IF Donald trump wins in Pennsylvania he will almost certainly become president. So pivotal is the swing state that one recent analysis concluded that the entire election could probably be held there. Once an industrial powerhouse its rapid decline has wrought havoc in the local economy, nowhere more so than in the city of Hazleton where, Andrew Purcell discovers, Trump's anti-immigrant message is resonating

ON a Tuesday morning, exactly eight weeks before election day, Donald Trump’s campaign headquarters in Hazleton is locked and not quite empty, its sole contents a few folding chairs, an armful of yard signs, a five-gallon water cooler and a printer, still in its box.

Local newspapers announced the grand opening in mid-April, shortly before Trump’s victory in Pennsylvania’s Republican primary. Kathy at the United Mineworkers office next door told me the space is rented until November but there’s never anyone there. Every day people drive up hoping to get badges and banners and leave disappointed.

A few blocks away on Broad Street, the city’s decline is evident in the vacant shopfronts and the gaps where department stores once stood. Neither historic nor up to date, the strip is killing time, waiting for a recovery that never comes. Property owners take what commercial tenants they can get. In the surrounding neighbourhoods, four bedroom houses built in the first half of the twentieth century and last renovated when Ronald Reagan was president go for $50,000.

“Hazleton is…” Kathy paused, searching for the right word. “It’s sad, right now. There’s a lot of drugs, a lot of gangs, a lot of heroin overdoses.”

Lewis Beishline, a retired truck driver drinking Bud Lite at the Palace Bar, described a “scum town” plagued by crime. “The city went to hell,” he said.

“I’ve never seen drugs as bad as it is now. There’s heroin, a lot of pills, so many guns,” said pizzeria owner Keith Kojeszewski, pulling a pistol from under the counter to illustrate his point. In common with almost everyone that I spoke to in Hazleton, he planned to vote for Trump.

Hazleton is the second-largest city in Luzerne County, an area of north-eastern Pennsylvania that once produced more anthracite coal than anywhere else in the world. The county is traditionally a Democratic stronghold. Vice-President Joe Biden was born down the road in Scranton. Hillary Clinton spent her childhood summers in her family’s cottage by the banks of nearby Lake Winola.

George Bush Sr. was the last Republican presidential candidate to win Pennsylvania, in 1988. After initially taking the state for granted, the Clinton campaign has now woken up to the threat Trump poses.

Trump’s ‘rust belt strategy’ depends on running up large enough margins in white working-class areas to win Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. In Luzerne County, 95 per cent of the population is white. The median household income of $45,000 is well below the national average. Four years ago, Barack Obama won 51per cent of the vote here, narrowly beating Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

In April’s primary, Trump won 77.4 per cent of the vote – his biggest share in the state. On the Democratic side, Clinton edged out Bernie Sanders, but with 27,000 fewer votes than she won eight years previously when her opponent was Obama.

In the last two decades, an influx of Latinos, mostly Dominicans arriving via New York or New Jersey, has radically changed Hazleton. In the 2000 census, 95 per cent of the city’s residents identified as white. By 2010, the city was 37 per cent Hispanic. At the last count, the Latino share of the population had increased to 46 per cent.

Hazleton made national headlines in 2006 when its city council, led by Mayor Lou Barletta, passed the Illegal Immigrant Relief Act. The legislation introduced fines for employing or renting property to undocumented migrants, and needlessly declared that official business would be conducted in English. Barletta pledged: “I’m going to eliminate illegal aliens from the city of Hazleton.”

The act was struck down by a federal court, but it made Barletta’s career. In 2010 he defeated eight-term Democratic Congressman Paul Kanjorski with a campaign that tacitly blamed economic uncertainty on demographic and cultural change. He is seeking re-election for the third time.

“This story about immigrants ruining the town isn’t accurate in the sense that immigrants don’t commit more crime or drain city resources, but everything in that narrative that he’s using is filling the gaps in people’s experience,” said Jamie Longazel, a sociology professor who grew up in Hazleton and has written a book, Undocumented Fears, about his hometown.

“The city is going under and with poverty comes crime and drugs. And he says ‘look at undocumented immigrants taking all our money away’ and ‘the police have to hunt them down because they’re committing all these crimes’… The narrative about race resonates much more strongly than the narrative about economic justice and social class.”

Walking in West Hazleton, I met three elderly ladies smoking cigarettes in the afternoon sunshine. “This is strictly a Democratic city. Although we did vote for a Republican,” said the most talkative, a bottle blonde in Jackie O sunglasses. “The reason he (Barletta) was so popular is that he wanted to do something about…” she gave a tiny nod and her friends giggled.

Immigrants, I said. He promised to stop them coming. “You said it. I didn’t say it.”

“If they would have just brought their culture, but no, they brought their drugs,” chimed in friend one. “Hazleton was a beautiful city,” said friend two. “We had people from Poland, Italians, all nationalities. They settled in this area and we’ve all gotten along. It’s only since certain ones moved in…”

As they wouldn’t tell me their names for fear of reprisals at their apartment block, I asked them who they intended to vote for. “You think I’d vote for Donald Trump? Oh no, I’m sorry,” said 'Jackie'. Her friends both said they would. “I want a change.” “I don’t want another Clinton in there.”

The comment I heard everywhere in Hazleton was that Hispanic immigrants are benefit cheats who don’t want to work. Keith, at the pizza parlour, described women filling “two, three shopping carts, and they’re paying with a food stamp card.”

“They have their free Obama phones, their computers, and they’re telling me I should be glad to have a job,” said Bonnie Long, a nurse in neighbouring Wilkes-Barre with a huge Trump sign on her porch. “There’s more people living off the system than there are working, and sooner or later it’s gonna collapse.”

This is a Republican trope dating back to Ronald Reagan’s first run for President in 1976, updated by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s division of the country into “makers” and “takers”. Trump merely dispenses with the dog whistle and lumps Latin American immigrants in with all the other brown people that are making America less than great.

“Trump says things that people think and don’t dare say sometimes. I think that’s where the support comes from for him,” Bonnie suggested. “He says things that we’ve been thinking for a long time.”

Most whites in Luzerne County are descended from European immigrants that arrived in the late nineteenth century to find work in the pits. Mining peaked in 1914, when more than 181,000 men were employed in the coalfields of north-eastern Pennsylvania, and all but ceased in 1959, after the Knox Coal Company’s mine at Port Griffiths flooded.

At a rally in Wilkes-Barre attended by 10,000 people, Trump promised to “bring back coal,” as if Environmental Protection Agency regulations introduced under Obama are keeping anthracite in the ground, rather than the low price of oil and gas and the difficulties of working coal seams under flooded mines. He threatened to rip up free trade deals and impose tariffs on imported goods, as if the destructive effects of globalisation on American jobs can be reversed by administrative fiat. Hazleton’s history illustrates how difficult this will be.

In 1955, with unemployment at 23 per cent, a group of civic dignitaries formed the Community Area New Development Organization - CAN DO - to bring business to the city. The organisation was remarkably successful. For roughly three decades, Hazleton became a thriving manufacturing centre.

Then in the 1980s, as competition increased, both globally and within the United States, the second phase of Hazleton’s decline began. Forty thousand manufacturing jobs became 30,000, then 20,000. In desperation, CAN DO began telling corporations “do business here and pay no taxes for twelve years.”

Amazon came, and now employs 2,700 people at its warehouse. Cargill opened a meat processing plant that employs 680. The hourly rate is lower than in the former factories, and there is less job security, with most positions offered on short-term contracts or filled through temp agencies, but for poor Dominicans, the combination of cheap housing and steady-ish employment on the abattoir’s killing floor has proved attractive.

“There’s plenty of jobs, there’s just not any good jobs,” said Longazel. “To folks who have lived there for a long time you kind of settle for Amazon in the end. I don’t know any white folks who even tried Cargill.”

Hazleton’s native sons are becoming a minority in their home town. They have worse economic prospects than their parents and live in a city that recently asked its police officers to work part-time because it doesn’t have the money to pay them. An epidemic of heroin and painkiller addiction has led to rising crime rates and declining life expectancy. It is not hard to see why Trump’s promise to restore American greatness is so popular here.

Marty Beccone, who owns the Fourth Street Pub, said that among his customers, the verdict is almost unanimous. “I ask people every day, ‘who are you voting for, who do you like?’ I can think of five people who say they like Hillary Clinton. Everybody else that I’ve spoken to has said ‘It’s gotta be Trump.’”

There were exceptions. “Hazleton has become strange, but nice,” retired railway engineer David Morgan Cook told me. “I like the Hispanic people. They’re hard-working. I’m not afraid to walk anywhere.”

Outside Shaw Laboratories in nearby Exeter, I met three technicians taking a break from making dental implants. “I know I won’t vote for Hillary,” said Bill Dervinis, earning an “amen” from his friend Matt Noll. Adam Gabriel said that as the two candidates have “zero redeeming qualities” he would not be voting at all.

Twenty-five years of unparalleled scrutiny and right-wing smears have done their job – in the north-eastern Pennsylvania of her childhood, among white working-class voters at least, Hillary is strikingly unpopular.

At the Clinton campaign office in Wilkes-Barre – three times the size of Trump’s, well-equipped and most definitely open – the volunteers recognised the scale of their task. Lauren Stocks-Smith, a young law school graduate, said that the men she approaches with registration forms are often “automatically combative,” adding that “blue collar men that are out of work not only feel that their voice isn’t heard but also have a lot of trouble getting on board with a campaign for a woman.”

“I do think that people see Hillary – and me, when I’m holding these pieces of paper – as people who are doing fine, people who this has always worked for, people who are well off, who win out in this game,” she said. This perception that the Democratic Party is for winners in the global economy hurts Clinton in communities across the United States that have been left behind.

In choosing Trump, the Republican party has confirmed its modern identity as an alliance between big business, social conservatives and the white working class. Under Obama, the Democratic Party has become a coalition of coastal elites and minorities. It cannot win without the votes of current and former union members, particularly if young voters and African-Americans are less motivated to turn out for Clinton.

I asked the Clinton volunteers how concerned they were that Trump would win Luzerne County. “I’m worried,” they all replied.