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Until the COVID-19 pandemic finally came to Western Pennsylvania, I wasn’t sure whether “year of fear” applied to us, because it presumes that we’re all afraid of something.
My neighbor across the street—the one with the flag that says “TRUMP 2020: NO MORE BULLSH-T”—isn’t feeling anything but excitement over the prospect of another four years of President Trump.
The people who are likely feeling fear are the parents of the Black and immigrant kids who wait for the school bus on the next corner and have to walk past that flag every morning. Or at least they were waiting for the school bus until Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered all of the state’s schools closed for two weeks, beginning March 16, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As in much of America, COVID-19 went from an afterthought on the news in Western Pennsylvania to dominating everyone’s lives in what seemed like an eyeblink. On March 13, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in the western half of Pennsylvania, and on March 14, Allegheny County—where Pittsburgh and McKeesport are located—had its first two confirmed cases.
PREVIOUSLY: Yes, Dorothy, we are way outside the beltway
At the website I edit, Tube City Almanac, our usual mix of police blotter news, school board meetings and community announcements was suddenly scrapped and replaced with nothing but closures, cancellations and warnings.
As a small-town community news website, we’ve tried to keep our COVID-19 coverage as local and practical as possible. Based on the feedback from our social media feeds, most readers have appreciated it. A few have even thanked us.
But there have been a handful who have accused us of spreading “fake news.”
Take, for instance, what happened on March 15, when officials in the nearby city of Clairton announced that a resident had tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized.
Clairton is home to a major US Steel coal byproducts plant that has been blamed for causing serious air-quality problems in the McKeesport area. After a fire in 2018 damaged the plant’s emissions-control equipment, air-quality monitors around McKeesport on numerous occasions recorded the highest levels of sulfur-dioxide and other air pollutants in the entire United States. Several environmental activists and public-health advocates called for the plant to be shut down completely.
Whenever we write about pollution problems at US Steel’s Clairton Plant, we are inevitably criticized by a handful readers who accuse us of an “anti-industry” agenda. And when we posted the item about a Clairton resident being diagnosed with COVID-19, one reader from McKeesport accused our website and Clairton city council of pushing a “hidden agenda” to “create more unnecessary panic.”
The same reader added a few minutes later: “You watch too much TV … turn off the TV and pay attention to the real world and apply common sense … it’s not rocket science.”
I checked the reader’s Facebook wall and saw that he’d recently shared a post from Milton Wolf, a Kansas Tea Party activist and physician. “The media is creating an all-out panic,” Wolf wrote. “They are destroying small businesses, crushing 401(k)s, and worse yet, terrifying people. They are rooting for recession, destruction, and death. The mainstream media is garbage. They are the enemy of the people.”
A few hours later, we reported on Wolf’s decision to order all restaurants and bars in the state closed. A reader commented, “Hey Mr. Wolf, what’s wrong with you? Are you going to reimburse all the businesses you are telling to close down? You’re wrong.”
A reader from nearby Irwin, Pennsylvania, was blunter: “F–k Tom Wolf … He just wants you all to be broke.”
It goes almost without saying that each of the negative comments has been left by older, white folks.
A lot has been written over the past four years—some would probably say too much—about the way that Trump successfully tapped into a sense of grievance in these voters, and how he rode it into office, with the help of places like Western Pennsylvania.
There is, indeed, a strong sense of grievance here, especially among the boomer generation. There’s also a strong suspicion of authority figures that flares up at times like these when we’ve been asked to trust faraway experts to know what’s best for us.
The grievances have their roots in the industrialization of this valley—and the mistrust of authority figures is a direct result of the big bargain people here made—a deal that turned out to be a lie.
During most of the 20th Century, if you worked for our major industrial employers—companies such as US Steel, Jones & Laughlin, Westinghouse Electric or Union Switch & Signal—you knew they were poisoning our air and water, and you knew that you stood a decent chance of being injured or maimed on the job.
The bargain was that, with the protection of industrial trade unions, you were paid well, and when you retired, you had a pension waiting.
In the 1980s, we kept up our side, but US Steel diversified into oil refining and closed down much of its steel production, Westinghouse Electric merged with CBS and exited manufacturing altogether, Union Switch & Signal went overseas, and Jones & Laughlin (by then known as LTV) imploded after two bankruptcies. Pension plans were liquidated for pennies on the dollar or bailed out by the federal government.
Corporate America left Western Pennsylvania a toxic mess, both literally and figuratively, and stripped away our livelihoods and identities. Of course we’re bitter.
When that crash hit, those who could moved away. Those who couldn’t tended to be mid-career Baby Boomers with mortgaged houses that suddenly couldn’t be sold at any price. Those folks are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and many of them still very, very aggrieved.
Some of them found solace in their churches or by becoming super-nostalgic for the “lost America” that Ronald Reagan told us had been destroyed by “unions” and “minorities” and “welfare queens.”
From about 2004 to 2014, I worked Sundays at two AM radio stations just outside McKeesport, where we aired mostly paid programming—polka music and evangelical preachers. (I liked the polkas more than the preachers.)
One of the songs the preachers often played—I would occasionally heard it twice in the same afternoon—was “We Want America Back” by The Steeles, which includes lyrics like:
Something is wrong with America …
We must return to the values we left,
Before this country we love is totally lost.
We want America back
From those who have no self-control …
It’s time for the army of God to arise,
And say we want America back.
What do they want back? The familiar past, before they were afraid for their futures. From whom do they want it back? The usual groups. Their secular children and grandchildren, who don’t attend church. Feminists. LGBTQ rights activists.
For many of them, the real “years of fear” began Sept. 11, 2001, and went into hyperdrive when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. I’m hardly the first one to point out that the “Tea Party” was (more or less) a white backlash to a Black president.
The rise of the shambolic, lurching authoritarianism of the Trump Administration may represent “years of fear” for many Americans, but for aggrieved, older white folks in Western Pennsylvania, Trump’s election eased their fears of an uncertain future.
On Flag Day last year, I bought red, white and blue cupcakes to take to work. The cashier, a nice, older white lady, said to me, “I’m so glad people are free to love America again.” She wasn’t being ironic.
For a long time, I had the sense that Bernie Sanders might be the only Democratic presidential candidate who could tap that sense of grievance. He’s their age, he’s white, he supports gun ownership, and, like them, he’s mad as hell about the loss of their American dream.
The polls tell a different story. Sanders hasn’t connected with that generation at all, at least in the Pittsburgh area. When they hear that he’s a socialist, they don’t think of modern-day Denmark or Sweden. They remember 1970s Poland and Czechoslovakia.
My wife gets a monthly magazine from the William Penn Association, a fraternal organization in Pittsburgh for Hungarian-Americans. A few months ago, one of their columnists wrote of traveling to Hungary to visit relatives, and looking through artifacts they’d saved from Communism — ration books, identity cards, etc.
That’s what people here remember about socialism: sending blue jeans and toys to relatives behind the Iron Curtain, and hearing horror stories from relatives who had escaped to the West.
To them, Sanders is a big unknown, and that makes them more fearful, not less. They don’t want to see any more radical changes, because all of the ones they saw in their young adulthood—deindustrialization, corporate raiding, stock manipulations—worked out badly for us.
Trump, besides tapping into their grievances, also promises there are no unknowns, because he knows everything, whether he’s discussing the economy, the military or COVID-19.
For a lot of people in Western Pennsylvania, President Trump hasn’t represented three years of fear. He’s represented a return to a romanticized pre-1965 America—the America of the first few seasons of TV’s “Mad Men,” when white men might often be wrong, but were never mistaken.
It’s no wonder that so many conservative Christians flocked to Trump, because evangelicalism too, promises certainty—that everything, from a stock-market crash to COVID-19, is part of God’s plan.
Sure, the voters who most connect with Bernie Sanders today are those aged 18 to 45, for whom the American economic system isn’t working. But the American economic system failed 18-to-45-year-olds in Western Pennsylvania more than 30 years ago. Those people are now 48-to-75-year-old Donald Trump voters—and, it appears, possibly Joe Biden voters as well.
Where Sanders and Elizabeth Warren promise change, and people like Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris are themselves types of change (one is young and openly gay, the other is Black and female), Joe Biden is white, cisgender, straight—and old.
In an essay for the New York Times recently, Jennifer Finney Boylan touched on another aspect of Biden’s appeal—that he represents the “happy warrior” strain of American politics. She suggested that after three-plus years of Trump’s endless rage, Americans aren’t looking for another angry man in the White House, even if that man (Sanders) is justifiably mad as hell about the same things that have made them mad for the past thirty years.
Can Biden help alleviate those voters’ fears through positivity, while still connecting with their sense of nostalgia for a familiar (but imperfect) past? We’re likely to know well before Pennsylvania’s primary, scheduled for April 28—assuming concerns over COVID-19 don’t lead the state to postpone voting, as Ohio did.
On March 22, the mayor of Clairton confirmed that the resident who had been hospitalized died the day before, on March 21. His was the first death in Allegheny County attributable to COVID-19.
COVID-19, of course, represents our ultimate existential fears—illness, incapacity, death. On this front, too, Biden is trying to reassure anxious voters by promising them that a Biden Administration would have handled the early stages of the pandemic far better than the Trump Administration.
At this point, I suspect that all but the most hardcore Trump supporters in Western Pennsylvania—say, my neighbor with the “NO MORE BULLSH-T” flag, and the types of folks who attacked us for pushing a “hidden agenda” by even reporting on COVID-19 cases—would agree.
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.