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Can Donald Trump make Youngstown, Ohio, great again?

A struggling Ohio city considers its own high-stakes vote ahead of Trump’s GOP coronation in nearby Cleveland
Donald Trump, Mike Pence
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event to announce Gov. Mike Pence, R-Ind., as his vice presidential running mate on, Saturday, July 16, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Brittney (“with two T’s”) is a restaurant server in America’s fastest-shrinking city. That would be Youngstown, Ohio, on the Mahoning River, a roving reporter’s last stop en route from Washington to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the almost incomprehensible acclamation of Donald Trump to be the official candidate for the presidency of the United States of the party of Abraham Lincoln.

It is Saturday afternoon, two days before the pro- and anti-Trumpian hordes are to descend on the Forest City of the Great Lakes, an hour by freeway to the northwest. Brittney is delivering a plate of linguine alle vongole when she leans in and whispers, “Don’t tell anybody, but I’m for Trump.”

Given the fact that the server is a female university student majoring in English and not a pistol-packing vigilante, not a Lord-praising evangelical, not a leather-coated biker, not a long-haul trucker, not a forgotten war veteran, and not an unemployed steelworker—of these, Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley has tens and tens of thousands—and given that the shiny black King Ranch Special Edition Ford F-150 pickup with the “Make America Great Again” decal parked outside the restaurant is not her ride, this is a bit of a surprise.

“I can’t admit it out loud around here,” she continues. “People say that he’s such a racist and such a narcissist that if you like him, you must be a racist, too. I’m not a racist. My boyfriend is Puerto Rican! He always screams at me that Trump is a racist, but when it comes time for him to choose between Trump and Hillary, I think secretly he’s going to vote for Trump.”

MORE: Cleveland prepares for trouble at the GOP convention

Boil the 2016 election down to its essence and it reduces to this: a tiny sliver of unaffiliated, still-undecided voters in the see-saw states of Ohio, Florida, Colorado, and maybe Pennsylvania. Nothing else matters: not national polling, not California or Connecticut or Montana or Massachusetts, not the running mates, not the celebrity endorsements, not the balloons and convention ballyhoo. Nothing but Brittney With Two T’s and her boyfriend.

If enough Youngstown State University girls and enough Latinos and Latinas vote for the Donald—or if too few African-American women and men in the so-called “battleground states” turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton, Trump’s the new Lincoln. (Truth be told, Honest Abe won the presidency in 1860 with barely 40 per cent of the nationwide popular vote in a four-man race, but that’s another story.)

“Do you really think that Donald Trump has an answer for Syria and Iraq?” Brittney is asked. (Do not assume that the server’s affection for the Donald is infinite. “I think he’s really silly-looking,” she says. “And I wasn’t really searching for a president who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.”)

“That’s questionable,” she admits. “But who does?”

“Maybe Hillary Clinton?” one ventures. “After all, she was the Secretary of State.”

“Hillary Clinton is in this for all the wrong reasons,” the server sniffs. “She is exactly not who I want to represent me as a woman. She will ruin it for women for a long, long time. We’re in a financial crisis right now, and if you can run a business, that’s the most important thing.”

People gather onstage as preparations take place inside Quicken Loans Arena for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, Saturday, July 16, 2016. A year ago, few imagined Donald Trump as a headliner at the Republican National Convention, let alone as its star. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
People gather onstage as preparations take place inside Quicken Loans Arena for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, Saturday, July 16, 2016. A year ago, few imagined Donald Trump as a headliner at the Republican National Convention, let alone as its star. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

To say that Youngstown, Ohio, has been in a financial crisis for the past 39 years would not be an exaggeration. It was Sept. 17, 1977—“Black Monday” in the Mahoning Valley—when the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company announced, out of the blue, that it was ceasing all operations in eastern Ohio. Within months, U.S. Steel and Republic Steel also pulled the plug on the Mahoning Valley. It was Youngstown’s Pearl Harbor, a slow-motion massacre that killed families without firing a shot.

“Thirty-seven thousand jobs were lost in six months,” Kim Akins is saying. “I remember, back in ’08, there was only one restaurant left in downtown Youngstown. I remember looking out the window and the only other place that was open on the whole block was Obama’s headquarters.”

Kim Akins is a criminal-defence attorney in a city with no shortage of alleged criminals to defend and one of the organizers of Youngstown’s annual Pride Festival. Around her as she speaks swirls a shivaree of drag queens and rainbow-haired promenaders. It is not the sort of vibrant, joyful, 21st-century throng one automatically might associate with a largely derelict town in the American Rust Belt.

“Welcome to the fastest-shrinking city in the United States,” Akins smiles. “But we are coming back to life.”

Indeed, a few of the city’s gorgeous Art Deco towers have been restored to function as offices and apartments, and a one-block stretch of Federal Street is such a popular hotbed of brew pubs and gourmet eateries offering locally sourced kale that a visitor has to shell out US$2 for valet parking. But Youngstown remains—according to one recent survey—the most impoverished city of its size in the country, and its population, now about 66,000, has fallen by 60 per cent since Black Monday.

“Can anybody make Youngstown great again?” the lawyer is asked.

“We can never be what we were before,” she answers. “But we can be a good small town.”

“Can Donald Trump make America great again?”

“As a woman of colour,” says Akins, “I am hard-pressed to think of a time when it was great for people like me.”

Donald Trump flew into Youngstown just before the Ohio primary in March. According to a local newspaper, he gave “a meandering, 44-minute speech that still managed to hit all his crowd-pleasing, populist campaign touchstones” to a “nearly all-white crowd, some of whom wore jackets identifying themselves as union members.” Trump lost the primary anyway, to the governor of the Buckeye State, John Kasich. It was the only primary that Kasich captured.

(Still stung by the failure of the American people to recognize the magnitude of his wonderfulness, Kasich will conspicuously not speak at the Cleveland convention, but will spend Wednesday palavering with the delegation from New Hampshire, getting a leg up on 2020, we all should live so long.)

Meanwhile, back in Y’town, among the Ohioans hoping to ride the Donald’s coattails in 2016 is another the Donald named Manning. He is a social worker who assists formerly incarcerated young people re-enter productive society, which, again, is not a constituency usually associated with a fervour for building walls and evicting immigrants. But Don Manning, who is running for a seat in the Ohio legislature that has been held by Democrats for most of the past 50 years, boasts that he signed up on DonaldTrump.com at the very hour in June 2015 that the billionaire declared for the Oval Office.

“The Trump phenomenon is helping me, absolutely,” Manning says at Mahoning County Republican headquarters in a desolate strip mall south of downtown Youngstown. “The Trump train got us 21,000 new registrations before the Ohio primary. A lot of people in this county are tired of the one-party system.”

The (local) Donald, who never before has sought public office, is a U.S. Navy veteran who, like Brittney With Two T’s, rejects the widespread (among Democrats) opinion that the (New York) Donald is a vile, racist clown.

“When he says that he wants to keep illegal immigrants out, the key word is ‘illegal,’ ” Manning says. “I read The Art of the Deal, and I was very impressed by his success and his marketing ability.”

“Were you searching for a president who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?” a reporter asks. At this, a Republican Party volunteer named Donna Bricker, whose husband’s great-great-great-great grandfather was the governor of Ohio, begs to interject.

“Trump probably bought the Walk of Fame!” she chirps.

Back to downtown Y’town. Chris Vitello is sitting at the bar of the aptly named Rust Belt Brewing Co. He is an Italian-American construction worker—“I’m a direct incarnation of the Roman Empire”—who is old enough to remember the cataclysm of Black Monday and the way it shattered the certainties of life in what used to be a proud and prosperous American industrial city.

“Trump can make Youngstown great again and America great again,” Vitello says. “Get rid of the union mentality and the $15 minimum wage. Renegotiate the trade deals. And f–k the United Nations. In nature, every species has the alpha male. In America today, that’s Trump.”

Waiting on tables in this handsome little pub in America’s Fastest-Shrinking City is a man named Craig Ballmer with two L’s, but he is not related (“I wish!”) to Steve Ballmer, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft.

When it comes to the presidential election, like Brittney With Two T’s’s Puerto Rican boyfriend, Craig Ballmer is undecided, which pretty much puts the fate of the planet in his hands.

“Hillary’s email thing, the Benghazi thing, that worries me,” he says. “But some of the things that Trump says are so ignorant, I wonder if what he’s thinking in his head is even more ignorant.”

“Can either of them make Youngstown, Ohio, great again?” a convention-bound reporter inquires.

“We’re coming back on our own,” Ballmer replies. “Three years downtown, and I haven’t been mugged once!”