At the start of Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate, Democrat Tim Kaine displayed an almost Trumpian ability to interrupt his opponent. One issue on which Kaine broke in with particular defensiveness was the health of the American economy.
“Fifteen million new jobs . . .,” Kaine interjected, citing statistics from the Barack Obama years. To which Republican Mike Pence rightly responded, “You can roll out numbers . . . people in Scranton know different.”
Employment figures alone don’t tell the whole story, especially for the great swath of the country known as the Rust Belt for its decades of shuttered mines, mills and factories. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia come to mind — but you could find the same atmosphere in western New York. The quality of life continues to decline, as told by empty retail space, and a growing number of payday-lending shops and signs that advertise, “We pay cash for gold.”
Donald Trump is the only presidential candidate in a long time who has connected directly to the hurt of the region’s white working class. The solutions he’s offering — withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiating better trade deals, closing our borders — won’t improve Rust Belt economies. But at least he is acknowledging their pain.
“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” a popular new book by J.D. Vance, chronicles the struggles of his large Appalachian clan. He grew up in steelworking Ohio, joined the Marines, enrolled in a state university and then attended Yale Law School. Vance’s voyage across cultures gives him a broad perspective.
When Trump criticizes companies that ship factory jobs overseas, when he taunts elites, when he says just what’s on his mind without care for acceptable behavior, people in this part of America can relate. “What people don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are,” Vance told The American Conservative magazine in July. “From the Left, they get some smug condescension . . . From the Right . . . paeans to the noble businessman.”
I’m familiar with Vance’s world. I married into a family that came out of the coal mines in West Virginia and lives in the same mid-Ohio country he writes about in “Elegy.” I spent eight years in southwestern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Even though I don’t agree much with my in-laws about politics, I understand their visceral reaction when Hillary Clinton says, “We are going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Yes, she says she wants to create new, different jobs in clean energy. But it can be hard to imagine what comes next when your family loses its way of life.
People in the Midwest know what follows an industry’s decimation. In Pittsburgh, a woman who watched my young children was married to a former steelworker. His pension had all but disappeared with the bankruptcy of his company, where he had worked his entire adult life. Starting out, a steelworker could anticipate health coverage and a $30,000 pension after retirement. Instead, this family was scraping by. It wasn’t for a lack of work ethic. When our sitter was ill, her grown daughter or her husband would cover for her.
She often mused that she should have taken a secure county government job when she had the chance.
“Elegy” also vividly displays the social breakdown here: children raised with multiple “stepdads,” and the drugs.
A 25-year-old nephew in Ohio says he’s glad he graduated when he did. If he were in high school today, he told his grandmother, “I’d be dead” of heroin use.
“Trump” signs line the landscape in this part of America. He’s tapping into a hopelessness we should not ignore.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.