YOUNGSTOWN — Donald Trump returned to Northeast Ohio on Tuesday for the first time as president of the United States, but with all the flare and ferocity of a candidate in the heat of an election he already won eight months ago.
“I’ve come here today to cut through the fake news filter and speak directly to the American people. Fake news. Fake news. Fake news,” Trump said, to which the crowd thundered back: “CNN sucks. CNN sucks.”
Trump turned on stage, soaking up the moment with a long smirk, giving his fans ample time to wag fingers at the press.
Then he started softly, speaking of a “love” that unites; of an “American way of life,” of schools that “teach our children to respect our history,” of “family and faith and not government and bureaucracy.”
“We don’t worship government. We worship God,” he said, working the crowd into an uproarious crescendo.
“Finally, we are putting America first,” he said.
“USA! USA! USA!” the crowd replied, like it had so many times at his rallies last year.
No president holds post-election rallies like this. “Nobody,” said Paul Sracic, a CNN contributor and chair of political science at the nearby Youngstown State University.
“This is new,” Sracic said of rallies — complete with music and concession stands — that keep Trump connected to his base and his message out front. “This is like a rock concert or a sporting event. But he’s determined to keep the spirit alive. Maybe this is what you have to do in modern politics.”
The Trump campaign gave out 20,000 tickets for the rally, his second in Ohio as president. Only 7,000 fit inside the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, mostly blue collar or middle class and all but a few white. They drove in from the suburbs and rural areas outside the city to hear a familiar message from their champion — and for their champion to hear them.
These are voters who were pivotal to Trump’s electoral success. They swung hard away from the Democratic Party and toward him.
Rasmussen and Gallup polls out this week show nearly three in five Americans disapprove of Trump’s job as president so far. After more than 70 years of public opinion data, Trump is the only president not to have at least half the country on his side 187 days into office.
And it’s been a turbulent 187 days. Attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or push for tax reform and an infrastructure package, have been drowned out by headlines of congressional committees exploring the extent to which Trump and his campaign knew about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Most of his supporters, however, couldn’t care less about such polls and reports. Many said Republicans in Congress are the problem. Reporters, they and Trump say, are dishonest, obsessing on every little twist and turn in the Russia investigation.
“I’m sick and tired of the media,” said Chad Randall, a Kent State business student who drove in from Shalersville to attend the rally. “That’s all they care about 24/7, 365 days.”
Split over health care
Earlier in the day, Republican senators, including Rob Portman of Ohio, advanced a plan to consider whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. It took a vote by Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie vote and move the plan forward after weeks of failing to reach a consensus in the GOP-controlled Senate.
“Finally, you think that’s easy. That’s not easy,” Trump said. “We’re now one step closer to liberating our citizens from this Obamacare nightmare and delivering great health care to the American people.”
Trump went on to say that Republicans who have campaigned for seven years on repealing Obamacare “must keep their promise.”
Even among Trump’s supporters, however, there’s concern that upsetting the national health care law could have negative consequences, particularly for those with pre-existing conditions.
With a family-plan deductible at $20,000, University of Akron pre-law student Maggie Turley said her family recently dropped its health insurance, partly because of the uncertainty sown by conservative lawmakers who have waffled over what to do with Obamacare.
Losing preventative care could be fatal for Turley, who attended Trump’s rally as a supporter. Her mother and older sister have both been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It’s also scary for me, because we’re in the process of finding out if it’s genetic,” she said.
Repealing the ACA could gut consumer protections that force insurers to offer basic coverage while not overcharging the sick. And so Turley, the interim president of the College Republicans at UA, hopes the GOP plans fail.
“There are things that need fixed,” she said. “[But] I definitely think it does need to be a bipartisan fix.”
Looking for a plan
Other rally attendees came to hear a plan from a candidate who promised to Make America Great Again through infrastructure spending, deregulation, tax cuts and tax reform and a merit-based immigration system.
But they recognize that Trump has yet to find his footing as an effective deal maker in politics.
“I think Trump’s trying,” said Kenny Welch, 54, of Wadsworth. “But I think a lot of walls have been put up by politicians in Washington.”
Trump is a billionaire businessman not accustomed to taking no for an answer. Supporters expected trouble adjusting to his new role leading the Republican Party. They forgive him for being new to politics, a reason why many voted for him.
“With the way he runs his businesses, he expects it to all to be done quickly,” Welch said.
“What’s his plan for the next 3½ years?” asked Randall, the Shalersville resident. “What’s his plan for the elections in 2018, 2020?”
Randall, a business major who recently joined the police academy, said he’s “one of the few who has been with Trump since day one.” A proud gun owner with grandfathers who he says “were spit on” when they returned from wars in Vietnam and the Korean peninsula, Randall was happy to see Trump stop by the AMVETS Lodge 44 in Struthers before the rally. But he wants his president to get his party in order and pass major legislation while they still control both chambers of Congress.
Failure to do so, he said, could hurt conservatives in the 2018 midterm elections.
Other Trump supporters want to see Congress set aside what they consider time-consuming, frivolous hearings on Russia and the election. Many rebut or simply ignore findings from national intelligence and state election officials who have pointed to Russian hackers who tried to alter voter databases or plant misleading stories.
Instead, Trump’s staunchest supporters wore shirts that said, “Trump Won” — end of story. And unlike the exhaustive hearing on what Hillary Clinton did or did not know before the fatal attack on a consulate in Benghazi, “no one died” in the presidential election, Turley said.
A populist returns
“We will no longer be the stupid people who get taken care of so badly by our politicians who don’t know what they’re doing,” Trump said, railing against free trade and espousing protectionist views that put America ahead of its foreign relationships.
Trump’s speech came from inside a convention center made possible by another flamboyant populist — the late U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant, a former Mahoning County sheriff who served seven years in prison for taking bribes, lying on his tax returns and other misdeeds.
Traficant secured the $26.8 million in federal funds to build the Covelli Centre.
The similarities in style and substance between Trump and Traficant were not lost on locals attending the rally. “Everyone always thought Traficant, even if you didn’t like him, that he said what he means. Trump has that same authenticity,” Sracic said. “People around here, these types of voters, are tired of scripted politicians.”
Trump, like Traficant, appeals to working-class voters. Both were once Democrats (Traficant switched to independent; Trump once told CNN, “I probably identify more as Democrat.”)
Traficant helped establish a private prison in east Youngstown, which has reopened under Trump as a privately run detention center for immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings.
Traficant pushed for Veterans Affairs clinics and more military funding for the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna, where Air Force One landed Tuesday before Secret Service shuttled Trump to the Struthers VFW.
The divisiveness that has defined Trump’s presidency was on display outside the rally.
“They say ‘America First’, we say ‘Humanity First,’?” said Cheryl Lessin, a Cleveland nurse volunteering with Refuse Fascism, a political activism group. “They are attacking one group after another … immigrants, Muslims, women … anybody who is not a white man with money.”
Closer to the convention center, the controversial Lyndon LaRouche movement passed out flyers to Trump supporters waiting in line. The anti-capitalist, pro-labor group sees a friend in Trump, who has said he would consider reviving the Glass-Steagall Act to break up banks and not go to war for the sake of nation building.
“We did everything we could to defeat Hillary,” said Joe Billington, a Cleveland native who worked on LaRouche’s eight presidential campaigns, each a long shot. On second thought, Billington thought, Trump’s hiring of a former hedge fund manager from Wall Street to run the U.S. Treasury “is concerning.”
By Akron Beacon Journal
©2017 the Akron Beacon Journal
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.