Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

'The only chance we've got': In Ohio, Donald Trump represents hope

After four years, Patrick Martin returns on his 1974 BMW motorcycle to the U.S. battleground states of Ohio and Michigan to see if voters' attitudes and preferences have changed as, once again, two presidential candidates are locked in a surprisingly close race. First up, Ohio, because no Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio – not in 160 years.

Across the South of Ohio, from the coal-rich mountains in the eastern corner to the one-time industrial heartland in the southwest, there is a distinct Appalachian nature that comes from the mountain range's influence. Author J.D. Vance calls it "hillbilly," which, in a recently published memoir, is how he describes himself – a poor white with connections to the mountains.

Related: Democrats losing ground in Ohio cities hit hard by industrial decline

Story continues below advertisement

Read more: How this county in the Rust Belt learned to love Donald Trump

In the case of Mr. Vance and his family, as in most cases in Ohio, this influence was acquired when hundreds of thousands of people from the mountains of Kentucky migrated north between 1918 and 1960, across the Ohio River, in search of a more prosperous life working in the more industrial state's mines and mills.

And Ohio welcomed them. Armco, then one of this area's most powerful steel-making companies, recruited workers from the mountains of east Kentucky and urged them to bring their families. A family worker is a more dedicated worker, it believed – and family loyalty is a prominent trait of hillbilly clans, Mr. Vance explains. Whole Kentucky neighbourhoods were transported.

So many families came that, by 1960, one million of Ohio's 10 million residents were born in Kentucky. As a kid growing up in Middletown, Mr. Vance writes, the influence was so great that he and his cousins referred to the place as "Middletucky."

For a time, many made more money than they could have imagined and came to enjoy middle-class benefits. The paternal Armco built parks, sponsored sports and student orchestras and funded college scholarships. The community of Middletown, named for its position between Dayton and Cincinnati, still bears the company's hallmarks on several city parks and buildings. But the company is no more.

It merged with Kawasaki Steel to form AK Steel, which still runs a steel mill in the area, though on a smaller scale. Many people lost their jobs and the trickle-down effect became a flood. Businesses have gone under; two shopping malls have shut down.

The people's politics have changed too.

Story continues below advertisement

In coal country, people who mostly voted Democrat for years cast ballots for the Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. They told me that year they objected to Barack Obama's anti-coal policies that restricted the industry in the name of renewable-energy production. When I rode through the area at that time, the massive coal-burning generator at Steubenville was sitting idle.

Three old smokestacks had been condemned and a billion-dollar new stack, equipped with the latest scrubbers, was tied up in red tape. The yard's mountain of coal grew larger as local miners hoped for approval of the stack.

Riding by the plant last week, the stack was in full operation, its relatively clean white smoke billowing into the sky. The Ohio Coal Association says coal is once again producing 69 per cent of the state's electricity.

This should have been good news for Hillary Clinton, getting the coal monkey off the Democrat's back. But people all over Ohio were shocked to learn that Ms. Clinton vowed to CNN in March that "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."

It's a line often repeated, condemning Ms. Clinton's presidential ambitions to the slag heap as far as these Ohioans are concerned.

The trouble is – the line told only part of what Ms. Clinton said that day. She told the interviewer that though moving away from fossil fuels, her administration would make sure that new kinds of power production would be built close to the people who had produced the coal power. They would be first in line for the new jobs. No matter. Most people here wouldn't believe her anyway.

Story continues below advertisement

As I rode west along Route 40, the old National Road that once took U.S. pioneers from the East of the country to the unsettled West, I lost track of how many Vote Donald Trump signs were on people's lawns. Folks here have turned to the Republican candidate with real enthusiasm, not just as the lesser of two evils.

But I do remember how many Hillary Clinton signs there were along the road: one. It was outside the town of Cambridge. I stopped to make sure I wasn't mistaken.

Riding further west, through the agricultural flatlands south of Columbus, the ratio of Trump to Clinton signs wasn't much different.

I stopped in Greenfield, a village established at the start of the 19th century and also populated largely by folks from Kentucky. These new arrivals were abolitionists who rejected Kentucky's support for slavery. In Greenfield, many of them set to work on the Underground Railroad that smuggled runaway slaves into Ohio, a free state, and further north, ending up in Canada.

David Clyburn's house stood out from all the others on the village's main street. It had a huge mill stone standing on edge in its front garden, a lot of stick furniture reminiscent of hillbilly days, a big old American flag and a Trump sign prominently displayed on its porch – a veritable lesson in Greenfield history.

Sitting back in his rocking chair on the porch, Mr. Clyburn, 69, his Bear Arms Gun Shop cap on his head, explained that he had voted for various Democrats and Republicans for president over the years. His father had been a Democrat since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, he explained. "But I pick and choose."

However, "in 2012, I didn't vote," he said. "I didn't like either of those guys [Barack Obama and Mitt Romney].

"But I'm voting this time," he said with conviction, "for Donald Trump.

"It's because he's straightforward," he explained. "I just like him.

"Yes, I voted for [Bill] Clinton in '92, and '96," he acknowledged. "But I can't vote for Hillary. I don't like her."

"I like Trump," he repeated, "though not as much as I liked Ronald Reagan."

Still, "he's the only chance we've got."

And by "we" he meant the often forgotten folks of southern Ohio.

These days, when you ride into Middletown, down the unkempt four-lane boulevard that approaches the town from the north, the first thing that catches your eye is a broad, two-storey storefront with an enormous sign: Richie's Pawn Central. The display windows are filled with musical instruments, from trombones to cellos and a double bass – quite likely from those Armco-sponsored orchestras.

Middletown's main Central Avenue has several vacant stores, though a new startup coffee shop is pulling in customers and a branch of Cincinnati's Pendleton Art Center has opened up across the street, an attempt to cultivate an interest in the arts.

There are few people on the street even though it's a warm Friday midday.

Phil Norris, a retired insurance broker, is sitting with his sister outside the new café sipping iced coffee.

Mr. Norris, 75, spent most of his working life building a prosperous insurance brokerage, selling life and other policies to a waning population whose upward mobility had been in decline since the 1970s.

Having sold his business to a large company, Mr. Norris now toils full-time ministering to people in nine different nursing homes. He's giving back to the people, he said.

"I was called to serve the Lord in 1981," he said, "Reagan's first year in office.

"Now I have the time to comfort these people in the teachings of our Saviour."

Mr. Norris is not affiliated with any specific church; he simply follows the Bible, a common feature among deeply religious people in these parts, Mr. Vance says. "In the middle of the Bible Belt, active church attendance is actually quite low," he wrote – another hillbilly trait.

But Mr. Norris does subscribe to the magazine of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the latest issue helped him make his choice for president.

"Up to three weeks ago, I strongly considered not voting at all," he said. "Neither candidate seemed to believe what I believe.

"But the Billy Graham Association helped me understand the real issue of this campaign – the Constitution is in peril," he said, "and I had no choice – I have to vote for Donald Trump.

"I don't particularly like the man – he seems loud and prejudiced – but if Hillary is elected, she will appoint between two and four liberals to the Supreme Court and we will suffer the consequences for the next three to four decades.

"I'm a member of the NRA," Mr. Norris said, using the acronym for the National Rifle Association, the country's ardent advocate against gun control. "The right to bear arms is important to me.

"Hillary and her appointed court will take that right away. They also will further compromise our Christian values," he said. "Muslims don't believe in the same God we do; we have to ensure our freedom is protected.

"I don't like Trump as an individual but, as president, he'll have to work with the House [of Representatives] and Senate," he explained. "They'll calm him down in a hurry.

"And Trump has issued a list of the people he would consider appointing to the court, and he's promised to choose only from that list," he said with admiration. "The Billy Graham Association has approved these people."

Such a view is characteristic of the popular attitudes in these parts, where people have come to feel defeated and want something or someone to blame.

Whereas Barack Obama once chastised poor whites for "clinging to their guns and religion," Donald Trump gets it.

He "reminds blue-collar workers of themselves," Mr. Vance wrote in the Guardian newspaper in mid-September.

While the elites of Washington and New York see in Mr. Trump an offensive madman, his supporters "see a man who's refreshingly relatable, who talks about politics and policy as if he were sitting around the dinner table."

Donald Trump, Mr. Vance concluded, "is the candidate of a patriotic people who feel an almost apocalyptic apprehension about the future. His great insight was to recognize and exploit that apprehension."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.