Thirteen thousand people, none of them in a white robe or a pointy hood, are waiting in the autumn sun in Hershey, Pennsylvania, “The Sweetest Place on Earth”. The doors to the city’s hockey arena haven’t opened yet. Donald Trump will not take the stage for at least another six hours. Katy Perry, LeBron James, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen: none of these will attend.
Vendors move along the queue, selling T-shirts, bumper stickers and targets to be used on a rifle or pistol range. The shirts say “Hillary For Prison,” “Adorable Deplorable,” “CNN Sucks,” “If you don’t love this flag, I’ll help you pack.”
“Two for five dollars!” a woman cries, holding up sheafs of paper. Each sheet shows the face of Hillary Clinton in crosshairs. “Make as many copies as you like at home. Two for five!”
The Shoemakers of Hanover, Pa., are among the patient horde. It is their fourth attempt to see Trump speak, here in the Keystone State. The first three times, the crowds were so huge that the Shoemakers were turned away before getting inside, even though they held official ducats downloaded from donaldjtrump.com. They have arrived early in Hershey, understanding that there will not be another chance to see their man until Inauguration Day in Washington in January, when he either will be taking the oath of office on the West Front of the Capitol or waving glumly from the parapet of his elegant D.C. hotel.
“You know what bothers me?” Sylvia Shoemaker, a mother and grandmother, wonders aloud, six hours before Trump time. “I have an issue with people who lie.”
She is referring to the woman on the shooting-gallery targets.
“And you don’t have an issue with Donald Trump!” a reporter asks.
“She only lies when it suits her,” Shoemaker says.
A 10-year-old boy named Eli is part of the Shoemaker clan. What will he remember of this sunny day, this manic season? The stirring fervency of politics in a people’s democracy? Or the craven mendacity of truculent millionaires?
“Lock her up!” some people at the front of the line start chanting. (At Clinton rallies, the crowd hoots, “Lock him up!”)
“Lock her up!” young Eli faintly whispers with a smile.
“People have been complaining about our government for so many years—about the corruption, about how there have to be term limits,” says Sylvia Shoemaker, who works for a publishing company. “Donald Trump has started a movement. He is our voice.”
“What if he loses?” she is asked. This was seen as a certainty as recently as a week ago. Now, in “battleground” Pennsylvania and across a dozen other states, the contest is a toss-up, the self-accredited forecasters proclaim. “Do you riot and burn?”
“I’m not rioting and I’m not burning,” she answers reassuringly. “But this is the American public’s last chance.”
“I believe we are at a monumental fork in the American road,” Trump wrote a few years back, in a book called Time To Get Tough, paving this lost highway.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever see a campaign like this again,” Sylvia says in Hershey, in the understatement of the quadrennium.
The doors open and the vacant-eyed Secret Service wand-wielders snap to life. Inside, duly frisked, we learn that the colours of the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League—the town’s beloved “B’ars,” founded by confectioner Milton Hershey himself and 11 times the winners of the Calder Cup—are white, tan, chocolate and cocoa brown. This cannot be said of the 13,000 people shuffling into their home rink. Trump’s America is (at least visibly) uni-racial, give or take a brave, tiny handful at these mass public displays.
In September, Clinton saw in this demography “a basket of deplorables—the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it.” In Hershey, Pa., the knuckle-draggers revel in their enemy’s snobbish taunt; it baptizes their crusade and awards an honorific to their tribe.
On this final, frantic weekend, Pennsylvania radio is replete with Hillary’s anti-Trump commercials. An unending cascade of 30-second spots on WROZ—“Fun 101.3”—castigate the Republican nominee as a sexual predator, a foreign-affairs ignoramus, a trigger-happy atom-bomber and a man without the slightest molecule of human respect or dignity.
“He makes fun of the disabled,” the advertisement snarls. Yet, into the Hershey arena, the disabled and the women—the crowd appears majority-female—and the wounded veterans eagerly spill.
A recent high-school graduate named Josh is in a motorized wheelchair. The ushers accord him a prime location overlooking the bowl where Trump will speak. Josh has cerebral palsy. He has started a web site to raise funds not for himself, but for others who are in deeper need of more urgent aid.
“His mind is perfectly intact,” says Josh’s father, Steve.
“I was for Ted Cruz at the beginning,” Steve reports. “But he was such a crybaby when he lost the primaries to Trump, I got on the Trump train. There are a lot of things that I wish Trump hadn’t said, but it doesn’t matter to the election. He’s a little crass—so what?”
“I actually voted for Bill Clinton when I was young,” Steve says. “Then I grew up.”
“What if he loses?” the father of the boy in the motorized wheelchair is asked. (He’s a muscular fellow in a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket.) “Do you riot and burn?”
“We don’t riot,” he replies. “We just cry for two weeks, buy a lot of American-made Jack Daniels, and get drunk.”
“Ask Josh what he thinks of Donald Trump,” Steve encourages.
“Saving the country is more important than words,” Josh says.
“He is often accused of mocking people with a disability,” a reporter ventures.
“I forgive him,” smiles the young man in the wheelchair.
A seventh-grade mathematics teacher from Harrisburg, the state capital, is moonlighting as a ticket-taker tonight. Call her Mary-Louise. Like millions of her sisters and brothers across this complex, confused, God-blessed and riven country, she still does not know which candidate she will vote for, come Tuesday morn. But because she lives in Pennsylvania—and it would be the same in North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, Nevada—the American experiment and the fate of the free world reside personally with her.
“I was for him until he opened his mouth,” Mary-Louise says. “I was for her until Bill cheated on her and she didn’t throw him out. I’m not a fan of hers either. I don’t know what I’ll do.”
This election never was about the women in the Hillary For Prison T-shirts or the men chanting “Lock her up!” It always was about Mary-Louise, hopeful for her country yet unclear about which reprobate nominee she should choose to be its chief. Or about Cindy, sweeping up the lower concourse of the Hershey arena, saying, “I’m still undecided. His immorality—I’m a Christian—it bothers me. But I haven’t made up my mind.”
Or Lisa, who is attending the stairway to the luxury boxes where the cocoa-bean executives perch: “They are both acting like five-year-olds. This isn’t kindergarten, it’s the real world. I like Trump, I like his business savvy. But Hillary’s a woman and I’m a woman.”
Lisa voted twice for Barack Obama. The rest of Pennsylvania did, too. But that epoch is over, and her choice—her nation’s choice—is between Trump and Clinton.
These contenders are denigrated in their own country and one of them is mocked around the world, yet billions of citizens of other lands, even in 2016, are allowed no choice at all. Now, Lisa says in the Sweetest Place on Earth, “I have two more days to sit very quietly and think and think and think.”