STEUBENVILLE, Ohio – One of the many things that the cosmopolitan class, living in and around Washington, New York or Silicon Valley, continues to misread about the people living outside those areas is this: it is not just fans of Donald Trump who feel alienated by the popular attitudes and assumptions about them.
One key assumption is that these people hate where they live, can’t wait to leave, feel tethered to their hometown’s decline, or have lost hope for a brighter future.
“I don’t hate it here,” Melissa Hays says. She says it so swiftly and reflexively, when asked if she grew up in Steubenville, that she pauses, laughs and apologizes for reacting so bluntly.
“People immediately think, because you live in a town that is flat on its back, that you want to leave and, if you don’t, your lack of mobility is a sign of ignorance or ambition,” Hays says as she tidies up Froehlich’s Casual Corner, the restaurant she manages, after the lunch crowd clears out.
“Maybe people stay because they love where they live. Sometimes they leave, but most find their way back – they almost always come back. I did.”
Hays is one of those white working-class Rust Belt voters who did not vote for Trump. The 39-year-old mother of a six-year-old boy looks more like a twenty-something with her long blond hair pulled in a loose ponytail and her fresh-faced expression.
People just check off a box and typecast folks when they find out where they are from or what they do, she thinks: “It is one of the things that really bothers me about the perception people outside of towns like this have about towns like this. Honestly, stereotypes are a lazy analysis.”
Pop culture has become as harsh as national politics in its treatment of folks from the country’s interior, she says.
“Our politics has to become more personal, more decent, more connected to the people. So does our media and entertainment,” Hays says. “You don’t have to be a fan of the president to feel just as looked-down-upon for your values.”
Despite not liking Trump, Hays has no problem with his executive order that re-evaluates the screening of immigrants from certain countries and imposes a four-month pause in the refugee resettlement program: “This may sound harsh, but it’s not meant in that way, because I really do worry for their plight. It’s just that I see so much hunger and poverty and hurt with families in my town, I wish we placed a little more focus on what is broken here.”
Froehlich’s is one of those hometown restaurants that is uniquely reflective of a town’s will; deep-forest-green walls give way to a centerpiece brass bar and cozy wooden booths that face out onto Washington Street, downtown Steubenville’s main drag.
Outside, older buildings have been freshened with colorful murals that tell the important story of Fort Steuben’s influence on American history. There are 25 of them, located on buildings in downtown Steubenville and in Hollywood Plaza, including a mural of one of Steubenville’s most famous sons, Dino Crocetti — better known as Dean Martin.
At the bar, Kim Presuitti serves Phillip Jordan a post-lunch dirty martini as Whoopi Goldberg is interviewed on a big-screen television perched above the shelves of liquor bottles and wine glasses.
Jordan is working construction in the shale oil-and-gas industry. Although Steubenville and surrounding Jefferson County sit atop two huge shale formations, Marcellus and Utica, the multibillion-dollar industry has not yet penetrated here; instead, the work is just south, in Monroe County.
Jordan doesn’t mind the 30-mile drive, and he likes the work. The new industry certainly beats the unemployment that peaked at 15 percent here in 2010, he says, “and you could not escape the daily reminders of eliminated jobs with the shuttered steel mill just sitting here.”
Indeed, steel once was the lifeblood of the economy here.
Waitress Kim Presutti and customer Philip Jordan debate the merits of President Trump in Froelich’s Classic Corner restaurant in Steubenville, Ohio, on March 7. (Frank Craig for the Washington Examiner)
Jordan and Presuitti get into a back-and-forth about their degrees of liberalism. The barkeeper is from Southern California and proudly boasts of her “staunch” liberalism; she also proudly announces her support for Trump – which shocks Jordan.
“But you are a liberal?” he asks.
“Yes I am,” Presuitti replies, “but we needed to do something completely different. We needed someone who was actually going to do something, who will take a hands-on approach to governing and may be more willing to compromise to get a good deal done.”
Like Hays, Presuitti and Jordan are annoyed that their lives and choices are considered less worthy or redeemable or educated because of their location. “You do not have to be a Trump supporter to assess this as nothing more than arrogance,” says Jordan.
America’s great accomplishment has always been that we are this unique fabric of races, ethnicities, geographies and communities, balanced by a healthy mixture of rural and urban enclaves.
Have there been resentments? Sure, that’s only natural, with the upper class looking down and the lower class looking up.
Yet, the thing that has always made America great is that the lower class didn’t have to look up for long, because a ladder has been available to those who were willing to put in the blood, sacrifice, and hours to get there.
And our middle class has always been a healthy place to operate, live and flourish.
Unfortunately, today many of our wealthy are really, really wealthy, and most of them live in the centers of power and wealth: Washington and New York. They don’t know, let alone understand, anyone who is poor or middle class, because they do not live anywhere near them.
And our middle class?
Well, we’ve kind of let that portion of our country shrink. And the politics of being ignored has become the culture and politics of the elite detaching and demoralizing those people who once were the proud standard-bearers of America’s working middle class.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency was not the beginning of this latest populist movement, nor was it the end. In fact, we are right in the middle — and, until we find a way to connect our ruling class with everyone else, this trajectory against each other is only going to continue.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.