The town of Johnstown was devastated by floods not once, not twice, but three times in less than a century. Then came the economic wave that washed away the steel industry, and with it a way of life.
Now a backlash is building in the maple-studded hills of southwestern Pennsylvania. Captured in interviews and confirmed in statewide polls, the sentiment is propelling Donald Trump toward the Republican nomination, and possibly even the presidency of the world’s biggest economy.
It’s the feeling people get when they’re afraid of being left behind.
“This town is beyond distressed. We’ve been destroyed. It’s sad, because this was a good place to grow up. You didn’t have to lock your door,” said Robert Vargo, 63, as he talked politics with a friend in a McDonald’s. The retired Johnstown native, who worked as a security guard despite having an engineering degree, plans to vote for Trump. “People are sick of being ignored. That’s why Trump is popular. He’s actually saying the things people are afraid to express.”
Pennsylvania’s 71 delegates will be the biggest prize on April 26, when five states vote for the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. Each one could be crucial for frontrunner Trump, fresh from a landslide win in his home state of New York, as he battles to secure a majority that would deny opponents a chance to unseat him at the party convention in July. The latest YouGov/CBS survey shows him 20 points clear of his two rivals in the state.
While there are no town-level polls, Trump’s promise to “make America great again” resonates in Johnstown, with its strong sense of vanished glory days. It was an industrial powerhouse, churning out the metal that helped build railroads, bridges and skyscrapers across a rapidly growing America. About 18,000 people worked in its steel mills after the Second World War -- today the entire population is just over 20,000 -- and they filled the skies above the Conemaugh River with columns of smoke. Residents hopped on and off streetcars, shopped at department stores, and went to movies at three Main Street theaters.
The streetcars are long gone, and downtown is pocked with vacant storefronts, as is the main shopping mall just outside town. Many houses are abandoned or dilapidated, with bedsheets and mattresses covering their windows. Some, with their caved roofs and buckled frames, look like they’ve been hit by a natural disaster.
“After businesses close, it’s like a ghost town. I don’t go downtown after dark,” said Michele Stuer, 47, a school-bus driver who plans to vote for Trump. “I remember when Obama was promising change. It changed alright, but not for the better.”
President Barack Obama took office in 2009 after blaming the financial crisis on Wall Street greed and promising to build prosperity from the bottom up. Under his presidency, parts of the labor market are booming: the economy has added 8.9 million jobs and the unemployment rate has fallen to 5 percent, about half its crisis peak. At the same time, incomes for much of the population have shrunk and so, by some measures, has the workforce.
Trump’s proposed remedy has already helped him win in places that resemble Johnstown: in the Rust Belt that used to make up the country’s manufacturing heartland, and down through the Appalachians, rich in coal but racked by poverty. The billionaire argues that decades of “disastrous” trade deals and immigration policies have destroyed the American middle class. He’s promised to slap tariffs on Chinese goods, deport illegal immigrants and force Mexico to pay for a border wall.
“I would suspect that the Trump folks would end up doing very well here. Certainly, there’s enough alienated working-class males,” said Richard Burkert, chief executive of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association. “The birthright here is you could always get a job in the steel mill or the coal mines, and that went away 25 years ago.”
Geography and geology shaped that birthright. At the confluence of two rivers, with abundant coal, iron ore and timber, Johnstown was plugged into rail- and waterways connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The town took off after 1852, when the Cambria Iron Company set up shop: it became one of the biggest suppliers to a booming U.S. rail industry, and was bought by Bethlehem Steel in 1923.
Times were good in the post-World War II decades for steelworkers on union contracts, whose solid wages and benefits contrasted with the brutal conditions in the early days of the mills.
“When I was a kid in the early 70s, I remember the whole downtown side was tinged with red from those mills,” said Todd Toth, 48. "Everybody was working, everybody was going to church on Sundays, and there was a bar on every other corner."
That era was caught on film. Johnstown was the inspiration, and shooting location, for “Slap Shot,” a cult 1977 movie about a losing minor-league hockey team which figures out how to punch its way to victory.
In the real world, the town was on the cusp of a losing streak. Steelmakers from Western Europe to China and Brazil were expanding or modernizing, and U.S. market share slumped from 20 percent in 1970 to 12 percent in 1990. Producers in some parts of America were able to keep up, but Bethlehem Steel couldn’t. It scaled back its operations in Johnstown, and in 1992 shut the mill for good. The rusted, hulking remains still stand along the river shore.
Some of the old steel centers, like Pittsburgh about 70 miles west, have shown signs of reinventing themselves. It’s proved harder in a small community like Johnstown.
A cluster of defense contractors picked up some of the post-steel slack, only to be hobbled by the drop in Pentagon spending in recent years.
More important for the town’s future was coal. The fuel had always been central to Johnstown culture. The local delicacy, called the “Gob,” a sandwich of chocolate cakes filled with white cream, is believed to have been named after piles of coal waste. But the industry has been hit hard by Obama administration efforts to reduce emissions. Local business leaders hoped natural-gas fracking could attract investment, until the collapse in global energy prices dimmed the prospect.
Toth’s career has mirrored the town’s economic evolution. After dropping out of college, he worked for two decades at a steel distributor. A few years ago, he joined a coal-mining company, which offered better wages and benefits. He works as a roof bolter on 12-hour shifts, seven days out of every two weeks.
Toth, a registered Republican who’s married with five kids, said he admires Trump’s business experience, though he hasn’t decided how to vote. He also said it upsets him when he sees people on social assistance living better than his family. “I work 40 plus hours a week and I struggle to keep my heat on 68 degrees, and these individuals are leaving their doors open,” he said.
Johnstown’s poverty rate is 34 percent, more than double the national figure, while its median annual household income of $25,376 is less than half. Just over one in 10 people have a bachelor’s degree, compared with almost three in 10 nationwide.
The promise of more jobs is key to Trump’s appeal. Exit polls suggest he’s especially popular among working-class white men. In the Michigan primary last month, he dominated among people without college degrees and those earning less than $50,000 a year.
So the demographics look good for Trump in Johnstown and the surrounding Cambria County next week. November might be tougher. Cambria has voted Democrat in six of the last eight presidential elections.
Trump might need the kind of cross-party surge that led to the coining of the term “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s, said Terry Madonna, director of the center for politics and public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The billionaire, he thinks, is already displaying that kind of appeal to blue-collar Pennsylvanians.
“They don’t think they’ve benefited from the economic recovery,” said Madonna. “These are people who believe that the folks they sent to Washington don’t represent them anymore. They don’t feel that they have a say.”
Back at McDonald’s in Johnstown, Vargo says he’s seeing a groundswell for Trump. “They’re attracted to how Trump speaks and what he says,” he said. "This is what the revolution looks like."