HUNTINGTON, WV—If you had walked into the airport hangar at 4 p.m. sharp on Friday, just as the opening notes of “Country Roads” began to pour from the overhead speakers, you could have witnessed a pure, divine American moment. You could have seen the power of the anthem of this beaten down state. You could have seen grandparents and mothers and their children all sing the song together, word for word, three generations in harmony. By the time the thousands of West Virginians got to “Dark and dusty, painted on the sky/ Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye,” I almost had a teardrop in my own cynical eye. It was as unpolluted a demonstration of local pride as you are ever likely to see in this country.
But to maintain the purity of that moment you would have had to leave exactly at 4:04. Because as soon as “Country Roads” finished, the fascist twangs of “I’m Proud To Be An American” crashed down upon us, swamping the restrained patriotism like a tidal wave of American cheez. And then He was there. The long, shiny red tie hanging limply down his chest like Satan’s tongue pulled out of his throat. The spell was quickly broken. The country roads seemed sinister again.
We’re days away from the midterm elections that are America’s last chance to put a brake on a headlong descent into modern fascism, and Donald Trump is on the campaign trail. Every night. Friday, Trump came to Huntington, West Virginia, right up against the Ohio border, but still in his favorite state—one that went for him overwhelmingly in 2016, and the place where he can proclaim his love for coal most loudly, to the most applause. The crowds here are full of men in dirty boots who used to be miners and women in worn hoodies who hold down two jobs. It is a crowd of high school football players and the people who cheer for them. Trump would hate them in person, and they love him.
The national press corps follows Trump around like flies chasing a rotten candy apple. Campaign trail journalism is afforded professional prestige yet is absolute, soul-crushing hell in action. America’s top political reporters spend their days running to catch commuter flights and their nights holed up in Holiday Inns growing fat on room service meals and forcing their jet-lagged brains to produce words on demand. At the Charlotte airport, waiting for the flight to Huntington, you could play “Spot the journalist.” The middle-aged man in loafers with a blue oxford shirt with rolled up sleeves tucked into his jeans, glancing down at his Apple Watch? Yes. Yes indeed.
Multiple leading national political reporters were holed up in the Huntington airport Gino’s Pizzeria and Pub at lunch time, picking desultorily at melted cheese and waiting for the press gate to open. Two reporters joked about which Game of Thrones character Trump would be. (“He’s Hodor!” “He’s Joffrey, obviously!”) Another reporter phoned her hotel in Pensacola, FL, where they would all be tomorrow, to try to get switched from the Hilton to the Marriott. Overhead, competing ads for area Congressional candidates ran over and over on mute between local news weather reports. This is the circle of hell that the “good” job in journalism gets you.
At 1 p.m., three full hours before showtime, the event opened its doors to the thousands of faithful—including a man dressed in judge’s robes with a “KAV” name tag, and his wife, struggling to take her beer can costume off at the metal detectors—who had ridden the school buses shuttling them from town out to the airport for the rally. It was held in an empty hangar, the back quarter of which was a raised platform for the press so that they could be easily jeered at. In front of the open hangar was a small stage with a podium backed by a set of flag-draped bleachers, upon which sat the unfortunate “VIPs,” who froze their asses off for the next several hours. Off to the right was a long FedEx semi trailer with a flag mounted on it. One of the many anonymous white guy political operatives in navy blazers stood on a ladder next to it, painstakingly taping sheets of white paper over the FedEx logo.
The Official Trump Rally Waiting Playlist droned incessantly overhead. I swear it got louder and louder with each passing hour. “Beat It,” “Eye of the Tiger,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Sweet Child of Mine,” “Don’t Stop Believin’”—it is the soundtrack of a man with no fully formed sense of taste, one you can imagine Don Junior playing all the way out to Vegas on a road trip. Also “Rocket Man,” “YMCA,” and “Macho Man”—a whole lot of gay for a guy who is systematically re-legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ people. A long table off to the side was doing a brisk business selling “Space Force” t-shirts, which is the real goal of the Space Force concept.
At 2:30, West Virginia Senator Shelly Moore Capito came out and said some generic Republican things. She welcomed a local pastor, who said (to God), “We declare that you are supreme—the utmost authority.” Republicans and Islamists have much more in common than they ever acknowledge.
The pastor was followed by another local dignitary who recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and that dignitary was followed by another dignitary who sang the national anthem, and the not insignificant number of people wearing “STAND FOR THE ANTHEM” T-shirts all held their hands over their hearts again, awkwardly. When the crowd had been suitably patriotized, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice ascended the stage, dwarfing the podium and all around him. He is a large man. Uncomfortably large. His face is large, his body is large, his gray suit cascaded down his ample body like a camping tent. Justice, a coal billionaire who switched to the Republican party in 2017 as a matter of political expediency, called Donald Trump “my best buddy”—setting a slavish tone that would be repeated by every political candidate allowed to grace the stage with the president. “Do you have any idea what’s at risk?” Justice asked the crowd. “Are you ready to shove your whole life on the table and let it go down the drain?” He is the sitting governor of one of the poorest and least healthy states in America.
Carol Miller, running for Congress, suggested that voters “send me to Washington to support coal.” She said her opponent, Richard Ojeda, “says open up the border and let the caravan in.” It all had the tone of a third grade teacher instructing her slow students that flowers are pretty, but dirt is dirty. Indeed, all political dialogue from start to finish was conducted at a third grade level. West Virginia citizens: you are the third graders in this metaphor. And if third grade dialogue wins votes, well, who is to argue?
Just after 4 p.m., Air Force One finally touched down. It flashed by directly in front of the crowd. It was a nice bit of stagecraft. The stairs were slowly rolled out to the plane, the door opened, and then another five minutes went by before Trump emerged. This weekend, thousands of West Virginians will be forced to watch shaky cell phone videos of those five minutes. Trump took the stage to a worrying amount of hysteria, particularly from teenage boys who are clearly channeling their rebellious streak into the MAGA phenomenon, which is a human tragedy. The hangar was less than full. I was about 20 yards from the podium. I’m certain I could have pegged Trump with the Five Hour Energy bottle in my pocket, but of course you can’t do that these days without being accused of “bias.”
Aside from the mind-blowing fact that Donald Trump is the current president of the United States, his shtick is boring. He is a dumb and petty man, gifted only in the childish art of NANANA I AM RUBBER YOU ARE GLUE. He claims credit that he doesn’t deserve: “More Americans are working than ever in the history of the country!” He claims credit for things that his own policies actively work against: “Wages went up—first time in a long time. They hadn’t gone up.” He often appears to be losing his grasp on the English language: “Crying Chuck, right? He cries. I’ve never seen him cry before. But he cries.” And, more than anything else, he just says whatever nonsense lie he feels like: “Republicans will always protect patients with pre-existing conditions.” Democrats will “use socialism to turn America into Venezuela.” “A person comes in our country—another country throws them out... we put them through a court procedure... Almost none [show up for court].”
These are just lies, supplemented with a steady diet of assurances that the media can’t be trusted, mixed with a decades-long Republican plan to undermine public education and an equally long buildup of Fox News and an equally long period of neoliberal neglect of the underclass. Cook that all up and you can find 63 million people who will vote for Donald Trump. Narratives can be made up and launched one after the other with no consequence. They are not connected to anything real. But that is their strength. That is how they fly.
“All I’m doing,” Donald Trump said to the people, “is just telling the truth.”