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US Election 2020: Is the Rust Belt ready to go red again?

It is not hard to see that Lynette Villano likes Donald Trump. Her mask, in brightest Republican red, bears the US president’s surname across the front in capital letters.

A back window of her car has a foot-tall image of the president giving a thumbs up stuck to it.

Her smartphone carries another Trump photo with the words “my president”. And then there is the broach attached to the lapel of her top.

A single word, TRUMP, sparkles above an American flag. That pin made Ms Villano realise she was not alone during the 2016 election campaign in Luzerne County, a rural part of north east Pennsylvania, a critical swing state.

“People were afraid of saying they supported Trump. We were called deplorable,” the 74-year-old recalled over a plate of chicken bites in a roadside bar.

“But I was always encouraged by the number of people who would come up to me when they saw the pin.”

She has just ordered 10 new Trump broaches for her friends ahead of the November election. Before 2016, this was Democrat country, a former coal-mining community with deep ties to the trade unions.

Barack Obama won it in 2012. He had won it too in 2008. In fact, the county had not voted for a Republican to be president since 1988 and George HW Bush.

But then came Mr Trump. His message of economic nationalism and aura of outsider authenticity connected. Mr Trump won the county by almost 20 percentage points, a remarkable feat. It helped him flip Pennsylvania from Democrat to Republican.

He did the same in nearby Wisconsin and Michigan, two other so-called Rust Belt states, named for the area’s industrial decline. The gains won him the White House.

Four years on, Mr Trump is not an outsider; he is the president. The booming economy he oversaw has shrunk into recession. Does Luzerne County, the heart of the Trump revolution, still back its man?

Justin Behrens, chairman of the county’s Republican Party branch, says Mr Trump’s “America First” message still resonates with residents.

“We call it the unforgotten. We were always left to ourselves and not even represented,” Mr Behrens said. “We’re not forgotten now. President Trump is the one who brought us back.”

Since 2016, Republican party membership has soared. There have been gains at local councils. Trump-Pence yard signs are in hot demand, Mr Behrens said. “This phenomenon is ludicrous. Last time I heard of this was JFK.”

The county, which is roughly the size of Dorset and home to more than 300,000 people, has seen hard times. The coal rush in the late 1800s saw people flood in, but it was collapsing by the mid-1900s.

Then garment factories dominated, before closing decades ago as jobs moved overseas. Today, the dominant industry is warehouses. The DIY store Lowes, pet store Chewy, chocolate maker Hershey’s and Amazon all have sites in the county.

But, says one local, career progression is limited and salaries low. The impact of Covid-19 is easy to spot as you drive around the county. Restaurants and shops demand masks are worn inside, with the rules largely followed. Handshakes have been replaced with elbow bumps.

Mr Trump’s poll deficit to Joe Biden, his Democratic rival, is linked to the pandemic. The president is seen to have handled the crisis poorly by a majority of Americans (see the president’s most recent vaccine announcement below).

But there are signs that his calls to focus on rebuilding the economy (an issue he is still more trusted on than Mr Biden, according to polls) is connecting in Luzerne.

Dave Krappa, 41, owns The Venue, a diner-style restaurant and catering business. Mr Obama once visited during his winning 2008 election bid and the red stool he sat on is preserved at the counter.

The past six months have been tough. Revenues are down 60 per cent. A third of the staff have been cut. A tent outside allows for some dining, but it costs $2,300 (£1,800) a month to rent and winter is approaching.

“There have been a lot of restaurants that have closed. You have seen it every day on Facebook. People saying ‘we don’t know how much longer we’re going to survive’,” Mr Krappa said.

He declined to discuss his personal politics. However, on the need to help businesses, even with a rampant virus, he was unambiguous: “I wish I could open back up. I would do it in a heartbeat.”

Numerous residents brought up frustrations aimed at Pennsylvania’s governor, a Democrat called Tom Wolf, who sets the coronavirus restrictions. Kuharchik Construction, a street lighting company, is a family business now run by Rob Bresnahan, 30.

“We had tears in our office when we saw we had to shut down for 60 days,” he said. “People want to work. This is what our area is all about.”

Mr Bresnahan was born and raised in the county. Both his grandfather, who started the company, and father were Democrats, but he is voting Republican. “There’s almost this idolisation thing,” Mr Bresnahan said of Mr Trump’s appeal in the area. Some people are putting out cardboard cut-outs of the president, he said.

Mike Pence, the US vice president, recently held a campaign event at the company. Capacity was capped at 250 people but 500 more waited queuing outside, Mr Bresnahan said. Others lined the street for the motorcade.

The Democrats believe Mr Biden, a son of Pennsylvania, can win back the defectors. He grew up in Scranton, one county over, in a working class Catholic community. “

Quite honestly, Luzerne County felt neglected by the [Hillary] Clinton campaign,” said Kathy Bozinski, the chair of a local branch of Democrats. “I get that every day on emails, social media messages, folks calling me up.”

Ms Bozinski, 62, has been begging the Biden campaign to make sure the candidate spends time in the county before November 3, and she’s upbeat about the chances of flipping the county back to the Democrats and focused on a win.

But just narrowing the margin of Republican victory, she adds, would help the party take Pennsylvania.

Ms Villano is unpersuadable. As the pile of chicken bites shrinks she defends the president at every turn. As the bill is ordered and the cheque arrives, she does mention one downside.

Neither her sister or brother are talking to her anymore. Nor her grandson. The reason is Mr Trump.

Ms Villano had cancer last year but the family remains divided. She says the situation is sad, recounting how once her sister refused to see her because she was wearing the Trump broach.

So did it make Ms Villano rethink her support?

“What, am I going to change and say ‘oh I don’t like Donald Trump any more?,” she asked. “My only hope is that by supporting Trump and helping him get re-elected I can help them.”

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