MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — “WHO’S GONNA BUILD THE WALL?!”
It’s tough to tell from where the chant originates. Somewhere near the group of white people is a safe guess, considering quite literally every one of the 5,000-plus people waiting in the rain to see Donald Trump deliver a stump speech at Cumberland Valley High School enjoys their Kevin James sitcoms with extra mayo. I’ve been to country concerts. I’ve been to Dave Matthews Band concerts. I’ve been to concerts where country acts have opened for Dave Matthews Band. I’ve never, ever seen this many white people in one place. This isn’t a value judgment. Not yet. It’s just difficult to comprehend the uniformity.
“WHO’S GONNA BUILD THE WALL?!”
This time I spot the instigator: a young man, maybe 18, maybe 25, decked out in the de facto Trump rally attire: red Make America Great Again hat, patriotic T-shirt, sunglasses. There are thousands in identical gear with thousands more wearing mild variations on the theme: “Blue Lives Matter” T-shirts, Trump’s face in Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” image, Trump/Pence buttons still bearing the old penetration logo. The line snakes through the parking lot, doubling back on itself four, five, six times before stretching up a ramp and around a corner. Everyone in it looks like me.
After a few minutes standing on a hill at the back of this massive queue I finally spot a black guy.
He’s selling “Life’s a Bitch, Don’t Vote for One” hats.
The Longest Bridge in the World
Pundits and pollsters label Pennsylvania a battleground state even though the Democratic nominee has won here the last six elections. The massive crimson desert between Philly and Pittsburgh is the reason why. The twin economic hubs are outliers, blue islands in a sea of Martian clay. Large enough to swallow Vermont or New Hampshire whole, Pennsylvania’s center has as much in common with its two major metropolises as Trump has with the young black men of Baltimore and Ferguson he claims to care so much about. Rural, minimally diverse, and ultra conservative, the center’s political leanings and voting tendencies mirror Mississippi, not Massachusetts. Gettysburg is far from the only small PA town where Confederate flags proudly hang on front porches or stream from the antennas of rusted F-150s.
Obama won just 12 of the state’s 67 counties in 2012. Dauphin, which encompasses the state capitol city of Harrisburg (where Hillary Clinton visited Friday), was the only one of those 11 located in the state’s central region. Mitt Romney captured Cumberland County, where Trump spoke Monday evening, by 18 points in 2012. The locals are predisposed to vote Republican, certainly, but the current nominee’s angry populism resonates far greater with significant portions of the electorate than Romney’s traditional Brooks Brothers conservatism.
While the grimy Susquehanna River separates the two counties at a key physical juncture, racial and socioeconomic differences remain the greater barrier. Tribalism is built into your zip code. If you live on the Cumberland side of the drink you’re on the West Shore, known locally as the “white shore.” The West Shore has better schools, superior shopping options, nicer homes, less crime, more accumulated wealth, a greater tax base, and a Wegmans. The East Shore, where I reside, includes Harrisburg City and its related city problems. It’s a fine area. But our school districts grade out slightly lower than their white shore counterparts. Our malls are a little worse for the wear. Our neighborhoods are slightly less safe. Our homes have fewer picket fences. Our grocery store shelves lack free-range macaroon options. The Susquehanna is barely a mile across, but the city’s poorer residents might as well measure the distance in parsecs. Or, as one acquaintance once put it to me in a casually racist way, “Harrisburg’s bridges are the longest in the world. Know why? Because they connect the West Shore to Africa.”
Cumberland Valley is a West Shore gem, a modern, sprawling high school that out-of-towners often mistake for a college campus. The gym seats 3,500. It draws a portion of its power from a large solar array on school grounds. Many of its students come from affluent or strong middle-class families. CV fields strong sports teams, hires smart teachers, and boasts a 94 percent graduation rate. It is, in short, far down the list of things that require a greatness injection because it’s difficult to imagine what better could possibly look like for those lucky enough to send their kids here.
Nonetheless, they come by the thousands, whole families piling out of SUVs with “Hillary for Prison” stickers on the back windshield to throw their support behind a silver-spoon, serially-bankrupt billionaire who tells desperate Americans he’ll bring much-needed manufacturing jobs back to our shores while wearing eponymous ties made in China. Even though the area unemployment rate is nearly a full point below the state average, there’s certainly no shortage of blue- and white-collar locals in this line who need the government’s help. Good people who need someone in the White House to champion their causes, fight for stronger worker rights, and demand a higher minimum wage. Fortunately, there’s a presidential candidate advocating these very platforms.
They think she’s a murderer.
One Lame Conservative Joke and One Great One
“There’s no way we’re getting in,” the guy behind me in line says. “There must be 3,000 people in front of us.”
Conservatives joke about a having simple test for identifying a Trump supporter: Are they getting up in the morning for work? Then they’re for Trump. How these modern-day John Henrys managed to find time in their schedule to start standing in line at noon on a Monday is neither here nor there. By the time I arrived at 5 pm the line was thousands deep and the organizers opened the doors an hour ago. Hard to argue with the man’s prediction, but the line is moving at a steady clip as more and more people file in behind us.
Rain begins to fall, gently at first before escalating into a full blown downpour. A vendor with more business acumen than the clown he supports for president announces he has ponchos for $5 dollars. He runs low in five minutes, sells out in 10. The rain stops a few minutes later. The man is nowhere to be found.
In his place is a disheveled, beady-eyed Trumper in a homemade “Hillary for Prison” shirt bearing a “HILLIERY: DELETE YOURSELF” sign that looks like it was made by students at the nearby elementary school. “POLITICAL CORRECTNESS KILLS,” he slowly shouts to no one in particular. “YOU PEOPLE NEED TO WAKE UP!”
A friendly woman in front of me asks if I attended the Trump rally in Harrisburg a few months ago. “Didn’t make that one,” I said. She explained that everyone received tickets for that event, too, but security didn’t even check them once they got to the door. “Wonder why they made us get them from his website again this time?”
“Probably so they could capture our contact information and build a supporters list,” I offer.
“Great,” the guy with her says. “Now Hillary will have it, too.”
The Monster in the Margins
It’s approaching 7 pm and the gymnasium doors are finally visible. Only two or three hundred people stand between us and the rancid buffalo wing himself. I continue to make small talk with those around me — they all LOVE the new Dinesh D’Sousa movie — until everyone realizes at once that the line, which moved briskly all evening, hasn’t advanced in 15 minutes. Rumors start to fly: They have to make room for the VIPs. Security found someone with a knife. A few individuals going the opposite direction tell us the fire marshal isn’t letting anyone else in. No one moves. They think it’s a ploy to thin the herd.
Eventually a woman cradling an infant wanders by and informs anyone that yes, the doors are shut. Disappointment ripples through the crowd. I’m tired and hungry and smell like rain and liberalism, so I peel off to begin the long walk back to my car.
On the way I pass a man standing at the corner of the parking lot scanning the crowd with a bemused look on his face, slowly shaking his head as he takes in the scene.
“Explain to me how Hillary is up in the polls,” the guy says incredulously. “She had 800 people for her rally and there must be 10,000 people here.”
I start drafting the rebuttal in my mind: demographics, organization, record unfavorable numbers for Trump, the huge convention bounce for Hillary. Then I stop. He was right. Sorta. Trump got 10,000 people — conservatively — to turn out on a rainy Monday with almost no notice. People waited in line for hours even after it was clear they wouldn’t get in. Granted, these probably aren’t first-time voters. Yes, the rally took place in a white suburban enclave in a white suburban county. But seeing it in person makes you wonder if there’s an underreported enthusiasm gap hiding somewhere outside the measurable margins.
I think Hillary Clinton will be president. I have to. The alternative is unacceptable. She’ll have to work for it, though. Much harder than she should. And so will her supporters. Trump has a ceiling between 42-44 percent of the vote. That’s not enough to win…unless Gary Johnson and Jill Stein selfishly siphon off enough votes to create a sub-45 victory threshold and pave the way for a lunatic to enter the White House. These votes aren’t already cast. You can still change their minds. You can woo butthurt Bernie Bros. You can make sure the people you already have in your corner actually show up to the polls in November. Because the Trump zealots I met last night sure as shit will.
I stick around for a bit to watch protesters mix it up with Trump supporters already angry they braved horrendous traffic and excruciatingly long lines only to be turned away at the door. One protester makes gibberish noises into a bullhorn while a Trump fan yells about Benghazi. More late-arriving Trumpers, finally resigned to the fact that they won’t get to see their man, decide to hurl insults at kids holding “Fuck Trump” and “Yes We Khan” signs on the way out. It’s funny for a while until it isn’t. By the time the police step in between the two groups I’m already on my way to the car trying to beat traffic.
(Banner photo and video interview below via my old stomping ground, @PennLive)