From this hilltop town overlooking the Ohio River, I scan the community of Aliquippa on the opposite bank for any remnant of the vast Jones & Laughlin Steel complex that once employed 10,000 there.
“They tore the last of it down years ago,” a passing police officer explains. A few far smaller non-steel businesses now operate on the site. Spontaneously, and ever so slightly wistfully, he adds: “My whole family worked down there.”
J & L, as the steelmaker was known, is gone; it’s highly improbable this area will ever see its like again.
However, here’s what you can see across the Western Pennsylvania mill and mine region that lies between the nation’s capital and Cleveland, scene of this week’s Republican jamboree:
At the Jonnet Flea Market, near Blairsville, patient elderly men staff tables piled with used crossbows and fishing rods, old board games, vintage milk cartons, 1940s pulp novels, mechanics’ tools. A young couple with their child, the only customers at 11 a.m. on a Saturday, pay $2 for a baby stroller.
Along the streets and highways, billboards announce gun shops, prayer meetings, ethnic club events, drug-treatment programs. Every town has its war memorial.
And on one lawn sign, T-shirt and bumper sticker after another, you read: “Trump: Make America Great Again.”
Donald Trump carried every county in Pennsylvania’s GOP primary, but he rolled up some of his biggest margins around here, including 67 percent in Armstrong County, where coal is still a big job-provider, threatened by both cheap natural gas and Obama administration environmental policies.
Bernie Sanders, though he lost statewide, was strong in Armstrong County, too, edging Hillary Clinton by just under 100 votes out of roughly 6,000 cast. Trump by himself, however, exceeded the two Democrats’ combined total.
Armstrong County, in short, is a stronghold of the proverbial white working class, though Jeff Pyle, the county’s representative in the state legislature, disdains that media cliche.
“We’re mill hunkies, is what we are,” he says — a term that recasts an old epithet for Hungarians and other Eastern European immigrants as a badge of industrial honor.
Over onion-smothered hot sausages at Stanley’s Bar & Grille in Armstrong’s second-largest town, Ford City — “Smoking Permitted,” it says on the door — Pyle, a Republican, as are most registered voters in this once-Democratic county, offers his take on the Trump phenomenon.
He’s had to analyze Trump’s appeal long and hard, because, like with elected GOP officials higher up the political food chain, his constituents’ support for the billionaire overtook him as he held out for one of Trump’s rivals to gain traction.
“The thing I hear all the time is ‘He’s got balls,’ ” Pyle says. Even he kindles to one part of Trump’s message: “We may be mill hunkies, but we know bad trade deals.”
There are still 2,200 factory jobs in Armstrong County (total population, 68,000 and shrinking), but that’s down 30 percent in the past decade.
Ford City has never been the same since its huge plate-glass factory downtown closed. A historical marker notes that it shut in 1991, before trade with China took off, and before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). More recently, though, in 2008, a large factory that made “pottery” — toilet fixtures — closed and its production reportedly shifted to China. Pyle says Ford City people, when traveling, used to make a point of visiting a bathroom in every town along the way just to see if their handiwork was in use. Not now.
When Trump boasts that he’ll bring the jobs back, mill hunkies hear a promise to restore their pride and their way of life.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is associated with Barack Obama and his Environmental Protection Agency, whose rules disfavor coal and the nearby utilities that burn it, as well as, according to Pyle, a long list of job-creating projects, which, he has come to hope, might get off the ground under a Republican president.
History teaches that social crisis can breed desperate thinking. In a very different time — the year 1889 — among a very different people — the Plains Indians — a Northern Paiute spiritual leader named Wovoka mobilized thousands by assuring them that performing a ritual known as the Ghost Dance would restore their lost world; ancestors would come back to life, bison herds would reappear; whites would be banished.
After the movement fizzled, undone by federal repression and its adherents’ own disillusionment, a study commissioned by the U.S. government observed that something akin to the Ghost Dance could have happened in any deeply distressed society, no matter how sophisticated.
“The paradise lost is the dreamland of youth,” it noted. When a people “lies crushed and groaning beneath an alien yoke, how natural is the dream of a redeemer, an Arthur, who shall . . . win back for his people what they have lost.”
Trump for President’s redemptive promises are hardly more plausible than those of the Ghost Dance. Yet the sense of loss that the campaign both evokes and exploits is, in some parts of this country, all too real.
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