A Visit to Trump Country
When I knock on Ginny Edwards’s door at 4 p.m., on the road where I grew up, she’s still in her pajamas. She’s wearing a frilly white tank top, pink and white flannel pants and fuzzy Barbie-pink slippers. I ask if the Donald Trump signs on the lawn outside are hers, and if she’ll talk to me about him. “Yes! Trump is the man!” she squeals, and grabs two chairs.
Edwards is downright delighted to list all the reasons she’s voting for Trump — and the good Lord knows there are many. First, she says, he’s a business genius: “Everything he touches turns to money.” Second, he’s classy. Old-school classy. “I think he’s like another Kennedy. I really do.” Third, he’s incorruptible. “He already has the money, so he don’t need to steal it or take it. You’re not going to buy that man.” Fourth, he skewers Hillary Clinton and GOP elites with equal precision. “I think Romney’s a piece of shit,” says Edwards, with the brazenness that only a 75-year-old in hot pink slippers can possess. “And let’s face it: Hillary will be in jail before it’s over.”
There are fifths, sixths and sevenths, but they’re all just icing on the cake. Edwards says the biggest reason she supports Trump is that her grandkids don’t have the same opportunity to build a decent life that she had, and she thinks he can change that. When Edwards was younger, she worked at a factory. Her husband was a truck driver. “I made man’s wages,” she says of the good old days. “And if you didn’t like your job, you walked across the street and got another one.” Her grandchildren, on the other hand, are struggling to pay the bills. There wasn’t enough money to send them to college; now they’re maids and waitresses and roofers. “Trump needs to bring the industry back, so people like my grandkids can get a good job,” she says. Then she adds proudly: “None of my grandkids, as hard as they have it, are on welfare or food stamps. That’s how they were raised — to work and not take.”
Over the past few months, I’ve talked to dozens of people in and around my hometown about the presidential race. Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, is a tiny borough 104 miles west of the city, in southern York County. I never expected to cover it for Philadelphia magazine, but 2016 is a strange year. White working- and middle-class voters in places like Shrewsbury are powering the Trump movement — and in Pennsylvania, they hold enormous power. “Pennsylvania could be the keystone of the electoral college,” says Nate Silver’s prediction machine, FiveThirtyEight.com, “and the ultimate arbiter of whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
So figuring out why my old neighbors shout “Make America great again!” — and why they buy into Trump’s blurring of the lines between genuine economic problems and made-up, non-white enemies — is worthwhile.
SOUTHERN YORK COUNTY is a bucolic lily-white area along the Mason-Dixon line, with a population of about 10,000. It’s home to a beautiful quilt-work of cornfields and God-fearing people and a 2nd Amendment Drive. Confederate flags decorate pickup trucks and dangle above porches. The area’s nucleus, its beating heart, is a Walmart.
An outsider who drove along the curvy roads, past the farmhouses tucked into the bottoms of grassy hills, would probably think everything was hunky-dory. Southern York County has a good public-school system. It’s affordable enough that my parents, then a hotel banquet server and a Meals on Wheels worker, could buy a split-foyer home in town in the 1990s. But the signs of despair are there if you look. On a main road, an ad for a pit beef cookout is plunked down near a sign for a “drug awareness” event. It reads: “Heroin & Prescription Painkillers Don’t Have to Destroy Our Community.”
If you have to say that, they probably already have. The number of deaths from heroin overdoses in York County has more than tripled over the past three years. The suicide rate reached an all-time high in 2014. A few months ago, according to police, a man with a sawed-off shotgun went into my town’s Walmart and demanded four boxes of fentanyl. He was shot in the chest by a state trooper. In 2008, my brother’s best friend Eric — a boy I played countless hours of capture the flag and Donkey Kong with as a kid — guzzled vodka and Vicodin with another teenager and got into a fight with him. By the end of the night, Eric had been strangled, and his lifeless body lay by the side of a road.
As drugs have moved into the area, jobs have moved out. York used to be a place where a high-school graduate could get good-paying work. But since the turn of the century, the number of jobs in York’s manufacturing sector has dropped a stunning 28 percent. The median household income has fallen by 11 percent, to about $58,000.
“The American Dream is dead,” says Kyle Hopkins, also a Trump guy. “The country just keeps slipping into a bigger and bigger deficit. There’s less and less jobs. We don’t export jack and/or shit.”
Hopkins is a tough-talking 26-year-old Iraq War veteran. He was over there when he was just 20. Now he’s a bartender at the Hodle, the kind of place that turns into an impromptu high-school reunion every time you walk in. Whenever I’m there, Hopkins is evangelizing about Trump. I once heard him say, “If you want to see the Devil in a pantsuit, it’s Hillary Clinton.” Today at the bar, he’s wearing a hat emblazoned with the words “Don’t Tread on Me,” and he’s slightly more civil. He says he likes that Trump’s a political outsider. That’s a cliché at this point, but Hopkins’s reasons for saying it are personal. He believes Trump’s outside perspective will “un-fuck” the V.A. “When I got out of the Army, it took me a year to get my post-service medical evaluation done. They lost my medical records twice. When I went for my psychological evaluation, the shrink talked to me for literally maybe 15 seconds and sent me on my way. I think it’s 22 veterans a day who commit suicide. So to just show them through like they’re cattle through a slaughterhouse is pretty ridiculous.”
Joe Carrier, an athletic 48-year-old contractor for the Department of Defense, is on the opposite side of the bar from Hopkins. He’s drinking his last beer for the day as an old Doors tune plays in the background. He tells me he voted for Trump in the primary because “he’s anti-establishment, that’s all.” As in, that’s the only reason. He admits he doesn’t know what a Trump presidency would be like or how its policies might affect him. “The last few elections, I voted for everybody not in office. I’m a Republican, but in this last election I voted for this idiot Democrat governor [Tom Wolf] because he wasn’t in office.”
The anti-establishment fever in York is high. In 2014, Republican Scott Wagner became the first Pennsylvanian ever to win a write-in campaign for a state Senate seat — he was from York, and he ran against a GOP-endorsed politician. People who buck the party in southern York County are so popular that the second biggest vote-getter in the April primary, behind Trump, was Bernie Sanders, even though the area is as conservative as Philadelphia is liberal.
In fact, there’s something about Sanders that many Trump people like. “I’d like to see a Trump-Bernie ticket, so at least no matter what, there will be something different than what we have now,” says Hopkins. “There will be actual change in the country.” Carrier, while insisting he’s “not a socialist,” tells me he likes that Sanders wants “to close the tax loopholes on big businesses.” And Ginny Edwards, frowning, says, “Bernie says exactly how things ought to be, but you just can’t have it that way. There’s no money.”
So when people in York tell me they’re voting for Trump because they have no hope left that career politicians can solve their problems — or because they’ve lost faith in the V.A., or the country’s campaign finance laws, or the criminal justice system — I believe them. They’re deeply frustrated with the way things are, and a vote for a political insurgent is a way to take revenge on the status quo.
I also believe them when they say they think Trump can change their economic path. Thomas Nadolny, a non-union electrician who’s drinking with Carrier, says Trump will “run the country like a business.” Hopkins argues that Trump’s tariff plan, “though it seems a bit extreme,” will begin to reverse America’s decades-long jobs exodus: “Trump is going to make companies think twice before moving overseas. He’s not even president yet, and Ford already agreed to keep their plant in America and not move it to Mexico.” The middle class has shrunk so much that it’s no longer the economic majority; if Edwards’s grandkids follow the path of a typical American without a college degree, they’ll make 50 percent less an hour than the average grad. My old neighbors have been waiting a long time for someone to make the big promises, to tell them they’re going to win so much that they “may get bored with the winning!”
THAT’S PART OF the story. But if Trump’s outsider status was all they cared about, they could have voted for Ben Carson or Ted Cruz. And if all they wanted was for their next president to be a business tycoon or rip up NAFTA, they could have rallied behind Carly Fiorina or Bernie Sanders. There’s something more at play. Many Trump fans in York tell me they feel like the white working class has been ignored by elected officials in favor of virtually every other group, from the rich to the poor to party elites to the media to other nations to Black Lives Matter.
“We drop billions of dollars in aid to other countries and don’t get a thing from it,” says Hopkins. Nadolny agrees: “All the money we’re wasting sending another 250 troops over there to fight ISIS — why? Take that money and put it into education. We don’t take care of our own. We take care of everyone else.” Undocumented immigrants in America clearly don’t fit into Nadolny’s definition of “our own.” He insists, inaccurately, “They’re giving them tax breaks. What about us? Give us tax breaks! Give us something! I’m tired of it.” And as for Black Lives Matter? “Everybody’s lives freaking matter! Why do they have a Black History Month and we don’t have a White History Month?”
Black Lives Matter comes up a lot when I talk to Trump supporters. Sometimes, the racism toward the movement is overt. “Blacks are blacks,” Edwards says. “They’re gonna fight over anything. They’ll fight over what time of day it is. ‘Oh my God, let’s have a riot, it’s four o’clock!’ Look what they did to Baltimore. Tear up the city they live in. Over what?” Like Nadolny, Edwards says she supports Trump because “something’s gotta be done about them [undocumented immigrants] … they’re just everywhere!”
By calling Mexicans “criminals” and “rapists,” by condoning violence against black protesters, by ridiculing Jeb Bush and bashing Megyn Kelly and criticizing free trade, Trump has made the aggrieved voters in my hometown believe he’s their champion. He has made their imagined racial concerns seem as genuine as their real economic woes. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” reckons back to a time when there was industry in the United States and there wasn’t a black president. Those two facts were always twisted together in the minds of some of my old neighbors, but Trump has racheted them even tighter.
He has also given people someone to blame for their problems. Or, to be more precise, he’s given them permission to blame Mexicans and Muslims for their problems. Racism in my town has always been a matter of scapegoating. Shrewsbury is exactly two percent black and 1.8 percent foreign-born, yet when I was growing up, “the blacks” and “the illegals,” and the alleged crime they wrought and job-stealing they did, were a constant topic of conversation. What is a slur yelled against someone nowhere to be found if not scapegoating?
Sandra Thompson, the president of the York NAACP, points out that African-Americans from Maryland have started to move into rural York in recent years. Indeed, as tiny as the black population is in Shrewsbury, it was even smaller when I left town a decade ago. Thompson says integration had started to slowly, slowly erode racist attitudes among some whites in the area. But now Trump’s rise threatens to undo that: “With every bit of change, there are always people who want to hold onto what was. He’s just a magnet for all those people who do not want progress.”
In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander wrote that elites have always relied on “appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole.” Slave owners did this by getting laws passed that required white indentured servants and black slaves to be treated differently. Richard Nixon did it by employing the cynical “Southern strategy.” Now Trump is following in this long tradition by pitting struggling white people against immigrants and Muslims.
After my reporting, a phrase that’s popular among my old neighbors rings differently than it did before: “All lives matter.” I used to only hear it as an oblivious denial of white privilege and a knee-jerk criticism of Black Lives Matter. I still believe it’s those things, but now I think they’re also saying that their lives don’t matter in America — both because they’re working-class and because they’re white. On the former point, who can argue with them? On the latter, they’re dangerously wrong. To create real change — to force politicians to put the 99 percent of Americans above the super-rich and super-connected — my old neighbors must join forces with the people they wrongly see as their enemies. If they continue to align themselves with Trump and other cynical elites, the American Dream they so desperately want back might never be revived.
Published as “Meanwhile, in Trump Country … ” in the July 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.