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.
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.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer 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.