Howland was suburban and relatively wealthy, heavily and obviously White and a blend of white- and blue-collar. Like Rochester, it was heavily Democratic, but not in a familiar way. The local congressman, to whom I was assigned to intern by the guidance counselors at Howland High School, was James Traficant. If you're not familiar, Traficant was Donald Trump while Trump was still just a real estate developer in New York. Traficant was polarizing and seedy and rebellious. All day at his office, the staff listened to Rush Limbaugh, seemingly piped into every room.
Over time, the significance of the region’s economics and politics became more obvious to me. It was blue but growing less so. The economic damage from the closure of local manufacturing facilities was slow, not sudden, and ongoing even while we were in school. It was precisely the sort of place that might be wooed by President Trump — and it was. In 2012, the precinct where I lived in high school voted for Barack Obama by a 15-point margin. In 2016, it backed Trump by 12. Trumbull County, where Howland is located, moved from a 23-point Obama advantage in 2012 to a six-point Trump win.
Earlier this year, I planned to return to the area with the goal of interviewing people with whom I’d gone to high school. My trip was scheduled for the end of March, which meant that it didn’t happen. That may have been for the best; like myself, many of the people who graduated with me don’t live in Howland anymore. While the population of Ohio has grown over the past 40 years, Trumbull County has grown smaller in population if not geography. (It has the distinction of being nearly perfectly square.) From 2006 to 2018, about 80,000 people moved out of Trumbull County to somewhere else in the United States. Only about 57,000 moved in.
Through a combination of Facebook and assistance from my high school’s alumni association, I managed to reach out to a handful of my former classmates, most of whom lived elsewhere in Ohio but still had family in the northeastern part of the state. What I hoped to learn was simple: How had they and the region changed, and why?
“Like a lot of people, all I wanted in life was to grow up and be a union steelworker like my dad and grandfather,” Anthony Montana, 46, told me when we spoke by phone last week.
He did end up working in the steel industry, though not in the way he probably expected. He now works in the communications department for the United Steelworkers Union in Pittsburgh, though he still has family in Trumbull County, which he says feels “smaller, older and deteriorated” compared with when we were in high school.
“And, you know, for years, every candidate who passed through Youngstown or [Trumbull County seat] Warren or Cleveland or Pittsburgh, since we were teenagers, promised we’d have the opportunity to do that if they got elected,” he continued. “And, you know, it never happened. So in 2016, Donald Trump convinced folks that he cared about our jobs and our industries.”
“I think Trump’s popularity, his message found an audience in the Mahoning Valley,” Montana said, referring to the region, “specifically because we were all told so many times that some politician was going to save our industries and failed. And he didn’t sound like the rest of them.”
Renee McManus, 46, still lives in Trumbull County, on the other side of Warren from where we went to high school. She left her job shortly before the pandemic hit to study to earn a certificate in psychiatric nurse practitioning — adding to her already impressive collection of degrees. For the moment, though, she's home-schooling her kids and working as a school nurse.
None of this was what she'd planned.
“My dad was a steel mill person,” McManus said. “So, you know, that went downhill when we were younger. And he was one of the last ones to walk out of Copperweld [Steel]. And then when we graduated, a lot of people from our class went to GM or Delphi [Automotive Systems] and got good jobs,” McManus told me.
“GM” in this context refers to the large General Motors complex in Lordstown, Ohio, a manufacturing plant that Trump had repeatedly promised to save.
“They didn’t go to college. I, actually, when I got out of college — Kent, that’s my four-year degree — I came home to live because my dad had passed and my mom was very lonely and she wanted me to come home with her for a while,” McManus continued. “I wanted to move to a ski resort somewhere. You know, go somewhere fun! I actually was thinking about going down to Baltimore or down by Washington, actually. But anyway, long story short, I came home and I stayed home with my mom and I stayed here.”
“But when I first came home, that’s when Delphi was kicking,” she continued. “I mean, I became friends of a lot of engineers, you know, and it was doing really well. And then they got too big too fast and I think, let’s see what year it was, maybe 2000? I mean, it just died. And then after that, it seemed like it was a ripple effect. After Delphi died, and then GM started going down by shifts. And then — and then it died altogether. And then it was weird. It was, like, other businesses. You didn’t think about — I live out in Leavittsburg here, and Denman Tire was huge out here and it closed. And a lot of the businesses. Craftmade — I don’t know if you know this, but Craftmade is a huge business up this way. And it’s gone way down. So … it wasn’t just GM. GM was definitely the pinnacle.”
In Montana's view, this trajectory hadn't been affected much by Trump.
“I’m not surprised that, you know, things have continued to decline,” he said. “Blaming the pandemic is crazy because people were getting laid off en masse before the pandemic.”
“I don’t believe Trump has kept his promises to workers because workers were getting laid off at U.S. Steel — workers were getting laid off throughout the steel industry — manufacturing workers! We don’t have to specify just — manufacturing workers were getting laid off due to imports despite his policies,” Montana said, adding that “the only reason I know that is because it’s my job.”
The economy “was getting bad before the pandemic,” McManus agreed.
“I noticed there’s a lot more people out of work and a lot more people looking for free food than before,” she added. “Like a lot more food banks, like in the paper, you’ll see there’s like a mile — I wouldn’t say a mile, but there’s like — churches are giving out free food and there’s like tons and tons of people coming out.”
Jennifer Leightner, 46, now lives in Manhattan, where she works as an executive assistant at a financial company. During the pandemic, she returned to northeast Ohio with her husband and children to quarantine near her parents.
“While I was home,” she told me, “I volunteered at the St. Vincent de Paul in Warren and it was, you know, a lot of very, very poor people. And I really loved it. I met all different kinds of people. They fed 300 people a day at the soup kitchen. I volunteered in the thrift store there and I really loved it. After living in Manhattan and being around so many different kinds of people, I really felt at home there because it was more of a cross section.”
While in the area — which she said “doesn’t seem like it’s really made a lot of progress” — Leightner noticed that the economy seemed to be increasingly centered on service-sector jobs.
“I noticed like a lot of landscapers and people that do that kind of thing or like, you know, there’s a lot of, you know, maybe they’re working for Spectrum or they’re doing, you know, that kind of thing,” Leightner said. “You know, city services or just, you know, cable trucks or whatever. I feel like it’s still very blue-collar. Maybe the type of job has shifted because the environment has shifted.”
That aligns with the jobs that McManus saw moving back into the area, including a large warehouse for T.J. Maxx and a car battery plant.
“That battery plant, it will never be a GM,” she said. “I mean, it’s not going to be very high-paying — I don’t know if they’re going to have a union or not. And I don’t know if it’s going be very high-paying — it’s probably just going to be like assembly-line workers, and I don’t think it’s the high-paying jobs.”
McManus identified the downgrade in the quality of work as a lot of the reason the area had shifted to the right.
“A lot of people that I was friends with and people that were die-hard Democrats in the area? I think what ruined a lot of Democrats — I won’t say ruined but changed their minds or Democrats aren’t as liked — is when GM [left],” she told me. “I think that the whole GM collapse, and Delphi Packard, the retirees losing their pension.”
“I just feel like they’ve been let down, and the economy has really gone downhill,” she added. “And I feel like the Democrats are such hard believers in the unions and the unions, I think, failed a lot of Democrats. So I think — I think that is what has caused the turning to the Republican Party in this area.”
Maybe. At another point, though, she described a dynamic familiar to people who’ve never been to northeast Ohio.
“I have friends that are Democrat and I have friends that are Republican, and my friends are very upset about the civil unrest across the country. They watch Fox News. They watch Tucker [Carlson] every night and they’re very unhappy what’s going on with, you know, the [Black Lives Matter] movement. And they feel that a lot of that is — is caused — even my Democratic friends feel like Democrats are causing that. So I just feel like they’re afraid that if Democrats get in, everything will stay unsteady.”
Montana, who indicated that he planned to support former vice president Joe Biden in November, was not such a Democrat.
“I’m afraid of cancer and I’m afraid of covid,” Montana said. “I’m not afraid of protesters.”
Fox News was mentioned by nearly everyone I spoke to. One of my former classmates described strained family interactions that appeared to derive from a close relative’s consumption of the channel’s programming. Most of those with whom I spoke also identified a broader erosion of civil discussion as a factor in the country’s deteriorated political conversation.
“I do see a lot of people who very much judge what type of person you are based on your political beliefs,” said Rob Kerro, 46, when we spoke by phone. “I do not agree with that.”
Kerro, who works as an anesthesiologist, now lives in Sandusky, about halfway between Cleveland and Toledo. Most of his family has left Trumbull County.
“I feel like everything is kind of a mess right now,” Kerro said of politics nationally. “I feel like people are more divided than ever. I feel like the liberals are becoming even more liberal and progressive in their ideas. I feel like, because of that, the conservatives feel even more threatened and are pushed even further to the right.”
Leightner used the same word to describe the moment.
“I think it’s very divisive. I think it’s dividing. I feel like it — I feel like you just — you’re up against the wall,” she said with obvious consternation. “I feel like there’s nowhere to go. And it’s terrifying,” she said, later adding that “I’d rather hold my opinions to myself because I just don’t think it’s worth it.”
“I don’t know if it’s fear of the unknown or just watching too much news and believing it. Letting the Fox News run and brainwash you,” Leightner said. “You know, I think when something like that is on all the time, like, you don’t entertain — you’re not interacting with the world en masse and like getting other perspectives.”
Jennifer Metz, 46, now lives in Cincinnati, where she’d moved for college. She works as a financial analyst and expressed a similar sentiment.
“If you listen to one source of news, you’re getting what feeds your — what makes sense to you,” Metz said. “So I feel like it’s just become really easy to find that thing that you like and stick with it. We’re not getting exposed to the other side as much, if you don’t choose to.”
“I feel like we’ve gotten so separated in our beliefs,” she said at another point. “I remember we used to talk openly about politics with friends, with family. My mom’s side is Democrats, my dad’s side is Republicans, and they talk about it and they disagreed but they could have discussions and see each other’s point of view. And I feel like we have become so — separated isn’t the word, I’m just not coming up with it. That it’s almost so emotional that people are unwilling to even have a conversation to learn about the other side. So we’re entrenched in our beliefs and we’re not moving.”
She noted that the local papers in the area had largely shut down, including the Youngstown Vindicator, which folded last year.
“It feels like it’s gotten harder for people to connect with other local people there and discuss their views or learn about what’s happening,” Metz said. She also said that she thought social media made that pattern worse, “because people can choose to stay in an area that they agree with.”
“I appreciate honesty and conversation,” Montana said, referring to his interactions on Facebook. But “if it’s coming from Breitbart, I’m not engaging. I mean, there’s nothing I’m going to tell those people that is going to make them, you know, take on the other side."
For Leightner, social media serves as a legitimate source of information.
“It’s hilarious at this point, you know?” Leightner said of the media. “You tell your friend, oh my God, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. And she’s like, oh yeah. I saw it on, you know, Alicia Keys’s Twitter feed. And I’m like, oh, that’s where you go for your news? And, you know, that’s just as valid” — she laughed — “it’s almost more valid when you hear it word-of-mouth from a friend.”
“Everything is so biased, but the media runs the way they want to run,” McManus said, sharing Leightner’s skepticism of the press. “And I don’t think that people are happy about what the media is doing. I just feel like everything is so unsteady because people aren’t really speaking their views because they don’t — they just keep to themselves, you know? And I think this election, I think the outcome, like last election, will be a big surprise.”
Of those with whom I spoke, McManus was the only one who expressed an openness to voting for Trump in November. She was also the only one still living in Trumbull County.
“I really believe that there are a lot of people that are going to come out and vote for Trump, even though they do not like Trump,” she said.
The president “was making a lot of progress in a lot of different areas” before the pandemic hit, she said, adding that she “was happy with the way things were.”
But she had not yet made a decision.
“I don’t even think I’m going to vote,” she said. “I’m just disgusted. But I probably will go Republican, I mean, if I do vote. I haven’t, like I — I haven’t decided if I’m going to vote. And that sounds terrible, but — I didn’t vote the last election because I was disgusted.”
Her Republican husband, she said, was also “not happy with the way things are going. … I don’t think any American is.”
Metz was similarly unsure.
“A big thing for me is abortion,” she said, noting her strong opposition to late-term abortion. “At the same time, I think Donald Trump is — he may be intelligent, but I would not want him back in office again.”
“So that’s a long way to say I don’t know,” Metz said.
Both she and Kerro expressed openness to the Libertarian candidate.
“One thing that I am optimistic about is I feel like because the political climate has gotten as divisive as it has, I am somewhat optimistic that we’re going to have more push for more people towards third-party candidates,” Kerro said. “I am very disappointed that the Libertarian candidate did not manage to get involved in the debate. I think that would have been a chance for people to really see that you can have more options.”
The two candidates who did make the debate stage did not impress him.
“Everybody that I’ve talked to, no matter what their political affiliation, watched that debate and said, is this really the best we can find?” Kerro said.
For Montana, who lives in Pennsylvania, the options were sufficient.
“As the father of an autistic fifth-grader, I’m worried about the deterioration of our public schools under Betsy DeVos — but what’s equally scary or even more so is having a president who acts like a bully to prove he’s strong,” Montana said. “And has specifically targeted disabled people for mockery, you know, from a position of kicking down. I don’t think that represents the Youngstown ethic.”
“It distresses me that Donald Trump with his spray tan has convinced folks that he cares about us,” he added. “When, you know, it’s clear he doesn’t.”
As you will hear repeatedly between now and November, no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. Trump can be reelected without it, but it's unlikely that he will, given the margin by which he won four years ago.
“I think that Ohio is very representative of the nation,” Kerro said. “We have our big urban areas. We have very rural areas. And the political climate is drastically different in both of those two segments, kind of like it is across the nation.”
Like the nation, Ohio is also changing. Leightner thinks that the coronavirus pandemic might accelerate that.
“I think post-covid, it’ll be interesting because a lot of families, a lot of kids came back to stay with families,” she said. “And I think people are going to see business opportunities in these smaller towns.” That, she suggested, may “change the landscape of a lot of these suburban, nonurban environments.”
She and her husband, for example, put an offer on a house in the Chagrin Falls area, despite his concern about the state’s politics. (“Why couldn’t we be those people that go back and just be us?” Leightner says she told him. “And that’s sort of my hope.”)
“Politically, it’ll be interesting to see how it affects change in those areas because they have a certain kind of person [who] stayed there to continue to work or be around their family and those that left the city sort of struck out and saw something different,” she continued. “But now there’s this opportunity for people to come back and effect change in the area. Not only politically, but with job ideas or creating new opportunities or, you know, looking at the area from a fresh perspective, which I find exciting.”
I asked McManus if she hoped her kids would stay in the area.
“I thought about this a lot,” she replied. “And I — my kids, like my 16-year-old, he wants to go into aviation to be a pilot. He wants to move — he already knows he wants to go to Washington, D.C., area, Baltimore area. I don’t know why, but that’s where he wants to go. So I would love for my kids to stay in this area. But if he’s going to go into aviation, that’s not going to be a good area to stay in because I don’t see the airport, you know, our little airport died, too.”
“I think this area, the cost of living is so cheap, to buy a house,” she added. “And I think the school districts actually do very well, like Howland and LaBrae. I think it’s a good place to raise families.”
“But I think the careers that you need to really —”
“You have to move elsewhere.”