It took an hour to find somewhere to eat in Youngstown. It was a week before election day in the United States and there had been no breakfast on offer at the motel I’d stayed at the previous night in Pennsylvania. I was due in Cleveland by lunchtime, so crossed the border into Ohio before stopping. Youngstown, the first place you reach heading west on Interstate 80, is the heart of a conurbation of nearly half a million people: it seemed as likely a spot as any for a meal.
When I arrived in downtown Youngstown, there was nothing there. Or rather: there was a state university, a few high-rise office blocks left over from the gilded age and a neat grid of huge and beautiful old houses of the sort James Thurber was writing stories about eighty years ago. But shops and restaurants and cafés, the sort of bustling street life that suggests a thriving community? Nothing. Some of these businesses had moved out to suburban strip malls. Others are just gone.
Youngstown is an extreme example of a phenomenon that can be seen all over the American Midwest. Over the past 80 years, the population of the city has fallen by two-thirds. In 2007, a CNN report ranked it as the poorest substantial city in the US. The Rust Belt is full of places like this: mining or manufacturing towns that were once industrial powerhouses but now feel too big and too grand for the shrunken populations that remain. The pictures of Detroit never show the glories of its half-empty central business district.
The Rust Belt is like the north of England on a continental scale. Its cities are Sheffield and Bradford, over and over again. When I visited, Ohio was about to commit what most metropolitan observers believed would be an act of enormous self-harm, just as much of the north had in June with the EU referendum.
As I finished my breakfast at an Italian café on the highway back to the interstate, a man at the next table waved me over. He had heard my accent, he said, and wanted to know about Brexit. It didn’t seem like a good sign that the UK’s political news had become a talking point in a place like Youngstown.
The man – who asked to be identified only as John – was an Italian-American and a lifelong Democrat, until now. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and he would have voted for Jim Webb, a Democratic Virginian senator who flirted with running for president in 2016, but dropped out before the primaries. John said he didn’t like the Clintons, even though he had voted for Bill twice. He wouldn’t be voting for Hillary: she was too establishment.
Donald Trump, though, John liked – the tycoon’s comments about changing the rules of trade in order to bring back American jobs resonated. And Trump’s comments about women? Well, Bill Clinton has his issues in that area, too, John said, and he was a great president. (The more we talked, it became clear that when John said he didn’t like the Clintons, he meant one Clinton in particular.)
I had heard similar comments about the relative merits of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in Pennsylvania the day before. In the former mining city of Scranton, a trucking magnate told me that he admired Trump’s stance on avoiding taxes, on the grounds that it was what any sensible businessman would do.
This kind of sentiment was usual among the Republicans I met. The difference with John was that he was a Democrat and a blue-collar non-graduate – the kind of unionised worker who has traditionally made up the Democratic Party’s base.
Although I didn’t know it then, it was voters such as John who would win the election for Trump. In 2008, Obama carried Mahoning, the county that contains Youngstown, by 63 per cent to 35. This November, Hillary Clinton scraped it by 50 to 47, and Trump won Ohio by more than 8 points.
Ohio has long been a bellwether state. This pattern was repeated across the Rust Belt, with states that had not voted for a Republican in a generation – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan – narrowly opting for Trump. He didn’t win the popular vote, but thanks to the US electoral college system, he didn’t need to. If Hillary Clinton had won just over 100,000 more votes in those three states combined, she would be president-elect.
So why didn’t she win here? Part of the explanation can be found in the economic anxiety that has been described in any number of reports about Trump voters from cities such as Youngstown. (Oddly, there have been very few similar reports about why people voted for Clinton in places such as Detroit.) The Trump campaign’s shameless mobilisation of racial resentment had a lot to do with why she lost, too. However, these explanations are merely two sides of the same coin: out-and-out racism has always been a more successful electoral strategy when voters feel insecure about their place in the world.
There is something else at work here, too, and I wonder whether it is the same force that caused much of the north of England to vote for Brexit, and may yet propel Marine Le Pen to the French presidency. In the Republican primary, one of the biggest predictors of how likely someone was to vote Trump was not having a college degree. There are millions of those voters in Rust Belt towns like Youngstown, because there are so few graduate jobs to do there. If you have skills or ambitions, you will leave.
The result, in the US as in the UK, is a divide that is as much geographical as it is cultural. Some thriving cities are liberal and global; others are left wondering where it all went wrong. Those big rambling houses by Youngstown’s manicured park can be bought for as little as $70,000 – because why would someone who can afford more choose to live there?
When John asked me about Brexit, I thought he wanted to know how it had happened, and what it would mean for the UK. But the more I think about it, the more I suspect that what he was really asking was this: for once, can we actually win?
His candidate, Donald Trump, will now be president. Winning, though, may mean something else entirely.
This article was previously published in our sister publication, the New Statesman.