“I really feel God has his hand on Mr Trump.” Carol Painter is flushed and a little teary-eyed as she makes her way out of a rally that Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence had just addressed. It’s the last dash around the battleground states as polls pit Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a close race to the finish. The two campaigns are assembling battalions of observers and lawyers in the swing states to prepare for possible intimidation, fraud or contestation of the results. But for those who gathered in a college gym on Tuesday to hear their vice-presidential hopeful speak, God has already decreed the result. RANJENI MUNUSAMY reports from Youngwood, Pennsylvania.
Donald Trump’s running mate Mike Pence is, by his own description, “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican” – in that order. The Trump-Pence ticket is one of the many oddities about the 2016 US presidential elections. Ordinarily, Pence, one of the early backers of the Tea Party movement, would have turned up his nose at Trump’s mongrel brand of politics. As a career politician who has to give the Trump campaign a sense of “normality” and Republican grounding, Pence opts to speak of his running mate as the messianic figure who will deliver salvation to America.
The problem is that the people he preaches this message to actually believe him.
We arrive at the community college in Westmoreland County, south-western Pennsylvania as a few dozen people are bustling with excitement as they queue to go into the gym where Pence will be speaking that afternoon. Most of them are decked out in “Trump for President” or “Make America Great Again” regalia. A few people in the queue are wearing T-shirts denouncing the opponent. “Trump That Bitch” is on one young man’s back, with something even more distasteful, about what Monica Lewinsky is able to do better than Hillary Clinton, at the front.
Photo by Ranjeni Munusamy.
Another awkward-looking, fresh-faced teenager has a beaming Trump depicted as Superman on his T-shirt. He doesn’t appear to know or care too much about the differences between the two characters. His mother, standing beside him, is tittering with her friends – the subject, of course, is Clinton’s e-mails and the “awful” things the FBI must have found among them.
As the queue gets longer, I meet Colleen Robinson, from nearby Greensburg. She says she was a Ben Carson supporter originally but is now firmly on the Trump train. “He (Trump) has so much energy,” she drawls. “He sees things through to the end. Career politicians just bend and give in. Not him. He has the personality to do what he says he will.”
Which is to “Make America Great Again”, obviously.
“He is a wonderful person. He is not perfect, but none of us are,” Robinson continues. “Some die-hard democrats will vote for Hillary even if she is in handcuffs,” she sneers. “They are brainwashed by the Clintons.”
She is not brainwashed, however, just understanding of a normal man’s character. She doesn’t care about the claims of sexual assault that women have made against Trump or the Access Hollywood videotape that recorded his predatory behaviour.
“I’ve been around women who are just as vulgar. It’s guy-to-guy talk, y’know. Any women who believes that their man doesn’t talk like that lives in make-believe land.”
The evidence of Trump’s success is not only his businesses but his children. “His kids are so successful and down-to-earth. He raised them so well,” says Robinson. She is a firm believer that Trumpdom will permeate and make her own life better, and has therefore dragged her young son to the rally.
Further on in the queue is Laura Guskiewicz, who is excitedly telling people about her visit to the “Trump House” this past weekend. A woman in Youngstown, east of Pittsburgh, has converted her entire house into a shrine to the Republican presidential nominee, including a massive cut-out of Trump at the front. Guskiewicz went to the house to volunteer, handing out stickers and T-shirts to people who come by the now popular selfie-stop. Almost 2,000 people went to the house on Saturday, she says. She took her two dogs along for her own photo-op. It is to be her Christmas card picture.
A smartly dressed young man is taking down names of people in the queue. He is 23-year-old Zach May. He went to the Republican headquarters to sign up as a volunteer and has been working hard to drum up support for the Trump-Pence campaign.
Why? “Because Hillary Clinton is horrible. Obama and Bush did a horrible job in the Middle East. Trump is going to lower taxes and strengthen the military.”
Trump’s comments on the Access Hollywood recording is no worse than how “ordinary folk” talk, says May. “It seems like he was joking. Bill Clinton has done a lot worse.”
Marc Cournoyer is a retired US Army chief warrant officer and pilot. He is attending the event with his wife, who is also a retired military officer. He tells me that Trump has “all the support of the generals in the US military”. Veterans like him have also thrown their weight behind the Trump-Pence ticket.
Strangely, all the people I speak to avoid the subject of the evils of immigration and how their lives have been made miserable by the influx of foreigners. Perhaps they suspect I might not return to South Africa after this assignment. They do share these stories with the reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who I am with. One man dressed in cowboy apparel (not for Halloween) tells him that his Trump signs have been stolen four times from his yard.
“I’m not a conspiracist, but I know George Soros is involved in a lot of this,” he says.
By the time Pence addresses the crown of about 900 people in the college gym, they have been whipped up by various state and senate representatives, all of them taking turns to condemn the wretched lives Americans have been condemned to thanks to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Oddly, Obama and Clinton are held to blame for the closure of major steel and coal companies in the region in the Eighties, which led to a depressed economy and outflow of people.
“It boils my blood to see all of us holding on to what we have. We need to stop them! And we need to stop the media who are trying to take this election away,” bellows one state representative as the crowd roars.
Congressman Mike Kelly likens losing the election to the Democrats to the death of a relative. “Haven’t you lost your grandma,” he booms. “We hate losing our jobs, our communities, our schools. Most of all we hate losing our country! We have a chance today to win. You are the people who refuse to lose.”
Popular ditties on the Trump campaign, Kid Rock’s Born Free and Rodney Atkins’ These Are My People, are played repeatedly before Pence finally ascends the stage to frenzied cheers and bobbing Trump-Pence posters. Bright pink “Women for Trump” signs are also waved about, including by infirm women in wheelchairs.
The rally goes from rock concert to an evangelist revival when Pence starts speaking. He has to turn his television on with a stick because he is so turned off by the election coverage, he says.
“Despite all the lies in the national media, Donald Trump is still winning hearts and minds every day… Last week Hillary Clinton was trying to say this campaign was all but over. She was measuring the drapes in the White House,” he says over the roaring crowd. “This race is still on!” Pence thunders.
He speaks of the “fast and loose ethics” of the Clintons. “The American people had enough of it and it sounds like the Department of Justice is going the same way.”
The crowd begins chanting: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
“When Donald Trump becomes president, he is going to fight for you every day. We have a 100-day plan. There will be real transparency and accountability.”
The chant changes to: “Drain the swamp! Drain the swamp!”
By the time Pence blasts through Obamacare and national security, the atmosphere is at fever pitch. He confides about a moment he and Trump shared at a rally earlier in the day. “He pointed out of the car at all the people and said to me ‘Mike, this is not about me. This is a movement of the American people’,” Pence says earnestly.
Normal people would roll their eyes. In this crowd, people are nodding slowly as if they are at the remake of the Sermon on the Mount.
Pence winds down towards the winning combination: Christian faith and gun control.
“If you cherish our constitution, the Second Amendment, the sanctity of life, you need to think long and hard about this election… If you believe in God, bow your head or bend your knee and pray.”
This is not about running a government, it is about the will of God, apparently.
“Like Lincoln said, it not whether God is on our side, it is about whether we are on God’s side.”
That message is the one that lingers as people leave the rally, fired up and ready to covert the non-believers who have not yet heard the Trump-Pence gospel.
A man in a T-shirt with a quote from 1 Corinthians comes over to bless me.
“He speaks the Christian truth,” he gestures with his thumb towards the podium. “We’re gonna win.” DM
Ranjeni Munusamy is participating in a 2016 US General Elections Embed programme administered by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and sponsored by the US State Department’s Foreign Press Centers and US Embassy Posts.
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