A Trump Swing Voter Looks Ahead

Jan 14, 2017
Originally published on January 19, 2017 11:56 am

This story is part of Kitchen Table Conversations, a series from NPR's National Desk that examines how Americans from all walks of life are moving forward from the presidential election.

Pennsylvania surprised a lot of people in November when voters abandoned a long history of electing Democrats for president and chose Republican Donald Trump.

Jamie Ruppert, a 33-year-old mother in Luzerne County, is among those who switched parties and voted for Trump.

It's an exciting time in Ruppert's life: She has two toddlers and a baby due this summer. Her husband recently started a promising new job in the fossil fuel business — one that pays well enough that she can stay home with the kids.

Ruppert and husband Jesse bought a modest house a bit over a year ago. It sits on two acres in a rural neighborhood outside Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Life is pretty good; still Ruppert thinks the country needs a change.

"I was always raised in a Democratic house," says Ruppert, "both of my parents voted Democrat for a long time. I voted Democrat for both elections for Obama."

But when Ruppert looks around her community, she sees a lot of problems. And she thinks Trump and his policies can help fix them.

The coal industry is a good example. On the campaign trail Trump promised to put coal miners back to work.

It's not just the coal industry that has declined in northeastern Pennsylvania: There used to be garment factories, too. They relocated in search of cheaper, non-union labor in the South.

For blue-collar workers in Luzerne County today, options are limited.

A lot of Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton heard the slogan "Make America Great Again" and recalled the country's history of racism, gender inequality and opposition to LGBT rights. But many in Luzerne County, including Jamie Ruppert, heard that slogan and imagined the return of blue-collar jobs that pay enough to support a family.

Still, Ruppert worries about that different view of Trump's message; she doesn't want to be seen as a racist or a homophobe.

"I've always been for gay rights and always will be," says Ruppert. She doesn't support everything Trump said during the campaign but feels like he was being more authentic than Clinton.

"Tax cuts and helping the 'failing' middle class is what got me behind him," says Ruppert.

Asked how her life would be different if Trump succeeds, Ruppert holds up a plastic container for toys. On the bottom it says "made in U.S.A." She says it would mean that her neighbors make more of the products she uses.

Use the audio link above to hear the full story.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pennsylvania surprised a lot of people in November when voters turned around their recent history of electing Democrats and instead chose Donald Trump. We're checking in with Americans from all walks of life after the election, including a young mother near Wilkes-Barre, Pa. NPR's Jeff Brady reports that she switched parties and wants Donald Trump to get to work fulfilling his campaign promises.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: We are meeting Jamie Ruppert at an exciting time in her life. Thirty-three years old, she has two toddlers and a baby due this summer. Her husband started a promising new job in the fossil fuel business, and they bought a house.

JAMIE RUPPERT: We're going to be opening this all up into the living room so there'll be an island here.

BRADY: With the kids down for a nap, she offers a tour that ends in the basement.

JAMIE RUPPERT: Watch your step. It's like an obstacle course.

BRADY: In the back of the basement, there's a newly installed furnace that burns a very old fuel.

JAMIE RUPPERT: That's good old Northeastern PA coal.

BRADY: Jamie's husband, Jesse, is lifting a 40-pound plastic bag of coal and pouring it in the top of the furnace.

JESSE RUPPERT: You just slice in open and drop it in.

BRADY: This is coal country, and furnaces like this are still common. Wilkes-Barre and surrounding Luzerne County is a place that values tradition. Politically, that meant voting for Democrats.

JAMIE RUPPERT: I was always raised in a Democratic house. Both my parents voted Democrat for a long time. I voted Democrat for both elections for Obama.

BRADY: But this time, Jamie Rupert and Luzerne County changed and picked Republican Donald Trump instead. We'll get back to Jamie in a minute, but first a bit more about this place. While coal furnaces are still common, the industry is just a shadow of its former self. The deadly Knox Mine disaster in 1959 effectively put an end to large-scale coal mining here, and the community has never really recovered. The economy is a frequent topic on local talk radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE SUE HENRY SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She's like your own personal sounding board. It's "The Sue Henry Show" on WILK.

BRADY: Sue Henry has hosted this program for 14 years and says Donald Trump struck a chord here.

SUE HENRY: Make America Great Again is a very simplistic slogan. But for people who for the last 10 years cannot cope with the condition of the country and the economics of the country and they want to make it like it was, that message has a very strong appeal.

BRADY: It's not just the coal industry's decline. There used to be garment factories in this part of Pennsylvania, too, but they relocated in search of cheaper, nonunion labor in the south. For people without college degrees, the options are limited, says Wilkes University political science professor Tom Baldino.

TOM BALDINO: Distribution center jobs and service sector kinds of jobs that typically pay right now in the 12, 13, 14, maybe $15-an-hour range. There's a sense in the area of what I would call low self-esteem. People don't think that there's much to offer here.

BRADY: A lot of Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton heard the slogan Make America Great Again and recalled the country's history of racism, gender inequality and opposition to LGBT rights. But many in Luzerne County, including Jamie Ruppert, heard that slogan and imagined the return of blue-collar jobs that pay enough to support a family. Still, Ruppert worries about that different view. She doesn't want to be seen as a racist or a homophobe.

JAMIE RUPPERT: I've always been for gay rights and always will be. And I - you know, everything that Trump says - I don't support everything that he says. But the majority of the things that he wanted to do, as far as tax cuts and helping the failing middle class, is what kind of got me behind him.

BRADY: That term - failing middle class - what does that mean to you?

JAMIE RUPPERT: It just seems like the middle class is gone. Either you have nothing, or you have everything. There is no in-between anymore.

BRADY: And Ruppert thinks Trump can help bring back that in-between. Asked what that would look like, she holds up a plastic container for toys. On the bottom, it says Made in USA. She says it would mean that her neighbors make more of the products she uses. Ruppert will be watching for those labels after Trump becomes president. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.