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A Small-Town Cry For Help

downtown Zanesville, Ohio in winter
Zanesville, Ohio. Photo by Paula R. Lively.

It has taken an uncharacteristically long time for me to comment about last week’s election results. You probably neither noticed nor cared, but if I kept you waiting, it was because I thought it best to let emotions cool a bit.

This is certainly not a time for gloating if, like me, you voted for Donald Trump. Neither is it a time for despair if you supported Hillary Clinton.

I have no intention of serving as Trump’s character witness, but I am proud to take on that role for fellow Americans generally. The nation that elected Barack Obama twice, the one that cheered alternately for Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, has not suddenly become a flourishing garden of racism and misogyny. Trump carried all the places in the heartland and the South that pretty much every Republican carries nowadays. Clinton did the same in all the Democratic strongholds on the urban coasts. She seems to have won New Hampshire too, albeit by the narrowest of margins, and she took Nevada. History and pre-election polls alike tell us that she therefore should be the next occupant of the Oval Office.

Except that in rural counties and small towns across the upper Midwest, Clinton lost by unexpectedly huge totals. Voters that seemingly nobody knew existed turned out to vote for Trump in places with names like Scranton, Zanesville and Kenosha. Trump won the white female vote overall. He did not do so in Brooklyn and Brentwood, but he did in Erie and Eau Claire.

I wanted to take some time to think about that, and my thoughts took me back to a Sunday a couple of years ago in New Kensington, Pennsylvania. I had flown in that morning to attend a funeral service that afternoon, and I stopped downtown to find something to eat.

“Desolate” is the only word to describe what I saw. This small Rust Belt city just outside Pittsburgh, once a prosperous little place where a client’s parents had owned a car dealership, had virtually no commerce in its commercial center. Not because it was a Sunday, but because it looked like a ghost town. The only places to conceivably find a bite to eat were a tavern and a pizza parlor. I opted for pizza.

The establishment was just a big bare room, empty except for a mother, her small children – the eldest was trying to do her fifth-grade homework – a couple of tables, a freezer and a microwave. My pizza came out of the freezer, went into the microwave, and was presented to me on a paper plate. The scene was so sad it literally hurt. I think I left a large tip; at least, I hope I did. Whatever I left, in hindsight and in my heart I know it wasn’t generous enough.

Just a couple of months ago I detoured off Interstate 70 at dinnertime and drove through downtown Zanesville, in eastern Ohio. It was New Kensington all over again. Even the thrift shops were forlorn. The only thriving business I saw after traversing the entire city center and looping back to the highway was the Cracker Barrel restaurant where I stopped for some chicken.

Thanks to the boom in “fracking” technology, eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania are oil and gas country, merging into the coal fields of West Virginia. For many families in rural counties in this region, some tired old farmland or woodlot is the only possession with any significant potential value – but its potential value lies completely in the minerals beneath the surface. Clinton was part of the Obama administration team that ran out the clock on the Keystone XL pipeline so as not to jeopardize the president’s re-election. Clinton herself promised to put coal companies and the miners they employ out of business, with hardly a thought to the families and communities they support.

If you are wondering how women in these places could have decided to support Trump rather than Clinton, I believe this is your answer. Those women all have homes and families. They have communities. They have husbands and fathers and sons and brothers.

Compared to the pain of witnessing the slow death of a 55-year-old man who has not worked in years and expects never to work again, or of trying to support small children by selling microwaved slices of frozen pizza, or of seeing their entire communities wither and die, of course these women could put aside concerns over whether Trump spoke or behaved badly. They cared far more that he at least seems favorably disposed to the kind of economic development that could make a real difference to their lives and their towns and their men. Being superfluous kills a person’s soul, regardless of color or nationality or gender. I found it brutal to witness for just a few hours. The unexpected votes for Trump came from men and women who see it and live it every day.

My wife and I have friends who traveled from New York to Philadelphia to register inner-city voters. That’s admirable, even if it was for the partisan purpose of helping Clinton’s chances.
People in the inner cities ought to speak and deserve to be heard. But I don’t know anybody who went to Scranton or New Kensington or anyplace like them to register voters whose needs may be different from those in the big cities, but are at least as dire.

Trump, despite all his flaws, did try to reach those audiences. He did not just go to small cities in Wisconsin (another place Clinton ignored after the primaries); he went to depressed areas in inner cities like Chicago and Detroit, appeared before minority audiences and asked for their support. He promised that his policies would be different from what has been tried until now and asked his audiences, poignantly, what they had to lose.

He did not persuade most of the people he addressed, but he seems to have moved some. Trump’s support among minorities exceeded expectations. I can’t think of any demographic in which Clinton outperformed her targets.

Trump drew 60 million votes last week, give or take a Zanesville. We don’t have 60 million racists, misogynists, anti-Semites and other haters in this country. If you are mystified by how so many people could vote for him notwithstanding his comments or past behavior, just visit some of the places that gave him their votes and put him over the top. People who are drowning do not demand character references from the guy who offers a life preserver.

There may have been a whisper of a rebel yell in the Trump vote, but it was drowned out by a cry of desperation from a part of the country that we who live on the coasts seldom visit and generally cannot hear.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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