 855, on a Sunday. Those who stopped by that day included a local cop in uniform, a female air-force veteran with her three kids, and a 26-year-old son of a Census Bureau official.

Naples, who knows Rossi through a common friend, had been to Trump House before the day we met. Like many of the visitors I had spoken to earlier that day, he expressed a dissatisfaction with Barack Obama’s presidency. “The only thing he has done is made same-sex marriage legal in this country and put a man in a ladies’ restroom,” he said, referring to the government’s support for transgender students’ rights to access to public-school bathrooms in accordance with their gender identities. Adding that the Democratic Party “just wasn't working,” he likened Detroit—a post-industrial city of the Rust Belt, which has been governed by Democratic mayors since the 1960s, and is notorious for its high crime rate—to Afghanistan.

To Naples, Trump’s non-political background makes him a welcome change from other politicians—a sentiment I heard over and over again from visitors at Trump House. In June, Trump made a campaign stop at a metal factory in Westmoreland County to outline his jobs plan. He accused the current Democratic government of “moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas.”

Trump’s plan includes appointing “tough and smart trade negotiators,” withdrawing from existing trade agreements if partners don’t accept his terms, and filing cases against China with the World Trade Organisation. This blueprint has generally been received as ambiguous at best and destructive at worst. The economic-research wing of the rating’s agency Moody’s predicts that Trump’s economic policies would be a disaster, leading to a recession, stock-market crash and job losses to the tune of 3.5 million.

When I pressed Naples on the specifics of how Trump would create jobs, he didn’t have an answer, except to say that he believed in the Republican candidate. “I hope and I pray. It's all you can do,” he said wistfully.

Like Trump, many of his supporters profess a hatred for immigrants, blaming them for stealing jobs, committing crimes and living on welfare. Incidentally, Naples’ ancestors are Irish and Polish immigrants—groups that he takes great pains to distinguish from today’s immigrants. He said disparagingly of Mexicans, “When my family came over they were not peddling drugs for the cartels.” Calling Muslim immigrants the “biggest threats,” he said, “Don’t you think we should be taking care of our veterans than people who hate us, want to come in and impose their rights on us? We don’t have the money. I don’t know where all the money is going to come from—oh, I know—from my pocket, your pocket … We’re going to pay for these illegals.”

The facts suggest otherwise. Typically armed with better educational backgrounds and English-language skills, even amongst the less-educated working class, native-born workers get higher paying jobs than immigrants. And immigrants, studies suggest, add jobs to the economy. A report compiled by the Partnership for a New American Economy says that in 2011, 28 percent of all new businesses in the country were started by immigrants. Additionally, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for any welfare schemes for poor people. These include the food stamp programme, which subsidises the purchase of groceries, and Medicaid, which provides access to health insurance. Legal immigrants can apply for these benefits only after living in the United States for five years.

When I asked Naples how he would feel if he were a minority in Trump’s America, he straightened up and asserted, “The white working man is a minority.” Not quite. White people make up 77 percent of the US population, with the black community a distant second, at 13 percent.

Naples told me his family had mostly voted for Democrats, but because he is a conservative Christian, he has always been a Republican. Trump’s support in Westmoreland, however, is not limited to lifelong Republicans. The county chairman of the Republican party told me that in Westmoreland, 4,249 registered voters had switched their official party affiliations from Democratic to Republican this year—while only 690 voters had made the switch in the other direction. (I could not independently confirm these figures with the Democratic Party or Election Bureau office of the county.) Overall, Pennsylvania still has more registered Democrats than Republicans.

As I wrapped up the interview, Naples, who had looked grim throughout, broke into a sheepish grin. “I’m an angry American white man,” he told me. Come November, these angry American men may just tilt the balance in Trump’s favour.

This is part three of a series of reports by Niha Masih on Donald Trump’s US Presidential campaign. You can read her first story in this series, a report on Donald Trump and Atlantic City, here, and her second story, on a Trump rally at Chester in Pennsylvania, here