YOUNGSTOWN – The first sign that something was different about this presidential election hit Mark Munroe in the weeks before Ohio’s Republican primary in March. Munroe is chairman of the Mahoning County GOP, and he began getting phone calls from people who wanted to know what the process was to vote in the upcoming primary.
“These were people who had never voted in a Republican primary before. It was obvious that something was going on,” he says. “And 90 percent of them were voting for Trump.” According to Munroe, the GOP in Mahoning County has registered tens of thousands of new voters—Democrats and Independents—since the March primary.
Trump got nearly as many votes as Clinton did back in March. That’s notable because Youngstown, the seat of Mahoning County, hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon narrowly won here in the landslide election of 1972. Like much of northeastern Ohio, the city has been reliably Democrat since the Great Depression, when organized labor forged an alliance with the Democratic Party that would persist even through the infamous decline and fall of Youngstown’s steel industry in the 1970s.
For Democrats crossing over this election, the shift in their loyalties has been a long time coming. In 2014, for the first time in decades a Republican in Mahoning County won elected office, defeating the incumbent county auditor, a Democrat, who was facing indictment for political corruption.
“They all say the Democratic Party isn’t the party they grew up with,” Munroe tells me, noting that it’s not necessarily because of Trump, but that Trump has accelerated the pace. “The Democratic Party here was the party of JFK, and that’s not what a lot of people see when they look at the party now.”
Trumpism Is the Political Legacy of ‘Black Monday’
Driving around the neighborhoods of Youngstown, it’s clear that a change is afoot. It’s common, for example, to see Trump yard signs alongside signs for Anthony Trafficanti, a Democrat running for reelection as county commissioner. The old Democratic Party loyalties persist at the local level but not as much nationally, which makes perfect sense given the history of Youngstown.
On a September morning here 39 years ago, thousands of steel workers showed up to work at Youngstown Sheet and Tube only to discover that a large portion of the mill had been closed. That became known as “Black Monday,” and what followed was the permanent loss of tens of thousands of steel jobs and jobs tied to Youngstown’s steel industry, which in 1977 was the second largest steel-producing city in the world.
The years of decline that followed would turn Youngstown into a harrowing exemplar of what Americans came to know as the “Rust Belt”—shuttered factories, hollowed out downtowns, crime-ridden and dying cities across a region of the country that was once the cradle of the middle class. The people of Youngstown were furious, and they blamed a cast of characters and impersonal forces well familiar to Trump supporters: corrupt politicians, greedy corporations, and the indifferent vicissitudes of globalization and free trade.
As their city declined and the mob moved in, Youngstown in 1984 elected to Congress a politician whose visceral hatred of the political class (and feigned hatred of the mob) presaged the rise of Trump: Jim Traficant.
He was the only newly elected Democrat to Congress in an election year when Ronald Reagan carried 49 states. But Traficant wasn’t a normal Democrat. If there had been reality TV in the 1980s, he would have been a star. Impetuous and arrogant, politically incorrect, flamboyantly dressed in a skinny tie and bell-bottoms, the congressman from Youngstown broke all the rules and refused to play nice with political establishment—or even his own party leadership.
After he voted for Republican Dennis Hastert for speaker of the House in 2001, Democrats stripped him of his seniority and refused to give him any committee assignments. The Republicans didn’t give him any, either, so Traficant became the first U.S. representative in a century to have no committee assignments.
But his district loved him. Traficant kept getting reelected until he was expelled from the House of Representatives in 2002 after being convicted for taking bribes, racketeering, and filing false tax returns—crimes for which he served seven years in federal prison (during which time he ran again, and lost).
During his years in office, he railed against many of the things Trump now rails against. He was a hardliner on illegal immigration, and wanted less immigration overall. When he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987, one of his campaign slogans was, “America First.”
A 2015 documentary, “TRAFICANT: The Congressman of Crimetown,” chronicles Traficant’s rise and fall—and heralds the age of Trump. Angry working-class voters in a forgotten Rust Belt city wanted someone who would smash the system apart, or at least give Washington the middle finger on their behalf. And that’s exactly what Traficant did.
Trump Is Channeling Anger—And Despair
If Traficant’s belligerence was partly a reflection of his Rust Belt origins, Trump appears to be tapping into that feeling among voters here. Trump can’t win Ohio—one of the many swing states he needs to defeat Hillary Clinton—without winning Youngstown and rest of northeast Ohio outside of Cleveland, including Stark and Trumbull counties.
The cities in this region are rough places. The highway connecting Youngstown to Warren (the seat of Trumbull County) is dotted with billboards advertising treatment centers for opioid addiction. The west side of Warren is riddled with abandoned buildings and post-industrial blight. The downtown, with its many ornate turn-of-the-century buildings, is a tragic spectacle of decline.
In Stark County, the City of Canton has been shrinking, like all these cities, for nearly 70 years. It lost almost 10 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010, but nevertheless went from being the ninth to the eighth largest city in the state—because Youngstown suffered a worse decline.
Further south, in East Liverpool along the Ohio River, you see this same decline on a smaller and in some ways more dramatic scale. Once known as the “Pottery Capital of the World,” the city’s downtown is now all but abandoned, its neighborhoods full of crumbling houses and broken streets. Residents are candid about the bleakness. “We have a lot of welfare here,” the bartender at the Elks Lodge tells me, “and a lot of heroin.” One young woman says to me bluntly: “Why would you come here? You shouldn’t be here.”
An image from East Liverpool recently went viral when the police posted it on Facebook as a warning: a man and woman slumped in their car seats, mouths agape, overdosed on heroin. In the backseat, a four-year-old boy looks on. The police found them like that, and they posted the photo to show the world just how bad the heroin epidemic has gotten there.
If you’re a voter in one of these towns, a lifelong Democrat who has watched factories and steel mills close, jobs flee, heroin and crime come sweeping in, what would you say to a billionaire celebrity businessman who blamed it all on corrupt politicians and vowed to make your country great again?
Maybe you would hear him out. Maybe you would get involved. Maybe you would let yourself believe that things could change even here, in your own dying town. At that point, you might not care if this man knew a lot about public policy, or if he contradicted himself, or even if it turns out he’d said some degrading thing about women and minorities.
And you certainly wouldn’t care if he called himself a Republican.