NEWTON FALLS, Ohio — This picturesque village of nearly 5,000 with an 1831 covered bridge is the kind of blue-collar place that Donald Trump was thinking about when he promised in his brass-knuckles acceptance speech, “I’m going to bring our jobs back to Ohio … and all of America.”
Fifty-five miles southeast of the Quicken Loans Arena and less than 10 miles from the GM plant in Lordstown, Newton Falls should — in theory — be receptive to Trump’s toxic brew of security, isolationism and medicine-show promises “to make our country rich again.”
But at the moment of his greatest triumph, Trump cannot escape the vitriol that accompanied his march to the nomination. By doubling down on fear Thursday night rather than expressing regret and contrition, Trump squandered his last chance to win back swing voters appalled at his insults and his vulgarity.
Eight hours before Trump spoke, Patrick Nutter was sitting on a bench outside Ed’s Barber Shop (“Gentleman’s Cuts Since 1964”) founded by his late father. The 51-year-old Nutter understands the economic uncertainty facing those without college degrees. “I’m one of the few barbers around here,” he said. “And, fortunately, I can’t be replaced by a machine.”
Nutter, who doesn’t talk politics with his customers, has only watched snippets of the GOP convention. But he remembers how Trump ridiculed John McCain as a loser for getting shot down over Vietnam. “Trump tears down everyone and everything,” the barber said. “He thinks he knows more than the generals about ISIS. And he doesn’t sound presidential.”
A few doors down from Ed’s Barber Shop on West Broad Street, Cyndi Hogue was enjoying the stuffed cabbage luncheon special at the Covered Bridge Inn Restaurant. No stranger to economic hardship (she lost a small business down the block in the Great Recession) Hogue sounds tempted by Trump, though she vows not to make up her mind until she hears Hillary Clinton next week.
“I’m a hard-working person,” Hogue said, “and I know from watching TV that Donald Trump is, too. I also liked his choice for vice president and his Christian values.” But Hogue also sounded a cautionary note: “Sometimes his antics are too much. He’s quite out there.”
Still, if I were a pollster, I might cubbyhole Hogue as “leaning Trump.” Except that easy label neglects the potential influence of her luncheon companion, Margo Cienik, a cousin visiting from California, who grew up in Newton Falls.
Cienik, a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in her state’s primary, teaches American Sign Language at a college and in a high school. “With Trump and being deaf,” she said, “I just feel he isn’t sensitive to people with disabilities.” She recalled with distaste Trump’s vicious mocking of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski’s physical problems.
Trump in his acceptance speech declared that he had a message for “the forgotten men and women of our country. And they are forgotten, but they’re not going to be forgotten long.” (Franklin Roosevelt in an April 1932 radio address talked of “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”)
Unlike FDR, though, Trump then sounded an authoritarian theme as he thundered, “I am your voice.” This has been the message of anti-democratic leaders throughout history who justify their actions because they supposedly embody the nation.
But there is another problem with Trump proclaiming, “I am your voice.” That voice — that Outer Borough snarl — has made an indelible impression, even on Americans like Cienik who read lips. As she put it, “I want him to apologize for all his arrogant comments about taking people out and kicking them to the curb.”
Talking to voters one-by-one in small towns like Newton Falls (Zip Code: 44444) is a reminder of the civility that is embedded in the national fabric. Regardless of politics, most Americans believe that kindness is a virtue — and not an attribute of losers.
Twenty-eight years ago, George H.W. Bush accepted the GOP nomination in New Orleans by declaring, “I want a kinder, gentler nation.” With the Bush family towards the top of Trump’s voluminous Enemies List, that Republican Party is as outmoded as rotary-dial phones and the Betamax.
But the real question in this election has little to do with Hillary Clinton’s emails or even Trump’s ever-shifting positions on banning Muslims. With a more incendiary convention speech than even Patrick Buchanan’s call for a “culture war” in 1992, Trump has made this election a referendum on fear itself — nameless, unreasoning terror.
Will Americans abandon their values and their democratic tradition of reasoned debate for a bilious billionaire peddling hysteria? Or was my visit to Newton Falls (a refuge from the chaos in Cleveland) a small reminder that Americans still listen to their better angels?
Towards the end of Trump’s Fidel-Castro-like marathon speech, he broke away from the prepared text to chortle about the doubters who dismissed his ambitions: “Oh, we love defeating those people, don’t we? Love it, love it, love it.”
At that moment, Trump again revealed that this entire campaign is about his emotional needs and his resentments. And, sadly, a Republican Party that should know better has willingly become his vehicle for fear mongering.