Women’s Marches and widespread criticism of the ‘Muslim ban’ have not dented the loyalty of Trump voters
By David Smith in Hagerstown, Maryland / The Observer / February 4, 2017
Cast-iron hooks, children’s vinyl records, classic food packages, tobacco baskets, vintage-style olive buckets and a rotary-dial telephone fill the shelves at James and Jess’ House of Goods. The antiques store opened two years ago, styling itself as “rustic, hipster, chic” with a twee strapline: “Mostly old with a little new.”
If the House of Goods was in Washington DC, it would be a decent demographic bet that its owners voted for Hillary Clinton. But it is 75 miles away in Washington County, which Donald Trump won handily. And while the capital city has been roiled by protests since Trump moved into the White House, from where James and Jess are sitting he is doing just fine.
“I love Trump,” James Zawatski said. “I give him credit for doing what he said he was going to do; a lot of politicians don’t. I’m 47 and I never voted in my life but I did this year. We needed someone with a set of balls to do what needs to be done. I’m tired of those liberals.”
Trump’s asteroid-like impact on Washington DC has caused bewilderment, consternation, disorientation, puzzlement and anger. Democratic politicians have been knocked off balance by a brash adversary while Republicans are struggling to adapt to an unpredictable ally. The media have rained criticism. Residents of DC – where Clinton beat Trump by 90.9% of the vote to 4.1% – express their mortification and fears. And last month’s Women’s March on the capital was a dramatic statement of anti-Trump resistance.
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But across the frontline of America’s increasingly tribal politics in Hagerstown, Washington County, Maryland, the perspective is turned on its head. Whereas critics see Trump’s travel bans as “un-American” and sowing chaos at airports, supporters see him as keeping them safe; where critics see him blowing up foreign policy as he spars with Australia and slaps sanctions on Iran, supporters see him getting tough; where critics see him firing the acting attorney general and trampling on the constitution, supporters see him boldly smashing the old order. And where activists protest, columnists fulminate and millions recoil in fear of a world spinning towards catastrophe, supporters dismiss them as liberal “cry babies” and praise Trump as the first politician to keep his campaign promises. They see him not as a rampaging rhinoceros but a straight-talking strongman.
His plan to build a wall on the US-Mexico border is one example of this worldview complementarity. “I love immigrants, I love Mexicans, but there’s a way to do it, there’s a procedure,” said Zawatski, himself descended from Italian immigrants. “These people come and they’re entitled to more than me who’s busting his ass seven days a week. We’re a great country but we’re being taken advantage of.
“Personally I wouldn’t spend money on the wall. I’d just shoot them as they come over. Then they wouldn’t come.”
Zawatski had little sympathy with the hundreds of thousands who took part in the Women’s Marches, many of whom wore pink “pussy hats” and carried placards condemning Trump over his past boast about feeling able to grab women “by the pussy”. He does not merely turn a blind eye to Trump’s misogyny but condones it: “What man never grabbed a woman’s pussy? What man doesn’t talk in the locker room about what he did to a woman the night before? Women do that too. We’re all human.” His wife, Jess, 35, agreed: “It’s a guy thing. I know James talks like that among guys. So I don’t hold it against Trump.”
The Women’s March, she added, “was the stupidest thing ever because some were saying they’re being treated unequally. Women can stand up and go after what they want. Men aren’t standing in the way.”
James Zawatski in his shop. Photograph: Chet Strange for the Observer
As Zawatski, wearing tattoos on his arms and a T-shirt with the legend “Tattooed and employed”, spoke to the Observer, a man stole a decorative sphere off its stand (total price $79) from the pavement outside the store. Zawatski spotted him and raced outside, prompting the man to surrender the object without acrimony.
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“Technically this is the hood,” he remarked. “There are a lot of barber shops here that are not barber shops, if you know what I mean.” Comparing himself to Trump, he added: “I tell the police chief, ‘Do your job. Just do it.’”
Hagerstown has a drugs problem and several closed-down shops and cafes stand empty. But it challenges and scrambles perceptions of the map seen as crucial to Trump’s victory. It is neither the Republican-voting deep south nor the pivotal rust belt portrayed in his dark and divisive inaugural address as containing “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones” under the rubric “American carnage”.
On the contrary, it sits in Maryland, which Clinton won with more than 60% of the vote. It is an almost pretty city of church spires and historic buildings, boasting a fine art museum, biking and hiking trails, theatres and a tourism office, replete with leaflets about the area’s civil war heritage and Hagerstown’s origins involving an 18th-century German immigrant. On Thursday, students could be seen pouring out of an arts school after class.
Washington County’s median household income is $56,477 (£45,000), above average for the nation – but well below the state average of $74,149. The county voted 64% for Trump, 31.6% for Clinton. It is a red county in a blue state or, as Clinton supporter Al Steinbach, a 64-year-old sales rep, vividly put it: “I call Maryland the vagina map: right down the centre is blue; left and right is red. Welcome to divided America.”
Steinbach, who is “literally afraid” of what Trump might do, reads the Washington Post daily and listens to National Public Radio. “When I turn to Fox News and see what the other side are saying, I’m appalled by the extreme side they are on.”
In the past, it has been argued, communities would be bound together by local newspapers and radio stations, establishing at least some common ground; now, in the age of fragmented digital media, everyone with a phone is an island. Last Thursday, Anthony Kline, 38, a labourer, sat in a no-frills bar watching a new Facebook video made by a bearded, muscular man who claimed to be in Iraq.
The man, called Steven Gern, said he had asked local Iraqis what would happen if he took a walk in town and they had replied he would be snatched, tortured and beheaded on video. This being so, he claimed, why should he let Iraqis into his country? Kline, gripping the phone in his tattooed hand, said: “This is as real as it gets.”
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Trump recently told the CIA that he is in a “running war” with the media. Kline, who awards the president eight marks out of 10 so far, said: “Mainstream media news is definitely partial. They put on what they want you to hear or think. Most people are not educated enough and they take things at face value.”
The chorus of liberal outrage that greets Trump daily not only falls on deaf ears among his supporters but appears to harden their view that he is taking on a privileged, self-centred elite. Reflecting on the Women’s March that followed inauguration day, Kline said: “You’ve got a lot of mommy’s-liberal-baby snowflakes that are used to having their way. It’s like your spoiled kid not used to being told no. Once you tell them no, they don’t know how to react.”
Across town, Marlon Michael, 50, still has a Trump “make America great again” banner outside his home, part of a duplex with vinyl walls and flagpole with the stars and stripes. “The country was going downhill and the rest of the world didn’t respect us any more,” he said. “Trump vowed to bring all that back just like the old days.” And the verdict so far? Michael’s answer would be unthinkable in swaths of Manhattan: “He’s doing wonderful. He’s doing everything he said he’s going to do and you can’t ask for more than that from a politician.”
Democrats, activists and media commentators have denounced Trump’s executive order banning travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries, both for its bungled execution and its sinister intent. Chuck Schumer, Democratic minority leader in the Senate, said: “There are tears running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight.” Even Republican loyalists quailed.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll found about 31% of people said the ban made them feel “more safe”, while 26% felt “less safe”. Another 33% said it would not make any difference and the rest said they did not know. But Trump voters like Michael, a former US marine who works in home construction, give it a full-throated endorsement. “It should have been done eight or 12 years ago, or after 9/11,” he said. “For the past eight years we’ve had a president that was a little lighthearted towards the Muslims. We lock our doors so people don’t create havoc in our homes; it’s the same with America. We’re shutting our borders so people don’t create havoc.”
Christianne Smith in a Hagerstown coffee shop. Photograph: Chet Strange for the Observer
Michael, too, watches Fox News – “CNN has too much false bullshit that’s not true and Trump calls them out on it” – and has little but contempt for the Women’s March. “Fucking stupid. For what? What more privileges do you want? Women have equal rights. They’ll still be fighting for it till the end of time.” Wearing a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt with an image of fingers in an “up yours” sign, Michael gives Trump nine out of 10. “My only complaint is that I wish he would stay off Twitter.”
The election demonstrated that, despite Barack Obama’s plea otherwise, there are blue states and red states in America. But there are also blue and red counties. One of the defining splits in the election was between voters with a college degree and those without: according to the FiveThirtyEight website, Clinton improved on Obama’s 2012 performance in 48 of the country’s 50 most well educated counties, but lost ground relative to Obama in 47 of the 50 least educated counties – critical to her defeat.
Trump’s debut in the White House has done little to heal the rift, with each side viewing his policies, pronouncements and antics through a rival prism. Sitting in a coffee shop in Hagerstown, Christianne Smith, 20, an African American student, gave him a score of two out of 10. “He’s unfit, inexperienced,” he said. “He doesn’t have the best interests of the people in America. I don’t understand how he became president. Maybe it’s because I didn’t vote. So it’s my fault.”