On November 8, 2016, the Naugatuck Valley in southern Connecticut voted to elect Donald Trump president. The Republican nominee won 59% of the ballots cast by residents of Derby, Ansonia, Shelton, Beacon Falls, Seymour, Oxford and Naugatuck, a string of post-industrial towns known to locals as ‘the Valley’.
These votes didn’t affect the outcome of the election – Hillary Clinton won the state easily, in the cities and New York exurbs – but they are part of a larger story. Trump’s victory was forged in small towns like these, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
“We’re like our own little Rust Belt here,” reporter Eugene Driscoll told me, at the downtown Ansonia office of the Valley Independent Sentinel, a non-profit website founded eight years ago to replace a venerable daily newspaper.
The Sentinel’s office backs onto the railway tracks, and a station that offers slow and unpredictable service to New York. Turn right and you reach factories abandoned by the Farrel Corporation and the Ansonia Copper and Brass Company that once employed more than ten thousand workers. The compound lever nail clipper was invented in Ansonia. The first patent for a bicycle with pedals and gears was filed here, too.
On Main Street, there are “signs of life” – a couple of new restaurants, a used car dealership in a long vacant lot – but the staircases up the hillside are closed off, and in the neighbourhood above, many of the colonial-style homes with clapboard sidings are in sore need of repair. The Church of the Assumption looms over the chimney stacks, a vast granite cathedral for a diminished congregation.
In theory, there are more Democrats than Republicans in the Valley. “Anyone but Hillary” was what Driscoll heard most. “There was this sort of rebellion. It was almost like the Donald was a protest vote, but then he up and won.”
The Sunday Herald spent two days in Derby and Ansonia talking to Trump voters and asking what they expect from his administration. Few believed he will build his wall. Few cared whether he was elected with Russia’s help, or worried that he will start a trade war with China. He assumes office with the lowest ever approval rating for a new president, but if he can make good on his promise to bring back jobs, all else will be forgiven. It is a big if.
Bar None, just off Derby’s Main Street, was busier than usual for a Sunday. The New York Giants were losing to the Green Bay Packers, and fans of rival teams mocked the drinkers in blue.
Jeff, an office manager, one of a handful of African-Americans in the pub, expressed high, vague hopes for the Trump administration. “Can they do it? Absolutely. We lost a lot of smelting and reprocessing jobs to China,” he said. “If they can bring that back…” He had clearly had a few. Howie, an auditor with a side business cleaning up building sites, was buying shots with every round of Bud Lights.
What did Jeff make of Trump appointing so many billionaires to his cabinet? “They cannot be bought. They have more money than they need,” he said. What of Trump’s pick for Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, whose bank took $1.2 billion of government money, evicted thousands of families and made huge profits from the foreclosure crisis? “You hire criminals because you want to know what they know.”
Along the bar, a guy in an off-white wooly hat that I’ll call Rocky, because of his resemblance to Sylvester Stallone, was debating whether Trump can do anything for the Valley. “I think he’ll surround himself with good people. He’s got some good ideas,” said his friend Glenn.
Rocky declined to tell me his name because you can’t trust the media. No offence. He gestured at my tape recorder. “In Asia they can make something like this for $5. Guys here don’t wanna work for less than $25 an hour… The jobs are never coming back.” He had lived in Derby his whole fifty-two years, worked at the mills and seen them knocked down.
Howie blamed the outgoing president, not the Great Recession, for his ailing business. “When I first started, I was fucking jamming. I just remember the cheques – it was beautiful. But as soon as Obama’s name was mentioned…”
He had filled his car with petrol for $1.79 a gallon that morning at the Stop’n’Shop, and felt Trump had something to do with it. “He’s about the normal person, not the political people. We need that.”
Eight years ago, Barack Obama inherited an economy in freefall, shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs each month. Trump takes over with unemployment at 4.7% thanks to six years of uninterrupted gains. Average hourly wages are rising year on year by 3%.
His anti-free trade, glass half empty rhetoric resonated in the Rust Belt because the gains of this recovery have been so unevenly distributed, not only in accruing disproportionately to the richest, but also geographically.
Last year, the Economic Innovation Group warned that the USA is becoming “more reliant than ever on a few high-performing geographies abundant in talent and capital to carry national rates of growth.” From 2010-14, counties with populations of under 100,000 saw no net job growth at all.
In a Gallup poll taken a week before the election, only 16% of the Republicans surveyed said the economy was improving. Asked the same question the week after, 49% said things were looking up.
As I ascended the back steps of Ansonia’s City Hall, the speakers outside Republican Mayor David Cassetti’s office were playing Now We’re Stressed Out by Twenty-One Pilots: “Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days…”
Cassetti was in a cheerful mood. He had ordered an album of patriotic songs to be played on Inauguration Day, and was streaming pop music for the pigeons in Veterans Memorial Park in the meantime.
Four years ago, angered by rising property taxes, he put his sewer contracting business on hold and ran for office. “Trump’s going to do just like Reagan did,” he said. “Bringing more jobs back to the United States, I think he’s proven that before he’s even inaugurated, with Carrier and Ford and Chrysler.”
The deal to save 800 jobs at Carrier’s factory in Indianapolis was a public relations triumph. Trump has also taken credit for 2,700 new jobs at Ford and Fiat Chrysler, although the CEOs of both companies say the decision to increase production in the United States rather than invest in Mexican facilities was made before the election.
Cassetti’s biggest coup was keeping the Farrel Corporation in Ansonia. The company once employed thousands, making metal components and equipment for plastics plants, but has been bought out and restructured many times. Its current German owners, fed up with the cost of maintaining a factory that made cannon barrels and bayonets during the American Civil War, were threatening to move to Kansas.
The city came up with $2 million of public money to pay for a service road, and Farrel stayed, in a new facility that only employs around a hundred people, because so much of the manufacturing process is automated. Ansonia’s biggest employer is Target, which offers retail jobs at close to minimum wage. In the 2015 Community Wellbeing Survey, 45% of people working in the Valley reported earning less than $40,000 a year.
Cassetti is a popular mayor, chiefly because he has lowered property taxes three years running. The $17 million in federal and state grants that he has secured has made a difference, but it is a fraction of the taxpayer money the city needs to demolish and clean up its abandoned factory buildings. One fifth of Ansonia’s six square miles is brownfield, too toxic to easily repurpose.
Trump has promised to rebuild the USA’s crumbling roads, bridges, railways and airports, although details of the plan, a mix of public funding and tax cuts to stimulate private investment, remain vague. Any spending will have to be approved by a Republican Congress that bitterly opposed the Obama administration’s $840 billion stimulus package.
“When Trump talks about rebuilding infrastructure and bringing manufacturing back, that is exactly what this community needs,” said Ansonia’s Corporation Counsel John Marini. The town is close enough to New York to become a bedroom community, if the rail service can be improved. Cassetti hopes the factories can be converted into lofts, a retail park, perhaps a film and TV production studio.
Every Monday, the three elderly Sill brothers and two friends have breakfast together at the Valley Diner on New Haven Avenue. The Walmart next door closed down last July, then the Adams supermarket. Steady jobs like the one Ron Sill held at Lifetouch School Pictures for thirty years are long gone.
“We’re hopeful for the new administration,” Sill told me. “[Trump’s] first three months will probably be the biggest first three months of any president that’s been elected in the United States.” Trump would “fix Obamacare” without depriving anyone of health insurance and “drain the swamp” in Washington D.C., he believed. He also expected a tax cut.
The Tax Policy Centre estimates that Trump’s plan, which cuts the top rate of income tax to 33%, slashes the tax on corporate earnings from 35% to 15% and eliminates the estate tax, will be a windfall for the wealthiest and blow a $6.2 trillion hole in the federal budget over a decade. However much the economy continues to improve, Trump cannot possibly protect Social Security and Medicare, invest in infrastructure and strengthen the military, as he has said he will.
In the 1990s, signs along Route Eight welcomed visitors to “the all-American Valley,” cradle of the industrial revolution. This patriotic nostalgia is baked in to Trump’s vow to Make America Great Again. White baby-boomers that voted for him because they remember how good life was when the post-war economy was humming, the unions were strong and minorities knew their place are destined to be disappointed.
On a Sunday night, at the David Humphreys House, the Derby Historical Society gathered to honour the Valley’s most famous son. Humphreys was a colonel in the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s secretary, and a minister in the first government of the United States. Many of the men and women dressed in eighteenth century attire and drinking colonial rum punch voted for Trump.
“I’m a hard-working citizen. My wife is a professional… sometimes we have to scrounge pennies to pay for a gallon of milk,” said Daniel Bosques, a part-time park ranger and full-time father of two. “That’s the kind of change I want to see: better jobs, better economy, less taxes.” As the American son of Puerto Rican migrants, he had been verbally abused for speaking in Spanish to his father more than once, but he brushed off the racism of Trump’s campaign as unimportant.
Retired teacher Sandy Mendyk predicted boom times for the Valley. During the presidential campaign, she wrote to Trump, to tell him “no-one mentions veterans and the elderly, and I’m both” and felt that he had listened. “I don’t want any of those Syrians coming to our country, because most of them are terrorists,” she added.
The part of Humphreys was played by David Loda, a “Valley boy” returning to the town he grew up in. During the primaries, he supported Bernie Sanders, and although he cast his ballot for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, he was intrigued to see what Trump can do and how people will respond.
“For all those people that are scared about Trump, consider him as a vaccine for democracy,” he said. “We have not seen this level of involvement in politics in decades. Trump is forcing the immune system of our democracy to wake up and become active.”
He predicted that if the Republican Congress follows through on its threat to privatise Medicare, the government-run health system for pensioners, there will be huge protests. “People in America are going to start acting like people in France,” he said. “And I’ll be the first to get out on my horse as General Washington.”