“IT’S ALL THE PEOPLE YOU WOULD EXPECT…”
About one hundred and fifty people stand in front of a well-lit, makeshift stage in the Giese manufacturing plant in Dubuque, Iowa. A giant blue curtain hangs behind the stage, blocking the view of a majority of the plant; in front of the curtain stands an impressive welded, iron block of the state of Iowa, with the words Trump / Pence / Make America Great Again laser cut into the slab. In front of the piece of political art, stands a podium.
The crowd is milling about. People are chatting, standing around, saying hello – mundane stuff. Gov. Pence is going to speak, but the event has yet to officially begin. It’s a hot and muggy Tuesday in eastern Iowa, and the temperature inside the plant is on the rise with each new person that joins the floor.
Khakis, jeans, polo shirts, button-ups, a few t-shirts and hats with Mr. Trump’s slogan pasted across the front and a few t-shirts admonishing Mrs. Clinton in various way, but nothing outrageous, and those on message with their attire are vastly outnumbered by everyone else who just looks plain. Even with the music playing while everyone waits, people are speaking in low voices.
“It’s our grandparents, fathers, mothers… it’s our friends,” Mo says. A volunteer walks by us and hands Mo a sign. “What do you think of the design quality of that thing?” I ask. “Strong,” Mo says, “at least 75 cents.” I laugh.
There’s a calm energy in the room, church-like. This comes as no surprise, considering that Iowa is an evangelical stronghold, roughly 77% of adults identify as Christian and just under half of that are evangelical protestant. It would be hard to describe the scene as anything else – not raucous or rowdy, but polite and cordial. This is the area of the world that’s often described as the Heartland.
Full disclosure: I’m already sweating.
The only thing that I can say about the demographic with utmost certainty is that the crowd is white. Bunch of fucking white people, in khakis. Which is okay, you know? You’re allowed to be white and wear anything you want to these events. Not that fashion choice is indicative of too much, or anything really, but, I don’t know, I suppose that I’ve always felt a deep mistrust of my fellow man when surrounded by a sea of khaki.
Mo asks me how many of the people in the building are Crock-pot owners. I laugh again.
There’s a familiarity to the crowd. But, something’s off.
A CERTAIN FORMULA
A woman named Tana Goertz steps onto the stage to kick things off. I am oblivious as to who she is, but the crowd knows her. Tana mentions The Apprentice – it appears that she was on Mr. Trump’s television show – which I have never seen. She explains her role in the campaign, and how, after getting to know Mr. Trump, she found him to be many things. She uses words like kind, integrity, honorable, and family. I consider the many newspaper articles I’ve read in the past few months that call into question the slightest association of any of these words with Mr. Trump. But, alas, she knows the man personally, and I do not. I suppose it’s not impossible that he is all of these things to the people that know him best.
The event kicks off with a prayer. Next up, the pledge of allegiance, followed by the national anthem, sung by a lovely young lady who goes for the soprano register on rockets and hits it no problem. These three moments occur in rapid succession, and I wonder if every event starts this way – if the formula is written in stone. There’s a certain rhythm to it that must feel familiar enough as to prime the minds of those in attendance. Pray, pledge, sing, and then get ready for a sermon. I wonder what the order of operations on the democratic side of things is like – probably the same. I’ll find out for sure soon enough.
Tana Goertz gives a rudimentary shout out to the down ballot candidates, and then there’s a break in the action. The crowd begins to murmur. Small talk. A well-dressed woman in her early sixties looks at me and says hello.
THE ELDERLY COUPLE FROM ILLINOIS
They drove out. Not too far. The map machine that I’ve disowned says it’s about a 25-minute drive from their hometown to Dubuque.
The woman and I start chatting. She asks me if I’m ready to hear Mr. Pence. Yes, I say, this is my first rally. I tell her that the energy in the room feels a little stale, and she mentions that she was hoping for a larger turnout. I take a glance around the room and say 150 seems pretty good.
I ask her if the she feels like the momentum for Mr. Trump is building, and she says that, yes, hopefully it will keep building until the election. We discuss the disparity of the number of field offices between the two campaigns, and whether or not she thinks that matters. Her sails deflate a bit when I mention this, as if somehow, that hit her in the gut – that there’s too much organization on the other side, that there’s too much money behind the operation, or that the silent majority is a myth – but whatever it was that she pondered in that instant, she tells me that she is still hopeful.
A man in his late sixties or early seventies approaches – khaki pants, nice shirt, good-looking wristwatch. This man was her husband. I must have mentioned to the woman that I was following the campaigns for the duration of the election and working on a story, because after a few pleasantries she told her husband I was a reporter.
Full disclosure: I felt as if I had been outed. From what, though, I did not know.
Grandpa – and I’ll call him grandpa, because he told me that he had thirty grandchildren, “Irish-catholic” he said, proudly – started speaking. He began speaking about the campaign, the other side, how important it was to elect Mr. Trump, how sick he was of our current system, how he felt that his grandkids weren’t going to be able to have access to the same opportunities that he had, and then he pointed his finger into my chest and said, “Your generation is messing this up.”
And then he asked me where I was from.
I could have said, “Born and raised in Michigan.” I could have said, “All over.” I could have said, “Let’s stay with you, where are you from? What’s your story?” I could have sidestepped the question, but I didn’t. Just speaking plainly to the folks, that’s what I’m doing. So, standing there, sweating like a whore in church – first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to use that expression – in the back of the crowd, I set the old man off on a rant.
“I live in San Francisco,” I said.
“Oh my God,” he said.
Full disclosure: San Francisco may cause a sudden spike in blood pressure.
Walking the line is a tricky thing. Wanting to avoid full-on confrontation, while allowing this elderly gentleman to speak his mind, feel comfortable, and speak honestly, I decided to hold my tongue and play dumb. So when he mentioned that the governor of my state was a complete disgrace, I said, “Who’s that?”
“You don’t even know the governor of your state? Do you know who your representatives are?
I told him that I did not. “I was chosen for this project for my complete lack of knowledge in the political sphere. I write books.”
“Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer, and Dianne Feinstein,” he said. “See, the problem with your generation is that you don’t know anything about politics, economics, the way the government works, any of it.” The music was playing a bit louder now, and his voice started to rise.
“Moonbeam’s the worst,” he said, and then he spent the rest of the break eviscerating the state of California, Gov. Brown, the economic policies of President Obama, Hillary Clinton, the international policies of the US, the high tax rate on small business, the public education system, the welfare system, the healthcare system, immigration policies, trade agreements, tax loopholes, and business and manufacturing jobs moving outside our borders. He said all this, basically, in one long breath.
And then, he majestically closed with a pirouette and a hard swing-of-the-gavel about how my generation was taking the country straight into the shitter. Through it all, dear reader, I promise you, I dropped my IQ down to Forest Gumpian levels, and I held my tongue – which, let’s just say, is tough for me (the holding my tongue part, not the dumbing down). Keeping the conversation flowing was, and had to be, more important than engaging in any argument. After all, I’m there to listen.
When he said that keeping blue-collar jobs in the states was important to communities like the one that we were in, I agreed with him. That was a good idea. When he said that the Middle East was a complete quagmire, I agreed with him. But when he started beating the fear machine about the inner cities, and how within the next twenty years, I would witness the complete implosion of all major American cities, I bit my tongue and said, “meh.”
Full disclosure: We ended on a positive note when I told him I graduated from Michigan State University, and he smiled and said that we had a good-looking football team.
Then he shook my hand. Helluva grip.
Tana Goertz took the stage again and walked towards the microphone.
Make no mistake; this dude’s a pro. Roger Sterling comes to mind. Everything about him says career politician. Perfect suit, hairline. Solid smile. Serious eyes. Gov. Pence seems to control the room from the moment he steps on stage.
This would summarize his speech best: tired, Republican Party talking points.
If you have paid attention to the news at all in the past year and a half, in any way shape or form from any source including social media, conspiracy websites, talk radio, etc., then you would have a decent idea of what was being said on stage. I’m not sure it actually mattered that Gov. Pence was the one delivering the message, maybe it brought with it more authority, but I got the feeling that he could have been replaced by any republican speaker who was on message and the evening would have gone the same. The speech itself painted a picture in broad strokes, hitting every party line that’s been incessantly regurgitated for the last twenty years. After each theme was checked off the list, Gov. Pence wrapped up with a line about how if we continued along the current path (i.e., the policies of President Obama and Hillary Clinton), the sky would fall. The crowd liked those parts.
Terrorism, cutting taxes for small businesses, story of businesses leaving Indiana for Mexico, the reversal of every executive order that President Obama has issued, leaving trade open but putting the American worker first, relighting the pilot light of the American economy by advancing our energy strategies with coal, oil, natural gas, and solar power, right to work, balance the budget, a strong supreme court that will uphold the rule of law, sanctity to life, and the second amendment, bringing back integrity to the highest office, how Mr. Trump will unite America.
Throughout the speech, after what he deemed to be examples of good points, grandpa would turn towards me as if to say, “See?”
One of the more interesting things I heard Gov. Pence say was, “Other than a whole lot of zeroes, [Mr. Trump] and I have a lot in common.” He did this three or four times, hyping his everyman qualities. He mentioned a “Fancy Shmancy” dinner that he went to in Washington, and how he felt out of place. Duck out of water he said.
ONE OF US
It amazes me that people who are tired of the same old, business as usual in Washington, D.C., so easily accept the everyman qualities of a career politician and believe him when he tells them, in all seriousness, that Mr. Trump, although rich, is just like them.
“He just get’s it,” Gov. Pence says. He’s got integrity and honor. He’s strong on family values. The elephant in the room that I’m standing next to seems to be Mr. Trump’s complete lack of experience in public service, the countless lawsuits for savvy but shit-bag business practices, his belief that wealth is what makes a man great, and that he’s currently on his third marriage.
But the room cheers. The message delivered. Believe me, he’s one of us. Everything that the other side has been saying is malarkey. We understand. We get it. He’s not a politician, hell, I’m barely a politician, I may be Governor of a state, but that’s not really who I am, I’m just a regular guy from south of highway 40. We’re one of you, and you’re one of us. This is the club. The people here, in this manufacturing plant, we’re the club. We’re the ones that the country is being taken from, and they are the ones taking it from us.
We can band together, I promise you. All we have to do is win this election. If we win, everything will be okay. We’re going to win the war against ISIS, we’re going to make other countries bow to us again, and we’re going to climb the economic ladder so far into the stratosphere that no country will ever be able to catch up. We’re going to put the people in prison who need to be in prison, and we’re going to get rid of all the drugs. We’re going to fix the inner cities, because the inner cities are broken, folks, let me tell you. We’re going to restore dignity and integrity to the White House, because we’re just like you and we’re just regular folks. All we have to do is band together and win. That’s it. If we win, everything’s going to be all right. If we lose, we’re fucked. It’s as simple as that folks – if we lose, we’re fucked.
It’s all coded and nuanced. Vague and open-ended. Almost a fill-in-the-blank of the coming apocalypse, and the destruction of our way of life. The system is broken, and if we don’t fix it, well, you know what will happen. I don’t need to finish that sentence, because we are of the same mind. You can let your imagination run, that’s okay. You know what I’m talking about.
Full disclosure: at this point, I feel a bit queasy.
AND THAT’S IT
The rally doesn’t end with frenzy or chaos. Nobody’s howling vitriol or inciting a riot. Just a large round of applause after a final word about November, and then the crowd gathers towards the front of the stage to shake hands with the man who accomplished what he came to Iowa to do. The man who told them what they wanted to hear – that a Trump presidency would solve all of their problems and restore the American dream.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
You know the slogan – the signs and the hats. Make America Great Again. I didn’t keep an exact count at the rally, but the phrase must have been mentioned 50 times. Make America Great Again. Make America Great Again. If elected in November, Donald Trump would certainly Make America Great Again.
That’s a promise.
I read or heard something not too long ago that suggested that if you thought the 1960s had a positive impact on our country, you were probably a liberal, and if you thought our nation went to shit in the 1960s, you were probably a conservative. Pretty poignant, albeit slightly unnerving to simplify such a volatile decade that saw war, civil rights, assassinations, space exploration, hippies, etc. etc., but nonetheless a fair assessment of how far back the line may have been drawn.
But, really, when was America great? When was the last time we were great?
If I had to pick a time, I’d say it was at the exact moment that we won WWII, but right before we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That moment when we stared down the face of fascism and genocide, in a necessary war, right before we decided to evaporate two cities, in a demonstration of might. And as the bombs fell, so did our greatness. Short lived. But I’m a straight, white, middleclass male from Michigan, and I’m not so sure that was a great time for say anybody who doesn’t look like me, so it’s all sort of subjective, which makes it almost fucking impossible to bring back.
I have no doubt in my mind that the people in attendance that evening are moral, upstanding citizens. No doubts that on the individual level they are trying to live their lives in honorable, benevolent ways according to whatever books or tenants they follow. I have no doubt that they love their neighbors, do good things in their communities, and want the best for their kids. But, the idea that there is a greatness that we must go back to, instead of one that we move towards, is lost on me.
We’ve gained and lost our greatness a thousand times over. The good constantly balanced by the bad – a healthy, deep history of doing right and then fucking up the end game. Maybe the last great moment was when we signed the declaration of independence, but I bet if you asked a Native American back then what he thought about those times, or a newly sold slave or two, they wouldn’t have thought they were so great either.
When Gov. Pence speaks of the American Dream, I don’t know what he’s talking about. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? When Gov. Pence and the old man and woman in the crowd and volunteers, a day later, at a campaign office in Wisconsin talk about Making America Great Again, I don’t know what they’re talking about, because I see us existing in the gray, between black and white, somewhere between decent and complete fucking assholes.
On our way out of the event, a volunteer asks Mo if he’d like to fill out an absentee ballot, and Mo tells him that he doesn’t vote in Iowa. “Where do you vote?” the young man asks. “California,” Mo says. “California?” he says, laughing. “Get outta here.” Mo looks back and says, “Hey, man, take it easy on California.”
So we retreat to The Beast, parked across the street, in front of another manufacturing plant, on a street in Dubuque where all the buildings look industrial, and the lawns are mowed, and the streets are clean, and I light a cigarette to calm my nerves, and I look around and take in the scene, and I watch a number of relatively new cars and trucks pull out of the lot, and the night air feels fresh and clean, and I think to myself, “Looks like they got it pretty good around here to me.”
See the project with interviews and photos in its entirety thefringe2016.com