In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a city down on its luck, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump appeared before an enthusiastic, if a bit weary, crowd of several thousand at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena. He reminded the citizens of Cambria County of that which required no reminder: that the median annual household income in Johnstown, once a humming steel-manufacturing town, is a mere $25,000 per year. Then he promised them the return of their jobs, with no explanation of how he would do so.
They responded by chanting his name.
From Pennsylvania Route 56, the way into town from the east, you catch your first glimpse of Johnstown, enveloped in the beauty of the Allegheny Mountains and marred by the unsightly evidence of poverty: boarded up homes and outbuildings, rusty residential trailers. On a windy day under gray, low-hanging clouds, the bleakness is amplified. This is Trump country — at least according to the signage.
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Trump-Pence yard signs line the shoulder of the road; someone has taken out a Trump-Pence billboard, as well. Faded American flags hang from beat-up houses, and one I saw bore a Confederate flag. Nearly half of the Johnstown media market’s FM radio stations have a religious programming format, whether Christian contemporary music or religious talk. Eighty percent of residents are white.
As of 2010, people 65 years old or older made up 18.5 percent of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census data, compared with a national measure of 14.5 percent. Since the 1992 closing of the Bethlehem Steel plant on the site of the old Cambria Steel works, Johnstown has offered young people little reason to stay.
The line to enter the arena stretched across an adjacent bridge that spans the Little Conemaugh River. The composition of the almost entirely white crowd reflected Johnstown’s shortage of younger people, and it appeared about half of Trump’s audience was female, many of the faithful holding signs passed out by the campaign that read, “WOMEN FOR TRUMP” (white lettering on a hot-pink background, naturally).
Trump’s visit to Johnstown capped off a week in which his alleged groping of women remained the focus of media attention, in addition to his description of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as “a nasty woman” during the October 19 final presidential debate. It was a week that followed the release of the 2005 Access Hollywood videotape in which Trump boasted of his license to “grab” women “by the p*ssy.”
The War Memorial arena has the feel of an oversized high school gymnasium. Built in 1950, it’s a bare-bones concrete structure where the seats look down on a floor suited to playing hockey. Its capacity is listed as 4,000, and Trump nearly filled it.
I donned one of the Trump campaign’s signature “Make America Great Again” caps, and sat in the stands. I listened to Trump describe the residents of Johnstown as having been forgotten and neglected by their government, whose current steward, Barack Obama, Trump described as “stupid.”
He alleged that the people behind the video cameras refuse to show the crowds he says fill his arenas. However, if a protester were to show up, he said, they’d find a way. Then he asked if anyone in the stands would pretend to be a protester. “Oh, look,” he said, sneering at the cameras, “there’s a protester!”
“They just said this is a record for this arena, and there are thousands outside,” Trump added. There were not thousands outside. There were maybe a few homeless people outside, begging for quarters. And the videographers on risers are wedged cheek by jowl, standing behind cameras fixed on tripods. Trump knows this.
“Hillary Clinton, as WikiLeaks proves, is a corrupt globalist,” he said, dog-whistling to the anti-Semitic right that has embraced his candidacy. The crowd ignited. “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” yelled the woman sitting next to me, who appeared to be in her 70s. The arena resounded with the chant.
Trump chalked up Johnstown’s woes to bad trade deals and over-regulation by government. In his administration, he said, for every new regulation enacted by government, two would have to be eliminated. He did not specify how the rules slated for axing would be chosen. He promised he would put “your miners back to work” through the extraction of “beautiful clean coal.”
The last coal mine in Cambria County closed in the 1990s due to overproduction and competition from other energy sources, not over-regulation and trade deals. There are no miners to put back to work. The crowd nonetheless rewarded Trump, chanting his name. Knowledge was not what they were there for; they came for a full-throated indictment of those they were told had done them wrong: the political establishment, the media, Barack Obama, and most of all, Hillary Clinton.
That “deplorables” comment Hillary made? That was meant for you, Trump told the crowd, referring to the videotape of Clinton telling the audience at a fundraiser that half of Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables,” while the other half belong to a basket made up of decent Americans who have been left behind by the economy.
Trump served it all up, including a new allegation that the Democratic National Committee and Clinton had paid protesters to infiltrate his rallies and agitate the crowds. (This latest charge is based on a purported “sting” video by James O’Keefe, who is known for crafting deceptively edited propaganda pieces he tries to pass off as documentaries.) The election was rigged, Trump said, in favor of his opponent. In short, it was a normal Trump rally, full of appalling accusations, paranoid fantasies and outright lies. There was the invective against immigrants, replete with the “Build the wall” chant. There was a promise to “look into” Clinton’s interview by the FBI, invoking a promise to jail Clinton, which Trump has made at past events.
When he called Clinton a liar, he said she’d done so “over and over and over and over,” and then conducted the audience to chant the same words, gesturing as if he had a tiny baton pinched between his stubby thumb and forefinger. He did the same with other stock phrases from his stump speech. It was like that moment at a Springsteen show when Bruce stops singing and turns the mic to the audience, which sings every single syllable of the lyric in unison. The human heart needs a song, and Trump had given Johnstownians a bitter one to sing.
“U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” the lady next to me screamed.
After the rally, supporters crowded the sidewalk across the street, straining to catch a glimpse of the candidate boarding the Trump bus. They shouted like denizens of a sports bar. Two young men, one in a camouflage cap, held professionally printed signs reading, “Don’t be a Pussy: Vote for Trump.”
It’s hard to understand what Trump is up to with his visits to Pennsylvania, a state pollsters say he has little chance of winning. (According to the poll-explaining website FiveThirtyEight, Trump has about a 12 percent chance of winning the Keystone State.) Even if a natural constituency exists for him here among the dispossessed whites of the Rust-Belt cities and the rural stretches in between, there likely isn’t enough of a populace in those parts to win him the state. Johnstown, for instance, has only 20,000 residents. In this part of Pennsylvania, however, Trump does enjoy the support of the state and local Republican Party — not a claim he can make everywhere he travels. In the battleground state of Ohio, where Trump appeared Saturday night, the state GOP is on the verge of breaking apart over the Trump candidacy.
If Pennsylvania is announced for Clinton on Election Night, perhaps Trump means to point to his well-attended rallies as evidence that the system is rigged. Because if you live in Johnstown, in a bubble filled with Trump signage and right-wing radio and inflated by Trump’s two rallies here, it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to conclude that he is right.
Among the politicos who preceded Trump to the mic in Johnstown was Jackie Kulback, chairwoman of the Cambria County Republican Party.
“That was my first time speaking in front of a crowd that size, but we were definitely among friends,” Kulback told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. “This is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. This was a great event. It really energizes the whole election.”
Donald Trump’s is probably the biggest show to hit Johnstown in a long time. The price of admission (free) was affordable to people living on the edge, and the message one that confirms their darkest suspicions — that they’ve been screwed not by the Trumps of the world, but by the people who changed the culture, who messed with the social order of man as breadwinner and the white man as superior, no matter how poor, to one of a darker hue.
The following day, Trump made a bid for a distinct but overlapping constituency, the Southern evangelicals of the religious right, with a stop at Regent University. The Virginia Beach institution was founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, the televangelist and would-be kingmaker who was once feared by politicians in his guise as leader of the Christian Coalition. Under the direction of Ralph Reed, the political operative who served at the Coalition’s executive director, the organization became famous for distributing skewed voting guides in right-wing churches, and for its annual Washington, D.C., political conference, called the Road to Victory.
Pollsters have placed Virginia firmly in Clinton’s column, but the Virginia Beach/Chesapeake media market reaches into seven counties in North Carolina, a state deemed a toss-up. While the older set was well represented in the crowd at Regent, the tilt was less pronounced than in the Johnstown audience. People appeared to be more solidly middle-class; the annual median household income in Virginia Beach is $62,000. Although the 20 percent of the state’s population represented by African Americans is far higher than the nation average, few are represented here. Nearly everybody attending the rally is white.
The manicured lawns, equestrian fields and sun-dappled shady lanes of Regent University are still lushly green on this late October day, as evangelicals and other Trump supporters shop for Trump tchotchkes and memorabilia from the tables set up by vendors.
Along with standard Trump campaign gear — the “Make America Great Again” caps and “Trump-Pence” T-shirts — are items you might be shocked to see sold on the grounds of a religious institution. Take the T-shirt featuring a cartoon Trump peeing on the word “Hillary.” Or one inscribed, in BeDazzler fashion, “Hot Chicks for Trump.” And, of course, there was the ever-popular “Trump that Bitch” tee, and others that echoed the Alex Jones/Roger Stone messaging, urging the jailing of Clinton, and buttons with the slogan, “Deplorable Lives Matter.”
One clever vendor had printed up gun targets superimposed on an image of Hillary Clinton, and was selling them for $1. “Chipping away your gun rights since 1993,” read the header. Presumably, the Secret Service had swept the premises and found these not a threat to the safety of a presidential candidate.
While Peter Montgomery of Right Wing Watch and I were making our way from Washington DC to Virginia Beach, which sits just south of Richmond, the former capitol of the Confederacy, Trump delivered the weekend’s newsmaking speech in Gettysburg, Penn. After seemingly comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln, he promised to sue all of the women who have come forward with groping and assault allegations since the campaign-defining release of the 2005 Access Hollywood videotape. He then laid out a plan for his first 100 days in office, which included the nonsensical formula for cutting regulations on business that he debuted in Johnstown.
Just hours after Trump lionized himself in the shadow of Lincoln, a politician warming up the Regent crowd compared him to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. “A hundred-fifty-two years ago, in a place called The Wilderness, right here in Virginia, the entire center of the rebel line was collapsing,” said Frank Wagner, the Republican candidate for governor. “Lee saw, and ran to the sound of the gunfire. And when all those troops saw Lee running to the sound of the gunfire, they finally rallied and said, ‘Lee to the rear, Lee to the rear. It’s our fight now.’ … Ladies and gentlemen, Donald Trump has been fighting our fight and it’s time we said, ‘Donald, it’s our turn now, we’re fighting for you.'”
Wagner began his speech with a litany of identifiers he said rendered the crowd “deplorable” in Hillary Clinton’s book — including being “a hardworking Southerner” and “a person of faith” — and wound up with a plea to the audience to get their friends and neighbors to the polls on election day. “You need to talk to everyone you possibly can,” he said.
The event kicked off with Rev. Pat Robertson welcoming Trump — who had not yet arrived — and his supporters to the Regent. Eager to insert himself into the Trump story, he described how he first met Trump in Atlantic City, where he prayed with Evander Holyfield prior to a boxing match Trump had produced. His invitation, he said, came through boxing trainer Lou Duva.
(Robertson seemed to think the fight had taken place at Trump’s Taj Mahal casino, but it appears he was talking about the Holyfield-Foreman fight that took place at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.)
It was at ringside, Robertson said, that he first met Trump, who was facing bankruptcy at the time.
“The banks were closing in on him,” Robertson explained. “It looked like he was going to lose his shirt, and he says, ‘Preacher, don’t count me out. I’m coming back, I’m going to be great again.’ And, you know, he’s gone from bankruptcy to $10 billion, so that’s not too shabby.”
Then, Robertson, an evangelical pastor who would presumably know nothing about gambling (other than as a definition of evil), offered a word of advice to those making book on the election: “I want to give a warning to the bookies in Vegas. If you bet against Donald Trump, you’re gonna lose your shirt.”
Ralph Reed, who made his mark in politics as Robertson’s right-hand man at the now-defunct Christian Coalition, stepped to the podium to gin up the crowd, also working the “deplorables” theme. In addition, Reed asserted, Clinton “said that Donald Trump’s supporters were ‘irredeemable.'” (In fairness, she only said that about half of Donald Trump’s supporters.) And with that, the crowd launched into a fierce chant of “Lock her up!” that seemed to knock him back.
“I think what we’re going to do is to defeat her on November 8th,” he said, trying to cut into the chant. He returned to his reference, saying no one who ever lived is irredeemable. “We stand here today as men and women…who have been redeemed only by the sacrifice and the blood of Jesus Christ.”
Reed went on to point out that the election is not just a matter of choosing a president. “There are at least six, and maybe eight, U.S. Senate races that are within the margin of error,” he said. He mentioned the current vacancy on the Supreme Court. “And not just any vacancy,” he said, “a vacancy created by the untimely death of one of the most articulate and brilliant voices for conservative judicial thought in American history.”
(When Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, he was a month shy of his 80th birthday. The average life expectancy for an American male is 79 years. So when right-wingers refer to Scalia’s “untimely death,” they’re dog-whistling a conspiracy theory from the fever swamps of InfoWars that posits Scalia was murdered by his political opponents.)
Reed, who did much to elevate the religious right as a brand, was an early endorser of Trump, the thrice-married, foul-mouthed, one-time secularist. Like Robertson, Reed is a pragmatist when it comes to matters of political power. He’s also an organizer, having made his name in national politics at the helm of the Christian Coalition, where his specialty was the distribution of skewed voter guides at evangelical churches and the takeover of local governing bodies — school boards and local Republican organizations — by members of the religious right. His skills combined with his entrepreneurial lust led him to create a successful political consulting firm, Century Strategies, in partnership with Tim Phillips, who left the firm in order to lead the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity.
Reed also knows a thing or two about casinos, having been caught up in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Reed, who was implicated but not indicted in the scandal, organized evangelicals in Louisiana to oppose a casino planned by a local Indian tribe. Later it was learned that Abramoff set Reed to the task in order to benefit a client who owned a casino that would have been in competition with the one Reed’s army of church-goers was mobilized to oppose.
Today, Reed sits on Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, along with former Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and Bishop Harry Jackson, who led the fight against same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia. (Jackson also spoke at the Regent rally.) He’s the guy tasked with turning out the evangelical vote, big league, for Trump. To the faithful gathered on Regent’s Library Plaza, Reed promised that his Faith & Freedom Coalition would deliver 30 million voter guides to 35,000 churches in battleground states.
“You know, there are people who would have you believe that this is just a choice between the lesser of two evils and that we don’t really have a stake in the outcome. My friends, there’s a candidate that stands for policies that advance intrinsic and grave moral evils. And there’s a candidate who stands for the greater good and the common good.” Reed went on at length, inveighing against abortion and questioning the religious devotion of Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, for being pro-choice.
He complained that too many evangelicals stayed home from the polls in 2012, saying that FFC “has done an analysis of census-track data, voting returns and exit polls and concluded that four years ago, 17 million evangelical Christians in America didn’t even bother to vote — half of whom because they weren’t registered to vote; the other half were registered, but didn’t bother to show up. And this is not a phenomenon that is confined to the Christian community. According to the Pew Research organization, there are 61 million eligible adult … citizens in the United States who aren’t even registered.”
Once the rally was over, each attendee would receive an email message from the Trump campaign, Reed said, asking for volunteers for get-out-the-vote activities. He asked them to talk to everyone they know — “at a Bible study, in a tennis team, at the country club, at the union hall” — to convince them to turn out at the polls. This is apparently all that Trump has for a ground game, having invested virtually nothing in get-out-the-vote organizing and having alienated Republican Party leaders — a prayer that “God’s people are going to rise up like a mighty army, and they are going to show up at the polls, and we are going to shock the political establishment on November 8.”
After the crowd heard from Tony Suarez, another member of Trump’s evangelical council (who made the point of telling the crowd that he is Latino in addition to being “deplorable”), and Ray Tranchant, whose daughter was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver who was an undocumented immigrant, the air once again filled with the sounds of the Trump campaign soundtrack, an odd mix of classic rock, forgettable pop and one aria, “Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep),” from the Puccini opera, “Turandot.” Despite the fact that the singer’s family has asked the Trump campaign to stop using it, Pavarotti’s version is the one that continues to loop on Trump’s mix tape.
Just as the strains of “Nessun Dorma” began to swell, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared near the podium. “I hate to interrupt that great Italian music,” the emcee said, “but we have a great Italian American coming out as a surprise.”
Giuliani seemed to have been sent forward to clean up Trump’s Putin mess, seeking to deflect attention from the Republican candidate’s links to the Russian dicator, who is believed to be the force behind the hacking of the emails of the DNC and Clinton campaign staffers. So as Giuliani bashed Putin for his wily ways — even for having seized the Crimea, which at one time, Trump seemed to deny had even happened — he made the case that Hillary Clinton wasn’t up to taking on the former KGB agent who now rules Europe’s largest country. “Since Hillary Clinton reset the relationship with Russia and gave up the defense of Poland and the Czech Republic for nothing, Russia’s been pushing us all around, because Russia figured out we have a patsy,” Giuliani said, ending his sentence with the word Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald used to describe himself.
By the time Trump made it to the stage, he was enough off-schedule to deliver only a compressed set of remarks, in which he stressed his plan for a massive rebuilding of the military (nearby Norfolk hosts the base for the Navy’s Atlantic fleet) and continued to make his case for how, he contended, corrupt forces are arrayed against him, this time by virtue of the simple fact that he has to run against Hillary Clinton. “Our system is rigged,” he said, “and the best evidence of that is that Hillary Clinton is even allowed to run for the presidency of the United States in the first place.”
The very pious Christians on the Regent University plaza obliged with the chant, “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”
Trump went on to repeat his lie that the murder rate in the United States has surged during the Obama administration to its highest rate in 45 years. (It’s actually the lowest it’s been in 51 years, according to the FBI.) He hit the usual anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant notes. “And yes, we will build a wall…” And the crowd, naturally, chanted Trump’s most famous campaign slogan.
“Either we win this election, or we lose our country as we know it today,” Trump said, and the very white crowd expressed its concurrence.
As Peter and I walked back to the car after the rally, we came across a couple in rubber masks: he in a Donald Trump mask and wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, she in a black-and-white striped prison jumpsuit. Everybody on the sidewalk whipped out their cameras. When one of the picture-snappers requested that the man put his hand on the woman’s neck “like you’re going to choke her,” he gamely complied.
On the way out of the Confederacy, we stopped at Pop’s Diner in Chesapeake. A sign on the wall read “Make Waffles, Not War.” Half of the patrons were African American, the hostess was Latina and our white waitress wore a hoop through her nose. I had somehow been instantly transported to the country so feared by the people gathered in support of Trump at Regent University.
I had the chicken and waffles. It was delicious.