Trump’s Rise Enabled by Decades-Long Slide for the Middle Class

The Republican presidential candidate appeals to disaffected voters, like this South Carolina couple who see him as a tough talker who addresses their struggles.

Photographer: Priscilla Thomas/Bloomberg

Sitting with his new wife in their new home, Ish Yniesta spoke of the life they rebuilt together after individual struggles with divorce, bankruptcy and loss. To them, Donald Trump represents the best chance for an unmoored country to achieve similar security.

Yniesta, 47, American-born son of a Filipino immigrant, works in a plastics plant and had to live with his mother for three years between marriages. Rita Smith-Yniesta, the 61-year-old daughter of a cotton-mill worker, is a homemaker who lost her former husband to cancer in 2012 and had to live off savings. They married in October and moved into their Summerville, South Carolina, house in November. Last week, they attended their first political rally when Trump, the real-estate heir, television fixture and Republican presidential frontrunner, spoke near Charleston.

“We’re happy,” Yniesta said between sips of sweet tea two days later as the couple’s shih tzu, Abby, napped nearby. “We’re all about being proactive and doing something—creating our own reality show, so to speak.”

Ish Yniesta sits with his wife, Rita Smith-Yniesta and their shih tzu, Abby.
Ish Yniesta sits with his wife, Rita Smith-Yniesta and their shih tzu, Abby.
Photographer: Priscilla Thomas/Bloomberg

Trump has tapped into a cohort of Americans who have experienced the uglier side of a grinding, decades-long economic transformation. Middle-class households are the minority for the first time since at least 1971. Inequality has soared to a 45-year peak.

Trump leads in polls thanks to proposals such as barring Muslims from the U.S., sealing the Mexican border and deporting the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. A CNN survey Dec. 4 showed Trump with 36 percent support among registered Republicans, with the highest support among whites and those with no college degree. Fifty-five percent of Republicans polled said Trump could best handle the economy.

A visit to the Yniestas’ split-level home off a private road 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Charleston provides insight into how a brash New York billionaire can find wells of support among those buffeted by the deepest downturn since the Depression.

The Yniestas voted for the buttoned-down Mitt Romney in 2012. Now, Trump’s blunt talk, combined with his wealth and perception that he won’t be beholden to anyone, makes him the ideal candidate to create economic security, Smith-Yniesta said.

“You put two politicians, like it’s always been, in the White House, what happens? Nothing, basically,” she said.

She fears what the country’s direction means for the couple’s three children and four grandchildren, the oldest of whom is 9.

“Our grandchildren are the ones that are going to have to face whatever happens with the next president,” Smith-Yniesta said.

The children are growing up in straitened times. The U.S. middle class, defined as those who earn between two-thirds and double the median household income, is shrinking. Lower- and upper-income households together outnumber those in between for the first time since 1971, according to the Pew Research Center.

Smith-Yniesta married right out of high school in Greenville, South Carolina, and worked odd jobs while raising her two sons. Her husband ran a service station and sold tow trucks. Because she has loved to sing since she was a child, he bought her a karaoke machine and they later started a business offering the diversion at bars and restaurants.

Her first husband “was a great saver,” yet, after he died, Smith-Yniesta worried about getting a job, and who would be willing to hire her at her age.

It was a karaoke bar that brought Smith-Yniesta and Yniesta together in a chance meeting while both were traveling separately through Georgia with friends. The group discovered they were all from South Carolina, and she remembers him as “a genuine gentleman.” Tall, with long, dark hair, she struck him as “a Southern belle.”

They sang to each other at their wedding: “At Last” to him, and “Like a River to the Sea” to her. The karaoke equipment sits in their Summerville home.

Ish Yniesta sits inside his new home in South Carolina.
Ish Yniesta sits inside his new home in South Carolina.
Photographer: Priscilla Thomas/Bloomberg

Yniesta, a stocky man with graying hair at his temples, has worked since age 19 as a chemical technician, monitoring the plastic-making at an E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. plant and later for DAK Americas LLC. For 11 years, he worked a second job as a service adviser at a Sears Holding Corp. store.

In 2012, he filed for bankruptcy amid a divorce dispute involving payments for the home he shared with his ex-wife. He claimed assets of $237,270, including his 401(k) savings, and liabilities of $185,630, mainly two mortgages.

While he feels secure in his job, which pays about $55,000 a year with good benefits, he worries about younger workers. He said Trump would address the trade imbalance with China, which hit a record in September, and use his acumen to create jobs.

“The backbone of America is the blue collar, building things, fixing things, manufacturing, and we don’t have that anymore,” he said. “Everything is going overseas or being outsourced to another country.”

Battered by a stronger dollar and weaker orders from overseas customers, U.S. manufacturers have seen little job growth this year, with payrolls falling in three of the past four months. More broadly, production workers have seen little recovery from a longer-term slide: In the 10 years ended in June 2009, when the expansion began, manufacturers shed 5.57 million jobs. Those payrolls have increased just 592,000 since.

Wage growth has been sluggish since the 18-month recession ended in June 2009. Average hourly earnings for private production and non-supervisory workers eased to a 2 percent year-over-year rate in November, just short of the 2.1 percent average in this expansion, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Yniesta said he has received only a few cost-of-living adjustments to his pay during the past decade.

Yniesta was born in Philadelphia after his father came to the U.S. from the Philippines by joining the Navy following World War II. While Yniesta and his wife don’t oppose legal immigration, they are wary of those who arrive illegally and have children who automatically become U.S. citizens.

Trump’s hard line on immigration resonates with the Yniestas.

Ish and Rita hold an American flag in the backyard of their South Carolina home.
Ish and Rita hold an American flag in the backyard of their South Carolina home.
Photographer: Priscilla Thomas/Bloomberg

“When people are in our country and they’re not contributing to our own system, and then they’re taking from the system, that’s a negative thing for me and the future,” Yniesta said. “That’s my tax dollars that I pay into that are going elsewhere.”

Opening a package of clip-on cardinal ornaments for the first Christmas tree that she has put up in seven years, Smith-Yniesta said she previously disliked watching Trump on television, because she doesn’t care for reality shows. She laughed when she first heard he wanted to run for president. She got serious about supporting him after hearing him talk in what struck her as a down-to-earth way.

“He was saying exactly what needs to be done, and I think what most people think needs to be done,” Smith-Yniesta said.

—With assistance from Esmé E. Deprez.

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