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In this depressed Pennsylvania steel town, Trump’s tariffs meet deep skepticism — and almost no one wants to hit Canada

Donald Trump came to Monessen, Pa., in 2016, promising policies that would help it 'recover fast.' Few here think his tariffs will help that happen.

Monessen, Pa., is exactly the place you might expect to find support for Donald Trump’s steel tariffs. The town is home to less than half the number of people it had in 1960, when nearby steel plants were active.

Torstar News Service / Daniel Dale

Monessen, Pa., is exactly the place you might expect to find support for Donald Trump’s steel tariffs. The town is home to less than half the number of people it had in 1960, when nearby steel plants were active.

MONESSEN, PA.—Bob Dyky has lost his retirement savings three separate times since his steel mill shut down with all the other steel mills around. He has watched his Pennsylvania steel town decay into its current state of dilapidated emptiness.

And he believes the cause of all this Monessen misery is cheap steel imports. So when he heard President Donald Trump say he was imposing steep tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, he was positively, profanely delighted, warnings about a trade war be damned.

“Shut the f---ers down,” Dyky, a Trump voter, said Wednesday outside a Monessen grocery store.

Then Dyky was asked whether the tariffs should ever apply to Canadian steel. His tone softened.

“Not at all,” he said.

Trump exempted Canada from the tariffs he imposed Thursday, but he threatened to change his mind if Canada doesn’t agree to a “fair” North American Free Trade Agreement.

A bad idea, Dyky said.

“Americans and Canadians have always worked together and always been on the same side. And there’s fairness there, both sides. It’s certainly not fair with the Chinese. It’s out of control. What’s fair is fair, what’s honest is honest, and the relationship’s there with Canada. Why ruin it?”

Dyky’s views were echoed by other Trump supporters. Even among residents who endorsed the tariffs, there was scant support for hitting Canada.

And there was far from unanimous support for hitting anybody at all.

It is places like Monessen and its neighbouring towns where Trump’s tariffs might be expected to be an easy political winner. Monessen, 50 minutes south of Pittsburgh, was where Trump came to make the major campaign speech in which he decried the effects of globalization and pledged to get tough on steel cheats.

But even here, on hilly streets blighted by potholes and vacant storefronts, views on Trump’s tariffs were decidedly mixed. And nobody believed Trump’s promise in that speech that places like Monessen would “recover fast” because of his policies.

Of 35 people interviewed at modest stores and restaurants in Monessen, still a Democratic stronghold, and at a Walmart in adjacent Fayette County, reliably Republican since 2008, just nine said they were in favour. Not one person voting in Tuesday’s hotly contested special election in the local 18th District said the tariffs would affect their choice.

There was appreciation for Trump’s desire to do something, anything to restore the steel glory days. But it was exceeded by deep skepticism that protectionism will accomplish much in an era of automation. And there was widespread concern about the possible consequences.

“It’s going to start a trade war. They’re going to give it to us like we’re giving it to them,” said Samuel Perok, 92, a Democratic voter who spent time at a steel company after his Second World War navy service. “I don’t believe that guy. He talks big, but there’s something wrong with that guy.”

The Star’s sample was highly unscientific, and should not be viewed as definitive. But it suggests that Trump may not get a political boost from the move even in steel country. And it strongly suggests that voters will not care if he never imposes tariffs on Canada no matter what happens with NAFTA.

Every scientific poll to date has also shown that the tariffs are unpopular. In a Quinnipiac poll this week, 50 per cent opposed the tariffs, 31 per cent supported them. And support was tepid even among white voters with no college degree: 42 per cent were in favour, 40 per cent were opposed.

In Monessen, James Sloan, a Republican retiree who voted for Trump but has since soured on him, said he opposed the tariffs because he worries about lasting damage to diplomatic relationships.

“People are going to walk away from him, allies. And somebody down the line is going to have to reunite all these people, and that’s not easy,” said Sloan, 76. “He’s tramping on people and moving on. But at the same time he’s leaving a lot of burning bridges behind him, and you can’t put the fires out.”

For at least one supporter of the tariffs, Trump’s decision to provoke an international uproar was a positive, not a negative.

“I think he’s doing pretty good. Because he’s made everybody mad. That’s kind of why I picked him,” said Larry Harris, 48, a U.S. Steel electrician. “I think it needed to happen. Too much of the same old, same old. One thing: it hasn’t been boring. In that particular respect, it’s been good. He don’t care who he steps on, and I like that.”

Like Dyky, Steve Secleter, retired from 31 years at a utility company, was laid off from a steel mill in the 1980s. He did not have a firm opinion on the tariffs. But he said most of Trump’s policy decisions have been “asinine,” and he suspected this one was driven by the president’s personal desire to dominate.

“Do I think it’s going to help? No,” said Secleter, 62, who voted for the Green Party’s Jill Stein because he did not like Trump or trust Hillary Clinton. “I think it’s more or less a threat from him — trying to be, like, muscle on the other countries, to say, ‘Hey this is what I want you to do, and you’ll bow down to what I want.’”

Then-mayor Lou Mavrakis downtown on June 30, 2016, two days after Donald Trump came to Monessen.


Then-mayor Lou Mavrakis downtown on June 30, 2016, two days after Donald Trump came to Monessen.

For some residents in and around Pittsburgh, the steel business is tied up with personal identity. Tariff supporters saw a president taking stronger action than anyone had ever taken to punish the people they believe have hurt their families.

“My father worked in the steel mills. My uncle worked in the steel mills. A lot of my relatives worked in the steel mills. And they shut ’em down and they started bringing in the imports. When Trump made the statement that he was putting the tariffs on the imported steel? I’m all for it,” said Ken Marsh, 62, a Republican voter retired after 23 years in steel fabrication.

Marsh said, though, that he did not support tariffs on Canada.

“We’ve never had any trouble with it,” he said.

Almost every resident who endorsed the tariffs said they were doubtful of Trump’s assertions that they would revive faded steel towns and substantially boost steel employment.

“The tariffs are going to help somewhat, yes, they will. But you’re not going to bring back steel to the way it was before. You can’t,” said Lou Mavrakis, 80, a former steelworker and Monessen mayor who invited Trump to the city. “These plants have been demolished. You’d have to start from scratch all over again. You know how much that costs? It’s astronomical.”

The ArcelorMittal coke plant, one of the last vestiges of Monessen's glory days.

Torstar News Service

The ArcelorMittal coke plant, one of the last vestiges of Monessen's glory days.

While steelworkers and ex-steelworkers receive extensive media attention, the economies of many former steel communities have moved on. Pittsburgh, for example, has rebounded with a focus on high-tech businesses and life sciences. People in Monessen said Trump should try to help the modern industries that could be hurt by the tariffs rather than attempting to resuscitate dead-and-buried steel businesses.

Joshua Potanko, 34, manager of an optical store, said Trump has done “an OK job so far.” But he called the tariffs a “horrible idea,” saying they would set off “a huge trade war that the U.S. is going to lose bad.”

“I get why he’s trying to do it. I think he’s going about it the wrong way of doing it,” he said.

Republican Mervin Franks, 66, enthusiastically endorsed tariffs in general and on Canada. He flatly said, “I don’t really care about the other parts of the world.” He added, “Just because you’re Canada don’t mean jack s--t to me.”

He, too, did not expect the tariffs to produce a local steel boom.

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