(As reported on POLITICO Magazine) -- During a campaign stop January 9, Donald Trump told supporters in Ottumwa, Iowa that he embraced greed. “I’m a greedy person. I’ve always been greedy. I love money,” Trump told an audience of several hundred southern Iowans. Just ten days after that speech, a report ranked Wapello County—of which Ottumwa is the county seat—the poorest county in Iowa.
In other hands, it would have seemed like a misfire. But the crowd laughed, cheered and later stood in applause as Trump exited the stage. Trump didn’t win Iowa on Monday, but he won Ottumwa—easily, with 592 votes to Cruz’s 494, with a record Republican turnout to boot. And if his strange insurgent candidacy stays aloft, it will be because of towns like this: Places where the robust promise of America has been replaced by the prospect of a long, bleak slide, and which have thrilled to the message that it’s possible, as the baseball hat says, to make America great again. The story of Ottumwa’s decline is fairly typical. After the closure of manufacturing plants in the 1960s and 1970s—including the massive John Morrell meatpacking plant, which at one point had more than half the city’s manufacturing workers—the population of the town dwindled from 33,871 in 1973 to 24,488 in 1990.
Today, it remains stuck there. Only 16 percent of adults here hold a bachelor’s degree, and in the town, more than one in four children is below the poverty line. The town’s Main Street is a shell of what it used to be, a scattering of buildings with empty storefronts and vacant lots. Traffic lights have been replaced with stop signs. Politico photographer M. Scott Mahaskey grew up in Ottumwa, and while covering the presidential campaign in Iowa was struck by the stark contrast between the bleak prospects of his post-industrial hometown and the brash billionaire politician it loves. He went back to Ottumwa for the Republican caucus to see if Ottumwa offered a way to understand the Trump phenomenon—or if Trump helps clarify something about the town itself, where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, unions still reign supreme and many residents are, against all odds, in the throes of Trumpmania. Says Mahaskey: “When Trump came to town, something clicked in a new way.” Above, men walk along empty storefronts along E. Main Street on January 31 in Ottumwa, Iowa. When describing crime and job opportunities in the area, one of the men just said, "It's bad."