It’s been five months since the euphoria of a Donald Trump rally at the local arena brought optimism to this former Democratic stronghold. The snow from a long winter has begun melting into the rocky soil, and the digital sign in a torn-up parking lot blinks hopefully: “Warm days are coming.”
President Trump has yet to deliver jobs or the repeal of Obamacare. But here, in an area crucial to his unexpected election victory, many residents are more frustrated with what they see as obstruction and a rush to judgment than they are with Trump.
Give him six months to prove himself, said an information technology supervisor. Give him a year, said a service manager. Give him four years, said a retired print shop owner.
“Give the man a chance,” said Crystal Matthews, a 59-year-old hospital employee. “They’re just going to fight him tooth and nail, the whole way.”
Public opinion polls show Trump at historic lows. That’s largely because, unlike most presidents, he has failed to attract new support since election day. Instead, his actions have energized his opposition and turned off some who had ambivalent feelings.
But while some supporters have abandoned the president amid an FBI investigation targeting some of his associates, a string of political defeats and diplomatic flare-ups, most of those who voted for Trump have stuck with him.
Wilkes-Barre, in a valley along the Susquehanna River, is emblematic of the mid-sized cities in the Rust Belt that proved decisive to Trump’s winning electoral formula and the tenacity of his support.
The region once drew prosperity from coal and remains dependent on industry including, in recent years, warehouse distribution and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The late 19th century brick factories lend downtown a historic quality that sets it apart from the chain stores atop the hill overlooking town.
Jim Haggerty, a 63-year-old resident of nearby Forty Fort, sat in Sweet Treet diner on a recent weekday morning, reading the local newspaper and lamenting that two of his three children left the area after obtaining college degrees. His third may have no choice but to do the same when he graduates.
“This area lacks quality jobs,” said Haggerty, who retired from the printing business he owned. “We’ve got blue collar, after blue collar, after blue collar.”
Haggerty voted twice for President Obama but, like many here, was eager to experiment with someone he believed would run the country like a successful business.
Luzerne County, which includes Wilkes-Barre, gave nearly 60% of its vote to Trump, four years after supporting Obama. Among the three Pennsylvania counties that flipped from blue to red in 2016, playing a key role in delivering the state to Trump, Luzerne had the largest Republican uptick — nearly 12 percentage points.
Trump built loyalty here. He held two rallies in Wilkes-Barre; the second came during the lowest point in his campaign, after a recording emerged in which he bragged about grabbing women against their will.
The crowd at the Mohegan Sun Arena chanted “CNN sucks” that day in October, a sign that they were more angry with the news media than with Trump.
Many of those who stood in the same arena this week to watch the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins face off against the Utica Comets in a minor league hockey game said they remained disgusted with the coverage of Trump. One man acidly rattled off the names of network anchors — Lester Holt, Wolf Blitzer — naming them as among the people conspiring to stop Trump from breaking the mold of “bought and paid for” politicians.
“They’re going to do anything they have to do to make sure Trump doesn’t succeed,” said Rich Martini, a 51-year-old book printer, sipping a beer in the hallway amid the smell of glazed nuts and mustard.
“There’s a bias,” said David Ambrulavage, a 50-year-old IT manager, wearing a white Penguins jersey in the nosebleed seats as the Zamboni cleared the floor and Aerosmith’s “Dream On” blasted from the sound system.
Are Trump and his family making money off the presidency? He wouldn’t be the first, Ambrulavage said.
Did the Trump campaign collaborate with Russians to influence the election? They didn’t invent the emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton, he said. Those were drafted by Democrats.
Ambrulavage was also annoyed by the attention paid to smaller issues, like Kellyanne Conway, the Trump advisor, casually sitting on the president’s couch with her shoes on while snapping a picture of a group of visitors to the Oval Office.
Yet he does not leave Trump blameless. Like many here, Ambrulavage believes some of Trump’s wounds are self-inflicted, the result of tweeting unfounded claims and making provocative statements when he doesn’t have to.
“He would be wise to cool it, stop doing it,” he said. “It only adds fuel to the fire.”
To Ambrulavage, those problems do not outweigh Trump’s focus on beefing up military spending, approving a crude oil pipeline from Canada and trying to prevent companies from moving their workforces overseas.
Ambrulavage wants to get rid of Obamacare and believes the president hurt his ability to win votes in Congress by creating a “lot of noise” with his tweets and outspoken comments.
Trump and Republicans in Congress pledged to quickly repeal Obamacare, but last week, amid GOP infighting, party leaders pulled a bill that would have done so.
Healthcare is no longer at the top of Trump’s agenda, but several Trump supporters here remain adamant that the Affordable Care Act has to go, suggesting they may punish Trump and Republican lawmakers if they fail to live up to their promise.
Yet the definition of repeal, or what comes after it, demonstrates why the topic is so thorny for Republicans.
Some want full repeal. Others want to “fine tune” the law, keeping popular features, like a provision allowing adult children to remain on their parents’ plans until age 26. One Trump supporter said he wanted stronger price controls on insurers and hospitals, going against the free-market strategy espoused by many on the right.
And then there’s Mike Stewart, who voted for Trump but celebrated the president’s failure to repeal Obamacare.
“The only thing I have from the government is Obamacare,” said Stewart, a retired insurance salesman and construction worker.
Stewart said he only learned after the election that he qualified for an Obamacare insurance subsidy, which he says saves him more than $700 a month. He added that he still would have cast a vote for Trump, who he believes will improve education and care for the homeless.
Stewart’s approval for Trump is not unlimited. He just wants to give him time to prove he can learn politics. But he said he dared not raise any complaints about Trump with his friends, who uniformly defend the president.
That reservoir of tolerance for Trump drives his opponents here crazy.
“It’s an absolute joke. He has no idea what he’s doing,” said Jeanne Laktash, a 34-year-old Internet copywriter from Dickson City, a small city northeast of Wilkes-Barre. She reeled off a list of grievances against Trump, including a budget that proposed slashing Meals on Wheels.
“It seems like he could do anything, and they wouldn’t care,” she said ruefully. “I haven’t seen a lot of buyers’ remorse.”