Trumbull County, Ohio is one of those quaint little patches in the American quilt. Located in the Mahoning Valley, on the far northeastern edge of the Buckeye state, Trumbull borders Pennsylvania and serves as a microcosm of Ohio itself, with a mixture of Rust Belt decline, Appalachian culture, small cities, rural hamlets, and lots of corn fields. The county’s combination of redneck charm and economic anxiety have made it a go-to stop for vote-craving politicos, who barnstorm Trumbull’s many barns every election season promising an imminent return to a mystic Mayberrian past of small-town fuzziness and industrial might embodied by the now-defunct Republic Steel blast furnace in the county seat of Warren.
With a rich history of organized labor, Trumbull (along with neighboring Mahoning County, home to the former “Steel City” of Youngstown) has long been a stronghold for the Democratic Party. In fact, the last time Trumbull voted Republican was for Richard Nixon in 1972. That is, until the county balked tradition and supported Donald Trump for president in 2016. Trumbull County is now Trump country thanks to a fear of death — a death brought on by economic stagnation, declining public health, the opiate epidemic, and the impression that America has been lying comatose in an open grave for too long.
I grew up in Trumbull County, in the town of Hubbard (population: 7,874). To be from Northeast Ohio is to be familiar with death. Not so much the literal death of people and animals (though there’s plenty of that) but death in a societal and existential sense: the death of once great industry, the death of communities, the death of the American Dream as embodied by the capitalist triumphs of a steady income and generational betterment.
It’s not that growing up in Trumbull County was a bad experience; in fact, I’ve got plenty of good memories fishing in Mosquito Lake, hiking the woods and playing baseball in Hubbard’s Harding Park, and driving through the picturesque countryside — all rustic barns, plowed fields, and crisp air — that still defines most of the county today.
Yet when you live in the Mahoning Valley, you live in the shadow of death. Growing up in the Valley, you saw the rusted corpses of shuttered steel mills along the Mahoning River, a constant reminder of the death of the region’s former economic lifeblood. You also saw manufacturers move to Mexico or update to automated technologies. These companies have been shedding jobs for years, and the jobs that remain pay a lot less than they used to. Driving the back roads of Trumbull County took you through many near-deserted town squares, done in by suburban malls that are themselves now dead or on life support.
Then there are the empty homesteads and deserted farms, the hallmarks of rural decline. The fatal combination of population loss, educational disadvantage, technological displacement, growing poverty rates, and poor social mobility continue to decimate Ohio’s smaller cities and towns. These visions of death defined the experience of growing up in Trumbull County, and death still stalks the county today.
Of course, Trumbull County isn’t quite dead. There’s still much life there, and that life is tenacious. But because death shadows life in Trumbull County, the people there viewed Donald Trump as a kind of orange-glow Jesus to their stiffened Lazarus. Trump campaigned throughout the Mahoning Valley during the two-act carnival sideshows of the Republican primaries and the 2016 general election. With a shrewd combination of chest-puffing bluster and mind-numbing bullshit, he attracted Trumbull voters fed up with the shadow of death that still threatened their economic futures.
One such voter, 48-year old laid-off union steelworker (and Democrat) Scott Seitz, dug Trump’s brashness, but he also embraced the Orange One’s promise to cauterize the region’s economic gash. “I didn’t appreciate everything going overseas, that’s why we’re out of business now,” Seitz said, “I really believe that Trump’s gonna bring a lot of that stuff back.” Another steelworker (and Democrat), 57-year old Dan Moore, voted for Trump for a single reason: trade. “A lot of the things that he [Trump] said he’s going to do really resonate with rank-and-file union members who helped build the middle-class in this country, and who certainly don’t have a problem with tariffs being placed on Chinese goods,” Moore stated. His wife, Lisa, worried about other problems facing the region. “Now the last two or three years, where I hear about the heroin crisis in Ohio and Trumbull County and all these drugs, I think they’re coming in from the border illegally, and something needs to be done.” The Moores, just like Scott Seitz, voted for Barack Obama twice. So did thousands of other Democrats in Trumbull County, giving Trump a 50 to 45 percent victory over Hillary Clinton.
It wasn’t just steelworkers who flipped for the bellicose billionaire, either. In Lordstown, home of the General Motors plant where United Auto Workers (UAW) famously went on a wildcat strike in 1972 to protest an accelerated, dehumanizing pace of production, auto workers flocked to trump’s faux hard-hat posturing. As The Nation’s D.D. Guttenplan reported, Trump gave Lordstown workers “the sense that they mattered. Not just their votes, but their culture, their sense of themselves as people who worked with their hands and played by the rules. People who felt they’d been written off by the Democratic Party—and had given up on politics.” Trumbull County’s working-class voters rolled the dice on the walking embodiment of the capitalism that betrayed them because they’re desperate to stave off death. When you live in a region defined by decay, it’s worth taking a chance on a potential charlatan to lift yourself out of the grave.
Its Democratic Party affiliation notwithstanding, Trumbull County actually looks like prototypical Trumpland: it’s 89 percent white and significantly rural, it has an alarming 17 percent poverty rate, the median household income is $43,073, and manufacturing is still the top form of (tenuous) employment — although the healthcare sector is actually growing because someone needs to deal with the sick, overdosed, and dying.
But Trump is president now, and some of his Trumbull supporters are worried about their decision to hand their fate over to a modern Republican Party that embraces the Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand as a blueprint for national renewal.
Kinsman, Ohio is a rural unincorporated community with a population of 616. Its tiny town square has an antique shop/thrift store that smells kinda funny and features an old-timey soda fountain. Among its most famous natives was Clarence Darrow, who acted as defense attorney during the Scopes Monkey Trial. It’s also a beautiful part of the county that features sprawling farms and historic churches and buildings.
Tammy and Joseph Pavlic are Trump voters who live in Kinsman. The New York Times recently interviewed the Pavlics, because they’re worried about Trump’s proposed budget. Joseph, a former air-conditioning and heating installer, has Multiple Sclerosis and is disabled. Tammy earns $9,000 a year working at a restaurant. In 2015, the Pavlics took advantage of the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, a county program funded by Congress and steered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The HOME program partners with local governments (in Trumbull County, the city of Warren plays this role) to provide funds to assist the poor and disabled with home repairs. HOME helped repair the Pavlics’ roof and gives them vital financial assistance.
But President Donald Trump’s budget would eliminate the HOME program, and this leaves the Trump-supporting Pavlics in a bind. They voted for Trump because “we have people who are coming into this country who are trying to hurt us, and I think that we need to be protected.” That protection, however, won’t help make the Pavlics’ home great again.
So is Donald Trump the Jesus that will finally revive Trumbull County’s Lazarus? Of course not, and people like the Pavlics will find that out the hard way. The fear of death has shaped the last forty years of the county’s history, along with the looming insecurity that comes from putting your faith in a capitalist system that doles out material rewards, only to rip them away along with your sense of identity in this world. Using the workers who labored under it, capitalism built the mills, the manufacturing plants, the farm machinery, and the town squares that embodied Trumbull County, Ohio. Then, like the biblical Yahweh who capriciously created a thriving world only to destroy it in a watery apocalypse, capitalism took those things away.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the Trump phenomenon is the ultimate paradox for late-stage capitalist America; it’s a subconscious repudiation not just of elites and immigrants, but of capitalism as it’s been practiced for the last half century.
Destruction is encoded into capitalism’s DNA. In order to innovate (and in order to protect the calcified wealth of the ruling class), the system theoretically replaces the old and the stale with the new and the cutting edge. Some people can adapt to these changes, while others can’t, and the latter are always higher in number. If we view capitalism as something that exists in the intangible firmament just beyond the reach of human influence (as does much of the right-wing), then the system will proceed unconcerned with the human wreckage it leaves in its wake. It’s a testament to the firmness with which the market gods hold Americans under their celestial thumbs that Trumbull voters angry about creative destruction nonetheless chose as their savior a guy who embodies the very system that has wrought so much death upon them. Choosing Donald Trump and the Republican Party as your champions against the excesses of capitalism is like asking Pharaoh to lead you to the Promised Land.
I’ve purposefully used the provocative notion of “death” to characterize the anxiety that shadows life in Trumbull County. I’ve done this because creative destruction doesn’t just lead to the death of industries and communities, it also leads to the death of the body and the spirit. When a lack of fulfilling work, adequate health care, and a better place to raise their kids leads people to believe they can no longer thrive, they look for ways to escape.
Thus, Trumbull County is now ground zero for the opiate epidemic that is sweeping the Rust Belt. The presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid fifty times more potent than heroin, has been linked to dozens of overdose deaths over the past year. Ohio law enforcement agencies have seized 900 pounds of the drug since 2015, and in March 2017, Trumbull County saw 82 overdoses in two weeks. Even more tragic are the children left orphaned by junkie parents. As the Wall Street Journal reports, “many of the children who remain in the care of addicted parents are growing up in mayhem. They watch their mothers and fathers overdose and die on the bathroom floor. They live without electricity, food or heat when their parents can’t pay the bills. They stop going to school, and learn to steal and forage to meet their basic needs.” In more than one respect, death really is a part of life in Trumbull County.
There’s no easy answer to Trumbull County’s problems; no easy way to stave off the death of the American Dream. But the right-wing formula for renewal will forever be a sham. Vengeful tariffs and backdoor bribes won’t boost employment in companies that have innovated much of their labor force into obsolescence. And while protectionist measures might slow the pace with which some manufacturing jobs go south of the border, preserving tenuous jobs by dangling weak carrots in front of powerful companies is unfair to the workers whose livelihoods can still be yanked away if bribed companies get skittish about Trump’s incentives. Tax cuts might add a few extra jobs but won’t create living wages, provide affordable health insurance, or promote anything even remotely resembling job security — but they will funnel more wealth into the offshore bank accounts of the same capitalists who’ve left Trumbull County in the shadow of death for decades. Finally, cutting vital aid programs won’t make people more responsible, it will only make them more destitute.
The only way to truly improve the lives of people in Trumbull County, and in thousands of counties across America, is to demand a complete cultural reimagining of the nature of capitalism as it relates to the well-being of, well, human beings. Globalized finance capitalism is withering before our eyes while spawning all manner of nationalist-racist movements, the likes of which should have been destroyed along with the Axis Powers during the previous century. Global capitalism won’t exactly die, but its legitimacy hangs by a thread as millions of people, faced with no real alternative, have turned to the Trumps of the world. They need better alternatives, and they need them now.
There’s an urgent demand for an economic system, capitalist or otherwise, that recognizes humans as more than just automatons who can be disposed of mercilessly in a global quest for profits. Perhaps a starting point is increasing employee-owned companies with an emphasis on more localized, communitarian values, both to human well-being and environmental preservation. It would be a small start, but reorganizing the structure of modern human societies has to think big and then start small. Trumbull County deserves a new start, however small, as does everywhere else in America where late-stage capitalism holds the power of life and death over millions of human beings.