Updated | Eileen and Richard Sorokas loved Barack Obama. They made calls and even knocked on doors to get him elected president in 2008 and 2012 because they believed he would bring change to their stagnant corner of northeast Pennsylvania. (The couple even named two of their ducks after the president and his veep, though a coyote killed Biden.) But in early November, Eileen and Richard voted for Donald Trump for president, as they and the rest of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, flipped from supporting Obama by 5 points in 2012 to a 20-point victory for the billionaire. Reversals like that throughout Pennsylvania gave the state to the Republicans for the first time in a national election since 1988.
“I have all the confidence in the world he’s going to do a good job because you could tell just [from] how he campaigned,” Eileen says, detailing her deep faith in Trump, even as a scrapbook of souvenirs from when she worked for Obama lies on the table in front of her. “He’s a businessman, and he knows what he’s going to do with the economy. He’s sincere with getting America back to work.”
Blue-collar and working-class voters got credit for Trump’s surprise victory this November, but he flipped a lot of very white-collar voters as well. Eileen’s and Richard’s fathers both worked the local coal mines, but their children have done very well for themselves—they own three homes in Luzerne County and almost 200 acres of land. Richard has an MBA, worked his way up to research and development at Procter & Gamble over 31 years—“I put the roses on Charmin toilet paper,” he says proudly—and the couple is now somewhere between “very comfortable” and “well-off.” Sitting next to his wife on the porch of their home in Hunlock Creek, a rural area 15 miles south of the county seat of Wilkes-Barre, Richard talked about why they went for Trump, and why they might turn on him. He says his support will waver if the businessman doesn’t follow through on his campaign promises, quickly ticking off the issues he’ll be watching: a jump-started economy plus illegal immigration and health care reform. “If he goes in there and it appears to people he ain’t sticking with what he was saying, you’ll see the Congress changing back to Democrat again.”
Richard and Eileen got the change candidate they voted for; now, like many of their neighbors, they’re eagerly, and sometimes angrily, waiting to see if he delivers.
Get ready for your ears to pop a few times if you drive across Luzerne County, most of which is covered by mountains. It’s rugged country, but it’s close to some big cities…and close to the best kind of “nowhere”—it’s a two-hour drive north of Philadelphia and two and a half hours west of Manhattan. Interstate Highways 80 and 81 crisscross the county, making it an attractive home for warehouses for big companies like Amazon and American Eagle, and churches dot the landscape. Long-haul truckers pray and cross themselves before tucking into their fried chicken at the Iron Skillet Restaurant, which serves its food in actual iron skillets.
It’s a county of “Firewood for Sale” signs and volunteer fire departments, of beautiful views from the tops of mountains and runaway truck ramps on the drives down. People pronounce “WikiLeaks” as “Wee-Kee Leaks,” and a map of the county’s precinct voting in the presidential election looks like a bowl of tomato soup with two blue jellybeans plopped in—one for Wilkes-Barre, the county’s biggest city (40,000), and one for the smaller town of Hazleton.
In 2016, 5,644 Democrats in Luzerne County changed their registration to Republican, presumably so they could vote in the Republican primary, which Trump won with over 77 percent of the vote—the biggest margin in the state. (Less than 1,000 Republicans switched their registration to Democrat.) And the aging, mostly white county is changing in other ways as well: The Hispanic population doubled to 9 percent between 2008 and 2014—the kind of growth some locals openly admit they don’t like.
Like many Americans in 2016, the voters in Luzerne County say they want change. They want lower insurance premiums, an end to illegal immigration and better jobs than those that involve a graveyard shift walking miles on the concrete floor of a cavernous warehouse. More than one in five Luzerne County families with kids live in poverty—5 percentage points over the state average, and 9 points higher than in 2000. Per capita income hovers under $25,000, about $4,500 less than the state average, and unemployment tops 6 percent—also over the state and national rates. Since 2009, the number of manufacturing jobs has dropped by 10 percent, and retail jobs have climbed by 8 percent. “People perceive themselves as worse off,” says Thomas Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Luzerne County.
The best way to tap into that discontent is to tune your rental car radio to WILK-FM, “Northeast PA’s Newsradio,” and listen as callers from all over the county rail about everything from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) to Obamacare. I sat in the WILK studio with midday host Sue Henry one morning after the election so I could talk with Luzerne County voters who pulled the lever for Trump. Henry told me that her father was never the same after his drilling company shut down, and that her husband has been forced to take a “brutal” job in a Home Depot warehouse. “So many men have found themselves vulnerable and unemployed in the middle of their life, and they are in despair,” she says.
Henry starts off by wryly warning me not to describe the county as “hardscrabble,” as other media outlets had done, and then for two hours we took calls from Trump voters eager to explain why they are pulling for the president-elect and what they expect him to do for them. A Teamster from Sweet Valley who voted twice for Obama wants Trump to shut down sanctuary cities. A retired doctor in Drums says he left medicine because of Obamacare. Anna from Nanticoke doesn’t want transgender people in her bathroom. And the owner of an ink factory in Pittston hopes Trump will fix the Asian trade agreements that have crippled his business.
All the callers that day were vehement members of what The New Yorker recently called “a global movement against globalism,” represented by Trump, Brexit and Marine Le Pen’s National Front party in France. “Mr. Trump was more, for me, voting against globalization, which I saw Hillary Clinton as their spokesperson,” Nancy from Kingston says, explaining that her career as a medical transcriptionist was destroyed by NAFTA. Asked how she’ll decide whether to vote for politicians who support Trump in 2018, she says, “I’m going to look for job security for our people. That will be the turning point for me as far as whether I would continue my support for Mr. Trump.”
Our last caller was Frank, who says he’d handed out voter registration forms to the mechanics and auto body technicians he works with so they could vote for Trump. He says Luzerne County residents supported Trump because they wanted “jobs for Americans” and an end to illegal immigration. “They knew that their jobs were being drained away and going to other countries,” he says, calling from Old Forge, up Highway 81 toward Scranton, where Hillary Clinton’s father grew up. “After listening to Barack Obama for eight years, they weren’t ready to trust another insider.”
‘You Need to be Deported’
Marty Beccone owns the 4th Street Pub, a smoky bar in Hazleton with good wings and cheap beer. Beccone has a big American flag tattooed on his right shoulder, and he laughs good-naturedly when a customer jokingly ribs him about the bartender “short-pouring” his drink. The place feels more like a welcoming community center than a depressing dive—at about 10 p.m. on a recent November night a waitress brought out a cake with a candle shaped like a huge “26” and set it in front of a pretty brunette as the people around her sang “Happy birthday, Lauren!” Beccone proudly surveyed his chain-smoking crowd, packed two-deep at the bar, and told me, “Everybody here punches a time card.”
Hazleton has a population of about 25,000, and many of the people who live here don’t like the way that figure is climbing. The Hispanic population jumped from 5 percent in 2000 to 46 percent in 2014, and the town became the flash point for the region’s anger toward immigration a few years ago when it passed laws—later struck down—that banned undocumented immigrants from working or renting there. “I’d love to see the sanctuary cities go away,” says Beccone, when asked what he wants from Trump. “If you’re a criminal, you need to be deported.… They’re a drag on our system.”
That’s what many in Luzerne County say. Enter the U.S. legally, they say, as their grandparents did through Ellis Island. They often complain about crime and lowered property values and say undocumented immigrants—or sometimes just immigrants—are to blame. (FBI records show a crime spike in Hazleton between 2000 and 2014, with more murders, six times as many robberies and a 70 percent increase in assaults.)
Richard Sorokas, who put those roses on your rolls of Charmin, complains about how illegal immigrants held in the county’s correctional facility on criminal charges—not just because they are undocumented—cost taxpayers $1.8 million between July 2015 and June 2016, according to a local newspaper. But gripes from other residents seem to have less to do with policy or budgets and more to do with negative views of immigrants or Hispanic people. In April, a “white rights advocate” won re-election as a Luzerne County Republican committeeman. One elderly man, echoing a questionable (at best) Breitbart story from 2015, earnestly explained to me that undocumented immigrants are reintroducing a wide range of diseases into the U.S., and his girlfriend added, “Even measles came back.”
While Beccone and I were talking about these issues, he jumped up to pull out chairs and make room for four Hispanic men who had just walked into his bar. But he also told me that in his 25 years running bars, the closest he’s ever come to pulling out the .357 he carries at all times was when “a Hispanic guy who didn’t speak any English” argued with the bartender and kept reaching into his pocket—for what turned out to be a cellphone.
Beccone adds that extremists’ violence justify Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S., which he says “seems like a common sense-type approach.” He also wants to see Trump expand gun rights and appoint conservative Supreme Court justices in the mold of the recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. But even if Trump doesn’t make much progress on those fronts, Beccone says he will continue to back him: “My support wouldn’t waver. In my opinion, it’s infinitely better than what would have happened if Clinton had won.”
Shortly after Beccone declares his undying support for the president-elect, a political discussion at the bar heats up, then erupts into a chant of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” When a lone female voice calls out “Hillary!” a man yells, “Kill her!”
‘Not Trying to Be Racist’
Just off Interstate 81, between Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre and smack-dab in the middle of the county, lies Nuangola, population 671, a mile-square borough bucolic enough to be classified as rural but close enough to those towns for residents to drive in for work each day. A small, single-story white house with a saddle on the porch still has a Trump-Pence sign in the yard, so I knock on the front door and introduce myself to Jabin Lutz, 21, who works nights in an AutoZone warehouse.
Lutz tells me that he doesn’t like Trump’s morals but that he and his wife, a security guard, are very anti-abortion and chose the president-elect in part for his stance on abortion. As moths spiral around us under the porch light, he says his health care premiums jumped recently, and he expects Trump to lower those costs. “Whatever he has to do to lower the premiums for the average American or the lower-class American, I just want to see those come down,” says Lutz, who hurt his back while on a church retreat and was angry about having to meet a high deductible when he had to see a chiropractor.
Lutz, who has a year or two of college but didn’t graduate, also circles back to immigration when he lists what he wants from his president-elect. He doesn’t like seeing people he assumes are immigrants filling two or three carts with food at the grocery store and paying with Pennsylvania’s version of food stamps, the Access card. “I see white people doing it too, so I’m not trying to be racist,” he says. “I’m struggling to get half a cart, and they’re swiping an Access card.
“I’m not gung-ho Trump,” he says, looking out over the old cars he and his wife drive to work. Still, he notes that Obama had eight years in the White House and that the only good thing he did was end the war in Iraq. “If I don’t see [Trump] doing anything, I can’t change anything in two years, but in four years, I can change my vote if he runs again,” he says.
Down the road from Lutz’s house, I spot a Trump sticker pasted above a Penn State decal on the back of a green Jeep Liberty. I park and knock on the house’s front door, sparking the two beagles inside to bay as if they’ve picked up the scent of a hare—until Andy Kobela shouts them into silence and steps outside to talk.
He’s a retired Navy electrician with enormous eyeglasses, wearing a worn Carhartt jacket and a cap that says “Destroyer Escort Sailors Association.” Kobela tells me he wants to see Trump increase the size of the military. “Especially the Navy. You need a larger Navy. An army is good, but how the hell they going to get over there? Walk?” Speaking loudly now and warming to the idea of Trump in control of U.S. foreign policy, he says, “I’d like to see him be friends with Vladimir Putin. I’d love to see the United States and Russia get together. We’re the same people.” Surprised to hear the old sailor speak so warmly about the country the U.S. faced off against during the Cold War while he was in the Navy, I ask what he thinks of the ex-KGB agent’s human rights record or of Russia’s hacking of U.S. political organizations to influence the presidential election. He says, “Sometimes it’s nice to be friends with the devil.”
Kobela packs a two-shot derringer and vows that if any of the anti-Trump protesters he’s seen on the news come down the backroads by his house, he’ll shoot them. He also won’t brook any questions about what Trump could do to lose his support: “I’m not going against Trump, period. That’s it.”
While trying to steer my rental back from Kobela’s driveway to the highway, I see a middle-aged woman walking her dog. I pull over to ask what she thinks of the election...and if I can bum a Marlboro off her. “I’m afraid,” she says as we smoke, her dog jumping up to rest his paws on my gut. “I’m afraid globally and nationally. I’m afraid of everything we fought for. I think people wanted a change, but I don’t think they wanted this kind of change.”
‘You Knew I Was a Snake’
To understand how Donald Trump, a billionaire living in a vast Manhattan penthouse, churned up such passionate support in Luzerne County, watch the video of his October 10 rally at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre. Introduced as the next president of the United States, Trump walked out beaming and clapping to the Lee Greenwood anthem “I’m Proud to Be an American,” as the crowd held up signs that said “TRUMP DIGS COAL” and “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” To huge applause, Trump recited the lines his supporters in Luzerne County have been repeating back to me for the past few days. That night, he told them, “We’re going to make Pennsylvania so rich again, your jobs are coming back.”
The crowd cheered that line, cheered again when he vowed to end illegal immigration and booed when he mentioned Syrian refugees. He then recited the lyrics of a 1970s song, “The Snake,” which describes a tenderhearted woman who finds a frozen snake and brings it home, clearly casting immigrants in the role of the serpent. Nursed back to health, the poisonous snake bites her.
He recited the lyrics of what the treacherous snake tells the woman as she dies: "‘Oh shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin. ‘You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.’” In case anyone missed his point, he then said, “And then we have our very incompetent politicians in Washington taking everybody in.”
The only awkward moment in the otherwise rapturous assembly came when Trump invited onstage two local politicians, U.S. Representatives Lou Barletta and Tom Marino, along with Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose wife grew up in Hazleton. Trump was still getting applause, but while he was standing with those four pols, there was a steady thrum of boos punctuating the cheers. “Who likes congressmen? But I like these two,” Trump said, as the audience made it clear that it disliked any establishment politicians—even ones embraced by their candidate.
Political experts from colleges in Luzerne County say voters there backed Trump because of their suspicion and even hatred for anything they saw as the establishment—whether it’s politicians in Harrisburg, the state capital, those in Washington, D.C., or bankers on Wall Street. To many of them, Clinton represented that corrupt and self-serving establishment. “It’s the deep distrust of anyone who’s in government,” says political science professor Beth Admiraal of King’s College.
“Remember that in the recession, people were losing their homes. And she’s giving speeches and taking money from the banking establishment. Those kinds of memories are long here,” says Baldino, the Wilkes University poli-sci professor. Baldino, who cut our conversation short because a French film crew was waiting to interview him about the election, says many people in Luzerne County are especially open to populist campaigns like the one Trump ran because they are “low-information voters”—voters who don’t have a sophisticated knowledge of how government works, don’t follow political news and base their votes on emotional responses to issues. Before he got off the phone, Baldino told me, “In the case of Trump, he sold the public here that he could end their misery.”
Time to Buy a Gun
Ed Harry grew up in Luzerne County, the son of a coal miner. He did two years with the Air Force in Vietnam, and when he returned home, he worked 30 years as an organizer and staffer with the local government employees union. He was a die-hard Democrat and served as a delegate for Bill Clinton in 1992. But then Clinton passed trade agreements like NAFTA and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the pact that created the World Trade Organization, even as Harry’s union and others did everything they could to fight them. Harry was even head of the Wilkes-Barre Labor Council until he broke with the union this spring over its endorsement of Hillary Clinton. “I was president until April of this year, when I came out in support of Trump,” he says. “It was very unpopular.”
I speak with Harry and his girlfriend, Rosalie—who boasts that her vote for Trump was the first time she’d ever stepped into a voting booth—as we eat lunch in the restaurant of the Holiday Inn just outside Wilkes-Barre. (Rosalie’s reaction to the Access Hollywood tape of Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy”: “Lots of women say worse stuff than that.”) Harry wears a Penn State ball cap and criticizes both Republicans and Democrats as he eats his beef barley soup, calling them “two ruthless organizations” that allow illegal immigration because they want cheap labor (Republicans) or automatic voters (Democrats). “Globalism is a planned attack that they’ve taken on this country,” he says, a toothpick dangling from his mouth. “I want [Trump] to renegotiate NAFTA.”
But even as Harry’s laments drift into wild theories about a new world order and how secretive elites are pushing for a one-world government, he is clear about what would make him stop supporting Trump. “If I see him going back to the way it was with all the other presidents, and the way the government worked before—it was all buddies taking care of their own agendas. I see him becoming one of the boys, I’m done with him.”
Harry tells me that after he left the military, he swore he’d never own a gun, but events he characterizes as odd coincidences and signs of conspiracies have made him fearful—from the father of the Orlando, Florida, shooter showing up at a Clinton rally to his unfounded belief that billionaire George Soros paid Black Lives Matter $30 million to protest in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore. “I just bought my first weapon this summer,” he says as elderly women play mah-jongg beside us, the sharp clicks of their tiles punctuating his words. I ask what made him decide he needed a gun. “Because I don’t like the way things are going,” he says. “I’m very concerned about what I see happening.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the town of Plymouth as Kingston, Pennsylvania in a photo caption. We have corrected and apologize for the error.