In a Pennsylvania county with a proud industrial past, why did voters who were loyal to Obama turn towards Trump – and what do they expect now?
by Tom McCarthy in Northampton County, Pennsylvania: The Guardian
Can Trump really make America great again? The people of Northampton County, Pennsylvania, twice voted for Barack Obama, but in 2016 they flipped to Donald Trump. This series will report from the former steel county to find out what voters are hoping for, and ask: can Trump deliver? MORE FROM THIS SERIES
Donald Trump’s face made it official. As his presidential victory was declared, the upper 32 stories of the Empire State Building, which for election night had been turned into a giant news screen, flickered, wept light, and revealed his portrait. “The 45th president,” it said.
The exterior of the building – the part that reflected Trump’s face – is mainly limestone. The skeleton is steel. Half of the metal was delivered in the early 1930s by a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel, a company that not only shaped the Manhattan skyline but built some of America’s greatest bridges and its most formidable warships.
Eighty miles west of Manhattan, on the night of Trump’s election, the blast furnaces at Bethlehem Steel sat silent, as they have for 20 years. But on 8 November, the community whose generations tended Bethlehem’s fires helped to build something bigger than the mill ever had. They helped to put Donald Trump, and not Hillary Clinton, in the White House.
Northampton County, Pennsylvania, where the remains of the old Bethlehem Steel plant sits, had voted twice for Barack Obama for president, but local Democrats saw early on that 2016 might be tricky. The Clinton camp seemed confident though, and most forecasters believed that the long tradition of Democratic politics in the region, historically reinforced by labor unions in the mills, mines and manufacturing plants, would carry the day.
“The intellectual Democrats who were running the show, which included Hillary, all thought they were smarter than people like me,” Frank Behum, a Bethlehem steelworker for 32 years, told the Guardian last week. “‘What do they know?’ But you know what, people like me, even though I voted for Hillary, were smart enough to know that the crap that we went through – we didn’t want any more of it.”
Trump won Northampton County by four points on his way to becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to win Pennsylvania since Ronald Reagan. And in two days, he will take the oath of office.
Former steelworkers alone did not account for Trump’s victory in Northampton. Nor is the county’s vote readable as a result, simply, of long-term economic decline. Unlike the Pennsylvania coal country to the north, which also flipped from Obama to Trump, Northampton has been adding residents in recent years instead of bleeding them, while incomes and home values have crept upward. Businesses have been moving in.
Northampton’s vote for Trump was not only an act of frustration. As too many of Trump’s opponents may have taken too long to realize, it was also an act of hope.
Buying the promise
Bruce Haines, the proprietor of the Historic Hotel Bethlehem. ‘This year, when I went out on the street, people coming into the hotel, it was “Merry Christmas”. For the first time, and people were sort of proud of it. Saying “Merry Christmas”. And before it was “Happy Holidays”. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian
Nearly 63 million Americans voted for Trump for president. That is three million fewer than voted for Clinton. The defeat, for many Democrats and others around the world, feels like something much worse, as if a trapdoor in history had clumsily sprung open and the country fallen through.
Trump supporters don’t feel that way. For many of them, his election feels like a rebirth. A country that had grown unfamiliar suddenly resembles itself again. They see needless restraints on the basic functions of commerce and civic life loosening, and a needless sheepishness that had crept into public life dissipating.
The two realities – Trump joy and Trump angst – keep close company in many towns and cities across the country. Yet places like Northampton are rare. Out of more than 3,100 US counties, there are only 209 that, like Northampton, voted twice for Barack Obama and then fell for Trump in 2016. The basic electoral narrative in many of those places was similar: some Democrats stayed home, some new voters excited about Trump came out, and some Democrats crossed party lines to vote for a promise Trump made over and over, that he would make America great again.
What does that promise mean for those who voted for it? And will Trump deliver, in the eyes of his supporters? For a new series, the Guardian has been spending time in Northampton County, talking with voters who have embraced Trump’s promise, and those who doubt it. We’ll continue to do so as the Trump presidency progresses, to find out how Trump has risen or fallen in the estimation of voters who confounded the pollsters and shocked the political classes by making him president.
Demographically, Northampton fits the description of favorable Trump territory. It has a larger white population than the national average (88% versus 77%), slightly more senior citizens (18% versus 15%) and a slightly lower rate of college graduations (27% versus 30%). But the county’s unusually large footprint of heavy industry, a proliferation of colleges and universities, the influence of two extensive healthcare networks, a growing commuter class and other factors complicate the picture.
Initial conversations with area Trump supporters reveal great expectations that the new president will take decisive action in the arenas of trade and manufacturing jobs especially; that he will get rid of what business owners describe as the suffocating costs of Obama’s healthcare law; and that he will police illegal immigration more thoroughly. Apart from the issues, voters expect Trump to keep up what they describe as his straight talk and to stick with the old way of doing things, which among other things does not involve an explicit embrace of religious and cultural pluralism.
“This is going to sound really silly to you, but this is the Christmas City,” said Bruce Haines, the managing owner of the Historic Hotel Bethlehem. “Bethlehem is the Christmas City. And this year, when I went out on the street or wherever it was, people coming into the hotel, it was ‘Merry Christmas’. For the first time, and people were sort of proud of it. Saying ‘Merry Christmas’. And before it was ‘Happy Holidays’.
It’s almost like I left the country for eight years, and now it’s back. Like the country I grew up in is now returning – Bruce Haines
“We’ve always marketed ourselves as the Christmas City. But over the years, people got a little anxious about saying that. So now it’s like, it’s almost like I left the country for eight years, and now it’s back. Like the country that I grew up in is now returning.
“Now, whether all that will happen or not, who knows.”
The county that built 20th-century America
It is difficult to arrive overland to New York City without passing across one edge of Northampton County. Bounded at top and bottom by interstates 80 and 78, the county occupies an anvil-shaped stamp of land on the banks of the Delaware river. The river is the boundary protecting Pennsylvania from the attitude, taxes and traffic of New Jersey. Northampton’s relative lack of any of those three, in addition to its singing highways, make it a transportation and distribution hub, and account for its dual nature as a bedroom community and an industrial center.
The area was settled 35 years before the American revolution by members of the Moravian church, a Protestant missionary sect with roots in the present-day Czech Republic. The Moravians’ communal lifestyle and knack for building with stone are largely responsible for the ample charm of present-day downtown Bethlehem, which boasts a 270-year-old bookstore – the nation’s oldest, they claim, though the merchandise these days runs more to souvenirs – and a national historic landmark district.
The historic downtown of Bethlehem. The area was settled 35 years before the American revolution by members of the Moravian church. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian
The Moravians were also talented engineers, devising the country’s first municipal water pumping system – the waterworks still stands – on Monocacy creek, which feeds the Lehigh river at precisely the place where, a century later, an ironworks was established that would grow into the second-largest steel producer in the US.
Early in the 20th century, the Bethlehem mill devised a unique, wide-flange beam that enabled the modern skyscraper, and inscribed the regional destiny. The mill fabricated steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, the Chrysler building, 30 Rock, the Waldorf-Astoria, and war munitions and ships. At its peak in 1945, it occupied a 4.5-mile-long campus and employed 33,000 local employees. Whatever American greatness means, that might have been it. But the rise of versatile mini-mills and cheap foreign imports, and the loss of big contracts such as the World Trade Center, fed the plant’s demise. It rolled its last beam in 1997.
“The people took pride in their work. There were generations that worked in the mill,” said Behum, the author of 30 Years Under the Beam, an oral history of Bethlehem Steel. “We were fat, dumb and happy. Then the bomb came over the top of the hill and went off.”
The old Bethlehem campus now hosts a mix of historic and cultural sites, condos, packed industrial parks, and one remaining heavy forge operation with 165 employees. The most visible – and lucrative – business at the old mill site, however, is a more recent arrival. In 2007, Sheldon Adelson, the Republican mega-donor, agreed to preserve four rusting blast furnaces as part of a development deal to establish the Sands Bethlehem casino, which opened for business in 2009 on the former grounds of an immense ore yard. It grossed $534m in the past fiscal year. Everyone in town says only out-of-towners go there.
‘Trump was pointing to the change’
Larry Hallett in his Trolley Shops restaurant with his wife, Joan, in east Bangor. On Trump’s appeal, Hallett said: ‘I think it was the ordinary man’s conversation. It wasn’t rehearsed. He said it like he felt it was. They all identified with the guy.’ Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian
Larry Hallett is 81. He has 11 stents from 12 heart operations. He owns a construction and paving company, and a restaurant. He teaches prophecy classes out of an ice-cream stand attached to the restaurant. He also paints oil landscapes and builds classic cars from scratch. He no longer skin-dives. Every Saturday in summer, people come from across the region for car shows he hosts in the restaurant parking lot.
The restaurant business is year-round. Tables fill with regulars for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every day at about 10am, Larry is there with his wife, Joan. For morning coffee, not for breakfast, which they eat around 6am. The couple has been married 61 years.
“We have several tables. A lot of old guys. They’ve been Democrats all their life,” Hallett said last week. “A few years back, I’d say 80% of them voted for Obama. And I don’t think they’re going to change. But this time, voting-wise, they had to vote for Trump.
“With the majority of them, I think it was his ordinary man’s conversation. It wasn’t rehearsed. He said it like he felt it was. They all identified with the guy.
“A lot of them are retired. Some of them have businesses. Some of them work. They look forward to something better happening, all of them. They’ve got a better attitude.”
Hallett’s establishment, the Trolley Shops restaurant, is in the town of East Bangor, in the far north-eastern corner of Northampton County. The drive from Bethlehem, 25 miles to the south, takes about 45 minutes. As you head north, stoplights disperse and grain silos appear. The drive goes through Nazareth, another historic Moravian settlement, whose collection of businesses indicates a diverse economy with significant green shoots: an old cement plant, a new Amazon warehouse, a BMW parts distribution center and the Martin Guitar factory, local since 1854.
Farther north, around Bangor, the green shoots are less apparent. While the Bethlehem area in the south once thrived on steel, the north of the county once thrived on slate, which was sold worldwide for roofing tiles, chalkboards and gravestones. The north also boasted a robust apparel industry. The slate trade fell apart in the 1920s. The apparel industry breathed what seemed a final gasp in 2007, when Majestic Athletic Ltd, which had an exclusive license to supply uniforms for Major League Baseball, relocated hundreds of union jobs to the south of the county. Now even those jobs are in doubt: last month, Majestic lost its baseball contract to Under Armour.
For 70 years, visitors to the so-called slate belt have been stopping by Jewell’s, a combination bar and ammunition sales shop where Jon Jewell, 42, is now the third-generation owner. The two enterprises have separate entrances, but share a wall with a door through which Jewell can move from tending bar to selling bullets and back. One day last week at sunset, there was a lively pool game and friendly talk among Jewell and five patrons. The locals call the place Gas, Guns and Beer. There used to be gas pumps out front, too, Jewell explained.
Jon Jewell, the third-generation owner of Jewell’s Bar in East Bangor. On the local economy, Jewell said: “Maybe people are holding on to jobs they had, as oppossed to finding jobs.’ Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian
Jewell said the area economy had struggled for decades, and people now were commuting “much further than they ever thought they would” for work. Things had improved “ever so slightly” in the past year, he said – “maybe”.
“Maybe people are holding on to jobs they had, as opposed to finding jobs,” he said.
Jewell said he had voted in November for candidates from both parties in down-ballot races but sat out the presidential race, unable to get inspired by either contender. He declined to speculate whom his neighbors had supported for president. But one thing was certain: turnout was huge.
“More people came out for that election around here than any other election ever,” Jewell said. “People who were 60 years old and never voted in their life. When I went at noon to get my number, they gave me 198. Usually they would get to 130 at the end of the day.”
None needed wonder whom Hallett was for. He passed out stickers by the hundreds and put up Trump signs outside the restaurant, “right in the blacktop”.
“We had one man who was here every day,” Hallett said. “Two, three meals a day. It made him mad because so many people were taking bumper stickers. He’s just enough of a Democrat not to think about who it is, it just had to be a Democrat. And he’s never come back.
“Two people is all [that left], that I know of. But I had so many more people coming in, shaking hands.”
Hallett echoed Jewell’s judgment of the local turnout.
“In Washington township, at the municipal building at 8 o’clock at night – and it had been all day – was a line all the way around the building and clean out across the parking lot. I don’t think they got done taking votes till 11 o’clock,” he said. “Records every place you went here. There’s not even any comparison. It was fascinating. An absolute fabulous turnout, it really was.”
Glenn Geissinger, a Republican county council member, said he witnessed that kind of pro-Trump enthusiasm during his unsuccessful run for the Republican primary nomination for the local US congressional seat.
Months before the election, he said, everywhere he went, voters skipped over his campaign pitch to ask the only question that mattered: whom did he support for president?
“There were people who, from the time he started getting traction, who said: ‘I haven’t voted for 20 years. I’m going to vote for Donald Trump,’” said Geissinger.
County executive John Brown, a Republican, said he saw the same thing in his run last year for state auditor.
“I spent a good portion of the year canvassing the entire state of Pennsylvania,” Brown said. “For those that we met who were disenchanted employees, I think they just gravitated directly to Trump. There was nothing that they could articulate or share that Hillary Clinton was talking about that was new or different. What was her campaign even about?
“After eight years, I think people were just going to go: ‘Hey, no more of that.’ I think Trump was pointing to the change.”
‘He hit a home run with these folks’
Father, mother, and son Brian Grimshaw Sr, Anie, and Brian Jr drink in Jewell’s Bar. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian
Avote for Trump in Northampton County was in many cases more than a catchall vote for change. Trump supporters interviewed by the Guardian also talked about specific issues including taxes, Obama’s healthcare law, trade policy, manufacturing jobs, immigration and social issues such as same-sex marriage. For those voters, on issue after issue, Trump was the plain answer.
The Historic Hotel Bethlehem is the centerpiece of a resurgent downtown business district in the town that steel built. Bethlehem titans established the hotel in 1922 to accommodate visiting dignitaries, who have included Sir Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and Muhammad Ali. But as the regional economy slid off, the hotel went under, and when Bruce Haines and his partners bought it in 1999, there were boards on the windows and talk of turning it into a nursing home.
The boards are gone and, judging by two visits in two weeks, business is back. Guests eat dinner on the original hotel terrace, overlooking the Moravian settlement. A bar and grill gridded with pictures of famous visitors – this year saw the addition of both vice-presidential contenders – hosts a bustling lunch crowd. A large Nativity scene overhangs the front entrance, in a nod to Bethlehem’s designation, for marketing purposes at least, as the Christmas City. The hotel staff includes 80 full-time employees, Haines said.
Haines, a lifelong Republican, said the feeling in town was good since Trump had been elected. “Obviously a large portion of people are distraught about what happened,” he said. “But there’s a large portion of us who are very happy about what happened.”
Atop Haines’s to-do list for Trump are a renegotiation of trade deals, tax reform and an overhaul of Barack Obama’s healthcare law, which Haines said had threatened his hotel with hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties.
It’s called the lean-in vote. He won’t say it out loud, but he’ll lean up close to you and say: ‘I’m going for Trump’ – Gregg Potter
“We provide healthcare for our full-time employees, always have,” Haines said. “And we pay a good portion of that, 80% of the cost. But they redefined full-time as somebody who works 30 hours, not 40 hours. We always defined full-time as 40 hours.”
Penalties built into the healthcare law were supposed to encourage businesses to expand coverage. But with part-time employees essential to the hotel’s seasonal flux and banquet-and-weddings business, Haines said, the only realistic solution was to cap part-time employees at 30 hours.
“I’m sure they expected us to pay some kind of penalty,” Haines said. “But we’re not going to be paying that penalty. Because we cut back our employees to less than 30 hours. They assumed, probably, that the 40 employees that I had that were working less than 40 hours, that we would just pay their healthcare. Well, that isn’t the way business works. It might be the way government works. But it isn’t the way business works.
“The unintended consequence for employees was, they lost hours.”
Haines, himself a former steel executive, said that Trump’s messaging on trade – in short, that bad trade deals were hurting American manufacturers – was also right on target, in a region whose economy had decades earlier been sunk, in part, by foreign goods dumped for less than what they cost to make.
“Hopefully we’re going to bring some manufacturing jobs back,” Haines said. “That hit home.”
In the former capital of steel, Trump’s trade talk found a receptive audience not only with Republican executives such as Haines, but with a lot of erstwhile residents of the opposite end of the political spectrum: union members.
Gregg Potter is president of the Lehigh Valley Labor Council, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of trade unions. Potter’s group counts 47,000 members, plus a significant number of retirees, in Northampton County and neighboring Lehigh County. A third of those are registered Republicans. Potter himself was a Clinton supporter. But more than half of his members, he said, voted for Trump.
“He hit a home run with these folks,” Potter said. “He hit their issues head-on.”
Potter described talking with members who admitted that, against the recommendation of union leadership and their own Democratic identities, they backed Trump.
“He would give you that look like he’s going to tell an off-color joke,” Potter said. “Look around, make sure no one’s there. He looks both ways and says: ‘Yeah, I’m going to vote for Trump.’ It’s called the lean-in vote. He won’t say it out loud, but he’ll lean up close to you and say: ‘I’m going for Trump.’
“We focus so much on the free trade, and our members learn about this. So when Trump came out there first and says ‘Bullshit on these trade agreements,’ they were right with him. And Hillary Clinton did not have even a lukewarm message, let alone a strong one.”
Ken Kraft is the business agent for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, which counts about 100 members in Bethlehem and thousands regionally. “There are obviously tons of Democrats who voted for Trump,” he said.
Kraft did not feel good about it. He said some union members he spoke with seemed caught up in the momentum of the Trump candidacy, which he said was fueled by the “bullshit press”, and he described his frustration at trying to explain to members why Trump did not have their best interests at heart.
“I was in union meetings saying: ‘You know, these are the facts, guys. Listen to what he said. You’re a union member. He wants to make everybody right-to-work.’ They just look at me. Just nod.
“Trump just built up momentum because he’s a clown show. And he got billions of dollars of free advertising because every news show had to follow him. Everything he said, everything he did was reported on every news channel around the country.
Go ask people how they voted, they want to run away from you. Very few will come up and say: ‘I voted for Donald Trump’ – Frank Behum
“So they made him. They built him into what he is with their nonsense.”
Former steelworkers voted for Trump, too. Larry Neff, who worked at the Bethlehem plant for 25 years, did not, but he said family members had, and that Trump’s promise to bring back jobs had found purchase.
“I think what swayed a lot of people to vote for him in this area was his pushing, pushing, pushing that he’s going to bring jobs back to this country,” said Neff, whose essential memoir of life in the mill is called Rigger. “I’m hoping that America isn’t that stupid. If you looked at it logically, what he talked about was bringing jobs back, but he never did that before. He always had foreign workers. It was almost like PT Barnum running for president.”
Behum, the oral historian, did not vote for Trump – but he could see how someone might.
“Seeing companies making landslide profits because they moved overseas, and then they get tax breaks on top of it? Give me a break,” Behum said. “That’s some of the stuff Trump said that I agree with. He may be a jerk, but he said a lot of stuff in the business sense, related to working people, that made a lot of sense. But whether he follows through with it is another thing.”
A portrait of Vice President-elect Mike Pence is displayed at the Hotel Bethlehem, after his visit late last year. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian
Kraft has low expectations.
“I don’t think this president would defend the worker if his life depended on it,” Kraft said. “That’s all bullshit. He’s not going to defend us at all. He’s a millionaire, billionaire. He’s made his fortune by not paying people like us who work for a living.”
Trump supporters in all three groups – union Democrats, former steelworkers and Republican business owners – had one more thing in common, according to interviews: they didn’t want to talk about backing Trump.
“On the night of the election, there wasn’t a businessman that I know of that wasn’t rooting for Trump,” said Haines. “But they didn’t necessarily want to talk about it. Because they were considered ‘deplorables’, or some of their employees maybe were Clinton supporters. But when I talked to the business people one-on-one, everybody was cheering him on, everybody was saying: ‘I’m voting for Trump, but I better not say it.’ That was why the pollsters were all screwed up.”
Behum recalled Reagan’s upset victory in the region in the 1980s, against decades of union-driven, Democratic party dominance.
“That was the most amazing thing that ever happened, in my lifetime,” Behum said. “And I always used to say to people in the plant – which is more or less like a holding company for the Democratic party – I said to everybody: ‘How the hell did this guy get elected if nobody voted for him?’ Well, people would actually turn away and walk away. You knew automatically they voted for Reagan.”
Trump inspires a similar reticence, Behum said.
“Go ask people how they voted, they want to run away from you,” he said. “Very few of them will come up [and say]: ‘Well, I voted for Donald Trump.’ You won’t find anybody in this town like that.”
What happens next?
How did Trump win Northampton County? Clinton actually won slightly more votes in the county than Obama did in 2012 – 66,272 for her, 65,014 for him – indicating that loyal Democratic turnout was fine. But Trump appears to have won some crossovers, activated some dormant Democrats and inspired Republicans to vote near the top of their party potential.
“It’s not a gigantic shift, in terms of numbers,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in neighboring Allentown. “Obama won narrowly, Trump won fairly narrowly. And so, where did the change come? Not only in the rural areas of the county, but especially a lot of the older towns that had gone for Obama in the past, like Nazareth or Hellertown, those places that really are the bastions of working-class whites in Northampton County. I look at those places.”
If people are hanging their hat on anything, it’s that he will actually create change – John Brown
The Guardian will be following up with those voters in the weeks and months ahead, to gauge whether Trump has delivered on his promise to supporters. Nobody (at least no one we’ve spoken to or heard of) expects the great blast furnaces to fire again. Many Trump supporters expect a renaissance of some kind, however – while skeptics foresee the opposite.
For Brown, the Republican county executive, the perception that Trump is a man of action was the single strongest driver of his support.
“The other thing I’ve heard that people have echoed is that he will actually do it,” said Brown. “That he will actually create change and not just talk about it. If people are hanging their hat on anything, it’s that he will actually do it.”
But Kraft, of the painters’ union, and the former steelworker Behum are much less optimistic.
“People are going to have buyer’s remorse awfully quick,” said Kraft. “I really think they’re going to have buyer’s remorse.”
“There are still Trump signs up all over the place,” said Behum. “They’re people that are proud that he won. I wonder how proud they’re going to be when the shit hits the fan.”