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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Former Democrats in Pennsylvania are sticking with Trump

The US president is not getting a fair chance to do his job, say his Rust Belt supporters

Frank DeViva, the owner of the Bakehouse Bakery and Cafe in Kingston, Pennsylvania, says many of his customers support US President Donald Trump, even if they don't advertise it. Rob Crilly for The National
Frank DeViva, the owner of the Bakehouse Bakery and Cafe in Kingston, Pennsylvania, says many of his customers support US President Donald Trump, even if they don't advertise it. Rob Crilly for The National

If Tuesday’s midterm elections are a referendum on Donald Trump’s performance as president then the voters of Luzerne County, at the heart of what used to be Pennsylvania’s coal belt, need no further encouragement.

“Nothing has changed since 2016,” said Kathy, a registered Democrat. “In fact, I’m just a little bit more sure. Any doubts have gone.”

So when she casts her vote on November 6 in Congressional and local elections she will plump for one party across the board – the Republican Party.

She is not alone among the members of the informal breakfast club that convenes on weekday mornings beneath the flatscreen TV showing Fox News in Kington’s Bakehouse Bakery and Cafe.

Luzerne County emerged as one of the bellwethers of Mr Trump’s unlikely victory, where an overwhelmingly white, blue collar population flung its weight behind the Republican nominee. Here, Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 wins of 8 and 5 percentage points respectively, were transformed into a Trump victory of 26,000 votes – more than half his winning margin in the state.

And if voters then were motivated by his promise to bring back jobs, keep out illegal immigrants and ensure they were no longer America’s forgotten people, today they are even more angry that Mr Trump is not getting a fair chance to do his job.

“This whole mess is in large part down to the party that did not win and that could not accept that they lost,” said Kathy, a retired teacher, who withheld her second name, if not the strength of her feelings.

She reeled off a string of examples of the media or Democrats obstructing the president’s wishes, from court injunctions against his travel ban to the battle over nominating Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice.

“If the law doesn’t sound like it suits them, they say they’re not going to listen to him,” chimed Walt, who also gave only his first name for fear of causing trouble for his son who worked for the Democratic Party.

If Democrats hope to win back the White House they will need to win back the Walts and Kathies of Luzerne.

There is little chance of that, according to this informal focus group. The Democrats still don’t offer the sort of radical change this county needs, they said.

It is easy to see why.

Kingston is the sort of place that has come to define Mr Trump’s America as largely rural and battered by repeated cycles of economic decline.

It was founded on the coal that made this part of America rich during the 19th century. Decline arrived in the middle of the 20th century, offset at first by manufacturing jobs before they left too, beaten off by foreign competition.

Many here still remember with bitterness how pencil maker Eberhard Faber upped and left for Mexico in the 1980s.

Some service sector jobs have arrived but they have not been enough to raise stagnant median wages since the year 2000. Unemployment rates run at about a percentage point higher than the national average or worse.

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“We used to make shoes in this county. We used to make clothes,” said Gary Reese, 73, a retired golf pro, describing with pride how dressmakers would supply glitzy Manhattan department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue.

“It’s all gone now. Everything comes from overseas.”

Mr Reese was more than merely a Democratic voter in the past. He represented the party as mayor during the 1990s but plumped for Mr Trump in 2016.

“I’m voting for him again this time,” he said. “I’m never voting Democratic again.”

The television above him switched to images from Mexico, where a procession of migrants – what has become known as a caravan – was walking towards the American border. Its progress has been weaponised by Mr Trump, who has sent extra troops to guard crossings and claimed the marchers had been infiltrated by “unknown Middle Easterners” and criminals.

Such claims may have been debunked but they touch a nerve in Luzerne County. Immigration has at times been a contentious issue, particularly in nearby Hazleton, which has a growing Hispanic population.

“We have immigration in this country, otherwise none of us would be here,” said Mr Reese, whose own family comes from Wales, “but I can only support so much.”

And with that it sounds as if the blue collar, Trump Democrats of 2016 are not so much swing voters, alienated by Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street ties and looking for the best deal for working men and women, but fully paid up members of the Trump base.

It means Democrats hoping to win back the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania will have to do a lot more than hope that Mr Trump’s erratic, angry outbursts and tweet storms will be enough to do the job for them.

As Frank DeViva, the welcoming owner of the Bakehouse puts it: “I can’t tell you the number of people who tell me they support Trump but dare not tell anyone.”