Youngstown, Ohio, on the surface, displayed almost no sign of life. Shop windows were boarded up, the shells of empty factories stood decaying, and the roads were poorly maintained. Salena Zito, the Washington Examiner journalist and author of The Great Revolt whom I was shadowing for the week, shook her head with sadness. Turning to her small cohort of Harvard University students, Salena began to recount the town’s ill-fated past.
In 1977, on what would become known as Black Monday, the Youngstown Iron Sheet and Tube Company abruptly furloughed 5,000 workers. As the situation spiralled and other steel mills were shuttered, the Youngstown area lost an estimated 40,000 jobs, 400 satellite businesses and $414 million in personal income. The community fractured, school funding withered, churches shut, and people left in the tens of thousands.
Fast-forward 40 years, and the Rust Belt residents, this trauma still heavy on their minds, headed to the voting booths and cast their ballots for Donald Trump. Haunted by a nostalgia for a steel-making past, and won over by the Republican leader’s promise of manufacturing jobs, the Rust Belt became a strong supporter of the Trump presidency.
I had the opportunity to join a small number of Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) students on a Rust Belt road trip through Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. As with many IOP events, I was, again, the only international student. Accompanied by Salena, our aim was to engage with communities and Trump voters in order to understand why they voted the way they did. Resident after resident referenced the closure of the steel mills as an example of the government ignoring the needs of the working class.
Catch up on the rest of Raphaelle’s journey here
Brits in America: hard work pays when nothing else will
Brits in America: the highs and lows of my first year at Harvard University
Brits in America: cramming my summer with internships
Brits in America: vlogging a day at Harvard University
Brits in America: sexism, safety and strength
We visited restaurants, churches, schools and factories. We met with workers, managers and business owners. We were exposed to their beliefs about the privilege that we as Harvard students must enjoy. I didn’t experience any problems with the residents, and also realised that any issues I had were slowly mitigated. Exposure to opposing opinions doesn’t mean that you change yours, but it can help you to understand them better.
Harvard, unfortunately, is regarded as the epitome of elitism by the typical Rust Belt voter, who sees it as detached from the realities that the everyday American faces and a breeding ground for corrupt politicians.
After spending time in the Rust Belt and confronting stereotypes that we may have held, it would be reasonable of us to ask the people of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania to do the same. However, that is where I saw the distinction arise.
Although I recognise the issues that these communities have faced since the mills closed, I am aware that Rust Belt residents have not been, and are not, alone in their suffering.
Black communities are still scarred by the past and by the prevalence of systemic racism in America. Members of ethnic minority groups continue to have their nationality questioned despite their living in a country that they have every right to call their own. LGBTQ+ people receive abuse and discrimination every day. Children have been torn from the arms of their parents at the border with Mexico. Yet I saw no attempt by the people we met to confront their stereotypes of these communities. If anything, I fear that our visit may have only reinforced a justification that many Rust Belt residents cite when explaining their support for Trump.
And as a Harvard student visiting the Rust Belt, I was aware that everything I said and did was being scrutinised by people on both the left and the right. That’s why from the very first moment I arrived in Youngstown to my departing flight in Pittsburgh, I sat firmly on the fence.