PITTSBURGH — Not what you thought.
Not a steel empire. (It hasn’t been that for decades.) Not a workforce of bulging muscles, grimy work clothes, miners’ headlamps. (That’s an image promoted by an NFL football team that still lives, and often wins, by the old ethic.) Not an impregnable Democratic redoubt either.
This last “not” was key to the presidential election of Donald Trump. It also shocked the country. It shouldn’t have.
When the sun rose over southwestern Pennsylvania Wednesday, its light shined on a miles-long riverbank where a shopping center replaced the fabled Homestead Steel Works; its rays landed on a test track for driverless cars that Uber Technologies is operating on a site once occupied by the LTV Coke Works; and the morning sunshine illuminated a regenerative-medicine complex exploring tissue engineering and stem cell therapy that sits where workers once poured into a Jones & Laughlin steel mill.
Pittsburgh today is the Steel City in the way Salem is the Witch City, more a bow to a distant past than a description of its current profile. There is nothing subtle about the shift here and across the postindustrial western counties of this state. Only a party that had stopped paying attention, a Democratic Party that had long treated Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes as its birthright, could miss it.
“Trump took advantage of 30 years of job losses, flat wages, rising insecurity, and the industrial working class’s feeling that the system doesn’t work anymore,’’ said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, based here. “The attitude was: ‘Why not take a chance?’ ”
But if the historic red shift of this region was invisible in the spare cubicles of the Hillary Clinton campaign, in the dark-wood conference rooms where Democratic strategy was plotted, and on the illuminated campaign panels in election night broadcast studios before the returns started coming in, it was starkly evident in the state capitol in Harrisburg, where Democratic state Representative Dan Frankel of Pittsburgh recalled a meeting with colleagues from neighboring areas when he first entered the chamber a decade and a half ago.
“Almost all of them were Democrats back then,” Frankel said. “Now it’s a sea of red, and it got redder on Tuesday.”
This Rust Belt rebellion spilled far beyond this region, reached into rural areas, and upended both the conventional wisdom and the calculus of presidential politics. It repeated itself throughout the industrial and agricultural Midwest, where unease with the modern Democratic Party and with coastal liberals was transformed into a quiet insurgency that was missed by pollsters and politicians alike. This insurgency began in the Nixon years, when the 37th president’s “quiet majority’’ carried him to a close victory in 1968 and then to a landslide triumph four years later. It accelerated with Ronald Reagan, who gave a name to these Democratic apostates — the Reagan Democrats — and came into full flower last week.
The city of Pittsburgh remained Democratic Tuesday — the Clinton team got that much right — but the rest of southwestern Pennsylvania, where longstanding social and cultural conservatism mixed with the new, muscular economic populism, marched stoutly into the Trump column. In county after county in this region — part angry post-industrial, part agrarian, part Appalachian — the Manhattan businessman who vowed to bring jobs back to mining and manufacturing ran far ahead of former governor Mitt Romney, who lost this state to Barack Obama four years ago. Trump’s vote total in the Keystone State Tuesday was about the same as Obama’s, who took 52 percent of the vote in 2012.
In Greene County, where in April thousands of angry miners held a “solidarity’’ rally to protest proposed cuts in employee wages and benefits and in retirees’ health plans, Trump won 70 percent of the vote.
In Fayette County, a coal and coke center with a heavy heritage of unionization, Trump took 64 percent.
Both numbers ran well ahead of Romney’s showing. The two counties rank among the eight poorest of Pennsylvania’s 67.
And in Westmoreland County — a huge swath of land with a population 97 percent white — Trump carried 64 percent of the vote. The Republican presidential nominee now has taken the county the past five elections in a row — with Trump’s margin by far the greatest victory any candidate has scored there since the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964.
“The farther you get from the urban center, the stronger the disillusion and the stronger the Trump sentiment,’’ said Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat who is the county executive of Allegheny County, which, unlike Massachusetts counties, is a massive and important governmental unit, one that reaches far beyond Pittsburgh.
“They’ve left the Democratic Party socially and culturally,’’ Fitzgerald said.
In this region, manufacturing now accounts for a smaller percentage of employment than the national average, the result of the steel bust that at one point drove 50,000 people a year, almost all of them Democrats, from this area. Some 227,000 left during the 1980s alone, most of them young. Indeed, one-fifth of all 20-year-olds left Pittsburgh in that period — the rate was higher in Johnstown, 67 miles east, where youth flight hit a third of the population — leaving behind their parents, many of them now deceased.
“The older workforce — the people who didn’t leave — came from an economic era that is very different from now,” said Christopher Briem, regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Urban Research.
That older workforce was reared in an era when generation followed generation, mostly happily and increasingly economically secure, into the mill or the mine. While the commentator and social critic H.L. Mencken was struck in a visit to the area by what he called “the unbroken and agonizing ugliness, the sheer revolting monstrousness, of every house in sight,’’ the residents here saw in their towns and along the hills something quite different, and distinctly American: home ownership, economic security, and opportunity.
For just as the acrid smell around Berlin, N.H., in the middle of the 20th century meant there were jobs in the pulp mill, there was money in what the British novelist Anthony Trollope described as “the floating soot which hovered over the house-tops.’’
In New England, the mill towns that were the economic underpinning of important regional commercial centers declined gradually, over decades.
But here the decline was precipitous. Manufacturing employment reached its peak in 1979 and 1980. By 1985, most of those jobs were gone. Indeed, there are fewer steel workers here in this decade (13,400 in 2013, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry) than worked at the Aliquippa Works of Jones & Laughlin alone (around 15,000) in its heyday.
Like the New England mill towns, the mill towns of southwestern Pennsylvania were symbolic of an important passage in American history that took the country from its agricultural roots to its industrial power. Just as the high school sports teams in Peabody, Mass., are known as the Tanners, reflecting the North Shore city’s past in the leather industry, the pro football team here is known as the Steelers. In both Peabody and Pittsburgh, the team names are part homage, part heritage.
But it is a living heritage, for in both places the past is peculiarly persistent. The Boston journalist James Parton was right in 1868 when he wrote of Pittsburgh after a visit: “On that low point of land, fringed now with steamboats and covered with grimy houses, scarcely visible in the November fog and smoke, modern history began.’’
And yet gone with the steel and mining jobs are the political assumptions that accompanied them.
“If there was one thing that was dependable, it was that working people were the base of the Democratic Party,’’ said Morton Coleman, a top aide to former mayor Joseph M. Barr of Pittsburgh. “For them, it was the party, the union, and the Catholic Church — and all those institutions in their mind do not work for them as well as they used to.’’
The new Republicans — now led by a candidate who vowed to somehow return jobs to Rust Belt communities like those in southwestern Pennsylvania and to renegotiate trade agreements with nations he said were stealing American jobs — were poised to step into the breach.
“There’s a pent-up demand for people to have a Republican candidate they can relate to,’’ said James C. Roddey, a former GOP county chairman who has been a strong critic of Trump. “These people are angry because they don’t feel their leaders — local politicians and Washington — have performed well. They’re unemployed or they’re underemployed. The expectation was that they would work in a mill. Those jobs aren’t here anymore. Trump got a lot of Democratic votes that other Republican candidates would never get.’’
It is now clear that the strength of the steel mills was in fact a weakness in the economy, for when the steel collapse occurred, there was nothing to fall back upon. The Democratic crack-up outside the city took years to develop, but when it reached a certain specific gravity, it exploded politically into a rebellion.
“Donald Trump turned out all the votes outside the main populous counties,’’ said Stuart G. Hoffman, chief economist for Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group. “Nationwide there are a lot of people in part-time jobs who want to work full time, or who are in jobs where they want more pay. It’s more pronounced here. . . . When you are out of a job, you are not happy.”
Indeed, some in these steel and mining towns have not been happy for a long time.
For nearly six years, the writer S.W. Price visited the once-booming industrial city of Aliquippa, an hour north of Pittsburgh and a community known for being home to Mike Ditka and the Patriots’ Ty Law among many others — and an important Democratic power center.
“All the forces that were cut loose in the early to mid-1980s — when blue-collar jobs disappeared when the mills, the mines got in trouble, and an entire class of Americans lost their foothold in the American dream — were never properly addressed, especially by the Democrats as they fled their roots and went coastal,’’ said Price, whose book, “Playing Through the Whistle,’’ chronicling the rise and fall of a signature southwestern Pennsylvania steel town, was published last month. “These people had a place in the American story, where they could buy a home and maybe a boat and have a vacation and be respected as a powerful force in American life. It took a plutocrat from New York City to give them voice.’’
Jimmy Carter traveled to Aliquippa in 1978, reflecting on the time he and his wife spent campaigning in the area in the 1976 Pennsylvania primary, in which he soundly defeated Senator Henry M. Jackson. “You,” he told the crowd there, “are responsible for my election.’’ Tuesday, 30 percent of a city that now is nearly half black voted for Trump.
Many local political analysts believe the Democrats forgot about who constituted the base of the party, a phenomenon particularly striking in Beaver County, where Aliquippa sits. The Democrats won five consecutive presidential elections in the county — until this year, when Trump took 57 percent of the vote.
“The Democrats let a guy come in and say that he was going to bring back steel jobs,’’ said a top aide to the campaigns of both Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and Senator John F. Kerry in 2004 but who requested anonymity because he is a leading Pittsburgh executive wary of alienating his business partners. “Then they sat back and watched him steal the base right from underneath them.’’
For months, national commentators argued that the 2016 election was a question of competing bases. Here in southwestern Pennsylvania, it was more a question of stolen bases, and it was the suppler, fleeter Donald Trump who broke for home.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.