Tomorrow, America is supposed to elect a new president. But the reality is that nobody knows what might happen tomorrow, one day after or even weeks later, since the current president has threatened that he will not accept election results unless he is declared the winner. This president has a weird notion of democracy. If his word is not enough, he said, he will be confirmed by the Supreme Court, where he thinks he has majority support. I decided to do a Yonder from Pennsylvania, which flipped from blue to red in 2016, helping elect Donald Trump. I did not visit the areas where Democrats prevail. I wanted to see how the depleted areas that voted for Trump in 2016 are doing today. Do they still support Trump, are they any better off than they were when they first voted for him?
“Have you thought of buying a gun?”, I asked Zack. He smiled back. But only for an instant, enough time for the question to sink in. Then he answered: “I am struggling with the idea, but shall I replace the guitar for a gun?” I would not be surprised if he did, after the story he told me.
Zack was born and raised in Altoona. He left his native town for more education and became a teacher. After some years on the job, he realized that teaching was hard work– intense preparation for classes, handling unmotivated students, and long hours. Education led him away from the economically depressed Altoona, but quitting his teaching job brought him back home to pursue what he always wanted to do — play and compose music. “Rock music, nothing special,” he explained when we sat down in the bar where he occasionally works now that Covid-19 has cut his music gigs short. It was a nice bar, recommended by Tina, the manager of the Barnes & Nobles in one of the shopping malls on the outskirts of Altoona, where I was doing some reporting earlier, hoping to find locals willing to talk politics while hiding from the pouring rain.
I would never have been able to discover the Knickerbocker. There were no neon signs outside, just a name on the building that one could hardly notice since it was covered with patina. The entrance was almost hidden and there was nothing that would invite you to enter. Zack was at the bar. He was working in the front room when I sat down at an empty table. He was chatty, proud of his bourbon collection, while I asked what kind of people normally came in. Zack was friendly. We had a fast exchange about the drinks and snacks so that we could move on to politics.
“The day is slow, but normally, late in the evening the place gets heated up in political discussion”, he told me. I was asking about the armed people that I could not see around me but that I knew existed. “Oh yes, they do exist. Sometimes they come here and just stand. They show at every kind of event related to Black Lives Matter, or the Me Too movement, standing still and showing their weapons,” Zach said. He told me that his girlfriend, who is Black, was called a“black b…h” by them and was warned to be careful. I asked Zack what his reaction was. He was not there when it happened. He kind of minimized the brutality as a new normal we all live in now, he said. It was at this point that I asked him if he was thinking of buying a gun.
Many more people are buying guns now in America. Especially Black people, as the New York Times reported. These are uncertain times and we do not know what will happen in a few days from now. Zack and I spent time talking about what it means to be born in a white place and with a deeply rooted catholic culture, like Altoona or Slovenia. How much do we have to do and learn and unlearn about the cultures we do not know? We talked about books we had read on Black culture, and I asked him if he became what he is after he met his girlfriend. No, he said. I worked on myself before that.
Altoona is a strange, scattered city. Last Thursday, there was almost no one on the streets of the city with a population of 50,000. A couple of decades ago, the community was double that number. If not for the walls of the old religious architecture evoking the power of the past, the current Altoona could be washed away by the rain. Below the hill in the valley are the remnants of big railway workshops and mines that were built after WWII. In the last two decades, globalization came roaring into Pennsylvania as it did in other states and countries that depended on traditional heavy industry. Digitalization became a new religion and financial economy, the god of the new rich. The last injection for the local economy in Blair County, in which Altoona is the largest city, was a generation ago when the federal government actually delivered for the people. A former congressman, Bud Shuster, who was chairman of the House Transportation Committee, was famous for securing projects for the area, most notably the extension of Interstate 99, which some have mocked as “the road to nowhere.” As the New York Times reported:
“Mr. Shuster was so successful in securing federal largess that when reporters asked Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York which state received the most funding one year, he replied, ‘The state of Altoona.’ But congressional earmarks are now banned, and Mr. Shuster’s political career is long over, his politics of accommodation and compromise replaced by stark polarization.”
The abandoned and impoverished working class was fertile soil for the kind of populism that had Donald Trump written all over it. In 2016, he won seventy percent of the vote in Blair County. Trump promised jobs and the return of the glory of the long-gone heavy industry. Four years later, most of the population in Pennsylvania acknowledge that Trump did bring some coal mining back to life. But that is where the train stopped. Pennsylvania is once again, one of the most important stops on the way to the White House. This is what, one week before election day, inspired me to drive to Pennsylvania. I wanted to see some of the places that helped bring about the surprising victory of Donald Trump in 2016.
I drove from Washington to Gettysburg, then to Bedford, Altoona, and then to Luzern in the northeast and then passed Lancaster and headed to Washington DC. It was more than 600 miles of beautiful autumnal landscapes and much of the poverty on the edge of misery. I saw piles of abandoned industrial trash, old and rusty agricultural machinery amassed on the side of roads. There were improvised parking lots full of abandoned trucks, their owners without jobs in this period of crisis. The whole area looked like a country under siege, with pickups lining every curve of the road or parked beside the sparse houses. While I drove, I listened to the local, right-wing radio stations, dominated by the voice of Glenn Beck. He was discussing in great detail the conspiracy theories about Trump’s opponents that will bring down America. To sell it to China? There was a half-hour long transmission about the disappearance of documents proving that the Chinese had corrupted Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. All of Beck’s transmissions were aimed to provoke fear and anxiety. They were also incredibly transparent as they, for example, talked about progressive terrorists endangering the properties of honest Trump-supporting Americans only to advertise a new security alarm device a few seconds later.
It is a perfect set up, an elementary school of how the market economy works. It is fascinating that in the DC area, one can hardly hear this kind of radio station. They are harder to get even when you drive to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, both considered more urban and liberal places. Is this just the American contrast between rural and urban? Why is it that the poor and conservative areas are buying American pickups and cars, while the urban population chooses more foreign cars instead? It is not only about money. It is perhaps about the fact that America is so polarized that Trump’s republicans behave as the American flag belongs to them. Why do I, not an American, start to get a feeling that America is equal to Trump’s America, and that the American flag belongs only to them? It’s the same trick that worked well in Italy, more than 25 years ago, when another tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi, founded his own political party called “Forza Italia,” depriving the fans of various national teams the opportunity to support their champions with their country’s flag.
Gettysburg was different. It is considered one of the most important places in American history. But after a tour around battlefields, now planted with endless stone monuments to commemorate 50,000 soldiers who fought and died in the biggest battle on American soil, I left the area perplexed. It seems like the whole Gettysburg memorial park was dedicated to the genius of American militarism and not to the carnage of the civil war, whose purpose was to end slavery. Are the armed people that are showing up now in different parts of America, blocking the bridges, disturbing the peaceful elections the consequence of the lesson that has not been learned from the brutal and bloody civil war?
As I roamed through the shopping malls near Altoona, in the hopes of meeting people, I found most places devoid of shoppers and many shops were closed for good. To talk to the locals about the elections and the changes in their cities after four years of Trump, I needed to talk to staff members who were dying of boredom in the empty shops. Young Kira, in a Kohl’s department store, told me that nothing changed, that even Trump’s people had kind of abandoned the area. She said that the Trump campaign was sending surrogates. Although the president visited Pennsylvania six times, he never made it to Blair County. As we got deeper into our conversation in the empty shop, a female supervisor interrupted us, saying that discussing politics was not allowed in the shop.
Further down in Boscov’s I met Garry, a retired man, who was trying to earn some money by selling one dollar face masks and hand sanitizer. He happily chatted with me. But he was repeating what he had learned from the mainstream liberal networks, claiming that the younger generations are voting against Trump because he did not fulfill any of his promises from 2016. Back then people had hope in Trump because he was not a politician, Garry explained. He told me that he was not sure what the outcome of the election would be, since the vote appears to be split.
As I walked and drove around the whole traveled area, I hardly saw any Biden-Harris signs. But I learned that this does not mean anything, as very few people say what they think. Unless, there was enough time and one could sit down as I did with Zack, the musician. I was in a hurry. I was hoping to see one of Trump’s rallies. I was following the radio. The Trump campaign kept changing its plans and by the time I was near Luzern, I was exhausted. I drove on the small country road, following the GPS towards the Lancaster airport, where Trump wanted to have a rally on Saturday. But the autumn colors made me feel mellow, and I was so far from everything that I could no longer hear the propaganda voice of Glenn Beck. I noticed the small settlement below in the valley and wanted to see who lived there. It was a tiny little town called Brownsville on the Monongahela River. You could not drive into it, as the main road was blocked because some buildings were falling apart. I tried hard and I was rewarded. On one side of the abandoned road, under the bridge, I saw Fiddles Diner. It was as empty as Hopper’s Nighthawks. Not that elegant, but after a lot of rudeness in the last few days, it felt like a vision of paradise.
I walked in and ordered a coffee and sunny side up eggs with hash browns and bacon. It was the best meal in a long time. The girl behind the bar told me how Trump people, older locals, come to the diner and threaten everyone to vote for Trump. I had had enough of Trump by then. I decided to not go to the Lancaster airport to see the preparation for Trump’s final unmasked rally. I drove home to see what will happen tomorrow, and in the next days and weeks. I found DC shops blocked and protected with the wooden panels as if a new civil war is drawing near. What really worries me is that every person I talked to in Pennsylvania is convinced that the passage to a new or old presidency cannot be done in a peaceful way this year.