ERIE, Pa. – Mark Stockhausen labored as a machinist most of his life in the commercial shops that lined West 12th Street in this rugged blue-collar city on Lake Erie. But by the time he retired a year ago, many of those shops had disappeared, victims of what he called “stupid trade deals” that allowed jobs to be shipped to Mexico.
“It used to be a manufacturing mecca,” said Stockhausen. “Now, it’s almost a ghost town in that area.”
So when reality television star Donald J. Trump threw his hat into the ring for president, Stockhausen was pretty quick to get on board. And Trump’s propensity for impolitic and often jarring discourse on the campaign trail has done nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of Stockhausen and thousands of other supporters who showed up Friday afternoon for a rally in Erie Insurance Arena.
Trump faces continuing backlash over remarks earlier this week considered by many to be a veiled suggestion that Second Amendment supporters could resort to violence if Hillary Clinton appointed Supreme Court justices with whom they disagree.
But the comments were of little concern to supporters, who dismissed the uproar as much ado about nothing.
“He’s brash. He says things that people take the wrong way sometimes,” said Sally Charles of Albion, Pa.
And for many of Trump’s supporters, none of what he has said so far could outweigh their disdain for Clinton.
“I believe him. Her, I cannot believe,” said Wanda Gilbert, a Florida resident who was visiting family in Erie. Gilbert said she could forgive Trump’s speaking gaffes as the musings of a real person who is simply honest, unrestrained and unrehearsed.
“He’s not a politician, so he doesn’t know how to talk like a politician,” she said.
Trump seemed to offer the same excuse during his hour-long talk.
“I stand up here. I’m not looking at notes. I’m not using teleprompters. It’s not easy,” he said, moments after characterizing Clinton’s speeches as boring.
His own speech touched on the Pennsylvania and Upstate New York economies, the wall to keep out illegal immigrants that he plans to make Mexico pay for, and why he should have been hired a decade ago as “secretary of keeping business in the United States.”
As Erie was losing “one in three manufacturing jobs,” said Trump, plants “the likes of which I’ve never seen” were being built in Mexico.
“Eighteen years ago, people were making more money in real wages than they’re making today,” he said.
Pennsylvania’s economic numbers are not particularly good, he said. And then he pivoted to New York, where Clinton served as a senator.
“Upstate New York is right now a disaster, worse than anything in Pennsylvania. And she did nothing,” he said.
Trump pledged to keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S. by threatening a 35 percent tax on products made by companies that ship manufacturing jobs outside the country. At the same time, Trump said he was proposing a “massive tax decrease.”
At various points in his speech, the crowd, estimated at 8,000 people, shouted down protesters with chants of “Trump! Trump!” until security guards escorted the protesters out of the arena.
Some young people attending the rally did not support Trump’s candidacy, but did not openly protest inside the arena.
Joseph Scrimenti, a high school senior, described himself as a Clinton supporter who wanted to experience firsthand what happens at a Trump rally. Two friends who accompanied him were thrown out of the arena when they attempted to object to Trump.
Trump mocked the pair as they were being escorted, telling them, “Go home to Mom.”
“He plays well to the emotions rather than the logic of a lot of people,” said Scrimenti.
Some supporters said they back Trump primarily because they think he will be able to add jobs. Many of them said they are working harder only to fall farther behind, and they acknowledged that Trump has effectively tapped into their sense of disaffection.
“Wages have been stagnant and jobs have been slipping away. The shop where I worked used to have 250 people and was down to six when I left,” said Stockhausen.
Brett Kuhlman of Dunkirk has a bachelor’s degree and a job at a plastics factory. He’s also working on a master’s degree in psychology, but he’s worried it won’t be the ticket to a better life. “It used to be if you had an education, you had a job. It’s just not the case,” said Kuhlman, wearing a Buffalo Bills hat and American flag shorts. The registered independent was looking for a candidate that’s “not establishment.”
“The Democrats have had their turn,” said Kuhlman. “Hillary in New York as a senator, she came in and promised and promised jobs. Sorry, she did nothing.”
Kuhlman acknowledged that Trump “might fail miserably” as president, but that it is worth the risk. “I don’t identify as a conservative or a Republican. I’m here because he’s a wild card. He’s as close to a libertarian or an independent as you can get.”