MADISON –– Freeman “Buzzy” Buzzell doesn’t want to talk about politics or the presidential race. The 75-year-old owner of Buzzy’s Barber Shop and self-proclaimed “flattop specialist” says it’s bad for business. But Buzzell will talk about the Madison mill closing. A lot of his customers and friends work there or have family members who do. More than 200 people will lose their jobs when the Madison Paper Industries mill shutters in May.
“I just feel terrible for them,” Buzzell says, pushing electric clippers over the head of the man sitting in the barber chair. The man closes his eyes as his gray hair falls to the floor, joining clumps of similar shade and color from other men.
Many people in Madison say it’s too early to know what will happen to the millworkers, area businesses or a town that last year voted to consolidate its police department with Somerset County to save money. But 57-year-old Robert Lake of Skowhegan has the unmistakable demeanor of a man who worries that it’s too late – too late to change careers.
“I guess I’ll just ride this to the bottom,” says Lake, one of the millworkers who will lose his job in May. “I’ll have to find a way to get a resume together. I haven’t had to look for a job in 32 years.”
People like Lake and places like Madison, population 4,855, may seem far removed from the 2016 presidential race. But the town, its residents and the people who work here are experiencing the economic reckoning that many Americans both dread and expect, according to public opinion polls.
This deep sense of foreboding is playing an outsized role in a presidential contest marked by disillusion, resurgent nationalism and racially charged speech. The election campaign has confounded the political establishment, partly because the anger and anxiety come at a time when the unemployment rate is lower than before the Great Recession.
Swaths of disgruntled voters have turned to two unlikely saviors. One is Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described Democratic socialist from Vermont who promises free college tuition and free health care, financed by taxing the rich and cracking down on Wall Street. The other is Republican Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul who promises a wall on the southern U.S. border, a ban on Muslim immigration and vague plans to “make America great again.”
Sanders’ and Trump’s politics and rhetorical styles couldn’t be more different. But both are mining a populist vein that leads directly to American perceptions of economic injustice and frailty. Exit polls in caucus and primary states have shown that those sentiments are concentrated in rural, white areas – places like Madison.
Trump has awakened something in Larry Boiardi. Boiardi shouts across Main Street as he summons a reporter to the sidewalk outside The Curbside Cafe, owned by his wife, Shelly. The 56-year-old truck driver from North Anson is eager to explain why he’ll be voting for the first time in 35 years.
“We’re in serious trouble as a country,” Boiardi says. “We’re getting attacked. Other countries are laughing at us. They see that we’re weak.”
Boiardi becomes increasingly animated as he makes his case.
“When I was young, you could work a ladder and go all the way up to the top,” he says. “Now we’re all being replaced by illegals who will work for less.”
Boiardi believes “Trump is the man.” His wife isn’t so sure, but says the television personality is a major source of discussion when town workers and locals gather at her shop for coffee and breakfast.
Across the Kennebec River at the Good and Plenty Diner in Anson, Charlie Potratz, 60, says he likes Sanders. But if the race comes down to Democrat Hillary Clinton and Trump, he’s voting for Trump. The billionaire, he says, “can’t be bought.” Clinton, he says, can’t be trusted.
He adds, however, that he is “concerned about the violence at Trump rallies.”
The violence. Alex Abdelrihim, the 60-year-old owner of the diner, is worried about that, too.
“Trump is not good for people who aren’t white,” Abdelrihim says. “All of his support is white. Whites are the only people who he is speaking to.”
There are many who agree. Trump has been described as a demagogue, a candidate who has elevated some conservative politicians’ use of coded racial messaging to court rural, white voters.
“Republicans created this monster, they really have,” said Michael Cohen, a political columnist and author of a forthcoming book on the stormy presidential campaign of 1968. “They channeled this enormous amount of resentment, racial resentment, class-based resentment, cultural resentment around Obama and have done nothing to alleviate it, nothing to give their voters any sense that Republicans are listening to them.”
Cohen’s book “American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division” will be released in May. He sees many parallels between Trump and George Wallace, the white segregationist from Alabama who built his support among white voters during the backlash to the Civil Rights movement. Like Trump, Wallace acquired a reputation for encouraging violence against protesters at his rallies.
“Every single (Trump supporter) I’ve talked to has said the same thing,” says Cohen, who writes for The Atlantic and The Boston Globe. “‘He says what he believes. Nobody can buy him. He’s not corrupted. He’s got too much money.’ It’s something that could have come out of a Wallace voter’s mouth 48 years ago. … He’s appealing to, in the same way Wallace did, non-politically correct white voters who just think they’re getting screwed and that nobody cares about them or their issues.”
Cohen says the Republican Party has relied on these voters but hasn’t done anything for them.
“Tax cuts and spending cuts probably aren’t their core interest. It’s more granular. They’re more focused on immigration and economic opportunity,” he says.
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Economic opportunity would appear to be good right now, at least by some measures. At 3.8 percent, the Maine unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in 15 years. The 4.9 percent U.S. unemployment rate hasn’t been this low since 2008. Elected officials, including Gov. Paul LePage and President Obama, have talked triumphantly about “full employment,” the point at which virtually everyone who is looking for work has found a job.
Mainers – Americans – just aren’t buying the sunny outlook.
A national poll commissioned by the American Public Media program “Marketplace” found that 61 percent of Americans are frequently or sometimes nervous about their financial situation. More than 59 percent said they’d have difficulty paying an unexpected expense of $1,000 or more, such as a hospital bill. Of those, more than 50 percent said they had nowhere to turn for help. A recent poll by the Portland-based firm Critical Insights found that the economy remains at the top of the list of Mainers’ concerns.
Labor experts caution that unemployment figures don’t tell the whole story. Wages are stagnant. Many Americans are working for less, either at part-time jobs or positions that pay less than the one they previously held. And some people have just given up looking for work, meaning they’re not counted in the unemployment data. The U.S. workforce participation rate in January was 62.7 percent, down from 66.2 percent in January 2008. That’s a 40-year low, according to federal employment data published in February.
In Maine, the economic anxiety is palpable, the bad news frequent. The Madison mill closure will be Maine’s fifth in two years, resulting in a total of 1,500 lost jobs. The state’s papermaking industry once employed 18,000 workers. It now provides jobs for just under 3,350, having shed 2,300 jobs since 2011.
Elected officials in Augusta continue to bicker over what can be done to help the six mills still operating, or ensure that the displaced workers can find jobs with similar wages. Policymakers have proposed precious few solutions.
There are 51,706 residents in Somerset County, where Madison is located, and the median family income is about $10,000 below the Maine median of $46,033. At 17.8 percent, the poverty level is also higher here than in many parts of the state.
Whether income levels will dip sharply when the mill closes will largely depend on whether displaced workers can find jobs to replace their good-paying union positions at Madison Paper.
“We’re running out of paper mills for these guys to work at,” says Mike Croteau, president of United Steelworkers Local 36, the union at Madison.
The town, meanwhile, has been bracing for the impact. Madison taxpayers last year passed a $2.4 million budget that reflected an 11 percent spending cut across all town departments. No money was allocated to capital projects, such as road repairs or construction. The budget included a proposal to allow Madison police officers to become deputized by the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office and become county employees. The entire spending package was designed to hold the line on property taxes, following the $150 million devaluation of the mill in 2014.
The mill is still the town’s largest taxpayer.
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The pending mill closure and its impact on Madison reflect a broader economic trend, as manufacturing companies abandon small U.S. cities and urban areas, taking jobs and social stability with them.
Sanders, the Vermont Democrat and a staunch ally of organized labor, has blamed much of the economic devastation on unfair trade agreements. So has Trump, who despite his record of denigrating everyone from the media to the pope, has thus far left labor unions out of his prolific Twitter rants.
Organized labor has traditionally supported Democratic candidates, and Clinton long ago sealed the bulk of the major union endorsements. But there are some who believe Trump’s message resonates with older, white rank-and-file union members who may remember a time when organized labor opposed immigration as much as it now supports it.
Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, acknowledged this concern to The New York Times in January.
“There is deep economic anxiety among our members and the people we’re trying to organize that I believe Donald Trump’s message is tapping into,” Henry said.
Lake, the millworker from Skowhegan, hasn’t been swayed by Trump’s message, saying the Republican candidates have been “a disgrace.” However, other union millworkers, like Joel Pooler, 50, of East Madison, could be up for grabs. For now, Pooler says he’s too focused on his employment situation to think about the presidential race.
It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if communities like Madison go for Trump if he’s the Republican nominee. President Obama won the town in 2012, but two years later voters picked LePage over Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a former millworker whose positions on trade and American labor were centerpieces of his congressional campaigns.
LePage’s focus on the economy and welfare, laced with statements about the dangers of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, carried him to victory in blue collar communities, including some previous Democratic strongholds. Last month, LePage endorsed Trump after his first choice, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, dropped out of the race.
William Frey, an internationally known demographer for the Brookings Institution, has been scouring exit polls to help identify the Trump voter. So far he has found that the billionaire’s core support is in rural, predominately white areas and among those considered to be less educated (“I love the poorly educated,” Trump proclaimed in February).
“For the most part it’s basic demographic attributes of people who are not part of the new economy, they’re a bit apprehensive about the changing demography of the country,” Frey said. “Immigration is something that resonates with them, even though many of them may not know immigrants or have anything to do with immigrants. It’s somewhere out there and they think it’s part of the reason that they’re not doing well in the post-recession period.”
Frey said that older white baby boomers are reluctant to embrace a changing demography. In 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau forecast that racial minority groups will make up a majority of the U.S. population in 2042. And, he says, Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again,” speaks directly to this group of white voters.
“Probably the best economy we’ve ever had in this country was the 1950s, the post-war period,” Frey says. “If you’re old enough to remember that and you’re associated with these other things, you can see them trying to connect those dots even though there’s really no causality to it.”
Frey believes Trump’s constituency is narrow and shrinking. Racial minorities are growing and so is the number of college graduates.
But not everywhere.
About 15 percent of residents in Somerset County have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to nearly 28 percent in Maine. The county is 97 percent white – whiter than all of Maine.
In 2014, Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson, with the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, published a paper that found the demographic shift “may lead to greater endorsement of conservative political ideology, at least among white Americans” and that “whites may be increasingly likely and motivated to support conservative candidates and policies.”
If that’s true, then people like Larry Boiardi, the enthusiastic Trump supporter outside his wife’s diner, will likely remain an engaged member of the electorate.