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How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America
By Ben Bradlee
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Named one of the “juiciest political books to come in 2018” by Entertainment Weekly.
In The Forgotten, Ben Bradlee Jr. reports on how voters in Luzerne County, a pivotal county in a crucial swing state, came to feel like strangers in their own land – marginalized by flat or falling wages, rapid demographic change, and a liberal culture that mocks their faith and patriotism.
Fundamentally rural and struggling with changing demographics and limited opportunity, Luzerne County can be seen as a microcosm of the nation. In The Forgotten, Trump voters speak for themselves, explaining how they felt others were ‘cutting in line’ and that the federal government was taking too much money from the employed and giving it to the idle. The loss of breadwinner status, and more importantly, the loss of dignity, primed them for a candidate like Donald Trump.
The political facts of a divided America are stark, but the stories of the men, women and families in The Forgotten offer a kaleidoscopic and fascinating portrait of the complex on-the-ground political reality of America today.
LIKE MANY OTHERS, I was captivated by the improbable political rise of Donald J. Trump and then, even more improbably, by his election as president of the United States.
Here was the best political story in generations: a crude, louche real estate magnate and reality TV star burst on the political scene and dared to say outrageous things that would have meant the end for any other candidate. But Trump, incredibly, seemed to gain strength with each scandalous affront: during his 2015 announcement speech, he accused Mexico of sending “rapists” to America; he shamelessly led the charge in questioning President Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship; just weeks before the election, he weathered the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which he boasted in a 2005 secret recording of using his celebrity as license to randomly kiss and grope women; and during the campaign, he fended off charges from eighteen named women that he sexually assaulted or harassed them over the years.
There were other scandales, but none of them seemed to hurt him or matter much. As Trump himself famously said during the campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s, like, incredible!”
Trump steamrolled over his sixteen Republican primary opponents, assigning many of them cruel and demeaning nicknames as he warmed up to face “Crooked Hillary” Clinton in the general election. He was not afraid to touch, even linger on, political third rails like misogyny, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and race—or to press his signature issue linked to race: rolling back illegal immigration. His shrewd slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was a nostalgic paean to a simpler, whiter time in America, when the pace of social change produced little angst. It was a time when what can be seen today as tribalism based on politically incorrect notions of who is and is not an American could thrive unabated.
The Trump story was so rich on so many levels that for a writer, the main problem was where to begin a book—what approach to take.
The overriding questions seemed to be who, exactly, voted for Trump, and why? I began to look more closely at the three Rust Belt swing states where the election had been decided: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Surprisingly, Trump won those three states by a total of 77,689 votes out of the more than thirteen million cast. If Hillary Clinton had won them, she would have become president.
The three states are overwhelmingly white and had been historically Democratic. Neither Pennsylvania nor Michigan had voted for a Republican for president since 1988—and Wisconsin not since 1984.
But it was Pennsylvania that was the most important of the three because it had the most electoral votes—twenty—and because Clinton, who had family ties to the state, had put it firmly in her column and considered it perhaps her most critical fire wall.
A closer examination of the Pennsylvania vote revealed that Trump won largely on the strength of his showing in the northeast part of the state, and it was one county—Luzerne—that led the way. Trump routed Clinton there by 26,237 votes—a margin of nearly twenty points. His victory represented an abrupt shift in political sentiment, given that President Obama won the traditionally Democratic county by eight percentage points in 2008 and by five points in 2012.
Since Luzerne—home to economically depressed Wilkes-Barre, near Scranton—provided Trump with nearly 60 percent of his winning margin in the state, it is not a stretch to say that this single county won Trump Pennsylvania—and perhaps the presidency, to the extent that the state’s demographics and voting patterns were similar to Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s.
My curiosity piqued, I decided to visit Luzerne and talk to a range of Trump voters about the choices they made. I wanted to see if the county might be a prism through which to explore the underlying reasons for one of the most shocking election results in political history.
I made my first visit on December 6, 2016, less than a month after the election, and over the next fourteen months I would make four more trips lasting up to a week at a time. Initially, I did what reporters do: read as much as I could about the place to absorb its historical background, learned who the leading public officials and community leaders were so I could use them as guideposts, and then plunged in.
During that first visit, people were friendly and welcoming—willing to talk to an outsider, to offer insights about Luzerne County, and to provide the names of Trump voters that I should talk to. I talked to the editor of the Times Leader, one of Wilkes-Barre’s two daily newspapers, and to his lead political reporter; four of Luzerne’s representatives in the state legislature; a Wilkes-Barre city councilman and local historian; and a leading radio talk show host known for having her finger on the county’s political pulse.
These people and others helped lead me to a range of Trump voters across Luzerne who seemed to represent a solid cross section of the president’s constituency. After interviewing nearly a hundred people over the time that I was in the county, I decided to tell the stories of a dozen in depth—people who I thought collectively revealed much about Trump’s appeal, or who represented key portions of his following. To be sure, there was no scientific basis for choosing those I decided to feature. Mostly it was my subjective judgment about the degree to which they served as Trump voter exemplars, as well as the strength of their stories and how they told them.
Each one of these people is different, but their lives share common themes. They have a contempt for Washington and the powers that be, who they feel have mostly abandoned them and left them marginalized by flat or falling wages, rapid demographic change, and a dominant liberal culture that mocks their faith and patriotism. They feel like everyone’s punching bag, and that their way of life is dying. They sense a loss of dignity and stature. They feel as though others are cutting in line, and that government is taking too much money from the employed and giving it to the able-bodied idle. They feel that government regulations have become strangling to small and large businesses, and that the country is in danger of being inundated by immigrants—legal and illegal.
A recent surge in the Hispanic population of Luzerne County made Trump’s raw immigration pitch relevant and attractive to many voters. For them, the new arrivals sparked not just a yearning for a whiter yesteryear, but an inclination—implicitly encouraged by Trump—to make clear that they preferred to be among their own race and social group. They felt that the place they had lived their whole lives was changing in ways they didn’t like or fully understand.
These fears had long been harbored yet usually went unmentioned. But Trump connected strongly to his aggrieved constituency, especially when he called them “the forgotten people.” That struck a chord, and then the floodgates seemed to open to him. Trump was able to activate, own, and even weaponize the resentments that Luzerne residents had over issues that were long-standing and hard to solve, if not intractable.
The phrase “the forgotten” implied that there were winners and losers. While other parts of the country have thrived in recent years under globalization and the dizzying pace of technological change, Trump voters in Luzerne and many similar places throughout the land felt dealt out of the prosperity pie, left behind, and generally unacknowledged and unappreciated. They felt relegated to the sidelines, as if their stories didn’t matter.
And by whom did they feel forgotten? By the government and the two major political parties. Less discussed was the extent to which those three institutions might have been relatively easy scapegoats, and how much the forgotten’s own personal decisions may have contributed to their frustrations in life.
So who, actually, are the people of Luzerne County who played such a pivotal role in Trump’s winning Pennsylvania and thus the presidency? There is value in listening to their stories, in considering the ground truths of their daily lives, in understanding what drives them and why they voted the way they did.
They are The Congressman. In 2006, Lou Barletta, as the mayor of Hazleton, Luzerne County’s second largest city, started a fierce debate about illegal immigration that played itself out nationally and served as a precursor to Trump’s candidacy based on the same issue ten years later. Now a congressman representing Luzerne who this year is running for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Bob Casey, Barletta was cochair of Trump’s Pennsylvania campaign and played a key role in Trump’s winning the state.
They are Trump Men like Vito DeLuca, a self-described Reagan Democrat and lawyer in Luzerne County; Marty Beccone, a registered Independent who owns a bar and restaurant in Hazleton; Ed Harry, a former labor organizer and lifelong Democrat who defied his Clinton-endorsing union leadership when he announced that he was supporting Trump; and Brian Langan, newly retired after working as a detective with the Pennsylvania State Police for more than twenty-five years.
They are Trump Women like Lynette Villano, a widow and clerk for a wastewater treatment plant who was enamored with Donald Trump from day one; Donna Kowalczyk, who owns a Wilkes-Barre hair salon and fights to save the street where she lives from further blight and decay; Kim Woodrosky—born into a family of Democrats, her father a teamster and her mother a line worker in a textile mill—who became a successful real estate investor; and Tiffany Cloud, a politically active housewife and former advertising executive who’s married to an ex–Army Special Operations officer who did three tours of combat duty.
They are The Veteran. Vets like Tiffany’s husband, Erik Olson—who did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan—voted for Trump over Clinton by a margin of two to one nationally. Erik never considered Hillary Clinton an option and warmed to Trump gradually. He was turned off by some of his rhetorical excesses but liked his strong leadership and his vision for the country. The gauzy memories evoked by Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan appealed to Olson too.
They are The White Nationalist. Steve Smith, a strapping truck driver from Pittston, heads the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton chapter of Keystone United, a Pennsylvania “white rights” group. An avowed white supremacist, Smith received national attention in 2012 when he was elected as a write-in to the Luzerne County Republican Committee, and then got reelected by sixty-nine votes in 2016, thereby vaulting from the white extremist underground into the local political mainstream. In an era of identity politics, the phrase “white identity” has become more acceptable during the presidency of Donald Trump. Smith finds Pennsylvania—which now has the fifth highest number of hate groups in the country, along with a KKK presence in Wilkes-Barre—hospitable to his goal of getting whites to assert themselves more aggressively as America’s minority population increases. And he is thrilled by the election of Trump, who he says has been a godsend for the white nationalist message.
They are The Christian. Though Luzerne is predominantly Catholic, there is a significant and growing evangelical community. Nationwide, evangelicals went 80 percent for Trump in the election and made up nearly half of his total vote. One of Trump’s most ardent Christian followers is Jessica Harker, a registered nurse who works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Wilkes-Barre. She calls herself “on fire” for the Lord, and freely mixes in scripture as she speaks while not shying away from saltier, earthly language. She believes that God chose Trump to be president.
All these people are white, as Trump’s voters overwhelmingly were. And they are older than forty-five—again, as were most of Trump’s voters.
And finally, there are The Democrats—minorities and white liberals left behind to navigate an uneasy coexistence with still-euphoric Trump supporters, who well recognize the key role they played in delivering Pennsylvania to the president, and who sometimes still can’t resist spiking the football about it.
With much of the country still stunned that a candidate as unusual as Trump got elected president, The Forgotten uses Luzerne County as a way to more closely examine the white working and middle class that served as the backbone of Trump’s support throughout the United States. These detailed portraits of a group of disillusioned voters, writ large, tell much of the story of the 2016 election, and offer important lessons—both for the upcoming midterm elections, which will largely be a referendum on the Trump presidency to date, and for the future of the country.
Ben Bradlee Jr., July 2, 2018
SINCE MIDSUMMER OF 2016, it looked as though Pennsylvania might be the tipping point in the presidential election, because it personified the economic pain changing the politics of the older industrial states.
Trump’s unconventional candidacy was premised in large part on his ability to persuade blue-collar and white working-class Democrats to cross over to the Republican Party. He made opposition to immigration, globalization, and what he believed were poorly negotiated trade deals a central argument in his campaign. People concerned about the economic deterioration of Pennsylvania, and particularly places like Luzerne County, were ripe for Trump. A swing, bellwether county, Luzerne has almost perfectly matched the rest of Pennsylvania’s vote in every presidential election since 2000.
Luzerne seemed especially open to Trump’s nationalist, economic message: he had won a whopping 77 percent of the county’s vote (and 57 percent statewide) in Pennsylvania’s April Republican primary, swamping his remaining opponents, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Ohio governor John Kasich.
The day before the primary, Trump attracted an overflow crowd of some twelve thousand people to Mohegan Sun Arena, outside Wilkes-Barre. The rally was a revelation of sorts for many local residents—some of whom had been embarrassed to express their public support for the turbulent and contentious candidate. Now folks attending the rally could see Trump’s hidden vote start to come out of the closet, and they could witness firsthand how many of their friends and neighbors really felt about him: they seemed smitten.
On October 10, one month before the election, Trump returned to the same arena for another jam-packed rally, this one even more raucous and filled with energy. The crowd was more economically diverse than the one in April: it was still primarily blue-collar, but with plenty of middle-class and some upper-middle-class residents represented as well. One VIP took note: Vice President Joe Biden, who had been raised twenty miles north, in Scranton, had drawn a fraction of Trump’s crowds while campaigning in the area for Clinton. When Biden saw video clips of the Wilkes-Barre rally showing how the crowd was responding to Trump, he later told the Los Angeles Times that he said to himself, “Son of a gun. We may lose this election.”
And they did.
Luzerne County has about 320,000 people and spans 907 square miles—big enough to squeeze in the entire state of Rhode Island. Interstates 80 and 81 intersect in the county, and Philadelphia and New York City are each about a two-hour drive away. Though a mix of urban and rural, Luzerne is covered by parts of the Appalachian mountain range and is on the whole more rural in character. While there are pockets of well-heeled suburbia, Luzerne is less Northeast Corridor than Appalachia.
Like many other counties in the industrial North and Midwest, Luzerne has been in economic distress for decades due to the demise of the coal industry that was once its anchor, and also due to the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs that replaced coal. As a result, the social fabric has been frayed by a high unemployment rate and low-wage jobs, crime, and a surging opioid epidemic. In addition, new and added tensions have been created by a spike in immigration, mostly by Hispanics. Eighty-three percent of the population remains white, 11 percent is Hispanic, and 5 percent is black.
The county has been a Democratic stronghold since the 1960s, with its working-class, union-affiliated population. It hadn’t voted for a Republican president since 1988, but there had been signs that the days of Democratic domination were coming to an end. Luzerne now lines up more closely with the demographic profile of Western Pennsylvania: older, whiter voters who have seen good-paying jobs disappear and not return.
Trump’s winning majority in Luzerne exceeded President Obama’s thirty-thousand-vote swing from 2012, when he won the county by five thousand votes. Obama also won Luzerne in 2008. But many Democrats who supported Obama twice decided to make the leap to a much different kind of candidate in Trump.
“Obama had hope and change, Trump had knock-down-the-door and change,” says John Yudichak, a Democrat who represents Luzerne County in the Pennsylvania state senate. Yudichak says he went to Trump’s April rally in Wilkes-Barre and asked a union prison guard why he was with Trump.
“The man replied, ‘Donald Trump makes me feel good about myself and who I am. Hillary makes me apologize if I want to hunt and don’t have a college education.’” Yudichak adds that 85 percent of his district consists of “uneducated white voters,” meaning those who have not gone to college. “I would hear TV pundits use that phrase all the time. That was attacking the dignity of people that go to work every day,” Yudichak says. “People felt left behind and felt the deck was stacked against them. When Trump used the word ‘rigged,’ that resonated.”
The campaign of Donald Trump exposed a gulf of culture and class that fell largely on rural-versus-urban fault lines. The election results can mostly be seen as the revenge of the rural voter. The rural poor, the working class, and the middle class felt largely ignored and condescended to by the Democratic Party, and Trump galvanized those voters’ long-simmering frustrations. Electing Trump was a rebuke of globalization and the unseen ruling classes and elites who had changed his voters’ lives without their consent.
The final 2016 presidential election results, county by county, look like a landslide for Trump.
The people who live in the vast middle of the United States have felt largely neglected. The election was less about the cities than it was about the individual counties across the nation: self-governing units with their own police, firemen, school systems, and municipal services. Many counties have urban centers, but most, like Luzerne, are rural in character, and some can serve as a microcosm of America.
While much of the red-blue divide can be linked to festering cultural differences and antagonisms, there was an economic split as well. A postelection Brookings Institution analysis found that the 493 counties that Hillary Clinton won were in heavily metropolitan areas that generate 64 percent of America’s economic activity, as measured by total output in 2015. By contrast, the 2,584 counties that Trump won, in rural and exurban parts of the country, produce just 36 percent of the country’s output. So another way to look at the election is as a reflection of the chasm that exists between what Brookings called high-output and low-output America.
After the election, much the same way that Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees in the wild, social scientists and out-of-touch Democrats launched anthropologic-like surveys on the white working class. Clinton had largely ignored this key group during the campaign, instead trying to replicate the Obama coalition of minorities, millennials, suburban women, and the white, college-educated professional class. Some of the motivating factors behind Trump’s appeal could be found in an anonymous, postelection email circulating among his voters in Luzerne County and elsewhere; its candid sentiments amounted to a Trump voters’ creed.
I haven’t said too much about this election since the start…but this is how I feel…I’m noticing that a lot of you aren’t graciously accepting the fact that your candidate lost. In fact, you seem to be posting even more hateful things about those of us who voted for Trump. Some of you are apparently “triggered” because you are posting how “sick” you feel about the results. How did this happen, you ask?
You created “us” when you attacked our freedom of speech. You created “us” when you attacked our right to bear arms. You created “us” when you attacked our Christian beliefs. You created “us” when you constantly referred to us as racists. You created “us” when you constantly called us xenophobic. You created “us” when you told us to get on board or get out of the way. You created “us” when you attacked our flag. You created “us” when you took God out of our schools. You created “us” when you confused women’s rights with feminism. You created “us” when you began to emasculate men. You created “us” when you decided to make our children soft. You created “us” when you decided to vote for progressive ideals. You created “us” when you attacked our way of life. You created “us” when you decided to let our government get out of control. You created “us,” the silent majority. You created “us” when you began murdering innocent law enforcement officers. You created “us” when you lied and said we could keep our insurance plans and our doctors. You created “us” when you allowed our jobs to continue to leave our country. You created “us” when you took a knee, or stayed seated or didn’t remove your hat during our national anthem. You created “us” when you forced us to buy health care and then financially penalized us for not participating.
And we became fed up and we pushed back and spoke up. And we did it with ballots, not bullets. With ballots, not riots. With ballots, not looting.
With ballots, not blocking traffic. With ballots, not fires, except the one you started inside of “us.”
YOU created “US.” It really is just that simple.
Perhaps the most telling revelations to emerge from exit poll interviews of people who cast ballots in the 2016 election were the defection of millions of white working-class voters—almost one in four—who had voted for Obama in 2012 but jumped to Trump in 2016, and Trump’s dominance of the white vote generally, especially among whites who did not go to college. Trump won white voters, who made up 69 percent of the electorate, by twenty-one points, fifty-eight to thirty-seven, one point higher than Mitt Romney’s fifty-nine to thirty-nine margin in 2012. White men voted 63 percent for Trump and 31 percent for Clinton, while Trump also carried white women, fifty-three to forty-three. Among white women without college degrees, Trump beat Clinton by twenty-eight points. In total, women supported Clinton over Trump fifty-four to forty-two, the same twelve-point margin by which Trump defeated Clinton among men. Given the disparaging comments Trump had made about women, as well as the sexual assault or harassment allegations made against him by eighteen women during the campaign,1 many had predicted there would be a surge of new women voters going to the polls to vote against him. But nothing of the sort materialized: women made up 52 percent of the overall vote in 2016, down a point from 53 percent in 2012.
There was a wide gap in presidential preferences between those with a college degree and those without. College grads backed Clinton, fifty-two to forty-three, while non-college-educated voters supported Trump, fifty-two to forty-four. But among whites without a college degree, Trump’s margin was the largest recorded in exit polls since 1980. Trump overwhelmed Clinton among voters in this category by thirty-nine points, sixty-seven to twenty-eight. Trump also won whites with a college degree, but by only four points, forty-nine to forty-five.
It was a change election. Among the 39 percent of voters who said that supporting a candidate who could “bring needed change” was their top priority, 83 percent chose Trump and 14 percent opted for Clinton. The change impulse was so compelling it apparently overrode concerns about Trump personally. Only 38 percent of voters had a favorable view of him, 35 percent said he had the temperament to serve effectively as president, 38 percent said he was qualified, while just a third called him “honest and trustworthy.”2
Digging deeper into the Trump vote, the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, conducted a postelection survey of eight thousand voters in partnership with the market research firm YouGov. The results suggested that there were five types of Trump voters. The two most statistically significant constituencies were what the study called American Preservationists, representing 20 percent of the total, and Anti-Elites, at 19 percent.
- On Sale
- Oct 2, 2018
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown and Company