On a warm August evening in 2018, I gave a speech outside of a Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The stage was the top of a grassy hill that sloped downward from a shopping-center parking lot. About 50 people gathered on the sidewalk below. The organizers chose this spot so that we could see the presidential motorcade as it came off the interstate—and so that the presidential motorcade would see us.
As I began my speech, a group of brawny, high school-aged boys wearing MAGA caps showed up to taunt our group from across the street. As my audience now turned around to see what was happening, I struggled to be heard over the yelling back-and-forth. Only when my prepared remarks got to the call-and-response was it possible for me to get my voice above the crowds’:
We’ve got resistance in our blood. Countless times our mining ancestors walked out of work on wildcat strikes to protest unfair treatment. Why?
Because this ain’t Trump Country!
We have ancestors who were murdered by rich folks’ hired guns while fighting for their freedom. Why?
Because this ain’t Trump Country!
When coal companies laid off tens of thousands of miners in the 1930s, our people went out and illegally dug coal themselves, literally taking the means of production away from the people who exploited them. Why?
Because this ain’t Trump Country!
It felt good to shout that. We all had some pent-up frustrations. As someone with deep roots in this area, it was difficult for me to walk past the arena and see the seemingly endless line of ordinary local folks lined up alongside diehard white supremacists and conspiracy theorists to attend the Trump rally.
Maybe I was also a bit in denial, because electorally this very much is Trump country. After voting Democratic for six straight presidential elections—including a five-point Obama victory in 2012—Luzerne County became the talk of the nation when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton here by almost 20 points in 2016. To the national media, Luzerne County is a prototype of a predominately white working-class area that turned to Trump after being devastated by deindustrialization, having lost more than half of its manufacturing jobs since 1980.
But Trump’s attacks on immigrants riled up most of the folks filtering into the Mohegan Sun Arena that evening much more than his anti-globalization rhetoric did. Hazleton, Luzerne’s second-biggest city after Wilkes-Barre, had become a national leader in adopting anti-immigrant legislation. As old blue-collar industries had departed, lower-paying warehousing, distribution, and meatpacking firms were built by developers attracted to generous tax incentives. These new employers began attracting new workers from immigrant backgrounds, mostly Dominican immigrants who moved in large numbers to Hazleton from in and around New York City, attracted to the low cost of living and the availability of jobs (Longazel 2016).
In 2006, Lou Barletta, then Hazleton’s mayor, made a name for himself by spearheading the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. Although later ruled unconstitutional, this first-of-its-kind local ordinance sought to punish businesses and landlords for hiring or renting housing to undocumented immigrants and to make English Hazleton’s official language. Foreshadowing the politics which would later sweep the nation, Hazleton passed the measure in the midst of a moral panic over alleged but unproven undocumented immigrant criminality (Longazel 2013). What brought President Trump to Wilkes-Barre was a desire not only to thank Luzerne County for swinging in his direction, but also to fuel Barletta’s candidacy for the US Senate with anti-immigrant sentiment.
My counter-speech sought to remind folks that Luzerne County had been here before. Rich and powerful men had used nativism in an attempt to convince our coal-miner ancestors that recent arrivals—not power-hungry robber barons—were to blame for their poverty. In fact, the late‑19th‑ and early‑20th‑century attacks on immigrants used the same phrases levied against Latinos today.
It also has a long and strong history of people—often immigrants—organizing and asserting themselves in the face of oppression. Our local historiography reads like a boxing match in which capital delivers blow after devastating blow, but labor somehow manages to stay in the fight (e.g. Dublin and Licht 2005; Wolensky et al. 2002; Troutman 2021). But popular narratives about Trump Country do not give much credence to this past history of struggle. Indeed, many commentators overlook how this struggle continues today.
My shouts, thus, weren’t all in disgruntlement but tapped into the feelings of solidarity that prior speakers had cultivated. Here we were, in a firmly red county, presenting ourselves as the first people the president would see when he arrived in town. It wasn’t just this one protest either. Oppositional crowds regularly meet Trump and other GOP officials when they visit the area. Resistance to Trump and Trumpism has risen in the county over the past four years.
Annie Mendez, a local activist and small-business owner, organized a group of mostly Latino volunteers to do phone banking beginning in 2018. While prevented from gathering in person or knocking on doors by the Covid‑19 pandemic, they have expanded their phone-banking and postcard-mailing efforts and established collaborations with groups like Turn PA Blue, Luzerne County Democratic Women, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, and the Biden campaign.
Another grassroots group founded after the 2016 election, Action Together Northeast Pennsylvania (NEPA), was similarly active in the months leading up to the election. The group’s president, Alisha Hoffman-Mirilovich, reports sending 1.5 million texts across Pennsylvania—86,000 on the morning of election day—as well as sending 40,000 pieces of mail, most of which were handwritten postcards, and making over 20,000 phone calls to voters in Northeast Pennsylvania. They also did door-to-door “safe canvassing” in several Luzerne County communities in the 10 days leading up to the election.
Other forms of opposition have emerged as well. When local leaders began scapegoating Latinos for causing Covid‑19 infections to spread back in March, Hazleton residents stood their ground. Workers and their allies pushed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to investigate conditions at a local Amazon warehouse. Workers at the Cargill meatpacking plant filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human-Relations Commission over the company’s alleged failure to adequately protect its predominantly Black and Latino workforce from the virus. As the pandemic wore on, new food banks opened, organizations ran mutual-aid campaigns, and people marched for healthcare rights.
When big-city protests broke out in response to the murder of George Floyd, they were echoed by hundreds of protests in rural communities and small cities across Pennsylvania. Wilkes-Barre had marches almost daily for weeks, with Black teenagers and young adults leading the way.
All of this paid off on November 3. While Trump still won the county by a considerable margin, it was noticeably smaller than in 2016. Biden’s greater appeal reduced the Republican margin from 26,237 votes in 2016 to 22,046 in 2020. Luzerne County thus contributed 3.4% of the overall Democratic shift in the statewide margin, even though it contributed only 2.2% of the votes cast. While this relative gain was small, every gain counts in such a closely divided state.
In short, the Trump presidency galvanized his base in 2020, but it also motivated his opponents in places like Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre. As conditions worsened, it seems, people fought harder. “The harder they push me, the harder I’m going to push back,” Mendez said. In 2024, attention will continue to focus on places like Luzerne County to see how these counterforces play out and whether grassroots activism will grow further under a Biden presidency.
- Dublin, Thomas and Licht, Walter. 2005. The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
- Longazel, Jamie. 2013. “Moral Panic as Racial Degradation Ceremony: Racial Stratification and the Local-Level Backlash against Latino/a Immigrants”, Punishment & Society, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 96–119.
- Longazel, Jamie. 2016. Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Troutman, Mitch. 2021. The Bootleg Coal Rebellion, Oakland: PM Press.
- Wolensky, Kenneth C., Wolensky, Nicole H. and Wolensky, Robert P. 2002. Fighting for the Union Label: The Women’s Garment Industry and the ILGWU in Pennsylvania, University Park: Penn State University Press.