“These mills they built the tanks and bombs that won this country’s wars” — Bruce Springsteen, “Youngstown”
Bob Wilson was coming of age when sulfur stung the night sky and the valley glowed with molten steel. Scarfers hissed, slag cooled, unions marched like armies and train tracks knew no rust. Weeks were flush with paychecks and promises in a potent vision of America that would vanish before Wilson stepped too far into manhood.
“You could watch it all from a bridge,” said Wilson, an auto mechanic with the deep gaze of a marksman. “Hot ladles and steel and men working. Then it was gone.”
Bruce Springsteen immortalized the nobility of men who once stood before the furnaces and the betrayals of a collapsing steel industry. His 1995 song “Youngstown,” a poetic elegy in a vast working-class canon, is still revered by the city that inspired it.
But many of the machinists, miners and laborers who embody Springsteen’s lyrics from the Rust Belt to the Appalachian coal fields have turned to the swagger of Donald Trump in a long-denied bid for redemption. Springsteen’s politics may have stayed liberal since he played Stambaugh Auditorium here two decades ago, but economic decline, foreign competition, crime and abandoned mills have turned many in Youngstown — notably blue-collar white men — toward the right-wing, isolationist politics of a billionaire reality-TV show star.
“I call it the pissed-off steel workers party. A lot of people like someone who causes trouble. That’s why Trump is so popular,” said Wilson, sitting in the dim of his hillside shop in the slipping away hours of a warm afternoon. “Why am I voting for him? He’s not Hillary Clinton.” He smiled, turned the radio low. “You know, my entire adult life I’ve been voting for the lesser of two evils.”
A little farther down the Mahoning River, where scrap metal shone dull in the thicket and broken pallets were scattered like bones, Bill Skinner climbed down from polishing the top of his truck and told the rag man he’d pay him something next week. He pulled off his gloves, lighted a cigarette and railed that Muslims want to impose Islamic law, political correctness imperils masculinity and jobs keep dying or getting sent to Mexico or China.
“Steel is wiped out and Obama is wiping out the coal and mining industries. Hillary wants to finish what he started. Our country is $20 trillion in debt. America has gone from the toilet to the sewer, ” he said. “Hillary and anyone connected to her should be in jail. If anyone’s going to stop this nonsense, it’s a guy from the outside.”
Unlike President Reagan, who in the 1980s invoked the “Born in the U.S.A.”-era Springsteen as a symbol of hope, Trump, who is running a tight race with Clinton in Ohio, has not celebrated the singer. Springsteen is a progressive who campaigned relentlessly for President Obama. His vision of the country is a communion of ragged, defiant and giving souls who find shared meaning in sacrifice and restless glimmers of ungraspable dreams.
In a recent interview with British television, he called Trump “a con man” and a “flagrant, toxic narcissist.” But he acknowledged that much of the nation — like characters in his songs “The River” and “Death to My Hometown” — feels battered by Wall Street and abandoned by the Democratic and Republican parties.
“You have 30 to 40 years of de-industrialization and globalization of the economy, so there are a lot of people who were left out of that,” Springsteen said. “Voices have been fundamentally ignored and not heard. These are folks who feel Donald Trump has been listening to them and speaks for them on some level.”
Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Neil Young and other songwriters have articulated the upheavals and divisions that have shaken the land. Wars, poverty, civil rights, prescription drug abuse and police shootings of black men rouse and reveal the national conscience and alter the political landscape.
Springsteen’s words and voice — the rasp of a corner boy grown into a man — are rooted in a childhood shaped by factory myths, yearnings and disappointments, a tormented and bruising father and a New Jersey that would abide no weakness. Those themes and a desire to champion the ones who dwell in the “darkness at the edge of town” buttress his new memoir, “Born to Run.”
“There’s anger in a lot of his songs, that feeling of helplessness of being caught beneath the wheels of American commerce,” said Peter Ames Carlin, who wrote the 2012 Springsteen biography, “Bruce.” “A political consciousness runs through all his music. He speaks about a society that has gone off the rails. The lives of his parents, extended family and friends. These blue-collar people who got screwed at every turn.”
The song “Youngstown” distills that sentiment with the echoes of working men forsaken by corporations and foreign competition that cost the city more than 40,000 manufacturing jobs beginning in 1977: “From the Monongahela Valley/To the Mesabi iron range/To the coal mines of Appalachia/The story’s always the same/Seven-hundred tons of metal a day/Now sir you tell me the world’s changed/Once I made you rich enough/Rich enough to forget my name.”
Such indignities represent Trump’s wellspring among the bitter and bewildered sons and grandsons of European immigrants who prospered during America’s industrial age. Trump has fallen behind in the polls, but his protective trade policies, law-and-order promises and anti-immigration rhetoric of walls and deportations have resonated in Ohio. In Mahoning County, a traditional Democrat bastion the includes Youngstown, the number of Republican voters more than doubled to about 36,000 after the March primary.
“Trump says stuff that is coarse and rough-and-tumble like we are. Closing the borders and stopping [Islamic State] is enough for some people,” said Dan Rivers, a conservative radio talk show host on WKBN-AM (570) in Youngstown. Rivers noted a number of Trump’s comments, especially about women, have been “indefensible … but even with all his faults, I believe he’s better than Hillary Clinton, and that’s the sentiment of the audience.”
Of Springsteen, he said, “Bruce supports a lot of liberal causes, but conservatives give him a pass. He’s an icon. He's done so much good. They think he’s a true working-class guy.”
A broken town
Driving into Youngstown is a glimpse into the brokenness of a once better place. The Uptown Theater is boarded up; check cashing stores flash indifference; the word bankruptcy shines in law office windows; weeds tangle a gas station for sale; and beyond the Chapel of Friendly Bells, the river, full of sludge, runs beneath autumn leaves past Vindicator Square on its way to Campbell, where old men sit in the Valley Café, drinking beer and squinting up at a TV show featuring the bygone fashions of leisure suits and disco dresses.
The town’s population has fallen from more than 166,000 in 1950 to about 65,000 today. Unemployment is about 7.5%, much higher than the national average but down from 13% in 2011. Poverty is persistent, and the area relies on a prison, a French company that makes pipes for the fracking industry, metal industry jobs, a business incubator that supports software and 3-D printing start-ups, and a General Motors plant in nearby Lordstown.
All told, they provide nowhere near what steel did.
“Springsteen sang about hardship and misery, and it hasn’t gotten any better,” said Bill Slanina, a retired city asbestos inspector who is one of more than 6,000 Democrats in the county expected to cross over and vote for Trump. “We haven’t had the uplift I would have hoped for. Trump wants to make America great again. I guess everyone gets on their milk crate and makes promises. He’s worth a try.”
Wilson stood amid the tools, compressors and grime of his trade. He walked deeper into his auto repair shop and reached for the radio dial. “Let me turn Rush [Limbaugh] down,” he said. He sat in an old chair near a particle board pinned with the yellowed obituaries of his steelworker friends who died too early, including Robert Plater. 60. Cancer. A paper target practice figure hung next to the obituaries. Its heart had been blown out.
“A 9mm did that,” he said. “I like to keep this hanging here as a deterrent.”
It was the nearing of the end of a work day. A few cars rolled past, down the hill toward the river. A big man with a mustache, Wilson has an easy, patient grace; his sentences slip between irony and humor. He said he was a Ted Cruz supporter. “Out of 17 Republican candidates we started with, I can’t believe it’s Trump.”
Part of him thinks Trump’s candidacy is a conspiracy by the media to help Clinton win. He’s voting for him anyway. He’s tired of the Democrats, entitlement programs and the way things have drifted.
“People are running out of money. They’re getting squeezed,” he said. “It’s more expensive to fix newer cars. The parts are technological. I’m working on a lot of older and older cars.” He paused. He talked about how things once were, the sky alight and humming with the making of steel. Big, steamy magic that rose along the shoals and, like a net, spread in all directions, giving a boy a sense of fear and wonder.
“A good part of Youngstown is a welfare state now,” he said. He bought a house a while back but he’s noticed that other owners are renting their homes to people who see the world differently. “I’ve got houses full of idiots around me,” he said. “No one goes to work. But they never run out of money for dope or malt liquor. That kind of irks me.”
Much of that resentment has been imposed by larger forces. The song “Youngstown” is from the 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a sober meditation on how changing economies laid waste to America’s manufacturing regions. It also traces the parallel struggles faced by immigrants trying to find their ways in a new and suspicious land. They are the same issues Trump has ignited with his campaign, but Springsteen, unlike the candidate, praises diversity.
“We are a nation of immigrants and no one knows who’s coming across our borders today, whose story might add a significant page to our American story,” he writes in his autobiography. “ Here in the early years of our new century, as at the turn of the last, we are once again at war with our ‘new Americans.’ ”
A mile or so from Wilson’s shop, the river road runs toward the edges of Youngstown, past the once towering Republic Steel plant, much of it taken apart and hauled away years ago. At a small tool-and-die factory, a few men sweat while aluminum spun in a machine and shavings filled a bin. One man was a Trump supporter, two were not. They spoke of healthcare and wages and Obama and anger and the need for some kind of shock to the system. Someone mentioned Springsteen.
“You know, Bruce is a senior citizen now,” said Jim Ortenzio.
“He tells good stories. He captured Youngstown,” said George Garrett. “The steel mills went down in the 1970s. I was coming out of high school and hoping I’d be going into steel or General Motors. There wasn’t much left. I went into the aluminum business. You can almost make a decent living.”
The men thought for a moment and returned to work. Dusk was a couple hours off. A breeze lifted and clouds were gathering out near the state line to the east.