WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — The NAFTA treaty was not mentioned once during the three 2012 debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Nor, amazingly enough, was Mexico. In fact, four years ago — in an election pitting two free-traders — little attention was paid to the concerns of voters like Frank Pasqualichio, a short-haul truck driver from Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton.
Monday night, Pasqualichio was standing in a snack-bar line at the Mohegan Sun Arena here waiting to see his candidate, Donald Trump. At a time when some Trump supporters have become swaggering caricatures — as they exaggerate the worst prejudices of the bilious billionaire — it is important to understand what attracts reasonable voters like Pasqualichio to the cause.
Asked what he expects from a President Trump, Pasqualichio offered a measured forecast devoid of angry talk about building a wall or locking up Hillary Clinton. “I think he will change health care a little bit,” the Scranton trucker said. “Lower taxes a little bit. And do something about that NAFTA deal.”
It was NAFTA that rankled. Until 2002, Pasqualichio drove locally manufactured metal shelving to California. But he lost that job and the cross-country trips that he enjoyed when the company moved most of its operations to Mexico.
Trump predictably railed against free trade in his vitriol-laced Monday night speech at the packed hockey arena. “We’re going to create strong borders,” he said. “And we’re not going to let our businesses go.” Talking about Carrier moving Indiana jobs to Mexico, Trump thundered, “There will be consequences. They will pay a 35-percent tax on every air conditioner that comes across the border.”
This is, of course, nonsense trade-war economics that would devastate American exports. But during the Clinton administration’s campaign to pass NAFTA — including a TV debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot — the notion that there would be economic losers like Frank Pasqualichio was conveniently glossed over.
A reporter’s sampling of Trump voters at a rally is an impressionistic snapshot rather than a valid sample of anything. But despite all the obvious caveats, I was struck by the limited expectations of fervent supporters of the former reality show host.
“If he’s president, I expect the political correctness to shut down and the military will become stronger,” said Tom Potsko, a 65-year-old retired Navy communications technician from Hanover Township. “I think the immigration problem will decrease, but not to the extent that he says. You can’t deport 13 million people.”
Wearing a Navy sweatshirt, Potsko conceded the need to bleach away unsavory aspects of Trump’s persona. “I’m willing to overlook his bad taste in words,” he said. “And his womanizing.” In fact, despite the reality that Trump was 59 years old when he was boasting about sexual assaults on a 2005 tape, Potsko said, “I believe he’s a different man now.”
Everyone I chatted with before the Wilkes-Barre rally was polite even as I made clear that I was not a media emissary from Sean Hannity or Breitbart News. That included foes of the mainstream media like Helen Petyerak, an animal trainer from Allentown who didn’t vote in 2012. “If it wasn’t for the media, Trump would be ahead,” she said. “It’s everybody but Fox News. They nitpick everything he does. But Trump’s a fighter.”
But feelings about campaign coverage turned ugly as soon as Trump the Fighter began to speak. The crowd’s chants of “CNN sucks” soon gave way to a broader indictment: “Media sucks.” Egging on his supporters, Trump declared, “This crooked media — you can talk about Crooked Hillary — they’re worse than she is. … Without the media, Hillary Clinton couldn’t be elected dogcatcher.”
Moments later, Trump falsely claimed that CNN had turned off its cameras, as if not filming the GOP nominee were a criminal offense. This prompted a cacophony of boos that seemed evocative of “Two Minutes of Hate,” the daily orchestrated orgies of rage in George Orwell’s “1984.”
As Trump’s candidacy degenerates into a splenetic war on everyone in politics from Obama to Paul Ryan, and as Trump’s lies make Joseph McCarthy seem like a master of understatement, it is worth remembering whom he really is betraying.
His non-deplorable supporters — yes, that is most of them — wanted someone to speak to their often neglected concerns about trade, immigration and social change. Instead, they got an irresponsible demagogue whose vile personal conduct is matched by his stunning ignorance of government and democracy. That Great Betrayal is one of the saddest aspects of a presidential campaign which will live in infamy.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.