‘Are we a red state or a blue state?’ Life in a Pennsylvania swing county 100 days into Trump’s presidency
COATESVILLE, P.A. — Vonie Long thought his coworkers would have a different reaction to Donald Trump.
It was June of 2016, and Long, on a break from his job at a steel mill in southeastern Pennsylvania, listened on the radio as Trump gave an economic speech at an aluminum plant on the other side of the state, in front of a backdrop of crushed scrap metal that critics quickly dubbed a “wall of garbage.”
In his speech, Trump railed against bad trade deals and promised to revive Pennsylvania’s steel and coal industries. Long, a fourth-generation steelworker, assumed his coworkers shared his skepticism of Trump, a New York billionaire who had never shown much interest in the working class before running for president.
“All this stuff he was saying — ‘they’ve taken our jobs, they’ve taken our dreams, we need to start winning again’ — I’m thinking, he’s part of the ‘they,’ not part of the ‘we,’” Long recalled. “But the talk at the lunch table the next day was, ‘Trump was right.’ He struck a chord that resonated with them.”
For Long, a union president and Democrat, the moment stands out as the first time he realized Trump could pull off an upset. Since winning the election and taking office, Trump has continued to make all the right promises when it comes to jobs and trade, Long said in an interview this week at the union hall in Coatesville. He just doesn’t think they’ll come true.
“I didn’t trust a lot of what he said during the campaign,” Long said. Now that Trump is president, “he doesn’t carry out a lot of his rhetoric.” Long paused, and added: “I just don’t like the man.”
As Trump hits the first-100-days mark of his presidency, he remains a deeply polarizing figure in this industrial city and many other communities across Chester County, a collection of suburbs and small towns a short drive west of Philadelphia.
The county is full of of the sharp political and economic divides that defined last year’s election. Chester, the wealthiest county in the state, includes West Chester and several other upscale, left-leaning enclaves. Farther out, the suburban landscape gives way to farmland and struggling towns whose voters overwhelmingly backed Trump.
Hillary Clinton carried the area’s suburbs and won the county overall by nine points in 2016. But Chester County marked the outer edge of Clinton territory in Pennsylvania— the messy political gray zone where liberal America petered out and Trump country took over. Trump won nearly every county in the state west of Chester (with the exception of the urban Democratic strongholds of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and State College), in the process becoming the first Republican to win Pennsylvania since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
The election in Pennsylvania “was a tale of two states,” said Val DiGiorgio, the chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania and the party’s leader in Chester County.
Waiting for results
Signs of the lingering tension from November’s election were not hard to find this week, as voters from Coatesville to West Chester debated Trump’s job performance in his first three months in office.
Nancy Sapp, a small business owner in the town of Oxford, which went for Trump, said she was pleased with his executive orders cutting regulations put in place under former President Barack Obama. “I think he has made some progress,” she said. “There’s too much government.”
But on other issues, like health care, Sapp said Trump has given her pause. She did not support the Republicans’ plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which collapsed last month after failing to win enough support in the House. The White House and its allies in Congress have worked furiously to resurrect the bill, which would leave millions of people uninsured, before the 100-days deadline passes on Saturday. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Friday that wouldn’t happen until next week, at the earliest.
The health care law “needs to be changed, but very thoughtfully and systematically,” Sapp said. “Everyone in this country should have health care.”
Down the street from Sapp’s store, several shop owners in Oxford’s main business district said they backed Trump’s immigration agenda. But none of them wanted to talk on the record, citing fears that their support for Trump would drive business away.
Their reluctance to praise Trump publicly pointed to an issue many Republicans face, especially in moderate parts of the country: how to embrace a president whose personality and policies are deeply reviled by millions of Americans.
The people who voted for Trump “were tired of being told their values make them bigots. They saw in Hillary Clinton a candidate who didn’t particularly care for protecting their way of life, or their jobs,” DiGiorgio said. He gave Trump an A- grade so far, saying the president’s first 100 days were “very active and successful.”
Still, Trump supporters conceded that defending his political incorrectness was harder now that he holds the presidency. Several singled out Trump’s use of Twitter, saying they hoped he would stop posting controversial messages.
“Right now he’s pretty much [behaving] the same” way he did on the campaign trail, said Geoffrey Henry, the Republican mayor of Oxford. “My hope would be that he will learn from the first three months and make the adjustments that he needs to make.”
Other Republicans seemed relieved that Trump has not changed significantly in his first few months on the job. Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh, the sheriff of Chester County and an ardent Trump supporter who campaigned with him in 2016, said she welcomed his freewheeling, unpredictable approach to governing.
“It’s really important to understand when you’re talking about President Trump that he is working very hard to deliver on his campaign promises,” Welsh said. “I think he’s on the right track on the issues.”
“President Trump is a pragmatist,” added Welsh, who met with Trump and other law enforcement officials at the White House shortly after his inauguration. Trump “wants to get things done. He’s probably working too fast for Washington. They’re not used to that pace.”
The first 100 days of Trump’s presidency were nothing if not fast-paced. Trump won praise for staking out a tough, if still undefined, foreign policy. The Senate confirmed his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, after a bruising partisan fight. And while he has signed a flurry of executive actions, including several in the past week, Trump’s domestic agenda has largely been stymied by Congress and the courts.
The decision by House Republicans to delay a vote on a revised health care bill this week means Trump won’t deliver on his campaign promise to immediately repeal and replace Obamacare. His travel bans remain stuck in court, where they face legal challenges from several states. Trump has also backed away from other positions, including a demand that Congress fund the construction of a border wall as part of a short-term deal to fund the government and avoid a shutdown.
Trump’s “great, great wall” will have to wait, at least for now.
DiGiorgio, Pennsylvania’s GOP chairman, said Trump will need to deliver real results in order to hold on to his base and win over the moderate Republicans who didn’t support him as a candidate, and still don’t support him in the Oval Office.
In Chester County’s affluent suburbs, “a lot of the Republicans and independents who usually vote Republican didn’t vote for him” in 2016, DiGiorgio said. “They’re going to be much more comfortable voting for Donald Trump for re-election if he delivers on his promises of cutting taxes, cutting the size of government and creating jobs.”
“If we get to the midterms next year and we don’t have tax reform and jobs created, we’ll have an issue,” he added. To accomplish those goals, DiGiorgio said, Trump will have to find a way to work with the Republican-controlled Congress. “It’s up to us to make compromise within our own party. That’s what leadership is.”
‘The blue wall that fell’
Of course, Trump’s critics are not waiting until the 2018 midterm elections to take issue with his plans and leadership style. In Chester County’s Democratic circles, his name is synonymous with chaos, racism and a basic lack of understanding of how government works.
Before a monthly meeting of the Chester County Democratic Committee on Monday, members of the group were eager to voice their displeasure with Trump’s first 100 days in office.
“He’s a disaster,” said Nathaniel Smith, a retired university administrator. Trump is “a president who knows nothing about the job.”
Janet Colliton, a lawyer who hosts a local radio show, said she took some solace in Trump’s early stumbles. “The good thing is that he hasn’t accomplished what he said he would,” Colliton said. She added, “as an attorney, I’m concerned about the [Trump administration’s] disregard for the law.”
The meeting took place in the Democrats’ county headquarters, located on the first floor of a tasteful brick row house in downtown West Chester. The office was decorated with emblems of the left’s resistance under Trump: knitted pink “pussy hats,” buttons with slogans like “45 Not My President,” and lawn signs proclaiming that “hate has no home here.”
Yet as the meeting got underway, it became clear that the group’s unified front masked longstanding divisions within the Democratic Party, which has entered a national rebuilding phase after losing the White House and seats at the state and local level in 2016. At one point, a committee member asked for help organizing an effort to direct campaign funds from reliable blue states to red ones where Democrats are less competitive.
Smith interjected: “Are we a red state or blue state?”
“We’re absolutely flaming red,” Geetha Ramanathan, a comparative literature and gender studies professor at West Chester University, responded. “We’re the blue wall that fell.”
After the meeting, Ramanathan said the level of energy on the left in Chester has skyrocketed in response to Trump’s victory last November. “People are just coming out of the woodwork” to participate in rallies and political meetings, said Ramanathan, who has joined a group of activists who protest regularly in front of the West Chester office of Rep. Ryan Costello, a second-term Republican who represents the area.
A record number of Democrats across the country, including thousands of women, are also signing up to run for local office. It’s a sign of enthusiasm that nonetheless presents familiar challenges for the party, which struggled in 2016 to maintain the coalition of labor, minority groups and college-educated white voters that swept Obama into office. Clinton’s failure to win states like Pennsylvania last year exposed rifts along age, class, race and gender lines that could only grow wider in the Trump era.
A good example is the mayoral election in West Chester next month. Three Democrats are on the ballot: Dianne Herrin, a white business owner; Cassandra Jones, an African-American woman who served on the West Chester borough council; and Kyle Hudson, a young, white small business owner who said the 2016 election inspired him to run for office.
Young people are “interested in politics but they don’t know how to get involved,” Hudson, 31, said. “Part of my campaign is to harness that energy and sustain it for 2018 and 2020. We don’t want people to get fatigued.”
Jones spoke with the air of a seasoned politician who has seen it before.
“Unlike some people, I didn’t wake up on November 9th and say I need to get involved,” Jones said. Still, she agreed that Democrats needed to come up with a long-term plan for re-energizing the party’s grassroots supporters. In recent years, “we got comfortable with President Obama’s gains, and we didn’t push hard enough,” Jones said.
Brian McGinnis, the chairman of the Chester County Democratic Committee, said that Trump’s first 100 days in office have provided plenty of motivation. “The way he’s conducted himself, his persona, to me is borderline disgraceful,” McGinnis said.
Yet for Democrats, Trump’s victory may have come with the cruelest political irony of all: the dawning realization that they might need to borrow his populist economic message to take back the White House. McGinnis said focusing on union voters, a traditional pillar of the Democratic Party, was a good place to start.
“We barely won that vote because we barely talked to those people. There were a lot of people who were concerned about trade,” he said. “We didn’t address those concerns.”
Back in the union hall in Coatesville, Long, the president of United Steelworkers Amalgamated Local 1165, said he was rooting for Trump to succeed, though he is learning to temper his expectations.
For Long, one such moment came in early March, when the White House announced it would not require the use of American steel in the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The move flew in the face one of Trump’s first executive orders, which directed companies to use U.S.-made steel in new pipeline projects.
The decision was another indication, Long said, that Trump cannot single handedly reverse the decline of the country’s industrial and manufacturing sectors.
“I don’t think it’s possible. I’d like to see it, but I think there’s too much working against it,” Long said. In a global economy, companies will “continue to find lower labor markets. They can ship resources wherever they want to now. They’re just chasing the lowest costs.”
Long said he did not fault Trump for using foreign steel in some of his real estate projects. “On principle, he didn’t do the right thing,” Long said, if the objective was protecting U.S. jobs. “But as a businessman, he’s going to do what’s right for the bottom line.”
Since Long joined his union in 1994, membership has dwindled from roughly 1,600 workers to around 800, he said. In the past two decades, the workforce at ArcelorMittal, the steel plant in Coatesville where Long works as an electrician, has also declined by 50 percent. The mill has gone through several sales and mergers, adding another layer of instability. The plant was briefly owned by the International Steel Group, a consortium formed by Wilbur Ross — Trump’s secretary of commerce — who sold the company for $4.5 billion in 2004.
The union was solidly Democratic in the past, but Long said he’s not sure how long that will last. He estimated that his members split their vote evenly between Trump and Clinton in 2016. The result was a far cry from the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton gave a speech to a packed, standing-room-only crowd at the union the day after he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.
A plaque above the union’s assembly hall commemorates Clinton’s appearance. Long said Clinton returned to the union to speak with members in 2008, during his wife’s first presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton did not visit Coatesville on the campaign trail last year.
Last November, Long cast a write-in vote for Bernie Sanders after deciding the Vermont senator was a more consistent champion of labor than Clinton. But Trump won, and now Long said he has no choice but to hope that the president can deliver on his economic promises.
“I want to remain optimistic,” said Long, who is a father of four. “He’s not my ideal choice. But this is my country, and I want a better future for my daughters. Hopefully he can be part of that.”