Risking Your Life For a Trump Rally Means There's Nothing Left to Lose

On the campaign trail in Pennsylvania with Donald Trump, the dead mall candidate.

Hamilton Nolan

Photo by author

The John­stown Gal­le­ria is not quite a dead mall, but it is as close as you can get to a dead mall while still remain­ing alive. It is a mall on life sup­port. The emp­ty store­fronts have mul­ti­plied to out­num­ber the ones still occu­pied. Each of them has in its win­dow a sign that says Launch Your Busi­ness Here!”, which is bad advice. One busi­ness still hang­ing on is a chiropractor’s office adver­tis­ing “$25 Cash Walk Ins.” It feels like the last neigh­bor­hood that mall stores end up in before they die a death of despair. 

The mall fits John­stown itself. A fad­ed steel town most famous for being dev­as­tat­ed in a flood, in 2003 it was des­ig­nat­ed by the U.S. Cen­sus as the least like­ly city in the Unit­ed States to attract new­com­ers.” It bears a strong resem­blance to the equal­ly fad­ed coal towns you’ll find in West Vir­ginia. Both are hemmed in on all sides by hills that hov­er with equal beau­ty and men­ace. In Berke­ley and Hol­ly­wood the hills may hold promise, but in places like John­stown, they just mean that every­thing will even­tu­al­ly slide downwards.

When you dri­ve through cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia towards John­stown you pass a string of small towns, with tidy hous­es and broad lawns and, reli­ably, Trump signs. Some have reg­u­lar yard signs, and some have flags, and some have big, home­made signs paint­ed on ply­wood. There is even, at one point, TRUMP carved into the grass of a knob­by hill by the high­way. It is amus­ing to think of Don­ald Trump him­self spend­ing time here, among his acolytes — going to the Luther­an church, hav­ing a beer with the bik­ers at the Pub & Grub on the way to Altoona. 

Spend­ing time here is the last thing Trump would ever do, which is why his cam­paign stops in these areas are inevitably held at the air­port, allow­ing him to exit Air Force One, hold forth to the ador­ing crowd, and then fly right out with­out ever hav­ing to be sul­lied with any actu­al expe­ri­ence of the peo­ple them­selves. Even look­ing out the win­dow of his lim­ou­sine would be too drea­ry for him. He only glimpses the lives of his sup­port­ers out of the win­dows of his plane as he leaves them behind. Yet they flock to him, their bizarre and swollen champion. 

Indeed, Trump sup­port­ers seem to col­lec­tive­ly embrace masochism. Their chance to say fuck you” to this dis­ap­point­ing world extends even to their own lives. Vot­ing against their own eco­nom­ic inter­ests is not thrilling enough for them any­more. At Trump’s John­stown ral­ly on Tues­day night, it was not pos­si­ble to dri­ve there and park. Instead, every­one had to park in the unnec­es­sar­i­ly expan­sive park­ing lot of the John­stown Gal­le­ria, where a fleet of dozens of yel­low school bus­es fer­ried them on a ten-minute dri­ve to the air­port for the event, and then back after­ward. My bus dri­ver esti­mat­ed his com­pa­ny had dri­ven more than six thou­sand peo­ple that day, all of them in close quar­ters, breath­ing coro­n­avirus fumes fil­tered through MAGA masks. Then every­one piled off and stood in anoth­er immense, wind­ing line for an hour or so to get into the event, where they crowd­ed shoul­der to shoul­der, about half of them wear­ing masks. 

This sort of glee­ful dis­re­gard for basic safe­ty lies at the heart of Trump’s appeal. At first glance, Trump sup­port­ers come in many fla­vors: The cig­ar-chomp­ing Benz guys, the out­law bik­er types, the mid­dle-aged white woman with her kids, the qui­et church­go­er in a Pro-Life t‑shirt stand­ing next to the angry, dumpy man in a Vote No For Joe and The Hoe” t‑shirt. You could neat­ly divide a Trump crowd into those who look like cops, and those who look like sex crim­i­nals. What unites them around this objec­tive­ly dumb loud­mouth? Don­ald Trump is a liv­ing embod­i­ment of Fuck the Sys­tem” for peo­ple who have not thought much about how the sys­tem actu­al­ly works. He is the red state ver­sion of a com­ic work­ing blue, the Jeff Dun­ham of pol­i­tics. He is rebel­lious in the same sense that Metal­li­ca or pro wrestling is rebel­lious: not rebel­lious at all where it counts, but mak­ing loud enough noise to give the appear­ance of it. Whether his fans wake up the next day and go to a bar or a church, they have all had their hit of naugh­ti­ness. Trump ral­lies are a barn­storm­ing reli­gious revival for a deeply cyn­i­cal age, swoop­ing in from the big city to suck­er the locals and leave them all think­ing that they won something. 

Air Force One land­ed at 7:15 pm, framed by a beau­ti­ful orange dusk, a telegenic tri­umph. The Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, his blood cours­ing with exper­i­men­tal ther­a­pies, took the stage to reel off his great­est hits. Though he gets bored after read­ing more than two sen­tences of his own speech­es, he is in his own way a con­sum­mate pro, and a man who knows his audi­ence. He con­ducts the crowd’s hatred, and feels their love in return. 

I wish the fake news would show the crowd — they nev­er turn their cam­era on it.” And every­one lusti­ly boos, even though the media was all posi­tioned in a hangar at the back of the event look­ing out direct­ly onto the crowd. If Biden wins, Chi­na wins.” Boo! How did Hunter make three and a half mil­lion from the may­or of Rus­sia?” Boo! They want­ed me to apol­o­gize for say­ing the word Poc­a­hon­tas,’ so I did — to Poc­a­hon­tas, the real one.” Laugh! I’m about keep­ing you safe. I don’t want to build low-income hous­ing next to your house.” Cheer! Egre­gious lies are accom­pa­nied by the mag­ic phrase You know that,” to flat­ter any way­ward skep­tics. We’re round­ing the cor­ner on the virus — you know that. A very, very wide cor­ner. Crowd in a lit­tle clos­er here, folks. We’ll be deliv­er­ing mil­lions of dos­es of vac­cine by the end of the year — you know that. 

The thriving Johnstown Galleria. Photo by author

At the end, the rich man got back on his plane, and the res­i­dents of John­stown, shiv­er­ing in the fall chill, got back on those tight, sealed-up school bus­es, breath­ing the air of free­dom. Gid­dy, they clam­bered off back at the John­stown Gal­le­ria park­ing lot. The mall was dark and emp­ty, but the park­ing lot was full of cars and tents sell­ing Trump para­pher­na­lia. For one night, the depressed city had been eco­nom­i­cal­ly revived by the boom­ing traf­fic in BITCH I’M THE PRES­I­DENT” shirts. Now, imag­ine that mir­a­cle being per­formed on the dead mall in your suf­fer­ing post-indus­tri­al town, eh? 

With Trump, bet­ter days are always just around the cor­ner. You know that. 

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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