The first weeks of the Trump administration have been marked by controversy, including a court battle over the president’s first executive order on immigration, unsubstantiated accusations against a former president and numerous Trump tweetstorms.
But supporters of the president say he’s delivering exactly what he promised. That’s what we heard again and again in several towns in central Massachusetts that voted for Trump, including Ware, which was once a booming mill town known as “the town that can’t be licked.”
The red brick mill buildings along Main Street are reminders of those days. The Berkshire Blanket Co. is still headquartered here, but most of the mill jobs are long gone. Along Main, there are vacant storefronts, many of them boarded up. Existing businesses struggle to attract customers in a town that has a poverty rate above the state average. So many people here were drawn to Trump’s promise to bring back jobs.
Nicholas Vantangoli, who teaches history, government and sociology at Ware High School, voted for Trump, and represents a political shift in this part of central Massachusetts. Vantangoli comes from a working class family with deep Democratic roots, but he says this last election tugged some of those roots right out of the political soil.
“My dad was a big Democrat — had been a Democrat since John Kennedy was in office,” Vantangoli said. “[He] voted Trump this time. It was the only time he switched over since Ronald Reagan.”
Vantangoli has another way to measure the political shift. For the past three elections, he has organized a presidential poll for Ware High students, teachers and staff. In 2008 and 2012, the school community voted for Barack Obama, but in 2016 the winner was Trump.
“And our vote on that: 151 for Trump, 138 for [Hillary] Clinton,” Vantangoli said.
Vantangoli’s poll reflected the real elections in Ware, which is part of a line of central Massachusetts towns that stretch from the New Hampshire border south to the Connecticut line, and which all voted twice for Obama and then shifted for Trump.
Like many people in this part of the state, he’s hopeful that Trump can make good on his promise to bring back jobs and help communities like Ware.
“Much of President Trump’s appeal to a lot of the people here was talking about manufacturing,” he said.
But Vantangoli believes it will be difficult for Trump to deliver on that promise. “One of the reasons for that is that many of the factories have been closed down for a long while,” he said. “So I hope he can do something to help, but I don’t know.”
Vantangoli, who still supports Trump, also has concerns about the stormy beginning of Trump’s presidency.
“We have to see what happens at the conclusion of those first 100 days,” he said. “Frankly, right now, it’s not looking good for him.”
As a public school teacher, Vantangoli is particularly disappointed in Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who is a proponent of school choice and extremely unpopular among many advocates of public education.
‘The Deplorables’ Like What They See So Far
In the village of Gilbertville, which is part of the town of Hardwick (which also voted for Trump), there is an elegant stone church on Main Street, and a beautiful red covered bridge that spans the Ware River. The village offers a reminder of past economic glory in the form of two woolen mills, which shut down long ago.
Right between them, along the old railroad tracks, stands the Whistle Stop Restaurant, where a group of locals gathers every Wednesday morning to drink coffee and chat. Most of them voted for Trump — and they like to call themselves “The Deplorables,” a reference to Clinton’s unfortunate characterization of Trump supporters. Most of them are working class and retired. Some of them grew up Democrats but now vote Republican.
On a recent Wednesday, they sat on a bench under an American flag, sipped their coffee from Trump coffee mugs, and talked about the president’s first weeks in office.
Among them was Paul Mailhot of Hardwick, who said he likes what Trump has accomplished so far — particularly the president’s hard line on immigration, which Mailhot sees as an effort to enforce the law.
“I think he’s there to do that,” Mailhot said. “If they came here illegally, yeah, throw them out. If they came here and became a U.S. citizen and they’re working and they’re paying taxes just like us — yeah, you can stay here. If not, get out.”
Bob Bousquet, also from Hardwick, agreed with that view.
“If [Trump] builds the wall like he’s talked about, I’ll be satisfied,” he said.
Building the wall along the Mexican border was, of course, one of Trump’s biggest campaign promises — and many here support it, and accept Trump’s unsubstantiated allegation that immigrants in the country illegally are responsible for high levels of crime, and deprive Americans of jobs.
“We don’t even have enough jobs for people who want to work,” Bousquet said. “This place was a thriving community. Everything that was, isn’t. It’s all closed down.”
The fact that the mills shut down long ago has little or nothing to do with illegal immigration. But the sentiment expressed by Bousquet touches on a recurring theme in this region: a sense of regret about a past that is no longer here.
Trump connects with folks in this part of the state for other reasons, as well.
Bill Ward, another retiree from Hardwick, said he likes what Trump says “because I can understand what he says.”
Ward also likes what Trump has done so far, including the choice of Trump’s millionaire and billionaire cabinet members.
“What I find kind of comical is how so many people are so upset because Trump and his cabinet are all very wealthy people,” Ward said. “Well, they made it. They know how to do it, and they’re not there to make more money. They’re there, hopefully, to straighten it all out so that we can all make a little more money.”
The Political Power Of Rural Communities
Todd Smola grew up in nearby Palmer, and is now the local state representative. As a Republican, Smola says he voted for Trump — though not enthusiastically. But he is not surprised that so many of his constituents voted Republican and support Trump. He describes this part of the state as a place where deep family roots, religion and gun rights are sacred, and where many people feel a world away from Boston.
“There’s this feeling of east versus west,” Smola said. “You know, the famous line that if you’re west of [Route] 128 you’re a different world. I do think that people out in this neck of the woods aren’t as heard, and they don’t have a voice.”
But Smola says the last election gave them a voice, and they used it to express their frustration about an economy that leaves too many behind, and a political system in Washington that can’t fix it. So voters in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania — and Ware — went with the outsider.
“Rural communities like Ware are the ones that elected Donald Trump,” Smola said. “So when [politicians] start paying attention to the needs of rural communities, they’ll recognize that they can move the world. And I think last November, that’s what they did.”
But Smola said now comes the hard part — and the big question: Will President Trump deliver the change that so many people in this part of the state voted for?
Bill Ward, one of “The Deplorables” on the bench in Gilbertville, said it is too soon to know the answer to that question, but he said voters like him will hold Trump accountable. And Ward cordially invited us to come back to “the bench” a year from now.
“That will answer any questions you could possibly have,” he said.