JANUARY 20, 2019
IN FALL 2016, residents of a mostly working-class county in the Pennsylvania coal region were about to play a critical role in impacting the course of United States history. Nobody — least of all the residents themselves — could fully appreciate how much power they had when they entered the voting booth on that day in November. I know, because I was one of them.
I’ve lived in Luzerne County since I was in high school, and, full disclosure, I voted straight Democratic ticket in 2016, believing Hillary Clinton was by far the most qualified and experienced candidate. Every vote counts. But in this unique set of circumstances, certain votes mattered way more than others. As we now know, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election in a process decided by a relatively tiny number of votes in a few key swing states.
Reporter Ben Bradlee Jr. decided to “look more closely at the three Rust Belt swing states where the election had been decided: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Surprisingly, Trump won those three states by a total of 77,689 votes out of the more than thirteen million cast. If Hillary Clinton had won them, she would have become president.” None of them had voted for a Republican president since the 1980s.
Out of the trio of states, Bradlee found Pennsylvania most interesting and important because it held the most electoral votes, and because Clinton had strong family ties there, prompting her to assume the state was a surefire win. Digging deeper into Pennsylvania’s role in the election, Bradlee was drawn to Luzerne County, in the northeast part of the state, where Trump won by a margin of nearly 20 points — remarkable, considering it was long a Democratic stronghold, a place where Obama won by eight points in 2008 and five points in 2012. “It’s not a stretch to say that this single county won Trump Pennsylvania — and perhaps the presidency,” Bradlee writes.
His quest to understand the people of Luzerne County, and the driving factors that led them to vote the way they did in 2016, is the basis for Bradlee’s new book, The Forgotten: How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America. Bradlee has an impressive journalistic pedigree. A longtime reporter and editor for The Boston Globe, he oversaw the paper’s Pulitzer-winning investigative team that broke the story of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. He was not the only one to zero in on Luzerne County’s role in the election. Far from it, in fact: a wide array of major media outlets descended upon the county in the weeks and months following the election. However, Bradlee’s book is the first true deep-dive into the history and culture of the county.
In the not-too-distant past, this was an area where, as the saying goes, “coal was king.” Coal barons ruled the region, often with an iron fist. That led to what many cite as the origins of the organized labor movement in the United States, which involved bloody and often deadly clashes between workers and the police force employed by mine owners. Numerous monuments mark the locations of mining disasters and violent labor-related events. Not far from my house is the Lattimer Massacre Monument, which commemorates the spot where at least 19 unarmed immigrant coal miners — part of the newly formed United Mine Workers union — were shot and killed by a group of sheriff’s deputies in September 1897.
That’s all changed. Mines sit abandoned and decaying. Where coal breakers once stood, the landscape is now filled with massive warehouses and distribution centers for companies including Chewy.com and Amazon. My house is surrounded by coal mines on three sides. Only one has much activity — but that mainly involves a convoy of large, distinctively shaped trucks that arrive day and night to dump loads of fly ash and other chemicals into the massive, canyon-like strip-mine pit.
Predominantly blue collar and working class, it’s an area where unemployment, poverty, and crime are major concerns. In 2017, our county coroner recorded 154 fatal drug overdoses — which gives the county a per capita opioid death rate four times greater than New York City’s. My formerly quiet town of Hazleton is now home to what law enforcement officials estimate are roughly two dozen violent gangs, many of whom use the city as the base for their drug operations because of its attractive geographic location, sitting at the intersection of Interstates 80 and 81.
Bradlee started his writing process by speaking with roughly one hundred residents of Luzerne County, including a white nationalist who serves on the Luzerne County Republican Committee; an Army veteran struggling with combat injuries incurred in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a retired Pennsylvania State Police detective.
Then there’s Lou Barletta, our Congressman, who recently lost his bid for the Senate. Prior to his election to Congress, Barletta served as the mayor of my town, Hazleton, where he gained national attention as the creator of first-of-its-kind legislation making it very difficult for immigrants without the proper paperwork to live and work in the city. The package of laws sparked racial tensions in the city and prompted a legal battle that eventually made its way to the United States Court of Appeals, where it was struck down.
Bradlee is at his best in his long profiles of about a dozen people here, which gives a more nuanced and three-dimensional look at the “white working-class Trump supporters” who have become a national cliché. The crux of their motivation is familiar — aversion to gun control, anxiety about immigration, disdain for Hillary Clinton — but Bradlee shows us some of the thinking that lies behind these sound bites.
Among the most poignant story is that of Lynette Villano, a widow in her 70s who is proud of her devout Catholic faith. She served on the Republican Committee for more than 25 years and was the first woman to become county chair. Thrilled at Trump’s victory, she texted her grandson the morning after the election to rave about it. He responded with a long message outlining all the many ways he found Trump objectionable and harmful to many Americans. Following a series of increasingly heated and emotional texts, the two stopped speaking.
Some of the dialogue strikes me as just a little too neatly packaged. At times, they almost feel rehearsed. I found myself wondering if Bradlee’s interview subjects had sat down beforehand and prepared their comments, or if they were simply repeating arguments from right-wing media. And yet even for those of us who live here there are a few interesting revelations. One surprise is a tale relayed by Barletta, who shares that at one point a few weeks before the election, Trump was doubtful of his chances in Pennsylvania and was preparing to pull his campaign resources out of the state to focus elsewhere. Barletta felt confident that Pennsylvania could prove pivotal to a Trump victory and convinced Trump to maintain a strong presence in the state. Barletta is already a polarizing figure to locals, and the fact that he helped keep Trump’s campaign alive in the state is certain to intensify feelings on both sides.
Bradlee should have spent more time examining the argument that Luzerne County voted against its own interests. A few of the Trump supporters profiled make references to “takers,” railing against people they think live off welfare while insisting that their hard-working friends and neighbors don’t take anything from the government. Bradlee needed to challenge this statement, which just isn’t true. I know firsthand this area relies heavily on an array of government programs and resources.
Many Luzerne County residents depend on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, and quite a few families here are only able to afford health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (Pennsylvania was among the states to adopt the Medicaid expansion under the ACA). The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services lists nearly 70,000 enrollments in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) as of October 2018 for Luzerne County, and more than 88,000 enrollments in Medical Assistance (Medicaid). Because so many students in the Hazleton Area School District live under the poverty line, the district qualified for a federal program in which all students — even those whose families are financially well off — automatically receive free lunch and breakfast.
These are of course all programs that are now vulnerable, with Trump and his Republican cohort eager to target them for cuts or major reform.
I’m not sure those still searching for that one elusive explanation for Trump’s election will find it here in the pages of The Forgotten. There are no earth-shattering lightbulb moments. But Bradlee is a patient interviewer, and in his strongest moments he gives his reader a sense of real human depth. This book may foster a bit of understanding, perhaps carve out a tiny sliver of common ground, which will be desperately needed if this country is to see any semblance of unification. At the same time, the book would be valuable reading for anyone contemplating a run in 2020. The forgotten voters of Luzerne County — and others like them — are people future candidates cannot afford to forget.