‘Knucklehead’ Trump won the rust belt vote, but bitter divisions remain

I remember election night 2016 well. I was in the bar of the Holiday Inn, Johnstown in the heart of the Pennsylvanian rust belt.

There is remarkable passion in American politics and it was palpable that evening as I joined locals to watch the results come in.

I’d spent time with them over the previous few days in their workplace and their homes and we’d all gathered at the hotel – a bit of a focal point in this small town – to see if it would be Hillary Clinton’s night or if the maverick Donald Trump could defy the polls and clinch an historic victory.

It was a night of hope and of anxiety for both sides.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania
Image:Not much has changed in Johnstown, Pennsylvania since the last election

As a Republican red wave swept across Pennsylvania and those other key swing states, I saw the jubilation and the despair.

Ever since, I’ve wondered how they have all viewed the subsequent four years. Had their hopes and their fears materialised?

Driving back into the town, it doesn’t look like much has changed.

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Steel has been the lifeblood here for generations. The one million square foot Gautier Mill dominates the downtown area. It’s still open but others around it have been shut for years.

Along the gridded streets are a noticeable number of boarded-up businesses. Retail had been trickling out of Johnstown for years.

It was just the sort of place targeted hard by Donald Trump four years ago.

“We are putting Pennsylvania back to work…” he told voters at a huge 2016 rally in the town.

“When I’m president, we’re going to start making things again in America…”

My first reunion, at the local steelworkers’ syndicate, is with Jeff Rininger.

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Four years ago we had met at the local powder metal plant. I remember arriving thinking “surely they’ll all be voting for Mr Trump”, given the promises he was making.

But no. Jeff, a blue-collar worker all his life, told me back then that he saw though the “rhetoric”.

“He’s just telling them what they want to hear…” he had told me.

Four years on? Well, some jobs have been created and retail has even recovered a little in the city. Yet, Jeff’s views have hardened.

“Everything I thought was decent… and ‘you don’t go there’, this president has gone there and he’s created a lot of divisiveness to the tune that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” he says.

“But what about trade?” I ask. Didn’t he prioritise “Made in America”?

“He did do some things on trade. He tried to drive a pretty hard bargain with China but what it did was put tariffs on our products,” says Jeff.

“He came here four years ago and he packed the war memorial downtown. Forty-five hundred seat venue. And they were lined up outside. And I, of course, I didn’t go in. I drove by.

“Trump’s saying, ‘I’m going to open up all these steel mills. I’m going to open up the mines. I’m going to bring these jobs back’. Well, today, none of those steel mills opened up. None of the existing ones opened.”

Eric Kabler
Image:Businessman Eric Kabler: ‘The president did a good job’

Across town, Eric Kabler is a local financial advisor. I’d met him crossing the finishing line of the Johnstown Fun Run four years ago.

What he’d told me about Clinton and Trump back then still resonates.

“I feel that both of them are knuckleheads however, you know Hillary – the analogy is that it’s an old dog that you can’t teach new tricks. Whereas Donald is a new dog that hopefully, hopefully we can teach new tricks,” he had said.

Acknowledging to me back then that it was a risk, he chose Mr Trump for president.

So is Mr Trump still a “knucklehead”? Has the “new dog” been taught new tricks?

We meet at his office. “From my perspective I think Donald did a very good job. Unfortunately, he had to deal with the impeachment. He had to deal with the corona crisis. And both of those things kind of wrecked the momentum that we’ve had. And I’m not just talking about the economy or the stock market. I feel a lot of people felt more comfortable with his leadership.

“One of the things that President Trump did early on was lower corporate tax rates, which made corporations more profitable, hence that made their stock prices more attractive.”

But what about his rhetoric? What about his divisiveness?

Jeff Rininger, Johnston Pennsylvania
Image:Trump won Pennsylvania by a margin of just 0.72% in 2016

“I said four years ago, he’s a knucklehead and I am not changing my mind four years later… However, it’s not just that… it’s his platform of things that he is for, whether it’s pro-life, he’s all about business, about the economy, getting people back to work. And that’s more from where I’m looking at from voting for him…”

Eric has no regrets. Will he vote for President Trump more enthusiastically this time?

“Absolutely… I vote for the platform and what they stand for. And at the time, I wasn’t sure about President Trump coming in and where he would be standing with some things.”

He continued: “You know… he’s been rude. You know, you see him in the debates and… he’s been disrespectful to a lot of folks. He has a track record of filing for bankruptcy and all of that kind of stuff… and so we wouldn’t vote for him to, you know, be on the school board in our local area!

“But because he has the ability and the power to be able to make changes in the areas that we want changes to be made in the country, that’s why we’re voting for him.”

In 2016, Donald Trump won this state by just 44,292 votes out of more than six million cast – a margin of just 0.72%.

Sky News US election coverage
Image:Sky News US election coverage

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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