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8 November 2022updated 04 Jan 2023 9:02am

The midterms: a fight for America’s soul

In the key swing state of Pennsylvania, Donald Trump began his march back to the White House. Democrat John Fetterman’s victory has complicated that.

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on 8 November and has been updated in light of recent events. Democrat John Fetterman has won the US midterm election for one of two of Pennsylvania’s Senate seats, taking 50.2 per cent of the vote and beating the Republican candidate, Mehmet Oz, who took 47.4 per cent.

The sound you await at a Donald Trump rally, as the sun sets and the night draws in, is the rumble of his approaching plane. He makes you wait. “We are expecting a HUGE crowd, so be sure to arrive early to get a good spot,” the invitation read, advising attendees at the rally in Latrobe, western Pennsylvania, on 5 November to turn up four hours before the former president was due to speak. But the wait, it promised, would be worth it: “President Trump is expecting this rally to be one of his best rallies EVER.”

The crowds arrive early and so do the media, who huddle together 50 feet away from the stage on an elevated stand, surrounded by Trump supporters dressed for the occasion – the “Make America Great Again” hat, available in garish red for $20 on your way in and $5 on your way out, is ubiquitous. Absent a hat or alongside it, many bear the American flag in some way. No alcohol is on sale inside the perimeter, and the crowd is calm – friendly, even. As the audience waits, a steady stream of rock and country classics plays over the sound system, keeping the mood light – all the better for Trump to darken it on arrival.

There is nowhere Trump likes to campaign so much as at a private airport, especially one as big and open as the Arnold Palmer Regional outside the town of Latrobe, where Trump’s branded plane can be parked right next to the crowd and serve as the backdrop to his evening of invective. While Trump speaks his plane door stays open and the stairs stay down, primed for a quick departure.

The rally, ostensibly held to help elect Mehmet Oz, the Republican bidding for one of the state’s two Senate seats, was in practice a rally for Trump alone. (“We’ll get to Oz,” Trump said at one point, but he never did.) Oz, the 62-year-old Harvard-educated son of a Turkish immigrant, following a stint in cardiac medicine made his name as a health expert, often promoting controversial remedies on The Oprah Winfrey Show. But Oz, the midterms, and even Congress are for Trump nothing but a means to his own return to the front line. And on the night of 5 November, Trump laid out his blueprint to take back power in 2024.

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“Your commonwealth is being totally destroyed,” he began, unfurling his sentences without pause. “Our country is being destroyed. Biden and the far-left lunatics are waging war on Pennsylvania energy, crushing Pennsylvania jobs, gutting Pennsylvania communities and strangling Pennsylvania families with soaring prices like you’ve never seen before. Inflation is costing the typical household nearly $800 every single month. Congratulations,” snapped Trump. The crowd laughed. “Who the hell voted for these people?”

Trump kicked on, riling the crowd. “The southern border is wide open! Millions of illegal aliens are pouring into our country. Your commonwealth is enduring a massive and bloody crime wave. And the far left is indoctrinating our children with twisted race and gender insanity in our schools…” – “No!” came a shout from the crowd – “There’s only one choice to end this madness, and it is indeed madness. If you support the decline and fall of America, then you must vote for the radical-left Democrats. If you want to stop the destruction of our country and save the American dream, then this Tuesday you must vote Republican in a giant landslide!” 

Trump’s oratory alienates much of the world. But if you have been attuned to his sound, as tens of millions of Americans have been, his words will sing. Because when he steps off his plane he proceeds – in a distorted key, whether knowingly or not – to follow the classic rules of rhetoric.

He aligns himself with his audience, he creates a common enemy, and he makes a visceral appeal to his listeners’ emotions. Trump knows that arousing prejudice, pity and anger has nothing to do with facts. What matters is to put the audience in a certain state of mind. 

Earlier that day, an hour’s drive to the west in Schenley Plaza, next to the University of Pittsburgh, Barack Obama had taken to the stage in the cool midday sun. “Who will fight for your freedoms?” he asked an audience that did not look to be in any doubt. The crowd was, at first glance, more diverse than Trump’s – young and old, of every race and ethnicity – but they almost all appeared to be members of the same social elite: the graduate class.

“Who’s going to fight to make our democracy actually work for you?” Obama asked. He spoke as if he was talking to independents and undecideds, to the voters his party has lost – “What they [Republican leaders] want to do is make you angry, and then find somebody else to blame” – but he was preaching to a crowd no less partisan than Trump’s.

[See also: Is this America’s last real election?]

This is the strange playbook of today’s American politics. Political leaders focus not on persuading the unsure but on galvanising their own base – which for Democrats means maximising their votes in the cities and suburbs, and praying that turnout stays low in the many towns and ex-industrial heartlands they have lost. It means Obama telling the graduates assembled on a lawn outside Pittsburgh’s grand, Gothic Cathedral of Learning that, “It’s no good booing – you’ve got to vote! Maybe some of your room-mates are still not sure whether it’s worth it. Our democracy is on the ballot! Don’t complain, don’t tune out: vote.”

It is an approach that failed in 2016, when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania despite David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, declaring that Trump had a “less than zero” chance of doing so. That belief rested on a flawed assumption expressed by Chuck Schumer, the leading Democrat in the Senate, before that election: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.” Trump won the state by 44,000 votes.

Democrats, like parties of the left in many other parts of the world, have for a generation been trading away their old, white, working-class base for a richer, more educated one found in the cities. In 2020, Joe Biden beat Trump among white graduates by 15 percentage points, while losing blue-collar whites without a degree by a staggering 32 points. Biden also narrowly won Pennsylvania, and the presidential election, in a belated vindication of Schumer’s theory.

But 86 per cent of white college graduates voted in 2020, while 65 per cent of white Americans without a degree did. There are only so many more graduates to spur to the polls in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia while they concede the 300 miles of Pennsylvanian land in between. As David Shor, a leading Democrat strategist who worked on Obama’s re-election in 2012, told me: “There is no magic solution out of our problems that doesn’t involve us appealing more to working-class people.”

The irony is that Obama seems to understand this. “I remember when I first started campaigning here in Pennsylvania [in 2007],” the former president told the crowd on 5 November. “I’d go to a small town – a mostly Republican town, where not a lot of folks look like me – and I’d sit down and I’d have a piece of pie and a coffee, and you would have a conversation with somebody, about your kids, your parents, the hopes you have for the future. And you might not agree on everything, but at least you suddenly felt, OK, even though we come from different places, we have a tie that binds. And maybe we might persuade each other of something. Because there was this thread that tied us together.” 

Six years out of office, Obama has lost none of the power of a rhetorical voice that can both soothe and soar, that can make the drone of Trump’s demagoguery sound as hollow as it is. But today the towns of Pennsylvania are hearing only one voice, and it is not Obama’s. He is in the cities. His party has ceded the counties beyond, where the Democrats’ share of the vote has, in some places, halved since 2008. 

Pennsylvania, a state Obama once won easily, has in turn become the most significant swing state in American politics and was perhaps the defining race in this year’s midterms. The Democratic nominee for the Senate, John Fetterman, was a candidate like no other. A local leader with an unusual appearance – he is a 6ft 8in giant of a man, with tattoos down his forearms, who prefers wearing hoodies to suits – Fetterman was picked by his party with one aim in mind: winning back the state’s blue-collar voters whom the Democrats have spent three decades alienating.

[See also: The Republican ‘red wave’ has turned into a ripple]

A colourful mosaic welcomes you to Braddock, Pennsylvania (population 1,721) after a 20-minute drive from Pittsburgh. Stop at that sign too long and you may be told by a passing driver, as I was: “There’s not much to take a picture of. This town’s a dump!”

At the end of the avenue stands a steelworks. It is still operating, but it employs a fraction of the 500 people on each shift that it once did. That is a familiar story, but it has been made more urgent by Fetterman, 53, who has lived in Braddock for the past 18 years and was the town’s mayor from 2006 to 2019. The mayoralty is little more than a ceremonial role in a town that is barely populated, but Fetterman had a story to tell – one that tapped in to the guilt felt by America’s liberal classes, and it won him national media attention.

Fetterman came to Braddock to revive it – or remake it. Lacking control of the town’s funds, he set up a non-profit organisation, raising $6m (partly from his father) and buying dilapidated buildings which he made fit to house new businesses. A clothing store, a brewery and a Mexican grill now line Braddock Avenue alongside abandoned relics from the town’s past. 

That past is storied. The town’s steelworks are the first Andrew Carnegie built in America, and Braddock is also home to the world’s first Carnegie library. Fetterman “came here because it was historic”, said Bob Mousseau, a Braddock optician who said he respects Fetterman but sees a strategy in his bid to revive the town Carnegie built. “We’ve got the mill. He’s always taking pictures in front of the mill.”

“Every time a business opened,” Mousseau told me, the media would say: “Oh, look what’s going on in Braddock, Fetterman’s really turning it around.”

In truth, the town’s population fell by a fifth during the 2010s, despite Fetterman’s bid to lure Pittsburgh’s young creative class to a town where a house can cost less than a car. One 83-year-old man, who has lived in Braddock all his life, was withering about Fetterman’s record, which he described to me as what amounted to gentrification in a predominantly black town. But the handful of business owners I met along Braddock Avenue – there are only a handful – were more charitable.

For the Democrats, Fetterman was the small-town leader their party lacked. He would, they hoped, reach Republican voters in small towns across Pennsylvania, where “the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them”, as Obama put it in 2008. Fetterman’s campaign promised as much. “Every county. Every vote,” read the garden signs scattered across Braddock. But that aim soon became moot. In May, Fetterman suffered a stroke. For ten weeks this summer he could not campaign at all.

The stroke, which incapacitated Fetterman and from which he is still recovering, will be cast by some as a cruel misfortune for the Democrats. In the campaign’s sole debate, on 25 October, Fetterman struggled to form coherent sentences, which only elevated Oz, who Obama described in Pittsburgh as “a snake-oil man”. In the days following the debate, Fetterman’s lead in the polls collapsed.

Fetterman was unable to travel across Pennsylvania and halt the Democrats’ decline in blue-collar counties – but one man cannot reverse that tide alone. The peril the Democrats face is grave. “We’re staring down the barrel of a gun,” Shor told me. “Either we radically transform the way we talk, and the way we meaningfully appeal to people who don’t ideologically agree with us, or the Republicans sweep power.” 

The Democrats’ struggles were submerged for much of the year by their own outrage. In June the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, removing women’s federal right to abortion. In the aftermath of that decision, Democratic candidates surged in public polls. But it was a mirage. Democrats had simply started answering polls at unprecedented rates. Answering a survey became a political statement. Some Democrats came to think they would hold on to Congress. 

That was always unlikely. The midterms are always a rebuke to power: In every mid-term election since 1946, the president’s party has lost an average of 26 House seats and four Senate seats. A typical swing was always going to lead to Democrats losing both houses of Congress this year. 

The particulars of this year’s midterms, and the difficulty of holding an election at a time of spiralling inflation, are secondary to the larger story: the Democrats never had any margin for error. Their Senate and House victories in 2020 were razor-thin. Their hold on power was fragile. Progressive America, by failing to win back the blue-collar base that once defined the Democratic Party, is now staring at a bleak political future. It faces twinned perils in 2024: the prospect of losing up to half a dozen Senate seats in white working-class states, and the return of Donald Trump.

[See also: The rise of JD Vance]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink