FORD CITY, Pa. — He is old and gray now, he struggles sometimes to hear, but if he closes his eyes the burly man can easily conjure that young boy again, a lad at work in a bustling factory that for a century formed the strong, straight economic backbone of this proud industrial borough.
“We were poor, but we didn’t realize it because all our neighbors were, too,’’ Paul Hromadik said as he gazed across a rainy town common here at what used to be the Pittsburgh Plate Glass works.
In 1953, Hromadik was among thousands who flooded through a pedestrian tunnel at the corner of Third Avenue and Ninth Street and into the glassworks. He made rear windows for cars and trucks before he left for a stint in the Army and then a life as a power company supervisor, father, and grandfather.
“This town is dying now,’’ the 81-year-old Hromadik said softly. “All the young people are moving out.’’
That Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant is long gone, an early harbinger of an economic collapse that has decimated the region’s manufacturing base and fueled a resentment, particularly acute among white working-class voters, that has become an emblem of Donald Trump’s America.
And that’s why I am here along the banks of the Allegheny River, talking to Hromadik and others like him. I have cowered under the covers long enough. Denial does no one any good. Donald Trump is going to put his left hand on the Bible in a couple weeks and repeat the oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Roberts.
I do not live in Donald Trump’s America, but I aim to learn from those who do. I’ve rented a sturdy car. I’ve enlisted a wingman with serious driving chops. And I’ve pointed myself west to the land Trump found so fertile and tilled with such skill and in a rough-shod style all his own.
West beyond Hartford. West over the Hudson River. West through snow-dusted farmlands and tree-studded mountains and along the vast interstate highway system named for another Republican and political newcomer, Dwight Eisenhower.
Trump lost the popular vote, but he won the land, 3 million square miles and 80 percent of the nation’s counties.
This is one of them. Forty miles northeast of Pittsburgh, Ford City’s population of 3,000 is about half the number who lived here a century ago, when John B. Ford built what was said to be one of the planet’s biggest plate-glass factories.
There is a statue of Ford in the central park where he stands forever staring at the factory that once was a roaring economic engine but is now a hulking and empty reminder that this is a city whose glory days are in the rear-view mirror.
It’s not difficult to understand the appeal here of Trump, who shakes his fist at foreign economic interlopers and pledges at every turn to make America great again.
Make Ford City great again? That’s what has Sheri Humenik animated these days.
I encountered her at the local library last week, where she was replenishing the racks of magazines and periodicals and evangelizing about the beauty and the allure of small-town life.
“I believe in this community,’’ said Humenik, a 40-something full-time mom and part-time pharmacist. “This town is the best-kept secret. Where Pittsburgh Plate Glass was would be the perfect place for some new high-tech business. It would bring our town back to life.’’
All of Armstrong County could certainly use a lift.
Downsizing bulletins from local employers are routine. The economic decline has been paralleled by the fading fortunes of the local Democratic Party, whose members outnumbered Republicans until 12 years ago. Republicans now dominate, 20,600 to 15,880. “For every Armstrong County Republican that became a Democrat since January, three Democrats have gone in the opposite direction,’’ the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last spring.
That trend does not surprise people like Humenik, who grew up here and intends to stay put. Trump’s message, she said, was a warm and welcome salve.
“I felt like that he wants to revitalize places just like this,’’ she told me. “He wants to invest in people. He brings a fire that has reignited hope in people. We need investments in the small towns, not just the big cities. The small towns are suffering. We need to recognize the hidden gems and bring them back. I’m upbeat. I’m encouraged. I’m looking forward.’’
I nearly looked over my shoulder to see if someone from the Trump communications office was getting all of this on film. It was so perfectly rendered. And it all felt so genuine, which is going to take some getting used to. Because back where I live, there you don’t run into many who would say out loud what she just did, even if they think it. And there are plenty of disbelievers who can’t bear the thought of a President Trump.
And, truth be told, you don’t have to look very far to find them here either. The Trump-is-a-snake-oil-salesman caucus is alive and well on the steps of the county courthouse, where attorney Chuck Pascal has sneaked outside for a late-morning smoke as a soft rain falls over Kittanning, the Armstrong County seat.
“These are dangerous times,’’ said Pascal, a former Leechburg mayor and a member of the Democratic State Committee. “I don’t think Trump knows anything and I don’t think he knows that he doesn’t know anything.’’
But Pascal understands the allure of Trump. Comfortable blue-collar jobs are gone. There’s been an exodus of the professional class. People wanted change. They were willing to roll the dice on Trump.
Pascal, a Bernie Sanders supporter and delegate, knows it is now wasted breath to dissect and analyze what went so wrong. Hillary Clinton “was such a horrible candidate, and now we’re all going to suffer for it,’’ he said. “I’ve never been scared before, but this is so scary to me.’’
It’s scary to me, too. But that’s not why I’m here. I want reassurance that everything is going to work out fine. I want to understand why so many of my fellow Americans have embraced a man whose every Cabinet appointment seems like a middle finger fiercely extended to the non-adherents he calls enemies.
It’s time to jump back into the SUV. It’s a big red country out there.
“What do you think? Ohio? Michigan?” I ask my monosyllabic wingman.
“Sure,’’ he says.
So that’s what we do.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.