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Where Donald Trump is king: Inside the West Virginia steel town destroyed by Nafta – where 94% of jobs vanished

There was a time, not so long ago, when this city on the Ohio River employed up to 15,000 people in the steel mills whose rusting warehouses still line the streets. Now the figure is closer to 800.

First, it was costs associated with the repeated regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. Then, after 1994 and the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) it was cheaper competition from places such as Mexico.

In the end, there was no way Weirton could compete, and an industry that has fed and clothed the city for generations essentially died.

“Her husband introduced Nafta,” said a former steel worker, sitting at the the bar of the Columbia Club, located at one was once Gate No 1 of the Weirton Steel Corporation’s main factory. He had worked at the plant for 34 years. “If anyone in this in this state votes for her, they’re crazy.”

It is communities such as this that Donald Trump has been targeting hard with his pitch about the evils of Nafta and the need to bring jobs – well-paid manufacturing jobs in particular – back to America. Polls collected by RealClearPolitics suggest he leads Hillary Clinton in West Virginia by between 18 to 27 points.

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While his policy is not hard on detail, Mr Trump has vowed repeatedly to bring jobs back from places such as Mexico and China.

When campaigning in Indiana he highlighted the Carrier air conditioner company, which had recently announced plans to relocate jobs south of the border, saying he would imposed a 30 per cent tariff on such products produced in Mexico.

He called Nafta “the single greatest jobs theft in the history of the world”.

Economists are divided about the actual impact of the deal, which was first negotiated by George H W Bush and signed by his successor, Bill Clinton.

America has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000, but not all were lost because of Nafta.

Mr Trump also ignored other economic gains from Nafta. Exports to Mexico have risen tremendously, in part from Mexicans’ higher standard of living (because of Nafta). Today, exports to Mexico support six million US jobs.

But in places such as Weirton, down to fewer than 20,000 people from a peak of 33,000 it is hard not to feel that while some parts of the country may have seen the benefits of global trade, this hardscrabble community, with its fast-food joints and strip bars, has been passed by.

Ed Sutton, a city government worker who said he would be voting for Mr Trump, said that “nothing had replaced the steel jobs”. “They talk about creating all these jobs. But they’re just retail jobs that pay minimum wage, or just above,” he said.

Ms Clinton, meanwhile, said this spring, in a comment she came to quickly regret, she was going to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”.

The death of the steel industry had devastated not just the economy of the city, but had destroyed a sense of security and torn at the fabric that had maintained blue-collar communities for decades.

Jim Carey, who was also drinking the Columbia Club, grew up in the city but left to go to law school. Jobs at the mill had allowed a man to buy a house, build a small pool and send his children to college. Now, that had all gone.

“Nowadays, the best thing going for Weirton is that it is just 35 minutes from Pittsburgh airport,” said Mr Carey, who was planning to vote for Ms Clinton. 

The steel industry once utterly dominated Weirton, to the extent that it was known as one of the steel capitals of America. Weirton Steel was one of the biggest single private employer, and the largest tax payer in West Virginia.

When Michael Cimino was looking for locations for his 1978 film The Deer Hunter, staring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep and set in a fictional Pennsylvania steel town, Weirton was one of the places selected to film a number of scenes.

Harold “Bubba” Miller was elected mayor of Weirton last year. When he retired in 2000 he had been the mill’s sales manager. He said the mill was like a world within a world.

It employed doctors and lawyers, it plugged the streets when it snowed and it put up the lights for Christmas. Now, he is trying to create new jobs in the city, force the mill’s current owner, ArcelorMittal, to clean up and make safe the remaining factory sites.

Mr Miller said he also planned to vote for Mr Trump, and said many in Weirton found his message struck home.

“I would rather go for someone with an ego than someone who is a criminal,” he said. “I think he will win in West Virginia because of the attacks on mining and the steel industry. I think people are fed up with the rhetoric of Washington.”

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Not everyone is planning to vote for Mr Trump. Jodi Jo, who is studying to work as a beauty therapist, said she thought the New York tycoon was a bigot. “I’ll vote for for Hillary Clinton because I’m against Trump. He’s a racist,” she said.

Gus Monezis’ bakery has occupied a prime spot in Weirton for 81 years. He said the closure of the mills had ripped at the city, but that some of other businesses, such as his, had managed to survive. “The resilient ones are still here. I’m still here,” he said.

He said he had not yet made his mind up 100 per cent on who he would vote for. “I’m still watching,” he said. “But [Trump] is saying what people are thinking.”

Sean Aldstadt has owned the Columbia Club for nine years and keeps photographs on the wall of the establishment many decades ago when it was at the centre of a thriving, industrial hub. He used to open early in the morning so people coming off the night shift could get a drink. He has since pushed that back.

“There are still people who come in here,” he said. “I tell them that if you had turned around where you are now standing, you would have seen everything going on in front of you.”

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