Why One Ohio Town Voted For Obama, Then Flipped For Trump

Originally published on OL News Media.

Pictured from above, the bridge that separates Zanesville’s North and South sides. | Photo: Evan Smith

A few days after Donald Trump was elected president, a homeless man was murdered and set on fire in a small Appalachian hill town.

The town is Zanesville, in the southeast part of Ohio, the 14th poorest city in the state. The median income here is $16,892. There are more high school dropouts in Zanesville than college graduates. And with more than 30 percent of citizens living below the poverty line, it’s a place where only the oldest residents can remember the industry that once made this town a hotbed of American prosperity.

“We’ve had our troubles in recent years,” said Mayor Jeff Tilton. “But we’ve also had a great history.”

In the 1950s, well before the manufacturing plants and coal mines shut down, boats would haul goods to and from the river banks, carrying with them the promise of a full-time job, a steady pension and an idyllic home with a tree in the front yard. Those were the boom years. Downtown Zanesville was gleaming with fresh automobiles and creamy shopping bags.

Things, it seemed, would never change.

But things did change.

Downtown is dead now, and so is the homeless man. He was bashed in the head before his body was set alight. That was the original call police officers were responding to: a fire on the porch of a Presbyterian church, probably just a trashcan blaze someone had ignited in the cold of night. That would be typical: at night, downtown Zanesville empties of all professional office workers, and the homeless, the drug-addicted and the lost wander down the crumbling sidewalks, flaking steel rivets off old structures peeling overhead.

Downtown Zanesville may still offer some local businesses, but professional workers leave after nightfall, and a different downtown emerges in the dark. | Photo: Evan Smith

It wasn’t until the first officer arrived on scene that he saw the charred human remains.

Two unrelated events from the same week — a national election upset, and a dead man set on fire — and yet each moment reflects the other in a city like Zanesville.

Like so many towns across the country, Zanesville is split in two, cleaved along economic lines: North and rich, South and poor.

“That’s the whole portrait of America, right in that split,” said Keely Warden, a local charity leader.

As someone who spends her days feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, Warden has traversed the economic divides of Zanesville perhaps more than anyone else. She’s seen the lives of those live in the community’s margins.

“Here’s what it is,” Warden said. “All across America, every town looks like Zanesville. You have people with nice homes living quiet, isolated lives. But if you cross just one bridge, go across just one river or train track to the other side of town, it’s a whole different country. There you see poverty, you see people abandoned.”

“That’s what people don’t understand about America,” she added. “You don’t talk to your neighbor, you don’t really see what the country is all about.”

Electing Trump was not about rejecting the elites in Washington, D.C. Not really, Warden said. It had more to do with rejecting the elites on the other side of town — your neighbors who don’t see you as equals — coupled with the impossibility of crossing over to the green grass on the other side.

Keeley Warden, Executive Director of Christ’s Table faith-based charitable organization, helps feed thousands across Muskingum County in Southeast Ohio. | Photo: Evan Smith

Without access to that life, and yet being able to see it just a few miles away, bitterness grows, and a desire to burn the entire system down is palpable.

“Go down those streets and you won’t see a Trump sign,” said county engineer Doug Davis, who knows the bridges and roads of the area better than anyone else. “No, instead you’ll see ‘Hillary for Prison’ signs. You’ll see ‘Drain the Swamp’ signs.”

“It’s about more than just Trump, believe me,” Davis said.

The homeless man set on fire was a part of that, too. Of course, in a small city like Zanesville, it didn’t take long for the killer to be identified and arrested.

The part that matters is why the homeless man was killed.

In the city’s more prosperous northside, such a murder would be unthinkable.

But Zanesville’s southside, the murder is less surreal. In just the past year, they’ve seen sword stabbings, shootings, deadly police stand-offs, dozens of heroin overdoses each month, too many petty robberies to count, house fires, and now a burned homeless man.

Nothing is surprising. Not even when news broke that the man — who would later be identified as 62-year-old Leo Hayes, who did odd jobs like carpentry work — was killed and burned over $20.

Why not? Everything else is falling apart.

So in a place where jobs have vanished, where men are burned over spare change, the election results were a rare moment of hope.

Trump’s comments about women? His inexperience? His questionable temperament? In the minds of Zanesville’s voters, all were lesser sins than the sin of elite smugness.

And when bodies are literally burning on the streets, the media’s obsession with Trump’s offensive language can seem like yet another form of elite misdirection, according to Warden.

“That’s why people are pumped up, excited for the first time in a long time,” said Warden, who remembers the long lines at the city’s southside polling places on Election Day, a part of town that rarely sees much voter turnout at all. “After the results came in, up north it was really quiet, but on the southside people were celebrating.”

This is the simple reason why Zanesville voted for Obama in 2012 and then flipped for Trump in 2016: the people on the southside began to rise up. It wasn’t about bankers, lawyers and doctors. Instead, it was about the unemployed, the former-factory workers, the trailer-park dwellers, the looked-down-upon, the white and angry, the white and depressed, and the lost.

Call them racist, xenophobic, deplorable. Go ahead — they’ve heard it all before from their northside neighbors.

But now, for the first time in a long time, they’ve swung back.

That’s how it goes in towns like Zanesville, all across the country. When the system has beaten you down for so long, sometimes you just want to hit back. You want to grab a bat and swing at anything that moves. You want to beat it, beat it down until it stops moving for good.

And then strike a match.

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