Thursday, 29 Oct 2020

A Struggling Ohio Town Celebrated Trump’s Win in 2016. What About Now?




Portsmouth, Ohio, was a struggling city in 2016, with high unemployment and a massive opioid addiction problem.

President Trump’s election was mostly cheered. He pledged to rejuvenate the Appalachian region’s economy.

Things are improving in Portsmouth, not because of Mr. Trump’s actions, but because local citizens were determined to revitalize their city.

His supporters no longer describe a strong connection between his candidacy and their hopes for Portsmouth. Many will still vote for him.

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Portsmouth, Ohio, was facing hard times when our reporter spent a week there leading up to Election Day 2016. She went back to find the town rebounding, and loyal to President Trump. But its residents no longer tie their fortunes to him.

By Emily Flitter

Photographs by Maddie McGarvey

PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — It was right around 10 p.m. at Buffalo Wild Wings on Scioto Trail when the needle swung from Hillary Clinton to Donald J. Trump.

I was standing near the bar with two of my colleagues from Reuters News watching the election returns on Nov. 8, 2016, after a long week of reporting. Our assignment had been to choose a spot in Trump Country and get to know the voters in order to write something meaningful about their inevitable loss.

The numbers on the television screens above the bar told a different story, signaling to the country that Mr. Trump, despite having trailed consistently in national polls, would be the next president. The few slouching customers who remained barely acknowledged a result that would prove to be a pivotal juncture in America. We exited into a cold rain.

Portsmouth was a struggling city then, with a blighted downtown and an enormous opioid addiction problem. Unemployment hovered near 13 percent, and a third of local residents were living in poverty. The local fire chief had described it as “hell.”

Mr. Trump had come close enough to Portsmouth while campaigning to hear about some of its problems. A local businessman, Jeff Albrecht, had traveled to Columbus to meet the candidate and had lobbied for the reopening of a shuttered uranium enrichment plant that had once employed hundreds of locals, an idea Mr. Trump promised to explore. With a Trump victory, things might finally improve for the first time since the Empire-Detroit Steel mill and the Selby Shoe Company factory closed decades ago.

I returned to Portsmouth last month to find a surprise: Even in this coronavirus year, things are getting better, but not because of anything the Trump administration has done.

A group of local citizens determined to meet the community’s challenges is driving the change — sprucing up the downtown area, organizing community events and opening new stores and restaurants. The local university, Shawnee State, is expanding its student population again and had its highest-ever increase in freshman enrollment last year. While opioid deaths remain high, new programs to help recovering addicts are adding to a sense around town that all is not hopeless.

While the 2016 election seemed to hold particular significance for Portsmouth because of Mr. Trump’s pledge to rejuvenate the region’s economy, things are different now. Mr. Trump is expected to prevail easily in Scioto County over his rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr. But his supporters no longer describe a strong connection between his candidacy and their hopes for Portsmouth.

“They are attracted to him because of his attitude, the way he pokes a finger in the eye of the establishment,” said John McHenry, a Democratic candidate for Scioto County commissioner who is expecting Mr. Trump to win at least half of the county’s vote again this year.

But it wasn’t just Mr. Trump’s attitude that impressed his loyalists; they said they had seen results in areas like trade and foreign policy that, though not directly beneficial to Portsmouth, were good for the country. “The man is doing the majority of what he said he was going to do, good, bad or indifferent,” said Portsmouth’s city manager, Sam Sutherland, who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016.

‘It’s just a real easy choice for me’

Portsmouth, a town of 20,000 people, lies on the Appalachian region’s northern edge. It is bordered by the Ohio and Scioto rivers on two sides, and on the other two by steep hills and lush forests. In an earlier era, this landscape was crucial to the country’s economic engine: Its mountains were mined for coal and copper; its riverways were vital transportation arteries. But the mines, mills and factories that employed its residents are gone now, as are the stores and other small businesses that their presence supported.

The past four years have included some fresh disappointments.

Just after Mr. Trump took office, a small company unveiled plans for a new $1.3 billion aluminum mill on the Ohio River near Portsmouth, promising 550 permanent jobs paying an average of $70,000 by 2020. Money for the project never materialized. The uranium enrichment plant is still closed, too.

Mr. Trump’s tax cuts have helped, some say, but other initiatives have not. Two opportunity zones, which offer investors tax breaks for buying into building projects, now blanket most of the town. But the program has only spawned one deal, a hotel, and its construction has stalled. Window frames jut at precarious angles from its shell.

Still, Mr. Trump remains in good standing with many voters here because what he has preached is aligned with what they believe.

They have also considered the president’s message that Mr. Biden was failing mentally.

“My father had Alzheimer’s before he died,” Mr. Albrecht, 70, told me. “He had a very distant look in his eyes, a faraway look, and when I look at Biden, sometimes I see that look.”

Mr. Albrecht invited a small group of locals to meet with me to discuss the election. Nine of us sat in a wide circle in a ballroom at the local Holiday Inn, which Mr. Albrecht owns. Everyone wore a mask.

Brian Noble, a retired insurance agency owner, was one of the five people in the group who said they were voting for Mr. Trump. “I like the moral stances that he takes on things, creating jobs, all things economy-wise,” Mr. Noble said. As for Mr. Biden: “I just don’t see him as a leader,” he said. “It’s just a real easy choice for me.”

Mr. Trump had not yet been diagnosed with Covid-19, but talk turned to his handling of the virus. Most people in the room said they believed that the president had done the best job he could.

“He enacted the travel ban very quickly,” Mr. Noble said. “I don’t know what else he could have done.”

After Mr. Trump’s diagnosis became public on Friday, Mr. Noble reaffirmed his view in a telephone interview and added: “I think he’ll be fine.”

Mr. Trump’s supporters said they saw his erratic behavior as a sign of his brilliance. One woman brought up astrology: Because she was a Gemini, she said, she understood Mr. Trump — also a Gemini — and knew that the incendiary things he said were part of a strategy to manipulate people and achieve success.

I also saw how Mr. Trump’s appeals to a white, conservative social order resonated in Portsmouth. Kim Hill, a local realtor, voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and said she believed that he had improved the country’s economy.

There were more long-haul transport trucks on the road during her weekly drives to Dayton, and more cargo pods stacked onto the rail cars that trundle daily past Portsmouth, she said, adding: “I never noticed that when Obama was in office.”

Ms. Hill raised another topic. Saying that she admired Mr. Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration, she recounted that while she lived in France in the 1990s, she had lamented the country’s decision to let large numbers of Africans emigrate there. “In just a 10-year period of time, it drastically changed, to where you didn’t even fell like you were in France, you felt like you were in South Africa,” she said.

Still, she said she felt a kinship with Black Lives Matter protesters, because she saw a bit of her younger self in them — the girl who walked around barefoot and loved the Rolling Stones.

I checked back in with Ms. Hill by phone to see how she viewed Mr. Trump’s debate performance last week and what she thought of his Covid diagnosis. The debate had been painful to watch, she said, and had made her question her allegiance to him. She said that she wished he had taken the coronavirus more seriously.

Mr. Trump’s debate outing did not shake Mr. Albrecht.

“What people like about him is the tax cut,” he said. “They feel safer now. They feel like if they go visit New York City that they’re not going to get attacked by some terrorist group. They like his stance on China and trade. They like that he wants to make government smaller.”

For Democrats, Biden is ‘one of us’

Like the rest of the country, Portsmouth has experienced political discord. There have been conflicts over mask-wearing, yard signs and banners. Democrats are outnumbered here, and some are wary that expressing their views could hurt their businesses or end friendships.

Others are more upfront. One afternoon, I got lost while driving on a steep hill above town and ended up face to face with a woman in a golf cart. When she found out I was a journalist writing about the election, she unleashed a torrent of vitriol about Mr. Trump. She said she did not understand how women could support him, given the way he had bragged about groping them and the fact that he wanted to take away their right to have an abortion.

The woman, Teeny Musser-Pettay, who is in her late 60s, invited her sister and a group of friends to a nearby park to meet me and talk about the election. They were bound by a common disgust with Mr. Trump. What’s more, they seemed enthusiastic about Mr. Biden.

“He grew up as one of us,” said Doug Hines, the owner of a local awning and canopy business who had come to the gathering with his wife, daughter and adult grandson. “His appeal is more towards your everyday normal person that goes to work and comes home to his family.”

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Another member of the group, Carol Cyrus, asked those gathered whether there was anything Mr. Biden could do that would undermine their support for him. Everyone agreed there was not.

This was a change from the last time. On Election Day in 2016, I asked a Democratic candidate for local office, Trampas Puckett, whom he had just voted for.

“I voted for the Democrat,” he said.

“And who is that?”

“The Democrat,” he said again. He could not bring himself to say Mrs. Clinton’s name.

Some Black residents in Portsmouth expressed an even greater urgency this time around.

The Rev. Margaret V.L. Tyson, the pastor at Portsmouth’s A.M.E. church, told her 25 congregants on a recent Sunday about a visit she had made to a white evangelical church nearby, where she was a guest speaker. She and the church’s pastor got along well, she said, but she was alarmed by his congregation.

“I got into a discussion last week with some Christians who didn’t look like us, who tried to tell me that there was no white privilege,” Ms. Tyson told her congregation. “I just said, ‘I’m going to pray for you all, and I’m going to stay away from you all.’”

Childhood friends go in different directions

Will Platzer was a senior at Portsmouth West High School when Mr. Trump won in 2016. Some of his classmates were already relying on Facebook for news and soaking up the conspiracy theories that circulated about Mrs. Clinton.

I visited Mr. Platzer’s government class at the time and met a student who said she had asked her parents about the “Access Hollywood’’ audiotape of Mr. Trump boasting about groping women; they told her it was fake, she said, circulated by the Clinton campaign.

The virtual world Mr. Platzer and his peers occupy is even darker now, and also more real. In June, Mr. Platzer’s best friend from childhood, Eli Eaton, formed a Facebook group called American Freedom Fighters and prepared to lead an armed group to Louisville, Ky., to confront, as he put it, “the enemy,” during protests over the killing by police of Breonna Taylor.

“We’re under a terrorist attack,” Mr. Eaton said in a video posted to the group’s page, adding that the Louisville police had offered “100 percent support” for his plan.

“I was terrified,” said Mr. Platzer, a senior at the University of Cincinnati. He began taking screenshots of Mr. Eaton’s Facebook page and sending them to Black Lives Matter protest organizers in Louisville to warn them.

The Louisville police publicly rejected Mr. Eaton. His group abandoned its plan to go to downtown Louisville during a planned protest but drove to the edge of town, where the group members waited in their trucks for news of violence. None occurred.

Mr. Eaton said that he had been misunderstood. In an interview at a Portsmouth restaurant, he said he was not a white supremacist and that he respected protesters’ rights to demonstrate peacefully. He had merely wanted to help protect businesses in Louisville, he said.

But Mr. Eaton’s view of the world is defined by a web of conspiracy theories.

He said believes that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were somehow faked and that the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck is not the same man who was charged with Mr. Floyd’s murder (“look at the ear structure in particular,” he advised).

Mr. Eaton used to accompany Mr. Platzer’s family on vacations to Florida. The two no longer talk. Their divergence hints at the fundamentally different realities, and potentially irreconcilable ruptures, that have emerged in Portsmouth.

There are signs, though, that an alternative lies within their grasp as well.

‘What’s really important is coming together’

Three years ago, a group of lawyers, real estate agents and other local professionals in their late 30s and early 40s decided they could wait no longer. Without help from outside investors, they began buying up crumbling buildings downtown, some of them 150 years old, renovating them and opening stores and businesses. They created a winter festival and logged local residents into the “Guinness World Records” book for wholesome group activities like singing and potting plants. Portsmouth was named a Hometown Christmas Town by the Hallmark Channel last year and an All-America City in August.

Partisan politics are put aside. “If I affiliate myself with one political party, I’m not going to be able to maintain this unity that we have in the community right now,” said the group’s leader, Jeremy Burnside.

That does not mean avoiding important issues. When a group of Black residents convened in June to talk about ways to promote racial equality — around 6 percent of Portsmouth’s residents are Black — Mr. Burnside was eager to participate. The group organized an Emancipation Day celebration, held on Sept. 22.

“I feel like this is the civil rights movement era again,” said Tia King, who helped organize the event. “If I can do something to make things better for my kids, I’m all about it.”

Ms. King recalled crying for two days after the 2016 election and said she was trying to persuade her husband, who voted for Mr. Trump, to choose Mr. Biden this time.

The event drew a larger crowd than Ms. King had expected.

At the local bandshell, 200 people gathered to listen to a historian from Shawnee State talk about a Portsmouth barber’s role in helping fugitive slaves reach safety as part of the Underground Railroad. They heard a speech by Al Oliver, a Portsmouth native who won the World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971, and listened to a performance by a local gospel choir.

After the speeches, attendees, including groups of school-age children, boarded buses for a tour of Portsmouth, during which local actors in costume depicted scenes from the town’s history.

The gathering appeared to straddle the partisan divide. Sitting near the front of the band shell audience was Richard Baldwin, 63, who said he was a Pentecostal Christian and that he adamantly opposed abortion.

“I’m a Republican,” he said, adding that he had voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and would do so again this year.

I asked him whether he was concerned about Mr. Trump’s views on racial equality, or his rejection of anti-discrimination policies.

“What’s really important is coming together, things like this,” Mr. Baldwin said, gesturing toward the stage. “We shouldn’t be talking about politics.”

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