The Daily 202: Trump supporters in Pennsylvania embrace his 'obnoxious' personality

Tuesday , March 13, 2018 - 7:05 AM

James Hohmann

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. - How could conservatives be so critical of Barack Obama’s multilateral agreement with Iran to curtail their nuclear program but so supportive of Donald Trump meeting face to face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un?

I posed that question to 30 supporters of the president over three hours on Saturday night as they waited to see Trump speak at a rally outside the Pittsburgh airport, where he campaigned for Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone ahead of Tuesday’s special election. The answers had nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with personality.

“To me, Obama was a butt-kissing liberal. Trump is Teddy Roosevelt. He just might go in there and kick some a**,” said Paul Ambrose, 70, a retired apparel manufacturer who collects toy trains and lives by a golf course in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. “It’s the fear factor. Kim’s kind of [pooping] his pants because Trump’s put the fear of God into him. Obama would have come and bowed. We’ve got a wildcard here. We’ve got a cowboy. He ain’t on the reservation. He just may do something. That’s why they’re coming to the table. Now lock the damn door. Order coffee and donuts. Keep the press out. And nobody leaves until a deal is done. What can go wrong?”

Ambrose added that he does not like Trump as a man but thinks he’s an incredibly effective executive. “Do I like him as a person? Hell no,” Ambrose said of Trump. “He’s disgusting. He’s obnoxious. I don’t know how his wife stands him. He’s got the worst haircut in the world. No manners. Insolent. Arrogant. Obnoxious. But he gets things done. He cut taxes. He’s telling NAFTA to go pound salt.”

Many described Trump’s Thursday night gambit to accept a meeting with Kim, which caught even his top advisers off guard, as a master stroke. The conversations offered a revealing window into why around 40 percent of Americans approve of the job he’s doing.

“He’s not just a good negotiator. He’s the best negotiator,” said Kim Shannon, 57, an ultrasound technician from Ohio, who called his decision to accept Kim’s offer “brilliant.” She downloaded “The Art of the Deal,” Trump’s 1987 book, on her Kindle and has been eager to read it. “Maybe I can learn something and help my personal finances,” she said. “He’s saved the country. It’s not done yet, but he’s going to become the greatest president to ever serve in office.”

Shannon remains as confident as ever that Trump will reverse decades of decline in the Ohio River Valley. When she was a kid in East Liverpool, Ohio, a nearby steel mill employed 6,000 people and kept the town thriving. It’s been shuttered for decades. “When I grew up, it was like Mayberry and Andy Griffith. Now it’s junkie-ville,” she said. “Everybody is in a holding pattern. We’re waiting for the factories to return, but I know they will. . . . For the first time in many, many years, I’m optimistic. Everything didn’t collapse at once and it will not return in one day. It’s going to take a period of years to return.”

Vendors sold T-shirts that said, “Trust in Trump” and “Built Trump Tough.” These messages captured the sentiments that came up repeatedly as people waited patiently to go through metal detectors in temperatures just above freezing.

During his 75-minute speech to a capacity crowd inside a hangar, Trump promised to go into any negotiation with clear eyes and to drive a hard bargain. “Who knows what’s going to happen? I may leave fast or we may sit down and make the greatest deal for the world,” he said. “Look, North Korea’s tough. This should have been handled, by the way, over the last 30 years - not now. . . . But that’s OK. Because that’s what we do: We handle things.”

Trump urged the crowd not to jeer Kim. “For now, we have to be very nice,” the president said. (Instead, he egged the audience on as they booed NBC host Chuck Todd.)

You couldn’t help but get the feeling that if Trump had negotiated the Iran deal, with the same terms, many of his supporters would praise him for it. He retains a deep reservoir of credibility with his core base of supporters. There are precedents for this. Richard Nixon could go to China and Ronald Reagan could negotiate treaties reducing the nuclear stockpile because they were perceived as hawks.

“Instinctively, I love the man. He won’t give away the store or the farm,” said Paul Treese, 78, who brought his granddaughter to see the president. “Kim respects his toughness. Bill Clinton gave [North Korea] the sun, the moon and some of the planets. They laughed and went right on their way. That deal was broken before whoever negotiated it even got home. Same with the Iran deal ... Because Obama was soft slush.”

“Because he’s a businessman, nobody can pull wool over his eyes when it comes to negotiations,” said John Kotse, 68, a retired lab technician. “I could have negotiated with Iran better than Obama did. He got nothing. That was just plain stupid.”

“Obama never actually tried to negotiate. He just apologized for us,” said Ed Campbell, 68, a retired airline pilot.

“I don’t think he’ll do what the Democrats say, which is to start a war,” said Cheryl Mantich, 65, a retired second-grade teacher. “I think it’s always good to talk.”

“Everyone says there’s too much bluster, but look at the results,” said Nick Nadeau, 25, a mechanical engineer at a 3-D printing plant in Harrisburg. “He got North Korea to come to the table. I trust him to do what’s right.”

There’s always an eclectic cast of characters at Trump events. Titus North ran for Congress twice as a Green Party candidate against Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa. But he registered as a Republican to vote for Trump in the 2016 primary and remains a fan. “I liked him saying he could get along with [Vladimir] Putin,” said North, an insurance agent.

He thinks Trump is playing chess while his critics play checkers. “The foreign policy establishment and the media just want the status quo with North Korea,” said North. “Trump’s belligerence wasn’t aimed at the North Koreans. They were already scared. . . . This was aimed at scaring the media and establishment to think he was serious. . . . If the alternative is war, they’re going to let him negotiate.”

Ben Safer, a junior at West Virginia University who is majoring in mine engineering, was the only person I spoke with who thought Obama might also have been able to negotiate a good deal with Pyongyang. He said his first choice for the GOP nomination in 2016 was Marco Rubio. His second choice was Ted Cruz. “I was initially a little ‘eh’ on Trump,” he said. “There are moments when I look at his Twitter feed and shake my head, but overall I think he’s done a good job.”

The 22-year-old, who was wearing a miner’s hat, volunteered before I asked about North Korea that he was “excited” Trump agreed to a tête-à-tête with Kim because the president is at his best when he’s reaching out to people who disagree with him.

“That’s been the biggest threat we face,” Safer said of North Korea. “If he keeps a cool head, I hope he can make a deal. I will give Obama this: He always kept a very cool head. . . . There was a lot I didn’t like with Obama - especially coal wise - but he was pretty coolheaded.”


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