Donald Trump’s promises strike a chord in Pennsylvania
White working-class communities in economically depressed areas banking on Republican nominee for a reversal of fortune.
Lewisberry, Pennsylvania – Sitting in the bar of a roadside restaurant with a friend, Rick Shaffer sums up what he thinks of the situation in this northeastern US state with three words: “We need change.”
Shaffer and his friend, both construction workers in their 50s, support Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate. They believe the US needs a strong military and that undocumented immigrants should be deported.
“Why build a wall? Landmines can do the same job!”
Pennsylvania has backed the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since 1992. Even so, the state is “not reliably Democrat”, says political analyst Bill Schneider.
While the state’s largest city, Philadelphia, and its surrounding counties have a large number of affluent white voters and minorities who are heavily against Trump, Schneider says, Pennsylvania is also home to a large white working-class population with lower income and education levels than the national average.
This demographic group includes miners and factory workers who have seen their jobs disappear as a result of economic changes reshaping the country’s industrial landscape.
“They are the core of Trump’s constituency. They’re angry and resentful,” Schneider says.
Striking a chord
Trump won 77 percent in the Republican primary in Luzerne County in northeast Pennsylvania.
In the county’s main city of Wilkes-Barre, a former mining centre, thousands of supporters turned up for his rally this week.
“They’ve taken our jobs out of Pennsylvania. We’ll be bringing them back folks, believe me,” Trump thundered from the stage.
His fired-up fans cheered, chanting, “USA, USA,” some waving “Trump digs coal” signs.
“Oh, what those politicians have done to us,” Trump said, lowering his voice.
Such charged rhetoric resonates strongly with Trump supporters here: promises of jobs and prosperity, that Trump is not a politician or part of the establishment in Washington.
“I like he’s an outsider,” said Matthew, who brought his seven-year-old son to the rally.
“We’re fed up with disgusting DC, with the corruption and greed, politicians just working for themselves.
“If Hillary Clinton gets to the White House …” he continues, but his son cuts in: “Then we’re doomed! She’s a crook.”
Matthew, who did not want to give his full name to protect his privacy, blames bad trade pacts for the loss of jobs in the county.
He still has a job: he works in the dental prosthesis industry in Wilkes-Barre. But he has witnessed jobs being outsourced to countries such as China where manufacturing costs are lower.
His brother and brother-in-law have both lost their jobs.
Typical Trump voter
Matthew ticks many of the boxes that statistically make him inclined to support Trump: male without a college education, in a rural area, of mostly white descent.
But he is also married to a South American woman, taught English to immigrants and lived in Peru. Nevertheless, he backs Trump’s strict immigration policies.
He argues that given the existing system of work visas and other ways to enter the US legally, a crackdown on undocumented immigrants is justified. And he thinks refugees should be hosted close to their home countries, where problems of assimilation will not arise and they can eventually return home.
“It’s not xenophobia or anything. What makes America great is that it’s a melting pot, it’s like the world in one country and that’s a beautiful thing,” Matthew said. “But rules are for a reason. When you start to move away from them, you create chaos.”
Wilkes-Barre’s economic fortunes have been in decline since appetite for its coal dwindled after World War I.
While the mining industry in the area once employed some 180,000 people, that number is now down to 300, according to Larry Newman, who promotes business in Wilkes-Barre.
Thousands of jobs were created in industrial parks after the mining industry’s demise, but they were relatively low-skilled positions that could easily be outsourced.
Factories producing shoes, garments and other goods have closed down, and the main employers in the area today are warehouses and distribution centres, which pay much lower wages than work on the assembly lines in the factories did.
Still, Newman does not agree with the bleak picture of the city painted by Trump supporters.
He says the city centre has become a “start-up cluster”, with tech-based companies and other new businesses renting office spaces. However, these are jobs that require college education and are not available to workers displaced by factory closures.
Those employed in the start-ups are “the children and grandchildren of the people struggling”, Newman says.
“Trump’s message about jobs resonate with many people here. They see him as a change agent.”
Trump has promised repeatedly throughout his campaign to save the US coal industry and to renegotiate international trade deals.
Of course, not everyone here has been swayed by Trump.
Karen Baranoski, a teacher and Democratic volunteer, is excited at the prospect of electing the first female president and is convinced that the US cannot get a more qualified leader than Clinton.
She is encouraged by recent poll numbers that give Clinton a lead of more than 8 percent over Trump at 47.3 to 39.0 percent in Pennsylvania.
Still, she will not relax until results are out.
“Trump’s got nine lives, so you never know,” she said.
Controversy after controversy
Trump’s candidacy has indeed survived controversy after controversy, with his offensive comments about Hispanics, Muslims, women and the disabled grabbing headlines at different times.
In recent days, his campaign has taken its strongest hit yet after the publication of a 2005 video in which he is heard bragging in foul language about groping women.
While Trump himself has tried to play down his remarks as “locker-room talk”, several prominent Republicans have abandoned their candidate.
At the Wilkes-Barre rally, the lewd comments did not seem to bother female Trump supporters whom Al Jazeera spoke to.
“We’re not electing the Pope,” said Eileen Johanssen, a nutrition education adviser. “No one is free from sin … This is a great man.”
Back in the bar in Lewisberry, warehouse employee Melissa Comer says it does not matter who wins the election – as long as it is not Trump.
She supported Democrat Bernie Sanders in the primaries, and now faces a dilemma: vote for Clinton to keep Trump out of office, or vote for a third party whose manifesto is closer to her political views.
“It’s a choice between a douche and a turd,” she said. And there is at least one thing she is sure of: “We need a revolution in this country, we need to overthrow the two-party system!”
Pauline Cuk, working in the restaurant, has no idea what choice she will make on Election Day.
She watched the latest presidential debate and found the way the candidates spoke to each other “appalling”.
“They’re like two kids,” she said. “I feel physically ill when I think of it, that one of these idiots will be in charge of our future. I would vote for Mickey Mouse if I could.”