Outside coastal bubbles, to say ‘America is already great’ rings hollow
Beyond successful neighborhoods in DC, New York City and elite college campuses is an America that has been on a downward trajectory for decades
By Chris Arnade
Feb 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 Trumpnarrowly 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.
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.
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.