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Government & Politics

Is Donald Trump Channeling Jim Traficant?

Mahoning County GOP wall

A significant part of Ohio’s Mahoning Valley has been strongly, passionately, for Donald Trump since before the GOP primary in March. And those who know the valley say anyone who followed the career of late-Congressman Jim Traficant shouldn’t be surprised. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports on the parallels between two unconventional politicians and the community that’s embraced them.

For more than two hours, a Labor Day crowd stood -- 20 deep -- in the hot sun at the Canfield Fair, waiting to witness Donald Trump’s interview with ABC News and to hear a few words from the GOP presidential candidate. Abruptly, the interview was moved up the midway and indoors, and the closest many got was a wave and to hear Trump shout a few words through a bullhorn.

And that was just fine with Carol Mook, a 70-year-old who raced from the other side of the fairgrounds to catch a glimpse.

“I’ve been voting since I was 21. This is the first rally I was ever to in my life. I always voted. If Trump doesn’t get in, if Hillary gets in, we’re not going to have a country left."

Trump before there was Trump
Donald Trump – his condemnation of trade deals, immigration and the faceless and corrupt government – resonates here. In a way, they’ve heard it before from someone they held with largely the same reverence.

“Beam me up. ... when voters say politics stink, they’re not talking about the Roto-Rooter man, ..." 

That’s from a Jim Traficant one-minute floor speech, one of dozens he used in his 17 years in Congress to blast everything from the IRS to a federal study on manure.

Credit "The Congressman of Crimetown"
Jim Traficant is profiled in a new documentary, "Jim Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown."

Traficant’s political career began as a high school and college football star, included beating one bribery case while he was county sheriff and ended with his conviction on separate corruption charges and his explusion from Congress in 2002. But even from federal prison, he ran to regain his seat and got more than 20,000 votes. A comeback attempt after his release failed, but for many, Jim Traficant remained that voice for forgotten America.

Fear and loathing of a global economy
“He was giving voice to an anxiety and a frustration that the rest of the country wasn’t responding to," explains Tom Flynn, a Slippery Rock University public relations professor who followed the rise and not-quite fall of Traficant over the decades. He says understanding the attraction of the congressman requires understanding his audience – a region that lost 50,000 jobs in 1977 as the steel mills abruptly shut down and that has never been convinced the up-side of a global economy benefits them.

“Youngstown was thrown into just economic chaos. And he gave voice to that frustration and that anger. He couldn’t do anything about it; I don’t think that he ever really tried to do anything about it, frankly. But he gave voice to that raw emotion.”

A blunt, gravelly voice delivered with no apologies by a guy with an improbable hair piece and a lot of theories about powerful, corrupt and unchecked federal bureaucracies and world forces that had it in for the American Dream.

Arguing Trump's not Traficant
David Betras is Mahoning County’s Democratic Party chairman, trying to deliver the valley for Hillary Clinton. But he acknowledges echoes of Traficant in Trump.

“Donald Trump is picking up that contingent because Jim Traficant talked about a wall, and NAFTA, so it sounds very much like Jim Traficant."

Betras tries to point out the differences.

“Jim Traficant was the son of a truck driver, Donald Trump was the son of a billionaire. Jim Traficant at one time really cared about people and he went to jail to prevent people’s homes from being foreclosed upon. And Donald Trump rooted for people’s homes to be foreclosed upon.

"So what people have to realize is, while they sound alike, in their heart they’re nothing alike because Donald Trump doesn’t give a s--- about anyone but himself.”

'Just like me'
His argument isn’t selling easily. Slippery Rock professor Flynn says he’s surprised at how often people in the Mahoning Valley proclaim Donald Trump is “just like me.”

When he looks at Trump, Flynn sees what sold Traficant.

“They said he’s a man’s man in a  man’s town, in terms of the way just the way that he enacted his role, the people around here really responded to: ‘That’s who I would be if I could.’

Flynn acknowledges both Trump and Traficant’s populism has an ugly side.

“They both use scapegoating, placing blame on faceless bureaucrats running the government, corruption in the highest places, federal agencies running out of control, multinational corporations, immigrants, etc.” 

Beyond Youngstown
But he says the power of their message is in recognizing the economic insecurity that’s spread from the rust belt to the rest of the country – and people’s lack of faith in the establishment to do anything about it.

“What is the definition of the American Dream? That I’m going to have a job that will allow me to buy a house, send my kids to college, these sorts of things. And since 2008 all those things have taken a hit.”

So, in 2016, Flynn says, the message is as salable as it was when Jim Traficant delivered one of his one-minute, made-for-media zingers on the floor of Congress.

“I urge you to put troops on our border, and I think anybody who jumps the fence shouldn’t be made a citizen. They should be thrown out."

For nearly two decades, such promises held Jim Traficant in good stead. Donald Trump will find out Tuesday if it still resounds in Youngstown and beyond.

Thomas Flynn
Credit Slippery Rock State University
Tom Flynn says Traficant had almost magical powers over the Mahoning Valley.

Here's an extended interview with Thomas Flynn about the Trump/Traficant parallels:

An extended Q&A

Traficant's life has been profiled in a new documentary: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/traficant/175904170?autoplay=1">"Jim Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown"