Donald Trump won the U.S. election by breaking down Hillary Clinton’s “blue wall,” the handful of Rust Belt states that were considered reliably Democratic but switched over to the Republicans this time.
In the days leading up to his inauguration, many of the folks in the region who spoke with CBC News were eyeing Trump suspiciously. Just because they voted for him doesn’t mean they trust him.
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area of northeastern Pennsylvania is a great example.
For many years, 95 per cent of the hard coal burned in the Western Hemisphere came from here. At its peak, 175,000 people worked in the Pennsylvania coal industry. Now there are only a few thousand coal jobs.
When the president-elect campaigned here, he would hold up a “TRUMP DIGS COAL” sign and promise to bring the industry back to its former glory, but many experts doubt that’s possible. Like the rest of the United States, Pennsylvania has converted most of its coal-fired electricity plants to less expensive natural gas.
Rich Zawatsky, a former Democrat who voted for Trump, says he wouldn’t want his sons to work in the coal mines even if Trump was able to get them going again. As he listened to Trump during the campaign, he says he thought, “There’s no way on God’s good earth that I’m going to send my boys back into a hole.”
Nevertheless, Zawatsky felt Trump’s heart was in the right place concerning the need to create jobs, and that was good enough to win his vote. If Trump doesn’t deliver, Zawatsky says he’ll switch again and vote to kick him out.
“We will turn on him so quick, with a vengeance.”
Jobs are also unlikely to come flooding back to Pennsylvania’s steel Industry. The U.S. produces as much steel as it ever has — but with 75 per cent fewer workers. There is zero chance, for example, they’re going to fire back up the massive Bethlehem Steel factory that was mothballed in 1995. Its ruins have since become a tourist attraction.
Trump railed against NAFTA and other trade agreements when he visited the area, but a study from Indiana’s Ball State University estimates 88% of lost American factory jobs disappeared because of automation, not trade agreements.
Wilkes University political scientist Tom Baldino says, “There’s kind of an urban mythology that says, ‘Oh we lost these jobs to Mexico,’ but you just don’t need as many people on an assembly line or making things as we once did.”
What about Trump’s other big campaign promises? Will people here hold him to his pledge to build a wall along the border with Mexico?
Anna Greenberg, a Democratic Party pollster who has been conducting a post-election analysis on working class voters, doesn’t think so.
“People don’t believe we’ll actually build a wall with Mexico, and they don’t believe that Mexico will pay for it,” she said. “When they heard ‘Build a wall,’ they heard ‘I’m going to protect you from illegal immigrants taking your job; illegal immigrants getting benefits from the government.’ That’s what they heard. It wasn’t about building a wall.”
Greenberg thinks Trump’s chances of success aren’t bad.
“The economy’s doing pretty well right now and it is possible that Trump inherits a decent economy and never does anything too awful and people will say, ‘OK, we’ll give him another four years.’”
But when you talk to former Democrats here who actually voted for Trump, they seem more demanding.
Educator Bob Savakinus compares the president-elect to Ronald Reagan as a leader, but says Trump will be judged on how many jobs he creates.
“He has four years to prove himself. And if it doesn’t work out, then we’re going to elect somebody else.”
The Republicans have also set some potential tripwires for themselves in the Rust Belt. The new Republican Congress has already begun the process for repealing ”Obamacare,” which would strip many working class people of their health insurance.
‘He has four years to prove himself. And if it doesn’t work out, then we’re going to elect somebody else.’ - Educator Bob Savakinus
The Republicans have also discussed plans to privatize Social Security and Medicare for seniors. Political scientist Tom Baldino thinks that’s risky.
“What happens if Social Security is changed so that the value of your cheque is tied to the stock market or something like that? I think that people will quickly turn on Trump and the Republican Congress because we’re talking working class people here,” he said.
“And there are a great number of senior citizens who are all on Social Security and who value their Medicare and if you touch those basic necessities, people here will go ballistic.”