Sunday 21 January 2018

'We just want a president who'll do something for us'

In Youngstown, Ohio - a key swing state which has backed the winning candidate in 28 of the last 30 presidential elections - Peter Geoghegan visits a community where the American dream lies in tatters, and finds verylittle consensus on who is the right person to lead the nation

Waiting game: Supporters listen to Donald Trump speak at a campaign rally in Ohio last week
Waiting game: Supporters listen to Donald Trump speak at a campaign rally in Ohio last week
Judge Jack Durkin
Pamela Ramsey
Bernie Sanders
Megyn Kelly
Khizr Khan
Alicia Machado
James Comey

If the 2016 presidential election was settled on road signs, there would only be one winner in rural America. In farming country an hour south of Cleveland, someone has daubed five letters in bright red paint on the side of their house: TRUMP. On an escarpment in western Pennsylvania, a massive billboard of Hillary Clinton sports a gigantic Pinocchio nose.

Beside a soulless strip mall a few miles south of Youngstown, Ohio, a homemade placard is tied to a lamppost: "Save America - Vote Trump". Youngstown is exactly the kind of place that the Republican nominee's scorched-earth rhetoric seems to be chiming with voters.

Youngstown was once a relatively affluent blue-collar city. The steel mills that stretched for 25 uninterrupted miles along the banks of the Mahoning River employed tens of thousands. The blast furnaces ran 24 hours a day, filling the sky with charcoal-coloured smoke and the pervasive smell of sulphur. There was even a branch of Macy's department store among the grand early 20th century buildings downtown.

These days the sky around Youngstown is clear blue. The clang of metal and the hiss of steam has disappeared. The steel industry collapsed in the 1970s. Like the work, the people have left. The population of Youngstown plummeted from around 140,000 in 1970 to less than 65,000 today. Bruce Springsteen even wrote a dolorous lament to the town's post-industrial plight.

Judge Jack Durkin
Judge Jack Durkin

Traditionally, Youngstown's white working classes were rock-solid Democrats. Now many are switching over to Donald Trump. The Republican nominee's protectionist message is playing well across the American 'Rust Belt', not least in Ohio. This could augur well for Trump: Ohio has backed the winning candidate in 28 of the last 30 contests.

"Trump is the only option that's not the political establishment," says Justin Summer, a 22-year-old barman in O'Donold's Irish bar. "Neither the Democrats or the Republicans have done anything for us. If he gets in, he'll shake things up. We just want someone who will do something for us."

In Trump, Summer sees echoes of another controversial populist: James A Traficant Jr. He was a Youngstown Democratic congressman - until his expulsion from Congress in 2002 after a bribery conviction. He died in 2014 after a tractor fell on him.

Traficant "was a crook but he was doing it for the people. A lot of people see Trump like that," says Summer.

Retired insurance salesman Tom Burnbrier is voting Trump, too. "We need a change. The Democratic party has run Youngstown for years, and it has done nothing but get worse," the 75-year-old says.

Youngstown is showing some signs of recovery from the Great Recession: The unemployment rate, which peaked at nearly 17pc in January 2010, stood at 7.6pc in June. A new business incubator recently opened.

Pamela Ramsey
Pamela Ramsey

But these green shoots cannot cover up Youngstown's problems. On once bustling Federal Street most of the units are either vacant or house liquor stores and bail bondsmen. Entire city blocks lie empty.

For many the American Dream - that hard work alone suffices - has disappeared along with the steel industry. For the poorest fifth of the US, real wages have not increased since the Nixon era. The disenfranchised white working class is a key constituency for Trump.

That the unexpected hit on the US book charts this election summer has been a personal account of growing up poor and white in Appalachia is no coincidence. JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy charts a community - the Ulster Scots - that have struggled to adapt to a changing America.

While life expectancy for middle-aged African-Americans and Hispanics is rising, whites in their 40s and 50s are dying younger of suicide, liver disease and drug overdoses. The well-paying industrial jobs of the past are gone. In places like Youngstown, levels of education - the only effective route to advancement post-globalisation - are below the US average. The result among many whites is frustration, anger and a sense that the system has failed them.

"Middle-class America is fed up. The rich just get richer. The poor are getting their welfare cheques. What are the middle classes getting?" says Carolyn Givens.

Although a registered Republican - she supported Ohio governor John Kasich in the primaries - Givens will not be voting for Trump. One reason is she believes that the reality TV star has no solution for the biggest crisis facing her community - not jobs but drugs.

Youngstown - and particularly its more salubrious suburbs - are in the midst of a heroin epidemic that is ravaging much of Ohio and the Midwest. In one recent weekend, 11 overdoses were reported in a single district of Mahoning county.

Heroin came quietly. It began almost innocuously in the late 1990s and early 2000s when pharmaceutical companies began promoting new, opiate-based medication for pain relief. The drugs were marketed as non-addictive. The reality was very different.

"We saw a lot of kids who had been hurt playing sport, who got a prescription and said 'this feels good', so they started sharing it with their friends. Then they were hooked," explains Brenda Heidinger, associate director of Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board.

'Pain management clinics' started opening up in the centre of Youngstown, doling out medication with minimal oversight. Ohio's state government has started clamping down on the 'pill mills' but it's too late. Many users have already started turning to heroin.

Where opiates can retail at $100 a pill on the streets, a bag of smack is as little as five bucks. Often it comes laced with fentanyl, a powerful tranquilliser implicated in many recent deaths.

Cable television is peppered with commercials for addiction services.

Everybody seems to know someone who is a user.

"People are still reluctant to admit that this is happening but we need to face up to the scale of this," says Pamela Ramsey from the Neil Kennedy Recovery Clinic in Youngstown. Each week around 650 people attend the centre's Alcoholics Anonymous-style clinics.

Ramsey takes me to a residential clinic on the outskirts of Youngstown. At the end of a tree-lined street pockmarked with boarded-up houses, a dozen or so patients are huddled outside smoking. Most wear hoodies pulled tight around their faces, but it's clear that the majority are in their 20s, white and well dressed. This is not the usual picture of urban drug abuse.

"When I started 19 years ago, the average person was 35 years old and on crack," says Judge Jack Durkin who administers Youngstown's drug court. "Now the average age is 23 and they are addicted to opiates or heroin."

Judge Durkin is a registered Democrat but he says he understands some of Trump's appeal in Youngstown. "The middle class have lost hope in government as usual," he says over lunch in one of city's many Italian restaurants. In the 70s and 80s, Youngstown was the scene of frequent violent clashes between rival Mafia outfits.

"There is a proportion of undecided voters who traditionally would have voted Democrat but who are now considering voting Republican because of Donald Trump."

As across the United States, racial undercurrents bubble just below the surface in Youngstown. Downturn is predominantly black. In the overwhelmingly white suburbs there is little love for Obama. Complaints about environmental regulation destroying the steel industry might be genuine, but often they come tinged with a sense that the current president is "not like us".

Earlier in the summer, Trump campaign chair in Mahoning County, Kathy Miller, was filmed telling a journalist that she didn't think "there was any racism until Obama got election". The video went viral. Miller was forced to resign.

Taxi driver Ronnie says that Trump "is clearly a racist". After four decades working in the steel mills, the African-American now drives an Uber cab. He will be voting Clinton: "The union is backing her, and that's good enough for me."

Trump's avowedly white nationalist election strategy is at odds with the reality of modern America. There are some 42 million foreign-born people in the US, and many more identify as minorities. Proposals to build a wall with Mexico and ban Muslim immigration may have heads nodding in agreement in Youngstown taverns, but they help to explain why Trump is polling at barely one per cent among African-Americans.

Clinton has courted minority votes - and with good reason - but travelling across the Midwest, the enthusiasm gap between the two candidates is palpable. Put simply, Trump voters are generally more full-blooded in their support. That's backed up by recent polling, too.

Another potential problem for Clinton is young voters. "I wouldn't vote for Trump. He's an idiot," says Tyler, who works in one of the few cafés in downtown Youngstown. Nevertheless, she is not planning to cast a ballot for Hillary. "I don't think I'll vote," the 22-year-old says.

Across the street in O'Donold's Irish bar, Adam Brite is finishing a lunch of fried fish. The 28-year-old voted for Obama in 2012 but will be staying at home on Tuesday. "I'm so disillusioned with the whole thing. I don't like Trump but I can't bring myself to vote for Hillary."

Driving south of Youngstown, through rural Ohio, the landscape changes. The only rust is in the colour of the leaves. Rich, verdant fields of corn open up as far as the eye can see. But the same Trump signs recur. For every Clinton placard proudly displayed in a neatly mown lawn, there are dozens backing the Republican.

"Make America Great Again". That, of course, begs a question - why in these rich farmlands do people feel that their country has lost its way? Again, the question of race seems to permeate below the surface. White lips curl when they speak of Obama. Many are buying guns for fear of a clampdown on firearms by a president Hillary. "Clinton is great for gun sales," a barman tells me in Ashland, a town in rural Ohio.

A thrice-married adulterer might not seem like an obvious conservative standard bearer, but polls suggest that most Republicans will go out and vote for Trump.

In an upmarket suburb of Cleveland, a Democratic stronghold, Tony, a retired banker, told me that Clinton wants to introduce abortion at full term. He is backing Trump.

The recent announcement that the FBI will launch a probe into emails that include Clinton's has opened up questions about her probity, even among her own supporters. Trump - remarkably for a man with multiple bankruptcies and business links to Russia - has successfully linked Clinton and corruption in the public imagination. Polls have narrowed in recent weeks.

But the abiding sense in much of suburban America is that many voters have little time for either candidate, and for the wider political process. "These are the choices we have?" Melissa Rush, a middle-aged Cleveland housewife, tells me. "I'm not voting for either one."

In 2016, America is arguably more divided than at anytime since the Civil War. "It has just got worse and worse over the last 15 years," says Stephan Ohl, a father-of-two who lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, another state Trump will almost certainly need to turn red. "You can tell someone that the sky is blue, and they will tell you it's grey."

Ohl is voting for Clinton, but sees little prospect of post-election reconciliation: "Whatever the outcome, it's not going to be good. This division will not just disappear." In this most unpredictable of election years, that seems to be the only thing that can be said with certainty about Tuesday's result.

Five people who shaped 2016 Presidential election

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

The left-wing senator ran Clinton close in the Democratic primary, and in the process inspired a new generation of progressive activists. Sanders ultimately came up short but his strong showing demonstrates that the Left is once again a force to be reckoned with in the party.

Megyn Kelly

Megyn Kelly

Kelly, a Fox News Channel anchor, saw her star rise even higher after the first debate of the Republican primary season. She opened that encounter by asking Trump about his history of derogatory comments about women. He was not pleased. In a CNN interview shortly afterwards, he suggested Kelly had questioned him harshly because she was menstrual. That set off yet more controversy, and Kelly and Trump tangled several more times during the campaign.

Khizr Khan

Khizr Khan

The most important moment of the Democratic National Convention didn't come from any politician. It's biggest emotional punch was delivered by Khizr Khan, the bereaved father of a Muslim US soldier killed in Iraq. Khan, accompanied by his wife Ghazala, brandished a copy of the US Constitution, asking rhetorically if Trump had ever read it. Trump compounded the damage by feuding with the family for some time afterwards.

Alicia Machado

Alicia Machado

Machado is a former Miss Universe whom Trump had criticised for being overweight, allegedly calling her 'Miss Piggy' among other things. Clinton baited Trump by mentioning those remarks in the first presidential debate. Inexplicably, even to some in his own party, Trump continued defending his initial stance. "I saved her job because they wanted to fire her for putting on so much weight," he told Fox News's Bill O'Reilly. "It is a beauty contest."

James Comey

James Comey

The FBI director was praised by Democrats and slammed by Republicans back in July when he announced that he did not believe criminal charges against Clinton were justified over her use of a private email address and server while Secretary of State. Both parties made exactly the opposite arguments when, 11 days before the election, Comey put Clinton under a new cloud by announcing more emails had been found and were being investigated.

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