Bruce Springsteen offered a sombre and evocative description of the toll taken on the typical rustbelt community by decades of economic and social neglect in his song Youngstown.
Youngstown in eastern Ohio, once the pillar of the American steel industry has suffered from deindustrialisation, depopulation, unemployment, empty housing, escalating crime and drug dependency.
Youngstown could once boast that it was the home of great industrial plants owned by Republic Steel and American Rolling Mills employing tens of thousands of the town’s inhabitants. Their great factories had a tremendous role in the development of American prestige and national power.
One of the most suggestive points in Youngstown about how the town views itself is the verse ‘These mills they built the tanks and bombs that won this country’s wars’. The factory labourers and their families could indeed be proud of the fact that their exertions processing iron ore and manning the gigantic blast furnaces gave their nation the means to defend the freedom of the world.
After the collapse of its industrial base, what could the locals take pride in anymore? The depression of its economic performance gave way to a spiritual depression that has robbed many of hope. Racked by crime for decades now the city has the dubious honour of being home to three prisons and among one of America’s most dangerous cities.
At his campaign launch, Trump boldly declared that he was the ‘voice’ of ‘the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals’. Trump’s call to arms to the voters in places like Youngstown is in lock step with Springsteen’s conception of why poorer Americas, not unlike those that figure in his songs, are attracted by Trump:
If you’ve struggled and you’ve suffered and you haven’t gotten that piece of the pie or your just struggling to keep your family going it can be very difficult to deal with the complexities of governance and have someone tell you to wait or be patient.
The Democratic coalition has lost a substantial chunk of its white working class vote to the Republican’s and especially to Trump in 2016. Democratic strategists have imagined the party becoming a permanent majority party by assembling a coalition of affluent educated whites alongside a union of America’s racial minorities.
This rainbow coalition, in theory, should be strong enough to consign the Republican Party to permanent opposition. David Frum, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush, describes this strategy as uniting the periphery against the core.
The core – whites and especially white males– constitute the backbone of the Republican Party while the Democrats concentrate on the periphery – white women, millennials, blacks, Latinos, Asians – for their support. The Democrats are at an advantage if they can hold the periphery together as it means they are the larger party. The strategy showed some validity when Clinton outpaced Trump by two percentage points in the popular vote.
But when the periphery does not hold together and deliver the Democrats the votes required then the core can ensure Republican success. The reason for this may be that the groups that constitute the periphery have a hard time reconciling their myriad tensions, preferences and expectations. Some groups, notably black and Latino men, may feel they have more in common with white America than they do with white progressives. And that the under recognised advantage of the Republican coalition is that though it is smaller it is more unified in its preferences and therefore more cohesive an electoral force.
There are not that many people in Youngstown but there are many Youngstown’s across Middle America in critical states with large white working class populations. And it was in these states – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – that delivered Trump the presidency.
Small to medium sized towns built around heavy industry were exposed to trade conditions they were unprepared for then left to fall into decline. It did not have to be this way, however. Cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh and Cleveland diversified their economies in time for the revolution in the global economy and can now boast gainful employment in high-tech manufacturing, financial services, universities and an extensive service industry.
Springsteen, correctly summed up the pessimistic mood of Americans in the rustbelt with the following plaintive verse:
Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he come home from World War Two
Now the yards just scrap and rubble
He said, “Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do”
By walking away from the voters in Youngstown, and their like across America, Trump was gifted with a political environment ripe to be exploited. By highlighting their pain and anger Trump was able to pull into his fold voters who had long waited for a revolutionary economic change in their lives.
And to his credit, Trump was willing to junk the essential orthodoxy of his party in order to appeal to voters in the rustbelt states. Free trade, non-intervention and expanding the labour market through increased immigration have been core Republican policies since the Reagan administration. Which may suggest that Trump’s supporters were right when they suggested, to a great deal of incredulity, that he was the only person who could defeat Clinton.
The bulk of the 2016 GOP candidates did not copy Trump’s protectionist message and instead settled for a standard approach to the ‘base’ which didn’t deliver. Trump’s defence of his home state of New York from a patronising and sectarian attack from Texas Senator Ted Cruz demonstrated that the cultural conservative line wasn’t going to make up for previous Republican’s neglect of the economically disadvantaged.
Trump’s performance in Youngstown and the surrounding area was the best performance by a Republican candidate for president in 20 years. The two counties that encompass the city of Youngstown, Mahoning and Trumbull counties, have recorded strong votes for Democratic presidential candidates since the early nineties. Barack Obama’s 63 per cent in Mahoning and 60 per cent in Trumbull was a fairly typical result. Trump raised the Republican vote in these counties to 46 per cent and 50 per cent respectively, cracking the Democratic majority in Youngstown.
The major takeaway from the 2012 race was that Mitt Romney had received a record 59 per cent of the white vote yet did not win the presidency. And many commentators took from this that the demographic shift in America meant that it was unlikely any Republican could ever retake the Whitehouse. Romney actually received more votes than Trump but what contributed to Romney’s near miss in 2012 was that he did not energise working class voters in locales like Youngstown.
Just as Romney suffered from bad communication, Hilary Clinton, in the face of the Trump campaign, could not convince all of those who voted for Obama to hold fast against the ‘deplorable’ alternative. Her record of endorsing high levels of immigration and the globalisation of the American economy, with all its complicated effects, was rejected across Middle America.
Bernie Sanders had been on the record as opposing NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and, surprisingly, mass immigration. But he did not emphasise the latter point in his campaign for the Democratic nomination even though what he had said on the topic mirrored much of what Trump had said on the depression of wages and the dangers of open borders to US sovereignty.
The lone conservative voice on the New York Times David Brooks implored opponents of Trump to distinguish between the man and his voters. It may be a quirk of history that the individual epitomising all of this is himself a billionaire who has utilised some suspect business practices but politics is more dynamic than most people think. Whatever the foibles of the man at the top of Trump Tower the people rallying to him are suffering the effects of prolonged neglect and conspicuous inequality in an age where a few people have so publically amassed tremendous wealth.
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