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 and loud. It’s a place held together with pride 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 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 and had trouble hiding; it was a familiar place, a kind of home, but suffocating. I wanted out in the worst way.

Friends and relatives arrived in modest numbers and casual clothes. Lots of jeans and flannels. Many claimed to know me. They couldn’t have been more wrong. I watched and listened as they told stories of the deceased, or each other, of aches and pains and how successful their grandkids are, and how seldom they visit. They talked about closed factories like the one Dad and I passed coming into town – the one Grandma 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 and no jobs, memories become a kind of commodity, something we exchange with others. Even the work boots 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 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 and low pay. Young people leaving 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 and dedication. It’s always about these things. At my grandfather’s service years before, it was the same; the best they could do was talk about how well he attended to his lawn 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, and winning means subsistence rather than success.

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

The pundits refer to these folks as “the working poor” or “non-college whites” just before calling them stupid and hateful, but TV personalities don’t really have a clue. They don’t even pass through, much less visit. The clever names and categories are just pre-packaged excuses for turning 2016 into a reality TV show 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, 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, and waited to leave.

With a six-hour drive ahead of us, 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 standard Midwestern English professor, minus the tweed jacket, the bushy beard, 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 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, and Business, 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.