Trump won towns drowning in despair. Will he save them?
ABERDEEN, Wash. — One-hundred-fifty baskets of pink petunias hang from the light posts all over this city, watered regularly by residents trying to make their community feel alive again. A local artist spends his afternoons high in a bucket truck, painting a block-long mural of a girl blowing bubbles, each circle the scene of an imagined, hopeful future.
But in the present, vacant buildings dominate blocks. A van, stuffed so full of blankets and boxes they are spilling from the windows, pulls to the curb outside Stacie Blodgett’s antiques shop.
“Look inside of it,” she says. “I bet you he’s living in it.”
Around the corner, a crowded tent city of the desperate and addicted has taken over the riverbank, makeshift memorials to too many dead too young jutting up from the mud.
America, when viewed through the bars on Blodgett’s windows, looks a lot less great than it used to be. So she answered Donald Trump’s call to the country’s forgotten corners. Thousands of her neighbors did, too, and her county, once among the most reliably Democratic in the nation, swung Republican in a presidential election for the first time in 90 years.
“People were like, ‘This guy’s going to be it. He’s going to change everything, make it better again,’” she says.
Blodgett stands at the computer on her counter and scrolls through the news. Every day it’s something else: New details in the Russia campaign investigation, shake-ups at the White House, turmoil over Trump’s response to race-fueled riots. His administration’s failed plans to remake the health care system may or may not cost millions their coverage, and there’s a lack of clarity over how exactly he intends to eradicate a spiraling drug crisis that now claims 142 lives each day — a growing number of them here, in Grays Harbor County.
Many here agree that the thrashing and churning in Washington looks trivial when viewed from this place 3,000 miles away that so many residents have been trying so hard to save. Some maintain confidence that Trump will rise above the chaos to deliver on his pledge to resurrect the American dream. Others fear new depths of hopelessness if he fails.
Across the country, Trump disproportionately claimed communities where lifetimes contracted as the working class crumbled. Penn State sociologist Shannon Monnat spent last fall plotting places on a map experiencing a rise in “deaths of despair” — from drugs, alcohol and suicide wrought by the decimation of jobs that used to bring dignity. The map of Trump’s victory mirrors hers documenting death, from New England through the Rust Belt all the way here, to the rural coast of Washington, a county of 71,000 so out-of-the-way some say it feels like the end of the earth.
The logging economy collapsed decades ago, and Grays Harbor sank into despair. Suicides increased, addiction took hold. The rate at which people here die from drugs and alcohol has quadrupled.
Blodgett is confronted every day with her neighbors’ suffering. They come to her shop to pawn jewelry to pay for medication. They come looking for things stolen from them. They come and tell her food stamps won’t cover the dog food.
She keeps kibble behind the register.
Now they come to discuss Trump, and their differing degrees of faith that he will make good on his promise to fix the rotting blue-collar economy that brought this despair to their doorstep.
“Has he done anything good yet?” she asks. “Has he?”
Robert LaCount is a recovering addict who runs a sober housing program where he fields 10 calls a day for help that he has to say no to because there’s so much need and so few resources.
Trump got his vote, but LaCount worries about his push to undo the Affordable Care Act. LaCount relies on insurance through the law, and says those trapped in addiction have little chance to get out of it without health coverage. But it’s hard to tell what news is real and what’s blown out of proportion, he says, frustrated by what he sees as obstruction of the president’s ideas.
People in big cities, rooting for Trump’s failure, don’t have nearly as much on the line as he sees here.
“We’re banking on him,” he says.
LaCount traded his motorcycle for $30,000 worth of woodworking tools to teach people the skills they’ll need for the jobs Trump promised to create. He’s scraping paint from a run-down church with dreams of building a community center. He considers his old building a metaphor for his community — good bones, a good soul, a working organ that plays beautiful music.
“It’s been sitting empty and it’s tired,” he says. “It needs to get back to life.”
The county’s population is stagnating and aging, as many young and able move away. Just 15 percent of those left behind have college degrees. A quarter of children grow up poor. People here die on average three years younger than those in the rest of the state.
Karolyn Holden, director of the public health department, was so happy on the day President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, she cried. It’s an imperfect program with premiums and deductibles rising for some, she says. But thousands here received coverage; the uninsured dropped from 18 percent in 2012 to 9 in 2014.
She reads about the whirl of proposals Republicans have offered to topple it and believes the consequences of an unstable system will be most painful in counties like hers. For two terrifying weeks this summer, no insurer filed to provide coverage for the county through the exchange next year, threatening to leave thousands without an option.
If Trump’s promise of better days doesn’t come to fruition, the problems already so palpable here might dig in even deeper, Holden says, breeding “more cynicism, more hopelessness, more rage.”
“Anytime you have people feeling hopeless, it means more drugs or alcohol or gambling — all those things we do to numb ourselves.”
In her store, Blodgett ticks off the headlines that make her wish she could take back her vote: Trump hired rich people and family members, while proposing less money for programs to help the disabled, feed the elderly, provide health care for the poor. Her brother had a stroke and is in a nursing home, paid for by Medicaid. She has pre-existing conditions, and she’s terrified about what could happen to them both.
She supported Trump because he promised to look after the underdogs, and her community is full of them.
But, she says now: “As soon as he gets in there, it’s like to hell with you people.”
— AP multimedia journalist Martha Irvine and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis contributed to this report.