Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Is All out of Hope

A lot of people are talking today about Michael Kruse’s piece in Politico Magazine in which he traveled back to Johnstown, Pennsylvania to check in with Trump supporters he’d talked to last year. The basic takeaway is a bit different from the headline suggesting the president’s supporters never believed his promises. In fact, it’d be more accurate to say that they were actually quite hopeful when he was elected, but prudently skeptical. What’s changed is that they don’t really have much hope at all anymore, but their devotion to Trump is surprisingly undiminished nonetheless.

Some of the people Kruse profiles are sympathetic, others the farthest thing from it. It’s easy to find yourself cursing their pretzel logic and their curdled views on life. Who among us doesn’t want to self-apply a staple gun after reading something like this?

Next to Bala was a gray-haired man who told me he voted for Trump and was happy so far because “he’s kept his promises.”

I asked which ones.

“Border security.” But there’s no wall yet. “No fault of his,” the man said.

What else? “Getting rid of Obamacare.” But he hasn’t. “Well, he’s tried to.”

What else? “Defunding Planned Parenthood.” But he didn’t. “Not his fault again,” the man said.

I asked for his name. “Bill K.,” he said. He wouldn’t give me his last name. “I don’t trust you,” he said.

This area was represented for thirty-six years by Rep. John Murtha, an anti-choice Democrat who served as a Marine in the Vietnam War and received two Purple Hearts, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, a Bronze Star, and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. He was famous as an appropriator who brought home the bacon to his district by mastering the earmarking process.

The current representative, Republican Keith Rothfus is comparatively useless. His only committee assignment is to the Financial Services Committee, which has about as much direct relevancy to the working class people of Johnstown as the Indian Affairs Committee. But he couldn’t replicate Murtha’s effectiveness even if he wanted to because the Republicans did away with earmarks in the misguided belief that they were more invitations to corruption and waste than the lubricant that allowed the two parties to compromise and make deals.

It used to be that a very powerful congressman did a lot for the struggling people of Johnstown. Murtha certainly accomplished more for them than any president ever did. And they knew he was a Democrat and they voted for him eighteen times in a row.

Progressives and do-gooder Democrats were never fond of John Murtha, at least not until he lent his considerable weight and credibility to the anti-Iraq War movement. He was wrong on choice. He was too cozy with the defense contractors and lobbyists. There was also a waft of corruption surrounding him even if he never really got nailed for anything. But he was basically a good man and a guy who reflected the values of his constituents pretty faithfully. And because he was Democrat, a lot of the people in Johnstown were Democrats, too.

Johnstown needs a lot of help. That comes through clearly in all the interviews. No Democrat is going to help Trump build his wall or destroy Obamacare or bring back the steel plants, and that’s not what Democrats should be promising these folks because those aren’t the things that are going to help them.

But these folks need left-wing answers to their problems. They need plausible government action to address the opioid epidemic. They need government investment that produces jobs, even if it’s partly a boondoggle for their somewhat shady congressional representative. They need an activist antitrust division that will help them rebuild an indigenous business community, and they need favorable terms for start-up money to seed those businesses.

Those are the kind of promises they should be grasping onto, instead of the racist and xenophobic crap that Trump spews. We can call these folks deplorable and single out the most racist among them as examples for why they’re beyond hope. But that’s abandonment, and that’s certainly not what the local Democratic Party in Johnstown is going to say about themselves and their own community. Whatever wins in Johnstown might not look like the national party’s message, and that’s okay. It wouldn’t hurt, though, if people like Elizabeth Warren and Tom Perriello would make a trip there and begin laying the groundwork for a different kind of hope.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.