Rust Belt Singer-Songwriter Matthew Ryan Explains How Trump Won Working Class Whites

James Yamazaki
Donald Trump Spot

According to rural Pennsylvania-based singer-songwriter Matthew Ryan, 45, the president-elect "spoke directly" to the fear and anger of disenfranchised white voters. 

Sixty-eight percent of the people where I live voted for Donald Trump. I am seething, but I am also trying to see the fuller picture.

My hometown until I was 15 was Chester, Pa., a place that has been decimated by globalization, corruption, changing technologies, well-meaning but poorly executed government programs and generations of despair and frustration. It’s the kind of place where you say, “Don’t go there, you’ll get shot.”

It’s there I learned that where you’re born can shape you but doesn’t have to define you. And that’s why I am still a working-class liberal progressive. I believe in the inclusive ladders that we on the left believe in. Public school introduced me to the pure fuel of language and poetry and critical thought. Great teachers helped me to find my engines. I believe in personal accountability, but I also believe we have a great responsibility to each other.

Six years ago I moved to Beaver County, Pa. My home is a 40-minute drive northwest from Pittsburgh along the Ohio River, where shuttered steel plants the size of airplane hangers loom like darkened statues. They filmed parts of the 2000 movie Wonder Boys in the town where I live, and it looks that way: dignified, collegiate. But that’s not the feel or story of much of what surrounds. The unemployment rate in the county is 6.1 percent, more than a point above the national average, and you don’t have to drive far to find towns that are crumbling monuments to economic devastation.

And yes, people still live there.

Over time, the restaurants and shops emptied. They would pay their taxes and see less in return. Plants continued to close; a dug-in, provincial mood developed; and despair turned to something else. Slowly they gravitated toward narratives that justified their growing anger.

On Election Day, I saw that anger manifested in the truck that rumbled by me with a giant “Hillary for Prison” sign in its bed, and in the armed Trump “poll-watcher” who was removed across the street from where I cast my ballot. After I put on my “I Voted” sticker, I walked back out into the day with a foreboding that something big and awful was about to happen.

For many of us (but not enough of us), Trump’s race-baiting and xenophobia, his predatory misogyny and myopic narcissism, were obvious disqualifiers. But the human heart can be brutal when it feels it is being subjugated or ignored. If none of that makes sense, listen to Randy Newman’s “I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do.”

Rural whites are often dismissed as stuck; clinging to their Bibles and guns. But Trump spoke directly to their pasts and their contributions. He told them the life they knew was possible again. And even if that proves to be the con that many of us suspect, it was only through thinking hard about this article that I realized, yes, many of these Rust Belt communities are white, and some are racist, but above all, they are communities that are getting left behind in today’s America.

Yeah, Trump is a problem. Scary as f—. We’re all going to have to navigate that together. But what put Trump in the White House isn’t just a white working-class problem. It’s an American Dream problem. It’s a “Where are we going?” problem. And that’s the real problem. 

Ryan’s album Boxers is available through his Bandcamp page.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of Billboard.


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