Pam Schilling is the reason Donald Trump is the president.
Schilling’s personal story is in poignant miniature the story of this area of western Pennsylvania as a whole—one of the long-forgotten, woebegone spots in the middle of the country that gave Trump his unexpected victory last fall. She grew up in nearby Nanty Glo, the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners. She once had a union job packing meat at a grocery store, and then had to settle for less money at Walmart. Now she’s 60 and retired, and last year, in April, as Trump’s shocking political ascent became impossible to ignore, Schilling’s 32-year-old son died of a heroin overdose. She found needles in the pockets of the clothes he wore to work in the mines before he got laid off.
Desperate for change, Schilling, like so many other once reliable Democrats in these parts, responded enthusiastically to what Trump was saying—building a wall on the Mexican border, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, bringing back jobs in steel and coal. That’s what Trump told them. At a raucous rally in late October, right downtown in their minor-league hockey arena, he vowed to restore the mines and the mills that had been the lifeblood of the region until they started closing some 40 years ago, triggering the “American carnage” Trump would talk about in his inaugural address: massive population loss, shrinking tax rolls, communal hopelessness and ultimately a raging opioid epidemic. When Trump won, people here were ecstatic. But they’d heard generations of politicians make big promises before, and they were also impatient for him to deliver.
“Six months to a year,” catering company owner Joey Del Signore told me when we met days after the election. “A couple months,” retired nurse Maggie Frear said, before saying it might take a couple years. “He’s just got to follow through with what he said he was going to do,” Schilling said last November. Back then, there was an all-but-audible “or else.”
A year later, the local unemployment rate has ticked down, and activity in a few coal mines has ticked up. Beyond that, though, not much has changed—at least not for the better. Johnstown and the surrounding region are struggling in the same ways and for the same reasons. The drug problem is just as bad. “There’s nothing good in the area,” Schilling said the other day in her living room. “I don’t have anything good to say about anything in this area. It’s sad.” Even so, her backing for Trump is utterly undiminished: “I’m a supporter of him, 100 percent.”
What I heard from Schilling is overwhelmingly what I heard in my follow-up conversations with people here that I talked to last year as well. Over the course of three rainy, dreary days last week, I revisited and shook hands with the president’s base—that thirtysomething percent of the electorate who resolutely approve of the job he is doing, the segment of voters who share his view that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt” that “has nothing to do with him,” and who applaud his judicial nominees and his determination to gut the federal regulatory apparatus. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how readily these same people had abandoned the contract he had made with them. Their satisfaction with Trump now seems untethered to the things they once said mattered to them the most.
“I don’t know that he has done a lot to help,” Frear told me. Last year, she said she wouldn’t vote for him again if he didn’t do what he said he was going to do. Last week, she matter-of-factly stated that she would. “Support Trump? Sure,” she said. “I like him.”
It never mattered what Trump actually did otherwise, as long as he followed through on his promise to make those people miserable again after 2008.
When I asked Del Signore about the past year here, he said he “didn’t see any change because we got a new president.” He nonetheless remains an ardent proponent. “He’s our answer.”
I asked Schilling what would happen if the next three years go the way the last one has.
“I’m not going to blame him,” Schilling said. “Absolutely not.”
Is there anything that could change her mind about Trump?
“Nope,” she said.
White Trump voters are proudly and unrepentantly racist, until the end. Trump made that acceptable, and they will love him forever for it.
Stop chasing them, Dems. They are lost to you. The rest of us will have to carry on in spite of them.
They will turn out to re-elect Trump in 2020. Better make sure there's a lot more of us than them, especially in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Here endeth the lesson.