The following article by labor experts John Russo* and Sherry Linkon* is cross-posted from The American Prospect:
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump visited the Youngstown area three times. On Tuesday, President Trump returned. Officially sponsored by his 2020 campaign, the rally at Youngstown’s Covelli Center provided him an opportunity to be buoyed by the cheers of 7,000 fans.
While many of those attending Tuesday’s rally came from outside of the city and the region, Trump has significant support here, rooted in the politics of resentment. Distrust of government—and especially of politicians—developed in the aftermath of plant closings and downsizings that began in the late 1970s, as tens of thousands of workers in Youngstown and the surrounding Mahoning Valley lost jobs in steel mills, auto plants, and related industries. Many blamed environmental regulations, trade agreements, and corporate pursuit of cheap foreign labor, and they vowed to make those who negotiated NAFTA pay a price. Political resentment grew as candidate after candidate used crumbling steel mills as backdrops for speeches promising to rebuild the local economy—and then failed to take real action to create change. Resentment deepened over the last decade, as many working- and middle-class people lost their homes and jobs in the foreclosure crisis, even as wages declined and work became more precarious.
That’s why Trump’s focus on illegal immigration, trade, government regulations, and betrayal by elites resonated with local residents in this historically Democratic region. In the Republican primary, thousands of previously unregistered voters turned out to support him, and a number of long-time Democrats crossed party lines. During his Tuesday visit, Trump claimed to have won Mahoning County in the general election. In reality, he lost it narrowly to Clinton, though he did win in Trumbull County next door. But he wasn’t wrong that he had shaken up local political patterns. In both counties, Republicans had their strongest showing since 1972.
It is perhaps fitting that Trump spoke on Tuesday at a convention center built with federal funds secured by another instance of a long-time Democrat crossing party lines. Tired of the broken promises of the Clinton administration, former Democratic Representative James Traficant, with whom Trump has often been compared, crossed party lines and voted in 2000 to retain Republican Dennis Hastert as U.S. House speaker—one day after Hastert approved the grant.
Given the area’s support in the presidential election, Trump expected a receptive crowd. More than 20,000 people registered, though the Covelli Center only holds 7,000. Local Republican chairperson Mark Munroe touted the rally as an opportunity for Trump to talk to “real Americans,” a phrase Trump also used in his speech. Trump mostly rehashed familiar themes, emphasizing his “accomplishments”: improving border security, beginning renegotiation of NAFTA, providing better services for veterans, and increasing the defense budget. He also insisted that he was on the brink of “liberating citizens from this Obamacare nightmare.” All of this was delivered with heavy doses of fear-mongering, nationalism, self-aggrandizement, continual references to “fake news,” and thinly veiled racism.
Three of Trump’s “accomplishments” carry particular weight in Youngstown, though no actual changes are apparent. Trump described looking at empty fields and abandoned factories as he drove through the valley: “Those jobs have left Ohio,” he lamented, but “they’re all coming back.” Despite Trump’s promises, the evidence since his election is distinctly less promising. Mahoning County’s unemployment rate in June was 6.6 percent, almost 1 percent higher than when Trump was elected. In March, the nearby GM Lordstown plant laid off its third shift, putting about 800 employees out of work. And if Trump does manage to overturn Obamacare, that will likely lead to further job losses in a community where health care is one of the largest employment sectors.
Touting his imagined economic boom, Trump also addressed housing, a significant issue in a place once known as the “City of Homes.” He told residents not to sell their homes because their property values would soon be rising. But the Youngstown area still faces a housing crisis. The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC) reports that while the total number of foreclosures has fallen, its 2015–2016 vacancy survey found 3,529 vacant homes in the city of Youngstown. Housing advocates like Ian Beniston, executive director of YNDC, and Gary Davenport, project coordinator for the Mahoning Valley Land Bank, believe the situation is about to get worse as a result of Trump’s request for a $6 billion cut in Housing and Urban Development spending directed at community programs. Youngstown currently receives about $3.1 million in community development block grants, which are used for street resurfacing, housing, code enforcement, community policing, housing assistance, youth programs, and neighborhood revitalization. In Youngstown, the cut in the HUD budget would amount to almost $6 million.
Trump’s promise to end Obamacare may be the only one that will come true, depending on what happens in the Senate. For this community, as for many others, health care is a matter of both access to treatment and jobs. Nearly 20,000 local residents rely on Obamacare, and health care and other social services account for 17.1 percent of local jobs—more than any other sector, including manufacturing, which represents 13.9 percent of jobs.
Health care was the focus of Tuesday’s “Rally to Save Our Care,” organized by the Mahoning County Young Democrats. Just hours after the Senate agreed to debate the House bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the demonstration drew several hundred protesters. While some signs took aim at Trump, like one that read “Repeal and Replace Trump,” most focused on health care, including one suggesting “Replace Trumpcare with Single Payer.” The rally mirrored the concerns raised by the mayors of Youngstown and Dayton, John McNally and Nan Wahley, whose open letter to Trump warned that “repealing Medicaid expansion and making other drastic changes to the current system will have serious economic consequences in our communities.”
Local Democratic responses echoed the broader economic platform, A Better Deal, that national Democratic leaders announced on Monday. Mahoning County Democratic Chairperson David Betras suggested sarcastically that the president was probably coming “to cut the ribbon for the new steel mill he promised,” or “maybe he’s going to announce that he’s going to move production of all the Trump-branded goods that are made overseas by cheap and slave labor to the Valley.” Speaking at the protest rally, State Representative Michelle Lepore-Hagan criticized the Trump family’s reliance on foreign labor to produce their clothing lines and offered to put the president in touch with her sister, fashion designer Nanette Lepore, whose clothes are made in the United States. Other Mahoning Valley Democrats also responded critically to Trump’s visit. Tim Ryan, who represents the area in the House of Representatives, argued that this community doesn’t need more promises. Instead, he said, “We need good paying jobs. We need an infrastructure package that brings us into the 21st century.”
While he was talking about Trump, Ryan’s words also reflect his criticism of his own party’s leaders, criticism that they seem to have heeded in framing their Better Deal. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats’ renewed emphasis on the economy will be enough to counter Trump’s political theatrics. What is clear is that the Mahoning Valley needs someone in Washington to do a better job of moving beyond promises to solve the economic problems of this community. The person or party than can do that may finally help Youngstown move on from the politics of resentment.
*John Russo is the former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and coordinator of the Labor Studies Program at Youngstown State University. Currently, he is a visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown University. He is also managing editor of the blog Working-Class Perspectives.
*Sherry Linkon is a professor of English at Georgetown University and a faculty affiliate of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. Her book, The Half-Life of Deindustrialization, will be published by the University of Michigan Press in 2018. She is the editor of Working-Class Perspectives.