Why Trump’s ‘Forgotten Man’ Still Supports Him

16 minute read

Donald Trump was saying everything Vonie Long wanted to hear, not that Long believed him.

The head of the United Steelworkers’ local union in Coatesville, Pa., Long was sitting in his electrical-maintenance truck in June 2016, listening on the radio to Trump give a speech on trade at an aluminum plant on the other side of the state, outside Pittsburgh. Trump had begun with a tribute to the steelworkers who built America. He blasted the politicians who pursued globalization and pledged to fight unfair trade practices that threatened U.S. jobs. Most of all, he made promises, from renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to imposing a tariff on steel.

Long, a stout man with a bristly gray mustache, was impressed. Republicans didn’t usually talk like this. “Any of us steelworkers could have given that exact speech,” he told me recently. And while Long, a Democrat, voted against Trump, after the election he hoped that Trump might actually follow through.

But it hasn’t panned out that way. A year into Trump’s term, the factories have not roared back. His accomplishments–a massive corporate tax cut, a strong stock market–have largely redounded to the benefit of the bankers and fat cats. Trump has taken few of his promised actions on trade and manufacturing. The American steel industry has suffered as the market floods with imports, forcing prices down, all while the Administration dithers and delays over tariffs.

As Long sees it, no one should feel more betrayed by the Trump presidency than the archetypical Trump supporter: the white working-class voter whom Trump dubbed the Forgotten Man. And yet, to his great frustration, many of his fellow blue collar workers don’t seem to grasp how Trump has abandoned them. As of last month, the President’s approval rating was 46 percent among white non-college-educated voters, down 7 points since he took office, according to the polling firm Morning Consult. “The most vocal supporters of him, they’re just unwavering,” Long says, shaking his head.

president doanld trump trade policies coatesville pa
Coatesville was once known as “Pittsburgh East” for its steel production. Today the local steelworkers’ union has just a few hundred workers at the town’s plantJeffrey Stockbridge for TIME

The immovable loyalty of Trump’s narrow but vocal base has broad ramifications, not just for the Democratic Party but also for the nation. Unbridgeable divides make governing nearly impossible: there can be no consensus in a politics of blind tribalism. But the real tragedy of Trump’s broken promise to the working man is the missed opportunity it represents. Trump had a chance, advocates argue, to bring back American manufacturing–and spur a populist political realignment in the process. Many of the residents of Trump Country, the nation’s hollowed-out former industrial heartland, still hold out hope that he can do it. But the President seems to have forgotten them.

The blue collar man is the mascot and enigma of the Trump era: endlessly analyzed, endlessly interrogated. Reporters and researchers have returned again and again to Trump Country since 2016, asking the same question–What do you think of the President now?–and getting the same answers: It’s a witch hunt. He’s shaking things up.

Scott Paul, head of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, has given up asking; the answers are always unsatisfying. “There’s a lot of forgiveness,” Paul, a slight, fine-featured 51-year-old, tells me as he drives his battered Ford SUV down the two-lane highway out of Coatesville. “There’s kind of a list of reasons why he hasn’t done this or hasn’t done that.” But Paul keeps coming back to places like Coatesville anyway. He’s not on a mission to win votes for the Democrats. His aim is to try to get the President to keep his commitments.

A picturesque town of 13,000, Coatesville was once known as “Pittsburgh East” for its booming steel industry that employed as many as 8,000 people. The massive plant that looms over the town is the U.S.’s longest continuously operating steel mill, open since 1810. It produced the 152 nine-story fork-shaped supports that formed the base of the original World Trade Center–many of which stayed standing when the towers fell on Sept. 11. It makes nuclear-submarine parts and mine-resistant armor for military vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today the plant is badly diminished. In 2003, it was acquired by an investment group led by Wilbur Ross, now Trump’s Secretary of Commerce; it was eventually bought by the Luxembourg-based industry giant ArcelorMittal, and operates at a fraction of its capacity. The steelworkers’ local that Long oversees now has just 580 members at the plant.

Like Long, Paul hails from Trump Country, having grown up in rural northwestern Indiana. A former trade lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, his association is funded by American steel unions and manufacturers. And while he didn’t vote for Trump, he understood why so many working-class white people did.

“When you see Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin all end up in the same place,” Paul tells me, “there’s a reason for it.” Trump’s opposition to globalization broke with the GOP’s elite consensus. But it tapped a wellspring of sentiment in the party’s base that politicians like Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan recognized decades ago. There’s a similar fissure in the Democratic Party, where populists like Bernie Sanders opposed the Obama Administration’s push for deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It’s not a coincidence, Paul believes, that both Sanders and Trump drew so much support from the industrial Midwest.

To be sure, some white working-class voters were nativists who thrilled to Trump’s rants against China, Mexicans and Muslims. Paul doesn’t deny that racism and sexism played a role but says that “some of it is a sense that their manufacturing communities have been left behind.” President Obama promised to add a million manufacturing jobs in his second term; the total came to only about 360,000.

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Business is booming and workers are in demand at the John Rock Inc. pallet company in Coatesville. Owner Bill MacCauley says Trump’s recently enacted tax cuts spurred him to invest in new equipmentJeffrey Stockbridge for TIME

Paul was willing–even eager–to work with Trump. He saw it as an encouraging sign when the just-elected President asked him to serve on a newly created advisory council on manufacturing jobs. “A year ago, I thought there was a reasonable possibility we’d get an infrastructure bill, we’ll get ‘Buy American’ laws, there’ll be a crackdown on China, he’s going to look out for the steel industry, and he’s going to renegotiate NAFTA,” Paul says. “That’s something I wanted to be a part of.”

Instead, Paul found himself cringing as Trump did things he didn’t support, from pulling out of the Paris Agreement to the ban on travelers from some Muslim-majority countries. In August, when Trump hesitated to denounce the deadly white-nationalist march in Charlottesville, Va., Paul hit his breaking point. He was one of eight members to resign from the manufacturing initiative, which the White House then disbanded.

Since then, Paul has watched from the sidelines as Trump’s promises have been indefinitely delayed. The lack of progress on a controversial Chinese steel tariff is a case in point. An obscure provision, Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, allows the U.S. to restrict imports if national security is at stake. In an April ceremony at the White House attended by steelworkers’ representatives and CEOs, Trump announced an investigation into steel imports under Section 232. But the Administration’s original June deadline has come and gone, and still no decision has been announced.

The “Buy American” order Trump signed in January didn’t actually, as he claimed, require that the Keystone XL oil pipeline be built from American steel. The trade deficit with China recently hit $375 billion, the highest level in history. Although Trump pulled out of TPP and has undertaken talks to renegotiate NAFTA, all the trade agreements the U.S. was a party to when he took office remain unchanged. It wasn’t until Feb. 12 that the White House finally unveiled its infrastructure plan, to indifference on Capitol Hill. Rather than support building new highways and bridges and airports and railways, as Trump once promised, the proposal provides seed money to encourage private companies to build things like toll roads.

The lack of action is partly the result of a battle under way within Trump’s own Administration. Trade hawks like Peter Navarro and Robert Lighthizer stoke Trump’s protectionist impulses, only to be resisted by more mainstream economic advisers, from Gary Cohn to Republicans in Congress. Meanwhile, the Chinese have wooed the President aggressively, with apparent success: so far, the only win for the protectionists has been a minor action imposing trade restrictions on solar panels and washing machines. (Recently, the President has appeared to refocus on these priorities, touting infrastructure and meeting with senators on tariffs. “Everything that President Trump has done since taking office has been directed toward making the country better for all Americans,” a White House official told me, “including the men and women who had felt forgotten by decades of bad deals and regulations that sent their factories and jobs overseas.”)

Economists differ on the potential effect of trade restrictions. But in the near term, the effect of Trump’s indecision on towns like Coatesville has been immediate. When Trump announced the Section 232 investigation, other countries began pumping out steel to ship to the U.S. before a tariff took hold. The glut of supply sent steel prices tumbling. A pipe mill outside Harrisburg has had layoffs, as has a steel mill in Conshohocken. Another in Kentucky announced it will shut down.

Paul wonders what might have been. “I’ve been around politics enough to know there’s a gap between campaign promises and what an elected official can deliver,” he says. “But imagine if, at the beginning of his Administration, Trump had said to Democrats, ‘Let’s work on trade enforcement, let’s do infrastructure,’ instead of trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pushing a very partisan exercise on taxes.” He chuckles ruefully. “What a different place we could be in now.”

Trade proponents argue that the steel jobs aren’t coming back, and towns like Coatesville need to adjust to a new economy. In Coatesville, the future may have already arrived in the form of the humble pallet.

“There’s plenty of jobs,” shouts Bill MacCauley, yelling to be heard over the sound of heavy machinery as he strides through his cavernous warehouse. Just across town from the old steel mill, the John Rock Inc. pallet factory is booming. “Our biggest challenge is labor,” says MacCauley, a rangy, easygoing man in blue jeans. In his telling, the pallet, that simple slatted platform, is the unsung hero of the American economy. “Pallets are a better barometer of the economy than anything else,” he contends. “Everything in this country moves on a pallet.”

MacCauley, who grew up on a farm, was working as the plant manager in 1997 when its founder decided to retire. Since taking over the business, he has modernized and expanded it, commissioning efficient new nailing and sawing machines and doubling the warehouse’s footprint. Today MacCauley’s plant nails together 20,000 pallets a day, making it one of the top five pallet-making facilities in the country by his reckoning. The nails are from Korea–they tried American nails, but the quality didn’t pass muster.

Winters are typically busy in the pallet business as the holidays and Super Bowl spur shipping demand. But MacCauley says business has been gangbusters since Trump took office a year ago. Since the passage of corporate tax cuts in December, MacCauley has dramatically increased his capital investments: he has $2 million worth of new machinery scheduled to arrive in the next three months, purchases he says he wouldn’t have made now if not for the legislation.

With unemployment down to 4.1%, companies across the U.S. have had to scramble to find workers, driving wages up and forcing recruiters to get creative. John Rock is no exception. Pay starts at $11 per hour, with full benefits and a 401(k). MacCauley has raised wages by $1 over the past year, in part to compete with landscaping jobs. He estimates that a majority of the plant’s workers are Latino. The job market is so tight that the company has started recruiting women for what has traditionally been men’s work. “Whether you like Trump or not, the fact remains: everybody’s doing better than they were a year ago,” MacCauley says. “We’re probably going to look back at this as one of the biggest booms in our lifetime.”

It’s not quite accurate to attribute all this to the new Administration. Unemployment was plummeting before Trump was elected; in fact, jobs have grown more slowly under Trump than any other year since 2010, and wage growth slowed during his first year. The President boasted in his State of the Union on Jan. 30 about the addition of 200,000 manufacturing jobs, but there are still 1 million fewer Americans working in manufacturing than there were 10 years ago.

Still, to MacCauley, things look better than ever. Foreign trade doesn’t bother him: “When they import goods, they import ’em on a pallet,” he says. Reducing immigration would worsen MacCauley’s hiring crunch–that’s a part of Trump’s agenda he’s not so keen on–but so far Trump’s crackdown hasn’t affected him.

We walk out past MacCauley’s office, where a bikini-girl calendar hangs on one wall and the others are festooned with livestock-show ribbons for the specialty ewes he raises as a hobby. Above a receptionist’s desk is a mug reading I just want to drink coffee and listen to Rush Limbaugh. This plant, powered by global trade and immigrant workers, may not match Trump’s populist vision, and MacCauley, the man with his name on the payroll checks, was never quite forgotten in the global economy. But from where he sits, there are plenty of reasons to be happy with Trump.

The Trump base –that part of the electorate that supports him not reluctantly but ardently–is not the political mainstream: just 22% strongly approved of the President in one recent poll. But Trump’s working-class supporters continue to fascinate and flummox political experts in part because they are stubbornly, heartbreakingly hopeful that he will eventually keep his promises to them.

At Coatesville’s Little Chef Family Restaurant, 64-year-old John Gathercole sits at the lunch counter with a cup of coffee, talking about how Trump will bring back steel jobs. He spent 29 years cutting heavy steel, retiring two years before the plant closed and laid off the remaining workers. Politicians romanticize manual labor, but it was a brutal job: Gathercole believes he could have been killed if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration hadn’t intervened to protect him from illegal emissions. Now he makes pocket money driving Amish workers to and from their factory gigs.

“I’m a big union man. I always will be,” Gathercole says. Solidly built with slicked-back gray hair, he wears a gold chain under his Under Armour shirt. A lifelong Democrat, Gathercole cast his first-ever Republican vote in 2016. “I don’t know how Trump is on unions,” he says. “I liked him because he was change.”

Sentiments are similar 30 miles up the road, in the once vibrant manufacturing hub of Reading. The city’s garment factory is now an outlet mall, and it has one of the highest urban poverty rates in the U.S.. at 39%. At an indoor farmers’ market here, between stalls selling Amish pastries and fresh poultry, locals are yelling at one another about politics.

“Trump is going to revisit NAFTA and take a hard line with China,” insists a voluble man with curly gray hair in a Snap-on tools jacket. Trade, he says, is his No. 1 issue; his wife is a United Automobile Workers union member, and his sons both work at a steel-alloy plant. “They’ve been busy as heck since Trump got in,” says the man, who won’t give his name because he’s afraid he’ll be attacked by Trump critics.

At the other end of the table, a white-mustached man in a black driving cap can’t believe what he’s hearing. Eighty-two-year-old Charlie Fisher doesn’t like the slogan “make America great again,” he says, because he always believed America was great. When Fisher demands that the other man defend the Access Hollywood tape, the Trump supporter brings up Hillary Clinton’s emails. “How about eight years of Obama, the Muslim in Chief, who never made 3% GDP growth?” he hollers. “See, I do my homework. I know what I’m talking about.”(In fact, the economy grew 3% during several quarters under Obama.)

At the next table, Todd Hiester, 61, sits quietly thinking about the past. In 1979, when he was 19, his father got him a job at the Dana auto-parts plant. Hiester apprenticed as a tool and die maker, loved the work, and did it until the company went bankrupt in 2000. The day the factory closed, two men who worked alongside Hiester were so despondent that they shot themselves, he says. Hiester had been pulling in $36 per hour but missed qualifying for a pension by three months. He tried going back to community college for a computer degree, but he never found another job that paid half of what he had once made.

Hiester says he voted for Trump for a host of reasons: because of the need for Judeo-Christian values on the Supreme Court, because he believes undocumented immigrants are living off government benefits, because he didn’t like Clinton and because of trade. He blames the system for Trump’s struggles and holds out hope that change is still coming.

“I think his intentions are good,” says Hiester, a soft-spoken man wearing a dark green fleece. “His heart is very good.” He is sure that Trump is doing his best to fight for the working man, and you have to admit, he says, that the President is not like all those other politicians.

No matter that Trump’s lawyers worry that he will perjure himself if he is interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller. Forget that the Washington Post has recorded more than 2,000 falsehoods in Trump’s first year alone. “At least,” Hiester says of the President he trusts, “he doesn’t lie.”

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Write to Molly Ball / Coatesville, Pa. at molly.ball@time.com