A town changed by Trump

Springfield, Ohio, prided itself on its moderation. Now, residents are struggling with an unfamiliar question: How to heal a bruised sense of civility.    

Evan Vucci/AP/File
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hold signs during a campaign rally on Oct. 27, 2016, in Springfield, Ohio.

There are times these days when Mary Jo Groves feels like she no longer understands her city and the world around it.

The hospital physician knows Springfield as a place that has prided itself on its moderate, practical outlook. Until recently, many folks around here couldn’t recall having seen a protest in town. Disagreements happened, of course, but they were usually handled civilly – both sides at least knew where the other was coming from.

But since the election of President Trump, things have felt different.

Ms. Groves recalls overhearing a polite conversation at the hospital. Asked about Mr. Trump, an elderly gentleman said he was pleased, suggesting the crackdown on immigrants and the temporary ban on citizens from seven Muslim nations was spot on.

His talk “wasn’t guarded, it was cautiously optimistic,” she says.

Groves, meanwhile, describes herself as “apoplectically frightened.”

And that is a sentiment that Pamela Baldridge doesn’t understand. To the Trump supporter, it seems like the left and the political establishment has gone after her candidate with a vengeance, caring little for the will of the people.

“The sad thing is we can’t have civil discourse and we can’t have a discussion about the issues,” said Ms. Baldridge. “That would be my goal – to get back to the idea that you can have your opinion but it doesn’t make you a bad person.”

On that, both sides can agree. The divide within Springfield mirrors the tensions within the nation as a whole. Before the election, the Monitor visited Springfield because no other American city saw more of its middle class slip down the economic ladder from 2000 to 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. Springfield symbolizes the challenges of the nation.

But the partisan animosity in aftermath of the election is largely new to Springfield. Some say it was simply lurking beneath the surface before. But now that it is out in the open, residents long for the normalcy and civility of years past – but are at a loss for how to bring it about.

“Most Americans … most people in this town agree on 80, 85 percent of everything,” says Kevin Loftis, who opened a new brewery downtown in July and who called both choices in November’s election “soul crushing.”

“I’m tired of the left and the right. You’d think we’re headed to a civil war. I don’t know how you bring it back. I don’t know what the unifying cause is that brings us back to earth. It’s almost like you’re standing toe to toe with your fists out. What’s it going to take to drop your fists and talk?”

A city changed

His view is that both political parties have amped up the rhetoric and divisiveness for partisan gain, a cynical strategy that has effectively divided people.

Political scientists agree, but note that voters also play a crucial role. Americans have neatly “sorted” themselves into liberal and partisan camps and have made it a part of their identity – whereas voters used to hold a greater mix of views.

Research also shows that the most passionate voters increasingly associate only with people who hold the same views – on social media and in person – exacerbating the trend.

Springfield, a city of 60,000, is a mostly blue dot situated in red Clark County; 57 percent of voters in the county voted for Trump. The great surprise for many wasn’t Trump’s county victory – some 8,500 people backed up traffic for miles when Trump appeared at the state fairgrounds, the News-Sun reported – but the Democrats for local offices, including the longtime sheriff, who were swept out of office.  

Trump’s influence up and down the ballot hinged on exactly what he promised: To make Springfield great again. His rhetoric rekindled images of the city’s prosperous 1950s, when the presses from the Crowell-Collier printing plant hummed, International Harvester churned out farm machinery for the world, and downtown Springfield was bustling, surrounded by ornate Victorian buildings with busy shops and restaurants.

That hope remains. “If they would leave him [the president] alone, that man would do more for this country than anyone would ever have,” says Carl Carroll, a Trump supporter who owns a scrap metal business. He has been working to clear scrap from the vacant Crowell plant, which still physically and figuratively looms over the city.

But there appears to be little appetite for leaving Trump alone, even here.

A respectful rally of about 100 protested Trump’s travel ban downtown. And scattered reports of harassment against the city’s small Muslim and Sikh communities have Mayor Warren Copeland planning to introduce a resolution of support for those minorities.

Even the campus of Wittenberg University, a place known for its liberal outlook, has seen hateful comments aimed at minorities, says political science professor Rob Baker.

Role reversal

Some seem to be reconsidering their place in both the city and country’s ecosystem.

Tom Heaphey and Vicki Rulli spent their lives in politics, mostly working for the city of Columbus. Mr. Heaphey once ran for a state House seat as a Republican.

Today, they own a commercial art production studio in Springfield. The married couple moved here because they liked its history and the vestiges of its once-prosperous past – the city symphony, a performing arts space, and historic buildings, including a well-preserved Frank Lloyd Wright house.

Now, Heaphey says he can’t believe where his former party has gone, and the two have thrown themselves into an energized left, helping organize the rally in Springfield. Ms. Rulli flew to Washington to be a part of the women’s march. She was instructed to write down key phone numbers in permanent marker on her arm in case she was arrested. She wondered whether police would shoot at them.

Those are things she “never thought” she’d need to worry about in the United States. Recently, parked alongside a road out in the county taking photographs, men in a pickup truck yelled at her and made an obscene gesture. Rulli thinks they saw her political bumper stickers. “I worry about my daughter,” says Rulli of her 11-year-old. “There’s a sense men can do these things to women.”

Half-jokingly, Heaphey says, “it’ll be the liberals who have to use the Second Amendment to protect the First Amendment.”

The couple finds themselves living among people they now realize they didn’t understand. “We all couldn’t even comprehend where a person like that would be elected as president of the United States,” Heaphey said of Trump.

Rulli adds: “We really thought the truth would prevail and decency would prevail.”

Difficult conversations

Words like those are why political conversations don’t go far these days, says Baldridge, the Trump supporter. When it comes to truth and decency, she doesn’t see Trump as being all that different from the rest of Washington. The “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump saying disparaging things about women?

“That was totally a set-up,” Baldridge says. “I just saw it as a part of politics. That's just the way politics is played.”

The fear, says Tom Stafford, a semi-retired newspaper reporter, is that the country has come to a point where both sides don’t agree with each other and don’t trust the facts.

“In times of emergency and crisis there has to be trust to bring people together,” Mr. Stafford says. He doubts whether that trust now exists.

For that reason, Groves, the physician, sees the opportunity for a national civics renaissance based on a better-informed public. She points to a Morning Consult poll that found one-third of Americans don’t know that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing.

Feeling that she couldn’t just point fingers at the other side, she did something she’s never done before – she went to the district office of her congressman. Rep. Warren Davidson (R) wasn’t there, but Groves politely explained to a staffer the implications of doing away with the Affordable Care Act.

It was an odd moment, she confides. She was reaching out, yes. But she was also preparing for a fight ahead to defend her liberal values.

“I’m fighting for agreement, I find myself going to the mat,” she says. “But I also find myself protecting the energy. We’re already in anger fatigue here.”

Baldridge puts her faith in Trump. As things settle down, she says, his policies will begin to make a difference. “If people can start see their lives are better because of Trump, you’ll see less antagonistic feelings.”

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