Donald Trump told them he could turn back time.
It was the one promise people who have spent decades watching their country pass them by – filled with others who don’t look or talk like them, who live in cities they wouldn’t care to venture, doing jobs nothing like the blue-collar ones they used to count on – had been waiting to hear. And the one that traditional politicians, patting them on the head and telling them everything would be okay, just couldn’t or wouldn’t make the way he did.
So it didn’t much matter, to the white working-class voters across the U.S. Rust Belt who paved Mr. Trump’s path to power, that he never explained in credible detail how he would get factories and coal mines reopened, make sure there were enough jobs to go around, get main streets humming again. What mattered was the way he channelled their anger, was willing to blame Mexican migrants and Muslim terrorists and shadowy “globalists” for turning America into something unrecognizable, and every protest from polite society only validated that he was the saviour they had been waiting for.
But the catch with persuading people you’re their messiah is that you have to somehow raise them up. How Mr. Trump attempts to make their America great again, and at who else’s expense, is one of the biggest questions heading into his presidency. And to visit Trumpland right after his stunning win was to sense how hard it will be for him to meet the sky-high expectations he has set for himself with those nostalgic for bygone eras.
There were few better places to gauge such expectations than at “the Trump House,” a tourist attraction of sorts in western Pennsylvania. Painted red, white and blue and featuring a 14-foot statue of the president-elect, it was attracting a steady stream of (uniformly white) visitors from the surrounding area last Wednesday – ecstatic that an enormous margin over Hillary Clinton for Mr. Trump in Westmoreland County, a manufacturing-reliant area that has enjoyed little of the economic renewal of nearby Pittsburgh, helped him become the first Republican to carry Pennsylvania since the 1980s.
Some were grinning ear to ear; others weeping with joy. This was a major turning point for their region, and for taking their country back.
But when asked what they expected Mr. Trump to do once he’s in office, the answers were abstract.
“Make America great again,” replied a 46-year-old construction contractor named Larry, as though it was obvious.
Heather, a 22-year-old hair stylist, said she expected Mr. Trump to restore “backbone” to a country that has become too “sissyish.”
When pressed on what specifically they expected to change, the visitors tended to cite Mr. Trump’s campaign themes of cracking down on immigration, renegotiating trade deals and repealing the Affordable Care Act. But as they expressed hope for the area’s steel and coal production springing back to life, or local small businesses blossoming, they tended to default to Mr. Trump willing it because he’s a smart businessman, he gets them and, most importantly, he’s from outside a Washington establishment – embodied by Ms. Clinton – they believe has consciously reshaped the country away from them.
Nobody epitomized this confidence, and how essential it was to Mr. Trump’s win, better than Diane Flowers, a manager at a McDonald’s down the road. So euphoric that she was apologizing to similarly giddy customers for being unable to concentrate on her job (“I’m walking on air!”), the 60-year-old wife of a former steel worker said she was usually a Democrat and voted for Barack Obama.
But Mr. Trump tapped into her frustration with what she saw as a corrupt political class indifferent to her region’s struggles while it helped out freeloaders – including undocumented immigrants – elsewhere.
As for what she expected from Mr. Trump now: “I believe he’s going to get the jobs back,” because “when he says something, he sticks with it.”
What he said, in this case, seemed to be more the end than the means.
To those who have recently examined socioeconomic, cultural and political trends with the white working class, the faith in the president-elect has little to do with specific policies.
“He’s a black box, and that’s the risk people were willing to take,” says Justin Gest, author of The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality, “which tells you about the exasperation.”
While calling Mr. Trump “an embodiment of their fury with Washington,” Mr. Gest acknowledged he might soon face the same danger as establishment politicians he spent so much time maligning. If people in places like Westmoreland County don’t witness visible signs in their communities of economic recovery they’ve been waiting on during about 40 years of decline – and as the Obama era has demonstrated, broadly positive national or state-level economic numbers don’t count, when driven by more prosperous communities people here don’t see – Mr. Trump could start to look like just another politician who made promises he couldn’t keep.
Even starting from the premise his vague promise to renegotiate free-trade deals and impose new tariffs could help keep jobs in the Rust Belt, which many economists dispute, it wouldn’t address the bigger reason behind jobs drying up: automation that dramatically reduces the need for human labour. Nor would it bring back long-gone industries, such as coal.
Mr. Trump has displayed little discernible interest in skills training to prepare workers for more advanced industries, the slow-but-steady approach favoured by policy wonks but greeted with skepticism by those impatient for quick change. And as he has pledged to improbably rebuild around traditional manufacturing, he has given little apparent thought to how more modern employers might be lured to places in dire need of work.
Where he may be able to make some tangible short-term difference is with a campaign promise nobody around here seemed to be talking about – a massive (if unspecific) national infrastructure investment, of the sort Mr. Obama was unable to get through a Republican Congress.
On the social side, he spoke during the Republican primaries about stepping up the fight against the opioid crisis wreaking havoc on smaller communities, although he would have to develop that into something more sophisticated than rhetoric about stopping drugs at the border. And he was consistent on improving benefits for military veterans, who can be found in large numbers in places like this.
But there has also been speculation that lacking his own fleshed-out policies, Mr. Trump will effectively adopt congressional Republicans’ budgetary plans, which would probably not involve much infrastructure or social investment, focusing instead on program cuts and tax cuts.
If so, he may wind up taking to new heights a game more traditional conservative politicians fishing for white working-class votes have long played, by substituting culture wars for economic improvements to day-to-day lives.
There is an early, easy win ahead for him on that front: the appointment of a new Supreme Court justice to break the current deadlock, which will buy goodwill among gun enthusiasts (a good number of whom self-identified outside the Trump House) worried about Second Amendment rights, and evangelicals looking for proof he stands against abortion.
And then, of course, there are the racial politics – the harkening back to eras of white cultural supremacy that was often inseparable from the economic nostalgia he has peddled – which could allow him to score points by pushing other demographics down in lieu of pulling this one up.
Talking to his supporters about their hopes the day after the election, there was a common conversational pattern: They would volunteer that they’re not racist, as a preamble to complaining that illegal immigrants are sucking up government dollars, or police need to be protected from Black Lives Matter.
Mr. Trump had no qualms about playing to those sentiments during the campaign, not to mention fears of Muslims. And the more he needs to draw attention from local struggles, the more he could target scapegoats.
His campaign offered another, related hint, too, of how he might respond to difficulty delivering on expectations: by complaining he faces systemic opposition, from nefarious “special interests” or government institutions or media.
It may be that he won’t need to point fingers at all – that achieving one or two concrete things could be enough to satisfy, if not thrill, his base. Robert Jones, who as CEO of the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute has devoted ample attention to attitudes of small-town white voters, pointed out that Mr. Obama was able to win Rust Belt states in 2012 largely on the strength of his bailout of the auto industry; perhaps the opportunity will present itself for Mr. Trump to deliver something comparable.
Or maybe Mr. Trump has raised the bar to the point where that’s not enough. What he promised, campaigning as the last, best hope for the America of their nostalgia, cannot easily be rescinded. Keeping the faith may depend on persuading them he’s truly rolling back the clock, one way or another.Report Typo/Error