PHILADELPHIA — “I cannot possibly support Hillary Clinton,” said Kimberly Martin. The barking of her numerous pit bulls, perhaps sensing that there was one of those depraved journalists about, alerted her to my presence. When she stepped out of her front door to figure out why I was taking photographs of her Donald Trump posters, we got to talking.
Martin was forced to close her construction company in 2014 “because of all the hardships the government puts on small businesses” and has been unemployed since. “Trump’s a businessman,” she said, expressing fidelity with the Republican presidential candidate. “I like his economic package.” If she were still operating her company, Martin would “go down and put a bid on that wall” Trump has proposed constructing along the U.S./Mexico border. “I hope he builds it 20 feet high. It’s not because I’m a racist or a bigot, and it’s not because I don’t like Mexicans. I have friends of every color, creed and sexuality. But if you are going to immigrate, do it right.”
Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, her use of a private email server while Secretary of State, NAFTA and Bill Clinton’s evasion of prosecution after repeated allegations of sexual misconduct were among the additional reasons Martin cited for turning to Trump. These might seem like disparate complaints, but each underscored her perception that the Clintons are part of the global elite and have given fodder to Trump’s anti-establishment message.
Martin is hardly an outlier in the white, working-class enclaves of Philadelphia, including Port Richmond, where we met. Many in this Polish and Irish neighborhood see a Trump vote as a big, whopping, necessary “fuck you” to politicians on both sides of the aisle who they feel have abandoned them.
A Traditionally Democratic Neighborhood
STARS, STRIPES AND PIT BULLS: Kimberly Martin on her stoop. Those are the names of police officers killed in Dallas, Texas on July 8 taped to her front door.
Port Richmond has traditionally voted Democratic in national elections, but touring the area in early October with local education activists, it was apparent that that is about to change. Though the activists knocked on doors of registered Democrats, the most frequent response I received when I asked which way voters were leaning in the national election was either “Trump” or “I don’t know” — code, explained one of the group’s lead organizers, Lev Hirschhorn, for “I’m voting for Trump but don’t want to admit it.”
The ambiguity of such responses from these denizens of the white working class just might spell a surprise victory for Trump in Pennsylvania, where the state’s 20 electoral college votes will play a pivotal role in deciding our next president. Think of the results of the Brexit referendum or the peace plebiscite in Colombia recently. Pollsters misread cues from conservative-minded voters too embarrassed to admit publicly which way they planned to cast their ballots.
A litany of behaviors exhibited by the Donald fly in the face of what most consider common decency — racism, bragging of sexual assault, insulting disabled people and former POWs. Nonetheless, Trump’s economic populism has resonated in Port Richmond, with its long blocks of row housing. Here oil trains roll by down the road from playgrounds and the windows of the local Charles Carroll High School are covered in plywood. Amid the American flags, shamrocks and crucifixes that adorn front porches, “Make America Great Again” posters have cropped up. In one car window, someone took one of the “love trumps hate” placards that littered the city when the Democrats hosted their national convention in Philadelphia in July and folded it to read, “love trump.”
Walter Benjamin’s famous bon mot, “Behind every fascism is a failed revolution,” comes to mind, given that the white working class also composed a large segment of Bernie Sanders’ political revolution.
“You have to understand, when people vote they don’t just examine platforms independently of the institutions that mediate their lives,” said Judith Stein, a labor historian at the City College of New York. “The black working class’s view of the world is mediated through political operatives who have been linked to the Democratic Party for the past 30 or 40 years — church leaders, nonprofit leaders, black politicians.” By contrast, white workers are, in many respects, institutionally unmoored. That’s long been the case in the southern United States but is a relatively new phenomena in the North where traditions of trade unionism have tied blue-collar whites to the Democratic Party, at least until now. “I heard from steel union leaders that at locals in Ohio they were debating between Sanders and Trump,” Stein said.
But Sanders is out of the picture.
On one hand, narratives that demonize, cheer or patronize the white working class for Trump’s ascent are oversimplifications, given research from the Gallup polling organization that indicates Trump has an even higher number of supporters among the middle class. And whites overall are a shrinking voting block. They will account for 69 percent of the vote in this election, down from 87 percent in 1992. Whites as a percentage of the working class have also shrunk as America’s demographics have shifted.
Nevertheless, 2014 census data indicates that 44.4 percent of whites earn less than $50,000 a year and those blue-collar votes will still have a significant impact on the election. As political demographer Ruy Teixeira put it to the New Yorker earlier this year: “If [Trump’s] populist message boosts turnout and margins with working-class white voters high enough in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest, you could see a situation where someone like Trump could carry Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, maybe Pennsylvania. That would put a real dent in the Democratic coalition.”
Trump’s support in Port Richmond and nationally among blue-collar whites also illustrates the challenges Berniecrats, heeding Sanders’ call to “transform our country from the bottom up” face. Before they can transform the country they’ll have to transform their party, which, since the first Clinton administration has taken a turn toward what Stein describes as “neoliberalism with a human face,” away from the New Deal politics that appeal to the working-class electorate Sanders represented a return to.
Rather than change minds for Clinton, the activists I shadowed in Philadelphia, members of the nascent 215 People’s Alliance, are appealing to voters on issues closer to home. (215 is a reference to the city’s area code.) They’re seeking to wrest control of their public schools from the widely-loathed School Reform Commission (SRC), established to run Philadelphia’s school district by the state in 2001.
“There’s a lot of things wrong in the neighborhood that need work and this is a good way to get things started,” 25-year-old Shane Razzi told me. Like many of the canvassers I spoke with, most of whom were former Bernie staffers or volunteers, Sanders’ message of economic justice got Razzi involved in politics. He even drove out West to volunteer for Sanders ahead of the California primary in June. But when I asked if he was supporting Clinton, Razzi demurred. He’s not a Trump supporter, like his neighbors, and he wasn’t making any political calculation: Razzi just can’t muster the same enthusiasm for Clinton that he had for the democratic socialist. “I’m focusing on the local stuff,” he said.
Razzi’s grandfather was born in 1926 just around the corner from Powers Park, where Razzi and a dozen other 215 Alliance organizers met up to canvass Port Richmond with a petition that calls for dismantling the SRC. Razzi was raised in the neighborhood, too. “It was pretty rough,” he told me. “Our science class was just our teacher handing us a piece of paper to draw on from kindergarten until fifth grade.”
SCHOOL’S OUT FOREVER: This property, formerly a high school, can be purchased at PHLschoolsales.com.
A democratically elected school board would offer locals a chance to have a say in how their children are educated. Board members held accountable to voters would be less likely to close neighborhood schools or demand givebacks from the teachers union. Since taking over the district in 2001, when the city faced a $216.7 million deficit in its education budget thanks to decades of underfunding, the SRC has put Philadelphia schools under an austerity regime that has only exacerbated pre-existing problems — overcrowding, understaffing and program cuts. Dozens of neighborhood schools have been shut down, replaced by charters or sold off as real estate.
Yet, for Philadelphia to have a say in how its children are educated it will have to change who’s in the state capital by electing legislators who will dissolve the SRC.
A Republican and charter school advocate, John Taylor, has represented Port Richmond in Harrisburg since 1984. Despite some shady and unpopular backroom dealings, like slipping a provision that expands charter schools in Philadelphia into a cigarette tax bill two years ago, he’s held onto his seat through a mixture of old-school patronage — offering Port Richmond’s struggling residents jobs with the city’s parking authority — and by performing genuinely helpful constituent services. Resident after resident who I spoke with in Port Richmond praised Taylor for halting industrial rezoning on their block or helping them boot drug dealers (opioid addiction is widespread in the area) from their corners. Thus the neighborhood, while traditionally voting Democrat at the top of the ballot, has supported Taylor in election after election.
The 215 People’s Alliance is asking voters who sign their petition to dismantle the SRC to support Taylor’s Democratic rival, Joe Hohenstein.
“With Trump being such a divisive figure, we’re working to have a strong local campaign that shores up the Democratic base so that there isn’t any ticket splitting,” Hohenstein, who stopped by to glad-hand the canvassers in Powers Park, told me.
Yet, Hohenstein isn’t exactly a paragon of Sanders’ political revolution that was the inspiration for many of the people going door-to-door for him. He supported Clinton in the Democratic primaries and is in favor of charter schools, with the caveat that they are held accountable and don’t come at the expense of public schools. Basically, he considers himself a moderate.
“Being drawn to someone who says, ‘I want something different,’ we have to be careful,” Hohenstein said. “This goes to Bernie’s vision of populism as well as Trump’s. If you go down the alphabet, you can’t go from A to B to K. You have to take your steps through. There’s always been people who say, ‘Oh yeah, we need a revolution.’ But if you are going to overthrow a system, where essentially you create a new alphabet, there are going to be steps that get lost.”
Repackaging the Status Quo
WHAT NEXT?: 215 Canvassers Hirschhorn and Shane Razzi take a break inside a Port Richmond convenience store.
Granted, moderation isn’t as dramatic or sexy as revolution. It’s also code for the status quo, which hasn’t been too kind to the people of Port Richmond or the working class in the United States at large in the last several decades.
In large part that’s thanks to policies Bill Clinton’s administration championed — NAFTA, the dismantling of welfare, harsher penalties for nonviolent drug offenses, Wall Street deregulation and the promulgation of charter schools. These days the path to a college education for America’s poor and working-class is narrower than ever. Wages have stagnated and there are fewer jobs to go around, particularly in manufacturing, once a boon to places like Port Richmond: There are more than six million fewer US manufacturing jobs available than in the 1980s. All this has put a strain on the social fabric of working-class communities and created ample ground for a prescription drug epidemic and Trump’s populism to take root.
Ironically, much of Trump’s support in Port Richmond is non-ideological. Kimberly Martin, for instance, said she “absolutely” supports local control of schools. While we were on the subject of education, she added that her daughter recently graduated college. “I just watched a rally of Hillary’s where she talked about free college tuition for families making under a $125,000 a year. Let me tell you, we are deep in debt. I support that.”