Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally

The Republican candidate took his case to a shale-industry gathering, and found a welcoming crowd.

Justin Merriman

PITTSBURGH—“Running for president is a very important endeavor,” Donald Trump said. “What is more important, right?”

He leaned forward on his chair, separated by a heavy black curtain in a makeshift green room from the crowd waiting to hear him speak at the Shale Insight Conference.

“I am running because, number one, I think I will do a very good job. Number two, it’s really about making American great again.” He paused, as if realizing that repeating his campaign slogan might not seem genuine.

“I mean that; I really do want to make America great again,” he said. “That is what it is all about.”

The 70-year-old Republican nominee took his time walking from the green room toward the stage. He stopped to chat with the waiters, service workers, police officers, and other convention staffers facilitating the event. There were no selfies, no glad-handing for votes, no trailing television cameras. Out of view of the press, Trump warmly greets everyone he sees, asks how they are, and, when he can, asks for their names and what they do.

Justin Merriman

“I am blown away!” said one worker, an African American man who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. “The man I just saw there talking to people is nothing like what I’ve seen, day in and day out, in the news.”

Just before he takes the stage, I ask whether there’s one question that reporters never ask but that he wishes they would. He laughs. “Honestly, at this stage, I think they’ve asked them all.”

Then he stops in his tracks before pulling back the curtain and answers, so quietly that is almost a whisper: “You know, I consider myself to be a nice person. And I am not sure they ever like to talk about that.”

On stage, Trump began by addressing the unrest in Charlotte. He praised police, condemned “violent protestors,” and called for unity. “The people who will suffer the most as a result of these riots are law-abiding African American residents who live in these communities,” he said.

Turning to the subject at hand, Trump proceeded to tell shale-industry executives from around the country about his “America First energy plan” that, he vowed, would sideline the Obama administration’s climate-change blueprint, ease regulations, and support the construction of energy-based infrastructure such as oil and gas pipelines.

The plan, he insisted, would revive the slumping shale-oil and -gas industries, beset by low prices for several years, and “unleash massive wealth for American workers and families.”

Troy Roach of Denver, Colorado, has seen how the reversal of fortunes in the shale and natural gas industries affected his own community. The 46-year-old vice president of health, safety and environment at Antero Resources says he was open-minded about voting and thought about Hillary Clinton, but ultimately decided on Trump.

“With her, there is too much uncertainty on how she will work with the industry,” he said. “I look at my company and the impact it has had, not only with jobs but charitable work in the area. Just last week we bought a truck for the local EMS.”

Clinton also was invited to speak at the conference but declined, organizers said. In March, during a town-hall discussion of the transition to “clean energy,” the Democratic nominee declared: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Later, she declared it a “misstatement.” Two weeks ago, she again ignited controversy, describing half of Trump’s supporters as coming from a “basket of deplorables … racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic.”

Like Barack Obama’s description of his opponent’s supporters—“they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion”—eight years ago in San Francisco, Hillary’s remarks appalled many voters in this region, many of whom work in the energy sector or are affected by it.

One of the things Trump says he wants to accomplish as president is to bring the country together—no small task. He says the first black president has struggled with the issue, one at which he should have excelled.

“First of all, the country is divided, and we have no leadership,” he said. “You would think we would have the perfect leader for that but we don’t.”

He hammered at the importance of better opportunities in black communities as a remedy to quell today’s unrest: “We have to have education and jobs in the inner cities or they are going to explode like we have never seen before. You already see signs of that already all over the country.”

The best way, he says, is to provide good education and good jobs in these areas. “Fifty-eight percent of black youth cannot get a job, cannot work,” he says. “Fifty-eight percent. If you are not going to bring jobs back, it is just going to continue to get worse and worse.”

It’s a claim that drives fact-checkers to distraction. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the unemployment rate for blacks between the ages of 16 and 24 at 20.6 percent. Trump prefers to use its employment-population ratio, a figure that shows only 41.5 percent of blacks in that age bracket are working. But that means he includes full time high-school and college students among the jobless.

It’s a familiar split. When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

When I presented that thought to him, he paused again, “Now that’s interesting.”

Justin Merriman

I asked him whether the birther controversy—his insistence for years that the first black president in the United States release his long-form birth certificate in order to prove that he is an American—would prevent him from winning over black voters.

He dismissed that suggestion, pointing to recent campaign events addressing black communities in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Cleveland: “They are looking for something that is going to make it better. It’s so unsafe … I always say, ‘I’ll fix it—what do you have to lose?’ I am going to fix it.”

Chicago, he said, has had more than 3,000 people shot this year. “Can you believe that?” he asked. “That’s worse than Afghanistan … our cities are in worse shape.”

Democrats who have run many of America’s major cities for the past 100 years haven’t fixed things, he argued, “so that is what I say, what have you got to lose? I can fix it. The Democrats certainly haven’t.”

The crowd received Trump warmly, greeting him with roaring applause when he addressed the importance of lesser regulations, lower taxes for businesses and producing more energy as a central part of his plan to “make America wealthy again."

Outside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, hundreds of protesters organized by the state Democrats, unions, and progressive groups voiced their displeasure with him mostly over fracking and climate change.

Trump faces a difficult fight over the next 45 days; he says he plans on winning that fight in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where a rich trove of energy voters live and work, many of them are from union families whose blood-lines trace to the long-gone boom days of coal and steel. Opinion-poll averages show him narrowly ahead in Ohio, and down by six in Pennsylvania.

“Trump does have a chance in this area since the electorate is populated with base Republicans, fed-up independents, and working-class Democrats,” explained Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Northeastern Pennsylvania. “He especially has to camp out in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, where so many of these types of voter live. But he will also particularly need to convince the moderate Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs that he and his temperament are an acceptable choice.”

Trump seemed eager to meet that challenge. “I like Pittsburgh, I like the people … you are going to see a lot of me here, I think, between now and Election Day,” he said as he walked toward the stage, smiling and nodding at a convention-center maintenance worker juggling a dolly stacked high with bottled water.

Trump finished his day in Western Pennsylvania at the elegant Duquesne Club in downtown Pittsburgh with a campaign fundraiser; an organizer said the event was expected to raise more than $1.5 million for the Republican nominee.

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