How A Divided Upstate New York Views Trump Amid His Sliding Approval Ratings

Mar 31, 2017
Originally published on April 4, 2017 3:18 pm

George DeTitta, a retired biomedical researcher, is no fan of President Trump's.

"Well, the day he got inaugurated, I put on my Facebook page, 'Not my president,' " the 69-year-old Democrat says, sitting at a table near the window at a restaurant in downtown Buffalo.

DeTitta says he took the post down the next day, but he's been watching the Trump White House with alarm ever since. Even something Democrats felt relief about — the failure of the president and fractured House Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act — wasn't reason for DeTitta to celebrate.

"This didn't go down because the good folks won; it went down because people who want to absolutely gut health care in this country won. They won, not the people," DeTitta says. "The Tea Party won."

Here on the far western edge of New York state, residents are as starkly divided as the rest of the country. Buffalo, the largest city in the area, is a Democratic stronghold — enough so that Erie County went for Hillary Clinton last November. Get out to the suburbs and neighboring counties, and you very quickly arrive in Trump country.

The region also reflects broader attitudes toward Trump, whose approval ratings are at a record low for any president, especially one still in the first 100 days of an administration. In surveys, Democrats, like DeTitta, are overwhelmingly opposed to the president's policies and give him low scores on the job he's doing. Independent voters are also unhappy. Even some Republicans are starting to have doubts.

Sixty-two-year-old truck driver Scott Spencer, though, is a big Trump supporter. In the Woodlawn Diner in Blasdell, he sits at the far end of the counter with a plate of eggs and toast.

The diner is a sleepy place, even during the morning rush. It's located on a road that was once home to tens of thousands of steel jobs. Now there's a long stretch of abandoned steel mills. One hulking structure still stands, despite a massive fire that broke out the morning after the election in November.

Spencer says he's been fed up with both political parties for years, but then Trump came along, "and now he's the first guy I feel like I can really stand behind." He likes Trump's boldness and determination to shake up Washington: "Trump is saying ... 'I want to do things this way.' " And he very much approves of Trump's way.

Spencer is part of that surge of white, working-class voters who went for Trump here and in key battleground states. Drive a bit farther out in the Buffalo suburbs, and a lot of mainstream Republicans are also still on board with Trump, even as the president continues to make more news for his Twitter feed and the fights he picks with critics than he does for progress on his agenda.

Brian Rusk is a good example. He's as "establishment" as they come. A longtime activist in New York Republican politics, the 61-year-old can point to framed autographed photos of himself as a younger man with President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush and Reagan-era Secretary of State Al Haig. Early on in 2016, Rusk was a supporter of one of the most moderate GOP presidential hopefuls, former New York Gov. George Pataki. Pataki dropped out, so he switched to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. When Bush dropped out, Rusk got on board with Trump. He says he did so enthusiastically, feeling like this was a winner.

Brian Rusk voted for President Trump after his two other picks dropped out of the race. Here, the longtime Republican activist holds a picture of himself with former President George H.W. Bush.
Don Gonyea / NPR

Now, with the Trump White House plagued by missteps and investigations, Rusk says, "Give him time," stressing that Trump has only been in office just over 70 days. As for Trump's failure to quickly "repeal and replace Obamacare" as promised, Rusk says the blame is on the GOP "radical right," not on Trump. He says it's still early, so there's no need to fret. "I mean, it's a process; it's like making sausage."

Rusk does offer a piece of advice to the president. He says Trump needs to reach out to conservative Democrats. But so far, Democrats have been wary of trusting Trump, even on issues where they might want to cut a deal, including the massive investments in infrastructure the president wants.

Plus, Trump makes that task more difficult by continuing to attack and even mock Democrats on Twitter and at the big campaign-style rallies (rallies where the hard-core Trump faithful will still break into a spirited "Lock her up" chant when Trump mentions Hillary Clinton).

GOP activist Brett Sommer, meanwhile, is starting to have his doubts about the president. The 51-year-old, who teaches history at a suburban high school, didn't vote for Trump. He cast his ballot for Libertarian Gary Johnson. Sommer got on board with Trump after the election, though, because he was happy to have Republican control of the White House and the Congress for the first time in a decade.

"Some of the policy that he talks about I can support," Sommer explains, including tax overhaul and easing regulations. But he's increasingly troubled that Trump doesn't appear interested in doing what's needed to build support for a coherent agenda. He's also offended by Trump's tweeting and the constant drama.

Sommer is frustrated. "I think the rally is what he enjoys," he says, adding, "I don't think he really enjoys the governing and the managing."

Asked if the president should stop holding the big rallies, Sommer replies: "I think he should focus on the governance of this country."

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After a defeat on health care, President Trump has said he may try to get Democrats to help his agenda forward. But Democrats may be wary, especially as the president attacks them at big campaign-style rallies around the country. NPR's Don Gonyea has been in Buffalo, N.Y., this week talking with Democrats and Republicans, Trump critics and supporters, about the way forward for the White House.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Let's start in a small but busy Italian restaurant in downtown Buffalo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just for a change of pace, how about ravioli with a meatball and a sausage?


GONYEA: Over near the window, George DeTitta is ordering his usual. He's a retired biomedical researcher with strong feelings about Donald Trump.

GEORGE DETITTA: Well, the day he got inaugurated, I put up on my Facebook page - not my president.

GONYEA: He says he took the post down the next day but has been watching the Trump White House with alarm ever since, even when the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act failed.

DETITTA: So this didn't go down because the good folks won. It went down because people want to absolutely gut health care in this country won. They won, not the people. Tea Party won.

GONYEA: A friend of DeTitta's sits down.

JENNIFER ULRICH: We don't know what's coming next.

GONYEA: Joining in mid-conversation is 38-year-old Jennifer Ulrich.

ULRICH: The immediate reaction was a relief that it didn't get passed. But what's on the horizon...


ULRICH: ...Is probably much scarier than what we were already looking at as being terrified.

GONYEA: As for Trump now possibly working with Democrats on some issues, DeTitta says the big obstacle will be trusting Trump. Here's Ulrich, who works as a translator for refugees relocating to Buffalo.

ULRICH: If he could give up all the travel ban stuff, that would be wonderful. But I don't think he's even remotely interested in doing that. I think he's stuck on his plan. So I don't see anything he can do that would make me feel differently.

GONYEA: Now let's move outside of Buffalo, where the politics start to change. Sixty-two-year-old truck driver Scott Spencer sits at the counter at a diner in the town of Blasdell. He says he's not following every piece of news out of Washington but says Trump is doing just fine - great, in fact.

SCOTT SPENCER: He's the first guy that I feel like I can really stand behind and say every election has been I don't like this guy or this guy. Now Trump is saying yeah, OK, I want to do things this way.

GONYEA: Spencer is part of that surge of white working class voters who went for Trump. Farther out in the suburbs, in the city of East Amhurst, Brian Rusk is very much an establishment Republican who also remains firmly in Trump's camp. In his living room, he's showing me photos of himself with past Republican presidents.

BRIAN RUSK: Well, you got a nice picture of me with Ronald Reagan in the White House.

GONYEA: Rusk has long been active in New York Republican politics. He backed Jeb Bush last year but was happy to get onboard with Trump. He blames the health care defeat on what he calls the radical right in the GOP. But he says it's not the end of the world.

RUSK: And the man's only been in office 70 days. I mean, it's a process. It's like making sausage.

GONYEA: He also says it's an opportunity for the president to reach out to Democrats in Congress, citing Joe Manchin of West Virginia as a prime example.

RUSK: There've got to be 30 in the House who are like Senator Manchin, who you can work with together. So where you might lose the freedom coalition, he should pick up Catholic, union, blue collar, conservative Democrats.

GONYEA: As for those big campaign-style rallies President Trump has been hosting, where the crowd still chants lock her up, Rusk says that's just rallying the base. But that's exactly the kind of thing that troubles another Buffalo area Republican, 51-year-old high school teacher Brett Sommer.

BRETT SOMMER: I think the rally is what he enjoys. I don't think he really enjoys the governing and the managing. I think he likes the rally. He's on stage.

GONYEA: Should he stop the rallies?

SOMMER: I think he should focus on the governance of this country.

GONYEA: Sommer is a Republican who did not vote for Trump. In protest, he went for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. But he says once Trump won, he was ready to give him a chance.

SOMMER: Some of the policy that he talks about I can support.

GONYEA: But Sommer is frustrated that Trump hasn't himself shown what might be described as a basic respect for the presidency.

SOMMER: I'm a teacher. I can't show up at my job in shorts and swear at the kids. I have to respect the position of authority I have.

GONYEA: And he says so far, that's something President Trump doesn't seem to understand. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Buffalo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.