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U.S. POLITICS

A road trip through the Donald Trump heartland

Ian Brown drives through a loop of the rust belt responsible for electing Donald Trump. While Mr. Trump's inauguration will be marked as a triumph, the people who voted for him are more nervous about the future

The drive from Toronto to Washington is a graveyard of former prosperities.

You begin in the streets of Buffalo (population down 21 per cent in the past two decades, leaving a mere quarter of a million people echoing through the vast structure of a bigger city). Then you run down through abandoned upstate New York and ramshackle Pennsylvania and heroin-laced Maryland to freshly scrubbed Washington, where Donald Trump, billionaire, is being inaugurated this morning as the 45th president of the United States.

There are endless ways to get from Toronto to D.C. The route can pass through Johnsonburg, Pa., where three-bedroom houses go for $18,500; through Clearfield, voted one of the 10 best towns in America in 1966, where the Hillary for Prison stickers have been plastered above the Bush Cheney stickers still on lampposts; past Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, where lobbying was invented (over a tariff issue, no less) before the population dropped in half to 50,000 people today; via Bethlehem, once home to Mack Truck and Bethlehem Steel, now a tourist-drawing museum of industrial history, past struggling Allentown.

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Driving to Donald Trump's new hometown through the rust belt is like walking through a house instantly abandoned by its owners because a murder took place in one of its rooms. You see factories suspended decades ago, still mid-job. Wooden houses peel apart shingle by shingle and board by board, resembling feathery drunks doing their best not to fall over.

Donald Trump, a real estate developer, has promised to reverse these setbacks and make even this America great again, raising tariffs and slashing taxes and cutting deals and thereby reinvigorating U.S. manufacturing. But the rusting-out he is taking on has been corroding for at least 40 and as many as 70 years.

And yet Mr. Trump has the residents of the rust belt to thank for his victory, for pushing him over the top electorally and making him president at a crucial juncture not just in their region's history, but in the history of the no longer quite so manifest American destiny.

Maybe he'll be grateful and give them a reward. I thought it would be interesting to drive to Washington through the very territory responsible for putting him in power. I wanted to know what kind of people vote for a question mark like Donald Trump.

The Trumps and their fellow Republicans in Washington are giving the inauguration the full triumphal treatment: With the inauguration price pushing $100-million, you'd think the election had been a landslide. But the people who actually voted for him are subtler, and considerably more nervous about the unknown prospect before them.


'He's a businessman, he's not a politician'

Paul, Dave and Tony sit in a booth at the Greasy Spoon, more formally known as the Plaza Restaurant, in Salamanca, N.Y. This county swung Trump in the election, as did nearly all of Pennsylvania and New York beyond the cities.

The population hereabouts is 98-per-cent white, and overwhelmingly working class – median family income $30,996, 22 per cent of everyone below the poverty line. There are hard cases, and then some.

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Paul, Dave and Tony are all past 50. Their candidate won, but like a lot of Trump voters they don't want their last names used: They're happy to belong to a movement, but shy from one-on-one confrontation. Paul and Dave are wearing Make America Great Again caps: Tony forgot his, but remembered his concealed-carry pistol. He has 17 pistols in all. Outside, the Allegheny River is flooding at a 10-year record high; inside, they are defending a president-elect who once claimed global warming was a Chinese hoax.

They worry more about the here and now. "The politicians have gotten away from the working class," Tony says. The Democratic Party is no longer their ally. "It was great to see in this election that the working class could still get up and give it to them."

They find Mr. Trump coarse, "but he's a businessman, he's not a politician," Tony says.

"Yeah," Paul says.

"The founding fathers, they weren't politicians, they were businessmen."

"Right," Dave says.

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From here, it's an easy hop to taking care of your own veterans before you take care of immigrants. "These are the people who are going to compete with our non-college-graduate kids."

The fact that a majority of the non-urban working class in post-industrial America voted for a flashy billionaire because they believe he will protect them financially suggests that the Democratic Party should have gone with Bernie Sanders as their candidate. If Mr. Trump doesn't come through, and turns out to be a protector of plutocrats, he will end up facing Tony, Paul and Dave.

Josh Kahle, Sportsman’s Outlet, Bradford PA


'An election puts the gun world in a tizzy'

The secret issue that drove a lot of the rural rust belt to vote for Mr. Trump was the semi-automatic shotgun. Because of restrictions introduced during the Obama years, it is almost impossible now in New York State to buy an AR-15, an Armalite "black gun" semi-automatic rifle with a detachable clip. Locals figure semi-automatic shotguns, which are good for hunting anything that flies, will be next. A vote for Donald Trump is a vote to keep your gun.

You can still buy an AR-15 across the border at the Sportsman's Outlet, in Bradford, Pa. You can pick up a long gun or a pistol from Josh Kahle, the store's gun manager, after a 10-minute background check, as long as you plan to carry them openly. If you plan to conceal the pistol on your person, you need a permit from the sheriff's office. You can get that the same day.

You can buy a gun only for yourself. Beyond that, the background check consists of 17 questions you must be able to answer no to, including "Are you under indictment or information in any court for a felony, or any other crime, for which the judge could imprison you for more than one year?" and "Are you an alien illegally in the United States?"

The AR-15 costs $700. It's as light as a toy, which is breathtaking and unsettling: AR-15-style rifles were used in Newtown, Orlando, Aurora, San Bernardino. Mr. Kahle checks the chamber to make sure it's empty every time he hands you any gun, even if he has checked it only moments before. He'll show you a semi-automatic Beretta shotgun for $2,000, or a Rock Island revolver, a heavy snub-nose, for $300. It's harder to shoot. That's not important in a concealed pistol, of course: As Mr. Kahle says, "conceal-carry, you're going to be within 10 feet" of your target. For target practice, you might prefer the Glock (9 mm, 15 rounds, $630, the gun preferred by 90 per cent of police officers), which is "much easier to shoot."

Mr. Kahle – friendly, open guy, helpful, camo vest, green bandana over a palm-tree mass of frizzy hair – is happy the election's over. "An election puts the gun world in a tizzy." People stocked up on ammo throughout the campaign, fearing a Clinton win and further restrictions. Eighty per cent of Bradford hunts, by Mr. Kahle's estimate. Thirty-four per cent of Pennsylvanians own a gun. Roughly one in 12 people have a permit for a concealed weapon.

The gun shop, incidentally, is just down the road from the Zippo lighter factory and museum, the town's largest employer. The Bradford Regional Medical Center, its No. 2 job maker, offers work to 800. This is the economy Mr. Trump says he will revive.

Jack Williams, Limestone NY


'You can cling to your past or your future'

People love to live here anyway, are born and stay here their whole lives. The morning I met Jack Williams, he was gassing up his 4-by-4 vehicle – a powerfully souped-up golf cart-like buggy painted in camo – in preparation for a drive into the snowy woods with 20 pals. It was 3 below zero, Fahrenheit. They like to roll some dice, have a beer, then drive to another spot and roll dice again. Mr. Williams works at GE, belongs to the machinists' union. The slogan of the company that makes his 4-by-4 is "Attack every day."

Donny Hockman, Wilson Fire Dept, Wilson PA

Donny Hockman, a firefighter in the borough of Wilson, near Bethlehem, proudly voted for Mr. Trump. So did his wife. He hopes the new president will restore the regard in which blue-collar jobs were once held. "I think we have brainwashed all the young Americans that you have to have a college degree," he said in the fire station. "I don't have a college degree, and I do pretty well for myself." His full-time firefighting job, plus part-time work as a driver and as an electrician, nets him "well below $100,000" a year, but it's his children he worries about. His son doesn't want to do manual labour.

"We gotta put people back to work," he said. Wasn't unemployment already down under Barack Obama? "So they say," Mr. Hockman nodded. "That's what they tell us." He stopped talking, and shook his head, and smiled. "Five years from now, I could be eating crow and saying, you know what, that was the biggest mistake of my life. But hopefully I'm not wrong." We have to wait and see is a sentence you hear all the way to Washington.

Pam Gehringer, Yocco’s The Hot Dog King, Bethlehem, PA

The rust-belters who voted for Hillary Clinton are surprisingly gracious losers. Pam Gehringer, in line at Yocco's (the Hot Dog King) in suburban Allentown – she's the comptroller of the company, and still eats there once a week – thinks Mr. Trump is a shrewd but impulsive narcissist with a few good ideas (renegotiating elder-care drug prices with big pharmaceutical companies) whose intention to revitalize the economy is as unnecessary ("It's been revitalized. Do you know what happened here? It was terrible. Obama saved it!") as his incivility. But "I do wish him the best. Because you wish the country the best. We all want the same thing: work and a good wage."

"You can cling to your past or your future." Srinivas Tadigadapa, a professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State University in State College, Pa., said this to me one evening in a hotel bar. Dr. Tadigadapa specializes in artificially intelligent robots, and thinks Mr. Trump's championing of coal, his resurrection of Roe v. Wade and his suspicion of climate change are deeply regressive.

"When I was 18 or 20, I lived in India, in a country that was mired in religion and all that crap. England and Europe and America looked liberated. I left my country because I chose to leave, because that society could not accommodate my thinking. And then I came here, and I thought, 'This is the same shit I ran away from.' And so then you think: Is this just human? Can you never actually escape it?" In Rustland, where everyone harks to what used to be, it's a question that is seldom asked. "I just hope he can stop being a candidate and a reality star," Dr. Tadigadapa sighed, "and be presidential."


Visiting 'the heroin capital of the East coast'

I started to hear Spanish and see African-Americans in Harrisburg, Pa. By Baltimore, my whiteness put me in the minority. In a café in the city's chic inner harbour, a plainclothes Baltimore cop warned me not to go to go above the 2500 block on Greenmount and not go to Lexington market, one of the oldest food markets in the United States but also a hub of "the heroin capital of the East coast." Baltimore – the city that was racked with protests and riots over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray – has the fifth-highest per capita murder rate in the United States.

I went anyway. Nothing untoward happened. Recovering rust belt cities are like that: not safe here, but safe here and here and here, especially before 10 p.m. In the Charles Village neighbourhood, 100 yards from a corner the policeman claimed was one of the worst in the city, Woody Ranere and his wife, Jessica, happily raise their three-year-old daughter in the company of like-minded neighbours. Their house has never been robbed. "It's really discouraging to hear a cop said that," Mr. Ranere said. But that was the rhetoric of fear that helped sway the quaint fears of the rust belt.

What I keep remembering was the afternoon I watched a bunch of African-American teenagers playing basketball outside in a park on Allentown's north side. It was cold, below zero, but it was Martin Luther King Day, and nothing was open.

Victoria, Allentown PA

One of the boys, Gregg, a tall 15-year-old who had just moved to Allentown from Jersey City because his father had found a new job as a security officer, was practising three-pointers when the other teenagers joined him. Their names were Dayshawn, Victoria, Desiree, Odarious and Maya, and they wanted to grow up to be an underwater welder, an electrical engineer, a military doctor, a businessman and a cosmetologist, in that order. Someone had spray-painted WE OUT HERE in black letters on the metal benches beside the court. The metal was cold, but I could have watched them for hours, leaping and hoping. No one knows whether they are part of Mr. Trump's plan to make America great, again or otherwise, which is perhaps a reason fewer than one in 10 black votes went his way. But they live here too, in the slowly dying stretch of America that longs to live again. By the time Mr. Trump seeks re-election, they'll be able to vote.

Ryan Gettleman, visiting Washington from Los Angeles


'I hope he doesn't let us down'

As soon as I arrived in Washington, I walked over to the Lincoln Memorial.

Vaughn Lower, a young man from San Diego, was there in a Trump hat. He was reading Lincoln's second inaugural speech etched in the memorial's south wall, the longer address in which Lincoln admits the fate of men is sometimes beyond even their best efforts. Mr. Lower is 28, and a waiter.

You must have been lonely, supporting Mr. Trump in San Diego, I said.

"Very," he said. "Lost friends." But Mr. Trump's stated desire to "kick butt for America" made Mr. Lower's isolation worth it. Still, he said, "it's kind of nerve-racking supporting someone with complete faith. I hope he doesn't let us down." As Mr. Lower spoke, a man walked by and said, "It's all a fix."

His name was Ryan Gettleman, from Thousand Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles. He's 29, and valets cars for a living. He had driven across the country in 10 days to witness the inauguration of "the next president to be impeached."

He disliked Mr. Trump as much as Mr. Lower loved him, though he wasn't that keen on Ms. Clinton either, having been a Sanders supporter. He figured Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton were equally out of touch. "She hasn't driven her own car in 30 years," he said. He seemed to be bursting with mental energy, as if his proximity to history was about to make him explode. But the campaign had discouraged him. "In my lifetime," he said, "I've never seen a more divided country. And then there was the hate coming out of both sides."

That was why he liked the Lincoln monument, with its references to the Civil War. "As divided as we are, they were more divided."

I asked Mr. Lower and Mr. Gettleman to pose together for a photograph in front of the statue of the first man to unite a divided America. I wanted to see whether they could stand each other. They were sniping at each other.

"I find Make America Great Again kind of insulting, because it implies it isn't already great."

"It's just better than Make America Greater Than It Already Is."

Mr. Lower wanted Mr. Gettleman to sign his inauguration book anyway. "I think my views are changing," he grinned, arm around Mr. Gettleman, "even standing here."

What they have in common, of course, is that they are both struggling but intelligent members of the same class – the class Mr. Trump has promised to lift up and make great (again). If the new president can do that in a global economy whose eight richest billionaires are worth as much, financially, as the entire bottom half of humanity, he might finally get the respect his followers believe he deserves.

What no one of his supporters in the rust belt knows, what he refuses to reveal so far, is whether he cares to.

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