JOHNSTOWN, Pa.—Pam Schilling is the reason Donald Trump is the president.
Schilling’s personal story is in poignant miniature the story of this area of western Pennsylvania as a whole—one of the long-forgotten, woebegone spots in the middle of the country that gave Trump his unexpected victory last fall. She grew up in nearby Nanty Glo, the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners. She once had a union job packing meat at a grocery store, and then had to settle for less money at Walmart. Now she’s 60 and retired, and last year, in April, as Trump’s shocking political ascent became impossible to ignore, Schilling’s 32-year-old son died of a heroin overdose. She found needles in the pockets of the clothes he wore to work in the mines before he got laid off.
Desperate for change, Schilling, like so many other once reliable Democrats in these parts, responded enthusiastically to what Trump was saying—building a wall on the Mexican border, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, bringing back jobs in steel and coal. That’s what Trump told them. At a raucous rally in late October, right downtown in their minor-league hockey arena, he vowed to restore the mines and the mills that had been the lifeblood of the region until they started closing some 40 years ago, triggering the “American carnage” Trump would talk about in his inaugural address: massive population loss, shrinking tax rolls, communal hopelessness and ultimately a raging opioid epidemic. When Trump won, people here were ecstatic. But they’d heard generations of politicians make big promises before, and they were also impatient for him to deliver.
“Six months to a year,” catering company owner Joey Del Signore told me when we met days after the election. “A couple months,” retired nurse Maggie Frear said, before saying it might take a couple of years. “He’s just got to follow through with what he said he was going to do,” Schilling said last November. Back then, there was an all-but-audible “or else.”
A year later, the local unemployment rate has ticked down, and activity in a few coal mines has ticked up. Beyond that, though, not much has changed—at least not for the better. Johnstown and the surrounding region are struggling in the same ways and for the same reasons. The drug problem is just as bad. “There’s nothing good in the area,” Schilling said the other day in her living room. “I don’t have anything good to say about anything in this area. It’s sad.” Even so, her backing for Trump is utterly undiminished: “I’m a supporter of him, 100 percent.”
What I heard from Schilling is overwhelmingly what I heard in my follow-up conversations with people here who I talked to last year as well. Over the course of three rainy, dreary days last week, I revisited and shook hands with the president’s base—that thirtysomething percent of the electorate who resolutely approve of the job he is doing, the segment of voters who share his view that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt” that “has nothing to do with him,” and who applaud his judicial nominees and his determination to gut the federal regulatory apparatus. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how readily these same people had abandoned the contract he had made with them. Their satisfaction with Trump now seems untethered to the things they once said mattered to them the most.
“I don’t know that he has done a lot to help,” Frear told me. Last year, she said she wouldn’t vote for him again if he didn’t do what he said he was going to do. Last week, she matter-of-factly stated that she would. “Support Trump? Sure,” she said. “I like him.”
When I asked Del Signore about the past year here, he said he “didn’t see any change because we got a new president.” He nonetheless remains an ardent proponent. “He’s our answer.”
I asked Schilling what would happen if the next three years go the way the past one has.
“I’m not going to blame him,” Schilling said. “Absolutely not.”
Is there anything that could change her mind about Trump?
“Nope,” she said.
All this, perhaps, is not so surprising, considering polling continues to show that—in spite of unprecedented unpopularity—nearly all people who voted for Trump would do it again. But as I compared this year’s answers to last year’s responses it seemed clear that the basis of people’s support had morphed. Johnstown voters do not intend to hold the president accountable for the nonnegotiable pledges he made to them. It’s not that the people who made Trump president have generously moved the goalposts for him. It’s that they have eliminated the goalposts altogether.
This reality ought to get the attention of anyone who thinks they will win in 2018 or 2020 by running against Trump’s record. His supporters here, it turns out, are energized by his bombast and his animus more than any actual accomplishments. For them, it’s evidently not what he’s doing so much as it is the people he’s fighting. Trump is simply and unceasingly angry on their behalf, battling the people who vex them the worst—“obstructionist” Democrats, uncooperative establishment Republicans, the media, Black Lives Matter protesters and NFL players (boy oh boy do they hate kneeling NFL players) whom they see as ungrateful, disrespectful millionaires.
And they love him for this.
“I think he’s doing a great job, and I just wish the hell they’d leave him alone and let him do it,” Schilling said. “He shouldn’t have to take any shit from anybody.”
Del Signore is by his own admission not a person who’s focused on policy specifics. A short, stout genial man who wears gold chains around his neck and rings on both pinkies, he last year did something for Trump he had never done for any other political candidate. The 61-year-old Johnstown native proudly planted a Trump sign in the ground in front of his catering company. And nothing that’s happened in the past 12 months, he told me when we met for lunch on Italian buffet day at the Holiday Inn, has lessened his enthusiasm for the man who so energized him.
“Everybody I talk to,” he said, “realizes it’s not Trump who’s dragging his feet. Trump’s probably the most diligent, hardest-working president we’ve ever had in our lifetimes. It’s not like he sleeps in till noon and goes golfing every weekend, like the last president did.”
Del Signore was surprised to hear this.
“Does he?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
He did not linger on this topic, smiling and changing the subject with a quip. “If I was married to his wife,” Del Signore said, “I don’t think I’d go anywhere.”
He added: “Some of these things are like that thing he said to Billy, Billy Bob, Billy Bud”—searching, unsuccessfully, for the name Billy Bush—“on the bus, that comment he made.” Del Signore shrugged. “He’s a human male. I’m glad he wasn’t saying, ‘Hey, I like little boys.’ You know? So he’s not perfect.”
Del Signore said he’s been following politics far more than before because of Trump. Trump, he said, is just “more interesting.” So now he likes watching the news. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I watch Fox,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll be sitting there listening to all this Fox stuff, and I’ll say, ‘Maybe they aren’t right, maybe I’ll flip to CNN’—but every time I’ve found that Fox has been correct, and CNN is definitely fake news.”
A Catholic whose wife goes to church every Sunday, whereas he, “shame on me,” does not, Del Signore told me toward the end of our lunch that some people at church told his wife that Obama is the antichrist. “She comes home and tells me these things that they tell you in church,” he said. I asked him whether that’s what he thinks. “I don’t know,” he said. “Some people say that.”
If Obama, I asked, is the antichrist—whose arrival is said to precede the second coming of Christ—what would that make Trump?
“The savior?” Del Signore suggested.
Not even Trump, though, can stop what’s coming, he added. “Just looking around, and putting two and two together, a little bit of business savvy, a little bit of street savvy, a little common sense, a little bit of education, you kind of deduct different things,” he told me. “I think we’re going to see the end of the world in our generation.”
It’s maybe understandable why somebody here might think this. A little more than a month after last year’s election, a 5-month-old baby starved to death in her bassinet after both her parents overdosed on fentanyl, a frighteningly potent sort of synthetic heroin. It was shocking even to a community that’s become all too familiar with the unremitting ravages of opioids.
One morning last week, Arch Liston, Johnstown’s city manager, drove me to the neighborhood where it happened. It’s called Kernville. From the cab of his silver Chevy pickup truck, he pointed out one decrepit, vacant house after another.
“Old factory houses that people have just abandoned,” he said. “Abandoned. Abandoned. Abandoned.”
He sighed heavily.
Many houses I saw from inside Liston’s pickup bore a big X painted on a board nailed to the front, marking them as dangerously structurally unsound. If nothing else, Liston told me, it’s an instruction to the fire department: If it catches fire, let it burn. There are approximately 1,400 houses with an X, Liston said, and he would tear them all down if he could. But each demolition costs roughly $7,000, and it is money the city does not have.
Last year here, the Trump signs were everywhere. This year, my eye settled on different sorts of signs. CONDEMNED. NO TRESPASSING. BEWARE OF DOG. Empty storefronts saying FOR RENT and FOR SALE. The shuttered Hey Day Diner—not far from Coney Island Lunch, a greasy-spoon staple since 1916, once a go-to for round-the-clock shifts of steelworkers, closed this past summer. The sign in the window read: THANK YOU ALL OF OUR CUSTOMERS FOR MANY YEARS OF PATRONAGE.
Liston drove by the Social Security office. “Probably the busiest building in town,” he said.
There are some positives around here. Corsa Coal’s Acosta mine in neighboring Somerset County opened in June. So did Robindale Energy’s new Maple Springs mine. Rosebud Mining reportedly is working to reopen its facility in Cresson, but a company spokesman wouldn’t comment on the status of the project. The increased activity is largely the result of spiking Chinese demand. But even with potentially several hundred new jobs, the long-term outlook for coal is grim. An industry forecast last month from the BMI Mining Report projected coal production to grow by 6 percent and 2 percent this year and next year, respectively, but also noted: This “does not reflect an expectation for President Donald Trump to revive the sector and our longer-term view out to 2021 remains decidedly downbeat.” The area’s unemployment rate stands at 5.2 percent, down a point from last year at this time—but that’s still higher than the state and national numbers. At Johnstown’s JWF Industries, a 450-employee manufacturing company, business hasn’t gone up this year, owner Bill Polacek told me, but he’s expecting a 30 percent jump next year. He chalks that up to Trump and his “pro-business” “mood.”
But even this optimistic stance highlights some of the deep-seated troubles here. “Right now, if I could find 150 people, I’d put them to work,” Polacek said. He needs machinists. He needs welders. “But it’s hard to find people,” he said—people with the requisite skills, people who can pass a drug test.
“We just don’t have the workforce,” said Liston, the city manager. “If they are employable, and have a skill set, basically they already moved out of the area.”
Some of the later-in-life blue-collar workers who are still here can be loath to learn new trades. “We’ve heard when working with some of the miners that they are reluctant because they’re very accustomed to the mining industry,” said Linda Thomson, the president of JARI, a nonprofit economic development agency in Johnstown that provides precisely the kind of retraining, supported by a combination of private, state and federal funding, that could prepare somebody for a job in Polacek’s plant. “They really do want to go back into the mines. So we’ve seen resistance to some retraining.”
Polacek, a lifelong Johnstown resident and one of the city’s few remaining business titans, was a staunch supporter of Trump. He has been largely pleased with his performance as president so far, he said, but Polacek does wish Trump would try to be more bipartisan and more deliberative—and also that he and his administration would pay as much attention to Johnstown now as he did during the campaign.
“We’ve been trying to reach out to him to say, ‘Hey, remember us? We need help here,’” he told me. “That’s my only frustration. I’d just like to tell Trump, ‘Hello? We’re still here. We’re ready for you.’”
For three decades, Johnstown had a powerful friend on Capitol Hill in Rep. Jack Murtha, who steered millions in pork-barrel money to his hometown from his seat on the House Appropriations Committee. But Murtha died in 2010, and earmarks have been banned. Now, the seat is held by a Republican backbencher named Keith Rothfus. “We have not had an influx of any federal money that has assisted us since January,” Liston said. Even just a part of the $1 trillion infrastructure package that Trump once talked about would help considerably, he added.
Johnstown has been resilient in the past. A catastrophic flood in 1889 killed more than 2,000 people. A flood in 1936 killed another 25. But ever since the 1977 flood that killed 85—coupled with mounting mill and mine closures and job losses due to increased global competition—the trend lines here have been almost invariably dispiriting. And so Johnstown and surrounding Cambria County, whiter, poorer and less educated than America overall, was famished for the message Trump delivered in person at War Memorial Arena last October. “Your government betrayed you, and I’m going to make it right,” he told them. “We’re putting your miners back to work,” he told them. “Your jobs will come back under a Trump administration,” he told them. “Your steel will come back,” he told them.
“The change you’ve been waiting for will finally arrive,” he pledged.
It was what they so badly wanted to hear. On November 8, 2016, in Cambria County, Trump trounced Hillary Clinton by nearly 38 points.
By last week, though, John George told me that despite what they might have said, people here didn’t really believe Trump would make good on all his promises. “Deep down inside,” he said, “I don’t think anybody thought the steel mills were going to come back.” George is the owner of “George’s Song Shop” downtown. He bills it as America’s oldest record store. It’s been in business for 86 years. His father ran it for 30, and he’s had it for the past 56. George is a Democrat, but he voted for Trump, and he would do it again, he said. His whole adult life, essentially, he’s watched potential customers leave, as the population of the city has plummeted from more than 70,000 to less than 20,000. Now he sees the names and faces of some of his customers in the newspaper. In the obituaries.
In 2015, Cambria County had 58 overdose deaths. Last year, that number soared to 94. This year, the deadly epidemic is on pace for a similar toll. One of my mornings in Johnstown, I had a meeting scheduled with the coroner. I was on my way when he called to postpone.
“I apologize,” said Jeff Lees. “We just got called out on two drug overdoses. We’re just getting slammed here.”
Something I heard last week that I didn’t hear last year: resignation. Drapes drawn, Maggie Frear, the retired nurse, sat in her darkened living room and told me there really wasn’t all that much Trump could do to help Johnstown and Cambria County.
“You know, we’re sort of a depressed area,” she said. “We’re just a little area, you know—but it’s a good area. Good people here. And I think he would, if he knew of a place that had a lot of problems, I think he would try to help. I don’t know what he could do, or would want to do, for Johnstown, you know?”
He said he was going to bring back the steel mills.
“You’re never going to get those steel mills back,” she said.
“But he said he was going to,” I said.
“Yeah, but how’s he going to bring them back?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but it’s what he said, last year, and people voted for him because of it.”
“They always say they want to bring the steel mills back,” Frear said, “but they’re going to have to do a lot of work to bring the steel mills back.”
He hasn’t built the wall yet, either. “I don’t care about his wall,” said Frear, 76. “I mean, if he gets his wall—I don’t give a shit, you know? But he has a good idea: Keep ’em out.”
He also hasn’t repealed Obamacare. “That’s Congress,” she said.
And the drug scourge here continues unabated. “And it’s not going to improve for a long time,” she said, “until people learn, which they won’t.”
“But I like him,” Frear reiterated. “Because he does what he says.”
John Daloni is the financial secretary of the United Steelworkers Local 2632 union. Last November, many members of his union, considered for so long here, and in so many places like it, to be guaranteed voters for Democrats, flipped and went for Trump. Daloni, who had supported Clinton, reeled. “I lost 20 pounds,” he told me last week when we met at the union office, adjacent to a gun store. “I had to see a cardiologist, because I honestly think my heart was broken—I spent 24 hours walking around with one of those Holter monitors. I didn’t know what was happening. I felt awful.”
Last week, he reported hearing for the past year at work, at Gautier Steel, exactly what I had been hearing in my conversations around town—a remarkable, undeniable, ongoing vehemence of support.
“I don’t give the guy that much credit,” Daloni said, referring to the president, “but man—he knows what buttons to push, and he’s pushing ’em.”
His insistent declarations of success no matter the reality—it’s working. Trump’s inveterate blame-shifting—it’s working.
They don’t mind his intemperate tweets. They don’t mind the specter of scandal, which they dismiss as trifling nonsense. They don’t mind his nuclear saber-rattling with North Korea, saying they feel safer under Trump than they did under Obama. And they don’t mind his mixed record of delivering on the promises he made in their hockey arena.
So many people in so many other areas of the country watch with dismay and existential alarm Trump’s Twitter hijinks, his petty feuds, his penchant for butting into areas where the president has no explicit, policy-relevant role. All of that only animates his supporters here. For them, Trump is their megaphone. He is the scriptwriter. He is a singularly effective, intuitive creator of a limitless loop of grievance and discontent that keeps them in absolute lockstep.
One afternoon last week I stopped to talk to a small group of people who had gathered on the sidewalk across the street from the Johnstown Planned Parenthood office. One woman had set up a bucket of body parts of toy babies. Gale Bala sat on a low rock wall and held a sign that said ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN. She voted for Obama in 2008. She voted for Romney in 2012. Her parents were Democrats, her steelworker husband was a Democrat, and she was a Democrat until two years ago. She voted for Trump last fall, and she’ll “definitely” vote for him in 2020, too.
“He’s kind of the last best hope, in my opinion,” said Bala, 65, a retired high school Spanish and reading teacher. “I haven’t run into anybody who’s said they’d never vote for him again.”
Next to Bala was a gray-haired man who told me he voted for Trump and was happy so far because “he’s kept his promises.”
I asked which ones.
“Border security.” But there’s no wall yet. “No fault of his,” the man said.
What else? “Getting rid of Obamacare.” But he hasn’t. “Well, he’s tried to.”
What else? “Defunding Planned Parenthood.” But he didn’t. “Not his fault again,” the man said.
I asked for his name. “Bill K.,” he said. He wouldn’t give me his last name. “I don’t trust you,” he said.
More than anything, what seemed to upset the people I spoke with was the National Football League players who have knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Frear told me, “if I was the boss of these teams, I would tell ’em, ‘You get your asses out there and you play, or you’re not here anymore.’ They’re paying their salaries, for God’s sake.”
“Shame on them,” Del Signore said over his alfredo. “These clowns are out there, making millions of dollars a year, and they’re using some stupid excuse that they want equality—so I’ll kneel against the flag and the national anthem?”
“You’re not a fan of equality?” I asked.
“For people who deserve it and earn it,” he said. “All my ancestors, Italian, 100 percent Italian, the Irish, Germans, Polish, whatever—they all came over here, settled in places like this, they worked hard and they earned the respect. They earned the success that they got. Some people don’t want to do that. They just want it handed to them.”
“Like NFL players?” I said.
“Well,” Del Signore responded, “I hate to say what the majority of them are …” He stopped himself short of what I thought he was about to say.
Schilling and her husband, however, did not restrain themselves.
“The thing that irritates me to no end is this NFL shit,” Schilling told me in her living room. “I’m about ready to go over the top with this shit. We do not watch no NFL now.” They’re Dallas Cowboys fans. “We banned ’em. We don’t watch it.”
Schilling looked at her husband, Dave McCabe, who’s 67 and a retired high school basketball coach. She nodded at me. “Tell him,” she said to McCabe, “what you said the NFL is …”
McCabe looked momentarily wary. He laughed a little. “I don’t remember saying that,” he said unconvincingly.
Schilling was having none of it. “You’re the one that told me, liar,” she said.
She looked at me.
“Niggers for life,” Schilling said.
“For life,” McCabe added.
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