THE PROMISE: Can Trump really make America great again?

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

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, talk