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PRIDE AND POVERTY IN AMERICA: Outside coastal bubbles, to say ‘America is already great’

Beyond the bubbles of the big cities and elite college campuses is an America that values community over careers, and has faced a downward trajectory for decades

By Chris Arnade in Youngstown, Ohio / The Guardian /  Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Anthony Rice’s house in Youngstown, Ohio is a mile away from a river valley once filled with factories offering jobs. Many of those left in the 1980s, and with them, many residents.

His home is one of the few occupied on the street. Empty lots or boarded-up homes make up most of the block. He points to those remaining, listing his neighbors and their age. They are all over 70. “This neighborhood is okie-dokie, although not much goes down here”, he says. “Stores used to be all around here, but they mostly gone. The people left are either too old to move or waiting for someone to buy them out.”

The road itself is a patchwork of potholes. “This street hasn’t been paved in like forever. They just don’t care about us. But we used to that.”

Youngstown is the largest city in Mahoning County, Ohio, where Donald Trump narrowly lost a county Barack Obama won twice easily. That was partly because turnout in Youngstown – which is lower income, younger, and close to half African American – dropped by roughly 15%.

It was a blueprint replicated across the US – getting just enough working class, older and wealthier suburban whites to flip and turn out for Trump, while a small enough sliver of minorities and younger white voters did not turn out. It was achieved in just the right places: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Turnout in Youngstown Ohio was down by roughly 15%.

Turnout in Youngstown Ohion was down by roughly 15%. Photograph: Chris Arnade

I ask Anthony about the election. “Most people in this neighborhood sat idle. We didn’t have a dog in this fight. It is like we had our president, and it is time for them to have their president. I voted for Hillary. But I don’t mind Trump, although I do think he is crazy. He is jamming a stick in the beehive, and some think it will break their way.”

Did Trump’s win surprise him? “No. Obama promised a lot and only a little came of it. Maybe New York City got delivered promises. This street here is still filled with homes falling down.”

A lot of the US is like that. I have seen it all over, when I put 100,000 miles on my car before the election. I have heard and seen the frustrations of countless people – of all races and faiths – in wildly different places, from Nebraska to Louisiana.

To get out beyond successful neighborhoods in DC, New York City and the elite college campuses – beyond where prevailing socio-political opinions are made – is to see another America.

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It isn’t a more “real” America – a glib and offensive cliche – it is simply a different one. It is an America that values and experiences different things, emphasizing local community and faith, rather than career or educational status. It is an America that has been on a downward trajectory for decades, hurt by the loss of jobs and with downtowns emptied of energy and filled with drugs. It has made staying in these communities harder.

In this America hope is fading, not growing. People’s lives are a constant tangle of changing and uncertain jobs. The path that offers a way out – education – requires threading a narrow needle of opportunities from an early age. If that small chance is missed it means a lifetime of feeling looked down on by the “other America.”

In these towns, “America already is great” rings hollow and offensive. Trump exposed and exploited that, coming into these communities with a simple and angry message – one that effectively said: “This ain’t working for you. So let’s knock it all over!”

He also came with a message of division and fear, inflaming a long ugly thread of racial politics in American history. It made supporting him almost impossible for frustrated minorities such as Anthony, who was blunt: “Trump isn’t a racist, but sure does surround himself with racists.” Some registered their frustration by simply not voting, a process exploited by a cynical GOP that has made it harder to vote.

Hattie Wilkins, 66, witnessed that. She is a former steel worker and union president who is now a community activist.

Hattie Wilkins

Former steel worker Hattie Wilkins. Photograph: Chris Arnade

She hates Trump but also doesn’t like Hillary Clinton. She actively supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries. Frustrated and angered by Clinton, she eventually voted for her, but as a vote against Trump. “I had to,” she says. “It hurt but I did.”

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She had trouble convincing many of her neighbors to get out and vote: “I ran into a lot of people who didn’t like either of them, so they weren’t voting.” Despite that, she worked hard to get as many people registered as she could, even trying to coax the drug dealers in her neighborhood to do so.

Despite the intensity of political passions, Youngstown is a small, close and extra friendly community, and Hattie has spent her life here. She has colleagues, friends and acquaintances who voted for Trump and who she has long relationships with. When I ask her how they could vote for someone she thinks is a racist, she says: “The people who voted for him, they can’t see that. It is their ignorance, and I try to educate them.”

I ask her whether she thinks they’re still good people, despite their vote. She replies: “Yes, yes. I feel that they are.”

Enthusiasm for Trump wasn’t hard to find among the white voters in Youngstown. George Beshara, the owner of the The Gold Exchange pawn shop – a store that sits between two boarded-up shops, was also born and raised here. He has seen the changes the town went through.

George Beshara, who was born in Youngstown.

George Beshara, who was born in Youngstown. Photograph: Chris Arnade

“When the steel shut down in the 1980s it kicked the shit out of Youngstown,” he says. But he is optimistic, and Trump’s message fits his optimism. “We could use some manufacturing jobs, good paying ones, not these minimum wages ones. When we put tariffs on steel and start manufacturing again, we got a shot.”

When I asked him if he voted for Trump, he shoots back: “Oh yeah.” When asked why, he says: “I just think everyone wanted a change.

“I don’t think it is specifically Trump. We were in purgatory for eight years. Nothing happened, no growth, no GDP. I mean nothing! And nobody wanted to work because you were getting enough money from welfare, why go get a job? I think Obama made people lazy, he made it too easy not to work, and that is not the American dream.”

He also notes how surprising it was Trump came within a nudge of winning the county: “This is a monstrous Democratic community. If you even talk Republican here 25 years ago, they might have shot you!”

Things have changed, however, and plenty of lifetime Democrats voted for Trump. Bill Golec, 60, is one of them. A city police officer, he also runs a lawnmower repair store on weekends. After high school, he earned both a law enforcement administration degree and a small engine repair certificate from local schools.

Bill Golec, a lifelong Youngstown resident.

Bill Golec, who lived in Youngstown since birth. Photograph: Chris Arnade

He is a life-long Democrat, and when I ask him if he voted for Trump, he quietly responds: “Hate to say yes. Couldn’t vote for Hillary. I wasn’t going to vote for anyone at all.”

He adds that Trump was the first Republican he has ever voted for. “It has been going on for too long, for too many years,” he says. “Something has to change.” He pauses: “These people on welfare, they’re living better than what I am. I am working two jobs. I like what Trump is doing with the auto factories. We need jobs here, in the United States.”

When I ask why, despite all the problems with Youngstown, he hasn’t moved, he looks confused. For him the question is silly, because the answer is obvious. “I like it here – my family is still here,” adding that he initially stayed to take care of his mom after his father died.

That is the thing about places like Youngstown: people often stay where they are born. For many it is simply what you do, and the community’s health is dependent on it. You stay not to just build a life, but also to support older family members.

Places like Youngstown are also more diverse than usually acknowledged. Including having growing Muslim populations.

I went to the Islamic Society of Greater Youngstown for Friday prayer. I came early and the first man I spoke to greeted me with a big handshake. He was rushing out the door but stopped to welcome me.

Friday prayer at the Islamic Society of Greater Youngstown .

Friday prayer at the Islamic Society of Greater Youngstown. Photograph: Chris Arnade

I started explaining I had come to talk about politics, cautiously dancing around the issue of Trump and the recent executive order, when he quickly interrupted.

“OK. You want to talk about Trump? I voted for Trump!” I asked him if he was pulling my leg. He laughed. “No way. I may be a Muslim, but I am a businessman first and I am not stupid. Many Muslims here did. Under the table.” He added with a big smile: “We are Americans. We have diverse views also.”

Inside, 34-year-old Bruce Jones was sitting quietly against the back of wall. He grew up in Youngstown, and while some of his friends went off to college, he bounced around a bit, before getting dragged deep into heroin. He was recently released from a three-year prison term for burglary, where he converted to Islam.

“Islam saved my life,” he says. “When I was released this mosque welcomed me even though they know my past.” When I asked him about Trump, he doesn’t miss a beat. “Of course I like him. He is going to restore America again.” When I ask him about the recent changes on immigration he squints: “We are all citizens here. So I am not concerned.”

Bruce Jones, 34.

Bruce Jones, 34 ‘Islam saved my life’. Photograph: Chris Arnade

That last sentiment was made clear by almost everyone I spoke to at the mosque, including Aiman Salem, 54. He came to the states over 15 years ago from Syria to study. He didn’t vote for Trump, and is careful to explain why: “The community here in Youngstown is great. It is one of mutual respect, regardless of background. I definitely have concerns about Trump, like any American. I believe he has incorrectly targeted our faith.

“I would like to see more of an explanation and communication of what he plans. But I am not impacted. I am a citizen with a good job. Very few here at this mosque are impacted. We should accept refugees, of course, but Obama’s mistakes in Syria are one of the contributing factors for why we have the problems in Syria we have now.”

I ask him if he was surprised Trump performed so well in the region. “The American public grew impatient with what happened here in the US over the last 16 years, eight under Bush, eight under Obama … I work with Trump voters, and have friends who voted for him. I understand many of them and their anger. I don’t like how it is being expressed, but I see their anger as being about economic issues.”

In Youngstown the past decades have been a slow decline, yet the town has maintained a warmth, friendliness, and a strong sense of community. Being here means being pulled between wanting to stay in a place that values you, but worried the future might only offer more decline.

One morning, I meet Daisy as she stood in the sunshine waiting for a ride from a relative. She watches me taking pictures and shyly smiles. I go over to talk with her and she tells me her story. She is 18 and was raised by her grandmother after being taken away from parents who were drug addicts. “I went through hell because of all the drugs around me”, she says.

Daisy, a Youngstown resident.

Daisy, a Youngstown resident. Photograph: Chris Arnade

She left briefly to try and make a new life for herself but returned to stay with her grandmother. When I asked her about the election, she says: “I voted for nobody. Both are liars. I can only pray that Trump is the right president for us.”

I ask her about the future, and she mentions modeling and the military. Then, a pause.

“I want to do better in my life,” she says. “I want a healthy life. I want a wonderful life. And I want to see the ocean.”

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