Welcome back to the Year of Fear. Each week until Election Day, CJR and the Delacorte Review will bring you another chapter from one of our four towns. Click here to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Pittsburgh’s beer is still called Iron City, Pittsburgh’s football team is still called the Steelers, and here in McKeesport, we remain proud of our smokestack heritage—even if manufacturing only plays a tiny part in the region’s economy.
Once, ten thousand people labored in McKeesport to make such products as steel pipes. Two remaining mini-mills now employ only a few hundred people. Across all of Western Pennsylvania, according to University of Pittsburgh economist Chris Briem, the percentage of jobs in manufacturing fell to an all-time low in 2019.
But while blast furnaces and rolling mills are gone from McKeesport, Duquesne, and Homestead, toughness and a strong work ethic remain our region’s brand. Just down the river from McKeesport, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a huge statue of Joe Magarac stands at the entrance of US Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works, one of the Monongahela Valley’s last fully integrated steel plants.
Magarac is a Pittsburgh folk legend—a Paul Bunyan-like character who was larger than life, stronger than Superman, and protected other millworkers from harm. The story goes that Magarac was born in a mountain of iron ore and died when he leapt into a ladle of molten steel to make it stronger. The Mon Valley, too, was the setting for Michael Cimino’s 1978 film, The Deer Hunter, about young steelworkers who return from the Vietnam War trying to hide their emotional trauma under layers of macho posturing.
It stands to reason, then, that a lot of Pittsburghers—especially white men—would embrace toughness as a virtue, and it’s also no surprise that many around here took a liking to tough-talking Donald Trump. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won McKeesport, Duquesne, Clairton, and other cities with large Black populations, but Trump ran the table in the surrounding, mostly white boroughs and townships, many of them populated by the children and grandchildren of retired steelworkers.
This year, although Biden-Harris signs are sprouting in front yards, Trump signs and flags still predominate. Many of them bear one of two mottos —“NO MORE BULLSHIT” or “FUCK YOUR FEELINGS”—that seem more appropriate to a tough-talking 1970s steelworkers’ bar than to a twenty-first-century presidential election campaign.
To be sure, Biden is more popular here than Hillary Clinton—but it would be hard to be less popular in Western Pennsylvania than her. In the 1990s, Pittsburgh billionaire philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife funded many of the “Arkansas Project” investigations into the personal lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the findings were splashed across the front pages of his regional chain of newspapers, including the Greensburg and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and, later, the McKeesport Daily News.
Indeed, the roots of the QAnon conspiracies can be found in those stories, which suggested prominent officials had been murdered to conceal Clinton Administration secrets. The byline on many of them was that of then-Tribune-Review reporter Christopher Ruddy, today the CEO of Newsmax Media, a close confidant of Trump. In other words, from the beginning, the odds were against Hillary Clinton in Western Pennsylvania. But she did herself no favors during her 2016 campaign when she became the first Democratic presidential nominee in memory not to visit the Mon Valley.
Donald Trump did. He came to Monessen, Westmoreland County, the site of a long-closed Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel mill, where he told his audience it was “time to declare our economic independence once again.”
“The legacy of Pennsylvania steelworkers lives in the bridges, railways and skyscrapers that make up our great American landscape,” Trump told employees of a recycling plant that operates on a portion of Wheeling-Pitt’s old Monessen Works. “But our workers’ loyalty was repaid with betrayal,” he said, arguing that trade deals with China and Mexico—negotiated during the Clinton Administration—were responsible for the Pittsburgh region’s loss of manufacturing employment.
Trump promised his Monessen audience that he would put “American-produced steel back into the backbone of our country” and create “massive numbers of jobs.”
Although the city of Monessen voted for Clinton in 2016, Westmoreland County went for Trump by more than 56,000 votes, and Trump won Washington County, on the opposite side of the Monongahela River, by 24,505 votes. In fact, Trump swept all of Western Pennsylvania outside of Allegheny County on his way to winning Pennsylvania—and its twenty electoral votes—by about 68,000 votes.
Joe Biden seems determined not to repeat Clinton’s mistake of ignoring the old steel towns. Following the first presidential debate on September 29, Biden and his wife Jill staged a whistle-stop train tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, making two stops in Westmoreland County before ending in Johnstown, another former steel town that fell on hard times in the 1970s and ’80s. The Biden campaign this week also opened a field office in McKeesport.
Biden, like Clinton in 2016, is expected to win Philadelphia and its suburbs. That means Western Pennsylvania is likely to be the deciding region once again, and pundits and political reporters are stalking the valleys around Pittsburgh.
In September, Nina Lakhani of The Guardian visited Beaver County, north of the city, where she talked to many lifelong registered Democrats who said they’re sticking with Trump. “He’s the lesser of two evils, and he cares for working people, that’s the bottom line,” one woman told Lakhani. The woman bristled at the implication that a vote for Trump is a vote for racism. “We don’t see that here,” she said.
A lot has been written, of course, about Trump’s appeal to white supremacists, nativists and nationalists, but less has been written about how Trump’s hyper-macho behavior is appealing to men, and some women.
At first glance, Trump, who loves luxury and was born into wealth, would seem to have little in common with a Mon Valley steelworker. But consider Trump’s love of golf. Western Pennsylvania—birthplace of Arnold Palmer—loves it, too. Pennsylvania reportedly has more golf courses per capita than any other state. There are nearly seventy in the Pittsburgh region alone, including one in North Braddock, literally within sight of the Edgar Thomson steel plant.
Trump has been mocked for preferring his steaks charbroiled, but that’s reminiscent of the style called “Pittsburgh rare”—blackened to a crisp on the outside. And throughout his career, Trump has surrounded himself with fashion models, many of whom could have served as pin-up girls inside a steelworker’s locker.
So it shouldn’t stretch anyone’s imagination to see why any man who embraces Pittsburgh’s legacy of macho behavior wouldn’t aspire to Donald Trump’s lifestyle—and connect with him on a visceral level. On September 20, hundreds of Trump supporters, almost all of them white, many of them men driving customized pickup trucks and motorcycles, staged a parade down US Route 30 in nearby North Huntingdon Township. Some of them said they had little or no interest in politics. But they liked Donald Trump.
The following weekend, the Washington Post covered a boat parade on Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio, home to Cedar Point amusement park and a popular vacation spot for Pittsburghers. Participants in the “masculinity-oozing” event, reported the Post, “live by the rules (Trump) lives by: that concepts such as white male privilege or structural racism and sexism are to be scoffed at” and that “liberals are crybabies and snowflakes.”
(Not coincidentally, these hyper-masculine—some would say “toxic”—attitudes overlap nicely with overt Republican hostility to issues such as LGBTQ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and women’s reproductive health.)
Following Biden’s whistle-stop in Johnstown, Andrew Seidman of The Philadelphia Inquirer visited the area where he spoke with James Bender of nearby Loretto, who was flying two Trump flags from his house. Both had Trump in macho poses. In one, the president was depicted standing on top of a tank. The other had Trump’s face superimposed on Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo. Bender was dismissive of rules imposed by Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor Tom Wolf that require people to wear face masks in public. “That,” Bender said, “ain’t never happening.”
Trump has been one of the nation’s biggest skeptics about the ability of face masks to stop the spread of the coronavirus. During the chaotic first presidential debate, he mocked Biden for wearing “the biggest face mask I’ve ever seen.”
Opponents of face masks have given me a number of not-very-convincing theories why they can’t or shouldn’t wear them. But any boy who grew up in the Mon Valley knows the real reason: men don’t want to wear face masks because it implies they’re vulnerable. It’s not macho. By mocking Biden’s face mask, Trump was implying that his opponent is a sissy. On Tuesday, Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren, a close ally of the president, tweeted a video of Biden wearing a face mask and added, “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.”
Yet now Trump’s masculinity has almost literally turned toxic. Trump and more than a dozen of his closest allies, as well as several members of the White House press corps, have tested positive for COVID-19. Even after Trump was hospitalized and medicated some of his surrogates continued to insist that the president would somehow cure himself of the deadly disease merely by acting tough.
Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler tweeted a pro-wrestling video that was edited to show Trump body-slamming a coronavirus molecule. US Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida tweeted, “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump.”
On the day of his release Trump himself urged followers “don’t be afraid of COVID”—as if only cowards will succumb to a disease that has now killed 210,000 Americans. After arriving back at the White House following three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he wasted no time publicly removing his face mask, despite the fact that he’s still struggling with the symptoms of COVID-19 and is still infectious to the people around him.
Trump’s behavior, in other words, has gone from tough to reckless.
Mon Valley steelworkers were tough and courageous, but that doesn’t mean they were reckless. When the mills were organized by the steelworkers’ union in the 1930s, laborers wanted better pay, protection from abusive mill management, and paid vacations. They also demanded safer working conditions.
The Joe Magarac legend was first recorded at around the same time, by a writer for Scribner’s Magazine who claimed he heard it from Eastern European immigrants who worked in the steel mills in the Mon Valley.
But just as Trump’s self-proclaimed business prowess is largely a creation of his fourteen years starring in NBC’s The Apprentice, the Magarac folk tale was also made up. Scholars have been unable to find any evidence that the Magarac story was an authentic folk tale.
The name “Magarac,” in fact, is derived from “mазга,” or “mazga,” the Croatian word for mule. The implication was that only a jackass would kill himself to help the steel mill. Now that Trump has contracted COVID-19, it remains to be seen if his Western Pennsylvania supporters will still see him as strong and tough for flouting safety rules—or as merely a reckless jackass.
This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.