My family considers it a bit unfair that I’m the one who got to go to the Trump rally in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on Monday, given that I like him least of all of us and I don’t usually write about politics. But I live nearby and am unscrupulous about knocking off my day job, so The Spectator got me a press pass. By noon on Monday I was safely installed in a socially-distanced airplane hangar, bopping along with Elton John, waiting with everyone else for the President to arrive and wondering what he might say to my deeply-divided homeland.
Of course he opens with a shout-out to the Amish. Look, I understand that most people know exactly one thing about Lancaster County, but can’t we leave the Amish out of this one? Not only are they not following Trump on Twitter, wandering the labyrinths of the Russia investigation with cable news hosts, or getting harassed about early voting on Instagram; they don’t really participate in civil society at all. Only a few thousand of them are registered to vote. They are prohibited from consuming media. Frankly, I so envy their principled isolation, the blessed darkness of their homesteads that I want to leap in front of a rally-bound buggy and plead: go back!
But though I spotted a few buggies at the rally, Trump’s references to the Amish weren’t really about the Amish at all, or even their less-strict Pennsylvania Dutch kin, the Mennonites and the Christian Brethren. These communities are symbols to all of us here: of righteousness, industry and tradition. So it’s a big applause line when the President says admiringly that the Amish can ‘throw up a barn in like two days’. He made a puzzling suggestion that they’ve raised a barn for him, which seems unlikely, though he appears to be pretty impressed with wood joinery. But praise of Dutch craftsmanship, no matter how comically un-Trumpy, lets him contrast their famous work ethic with Sleepy Joe’s heavy-lidded campaign. Without access to electricity, the literal Amish don’t actually know about the lid situation, but the point landed in a symbolic sort of way for everyone else.
You might think the President and the broader Pennsylvania Dutch community don’t have much in common, given his salacious personal life and lurid aesthetics, but consider all the qualities they do share: sobriety, construction businesses, funny haircuts. Nonetheless, it’s still a bit jarring to see women in plain dress and head coverings thrill to his leering asides. He covers trade deals, foreign policy, the police, and fracking in the same bizarrely sexual purr. ‘Lotta people here, lotta people…’ he more-or-less moans. His polls are beautiful, the cranes suspending the flags are beautiful, his son is beautiful, we are beautiful. In his most confidential tone: ‘Don’t tell anyone, but the Pennsylvania Dutch are voting en masse.’ Sure, he comes on a little strong, but even the most modest among us like to feel pretty now and then.
Draped in these weird catcalls you’ll hear some of the strongest points for Trump’s presidency: his hostility to foreign wars, his opposition to NAFTA, his optimistic attitude toward coronavirus. These 5,000 or so Pennsylvanians packed between the crowd-control fences, huddled together, chanting and mask-indifferent, are tired of restrictions: they don’t want relief money, they want to work. Trump looks like a knight in shining armor from this perspective, and boy does he know it.
The only group safe from the President’s flirtations are the press, to whom he directs the crowds’ jeers at key moments. I believe this vitriol is basically earned, and also pretty funny. It occurs to me that as ‘press’, no matter how amateur and/or sympathetic, I’m playing the part of a minor villain, crucial to the basic plot of the rally. I was compensated for my participation in this performance with a parking space and six feet of social distance. Maybe Trump’s gotten into my head, but I think this was a good deal.
I left a little early because I was cold and hungry and I could. Driving through the winding roads behind the airport, the fog sitting low over the hills, shrouding the cornfields and the silos, you could hear Trump’s closing notes echo for miles: remember in 2016, when they said I couldn’t win, when the media said Crooked Hillary had it in the bag? I’ve heard this story a million times, like everyone else, and maybe it’s just the atmosphere a few days before Halloween, but suddenly it sounds like a ghost story, spooky folklore to tell around the campfire, of a misty, disappeared past. A lot of people around here do Civil War Reenactments — I myself was a lieutenant in the Battle of Gettysburg in eighth grade. Replace the wool caps with red baseball hats and the fiddles with Queen and I can imagine some folks reliving the story of 2016 for decades to come.
My companions and I made plans to meet at a diner called Scooter’s, but a sign on the door announced that it’s now closed on Mondays: ‘We will be open for more shifts when we can hire enough staff to do so (see lucrative unemployment benefits).’ This proprietor is a more likely Trump voter than any Amish farmer, and if he used his day off to go to the rally, I’m confident he came away more convinced than ever.