(Ed note: I prepared this for a media outlet that deemed it Too Polemical for their tastes, hence the writing style is a little more formal than usual here.)
Before entering politics, it would be hard to imagine Donald Trump spending much time in places like Youngstown, OH or Huntington, WV. Now he can’t get enough of them.
The billionaire real estate magnate with a fondness for Manhattan, Las Vegas, and East Coast resorts suddenly finds himself more comfortable in Harrisburg. The more he struggles to succeed in Washington, the more he will rely on campaign-style “rallies” in places like this to boost his ego and gain a respite from the criticism that is part of life in the Beltway. Why? The Rust Belt has in endless supply the one resource most crucial to Trump’s base of popular support: anger.
By any measure, places like upstate New York, the Ohio River Valley, central Illinois, and Michigan have been down for decades. In Huntington and Youngstown, for example, population has fallen in every census since 1950. The story of the decline of manufacturing and extractive industries like coal in these places is one Americans know by heart today.
What the Rust Belt offers Trump, then, is a segment of the population that has been on the brutal receiving end of every negative social and economic development since the early Seventies. It is a population that has been knocked down so many times and received so many unfulfilled promises from elected officials that logic and reason are no longer of much importance when evaluating politicians. As long as Trump gives voice to their passionate anger, they will be there to support him even as his actions in office do nothing to help the most downtrodden areas of the country (and, in some cases, actively worsen their problems).
As a lifelong Midwesterner with a firsthand opportunity to witness the struggles of some of these areas, none of the explanations for why Trump received so much support there are compelling. Racism, “economic anxiety,” distaste for Hillary Clinton, and susceptibility to false information distributed via social media are partial explanations at best. To understand why so much of Trump’s Rust Belt base will never turn on him requires understanding the sense of malaise, of giving up, of a step beyond hopelessness, that pervades places that have been sliding downhill without interruption for more than half a century.
The Rust Belt and Midwest more broadly speaking have experienced so much hardship and for so long that residents no longer care what policy prescriptions candidates promise; they firmly believe that nothing will work anyway. These voters are unlikely to care that Trump often flip-flops on issues, does things for which he vocally criticized Barack Obama, and fails to deliver on promises made during the campaign.
Similarly, pointing out that he has nothing but bile-laced Tweets to show for his first half-year in the White House is not persuasive. So long as he continues to give them a vicarious outlet for their anger toward convenient targets that are often blamed for the Rust Belt’s problems – urban elites, immigrants, gays and lesbians, the media, ivory tower academics, the Clintons, and so on – he serves a vital purpose for them.
It is not easy to watch one’s community slowly fall apart over decades due largely to forces beyond one’s control, nor is it easy to look to the future and see only the same downward trajectory regardless of endless (and ultimately fruitless) plans to “revitalize” the Huntingtons and Youngstowns of the United States. After five decades of bad news, Trump feels like a breath of fresh air. Rather than offering them economic or social policy proposals they have heard before and in which they have no more strength to believe, he offers them an opportunity to extend a middle finger to the established institutions of society and government. That is invaluable to people who have received nothing of value in exchange for their votes since the strong economic years of the post-War era.
The people of Huntington, WV are not dumb enough to believe that the Mexican gang MS-13 – the President’s new obsession – is responsible for the shuttered factories, soaring unemployment rate, stagnant wages, and addiction problems that plague their community. But when all of those problems exist for so long that they are viewed as simple facts of life no more controllable than the weather, venting anger at a sinister, foreign Other is cathartic if nothing else.
Trump is not dumb either. He knows that when his administration veers unsettlingly close to chaos, people in rural Ohio, upstate New York, central Pennsylvania, and other declining areas of the country will not judge him on the specifics. They don’t expect him to solve their problems because they have come to believe over time and from repeated experience that their underlying problems are unsolvable. They only want him to keep up the Trump Show, to get under the skin of the groups in society that they blame for their struggles, to rile the establishment even when doing so is pointless and unproductive.
Decline has been a part of life in the Rust Belt for so long that only the oldest residents can remember a time when it wasn’t the defining theme in the life of their communities. The oft-analyzed demographic that dominates these areas – whites with minimal education – does not truly believe that Donald Trump will solve their problems. They do believe that he will deliver the next best thing: an opportunity for revenge. If failure is seen as inevitable, then lashing out in anger at enemies, real or perceived, at least offers a sense of power and control that has been absent from these areas for two generations.
The more Trump struggles, the more he will turn to these places to boost his spirits. He and America’s downtrodden communities realize that they have a relationship of mutual dependence. Rust Belt voters finally feel like someone is on their side, and they are right. Against enemies real, imagined, or distorted, Trump and his most loyal voters will feel comforted that if nothing else, they are in the fight against the liberal media and MS-13 together.