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1 November 2016

In Scranton: could the blue-collar birthplace of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden really vote for Trump?

The Queen of the Deplorables and the guy with the trucks.

By Jonn Elledge

I’m a bit nervous about turning up at a Trump campaign headquarters and saying I’m a journalist: at rallies, the media have been jeered and booed with the encouragement of the candidate.

But when I tell the volunteer on the desk why I’ve come to see them, her eyes light up. “Come look at our signs!” she says, and leads me back outside. The signs in question are lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. Several of them have bits torn off; at least one has been set on fire.

“They look like they’ve been vandalised,” I say.

“Ya think?” the woman, whose name is Barbara, says, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “The local media won’t cover it.” Then, suddenly earnest, she adds: “I’m so sorry about London. And Paris, and Brussels. I know you guys have had terrorism since the 70s, but…” I find myself awkwardly explaining that London hasn’t actually had a serious incident in more than 10 years.

We’re in Scranton, Pennsylvania: one of those 19th century industrial powerhouses that’s fallen on hard times. The city grew up around anthracite mines discovered by the family the town is named after; later on, it was a centre of the steel and railway industries, too, and had the first electric street cars in the US. As with industrial cities the developed world over, though, these days it’s not doing so well.

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It’s still, in theory, a Democratic stronghold, and is claimed as a home town by both vice president Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. (Her father is buried here although, Barbara notes darkly, that she doesn’t think his grave looks well tended.) But although it’s consistently voted blue in recent elections, Pennsylvania is seen as an important swing state, its electorate finely balanced between urban Democrats and rural Republicans. Scranton is exactly the sort of blue collar community that the Republicans need to flip if Trump is to have any chance next week.

A lot of Trump/Pence lawn signs are in evidence around the town – more than you’d expect in a town where Democrats traditionally win two-thirds of the vote. But the campaign office is not a hive of activity: it’s mostly a community and sports hall, with the campaign materials restricted to the corner by the door, and when we visit the place is almost deserted: just Barbara and, later, an older couple named Bernie and Mike.

They are all genuinely, and disarmingly, lovely: insisting that we sit, plying us with coffee and homemade cake, and being more welcoming than anyone I’ve met in a long time. Mike tells me he’s an Anglophile and a fan of the BBC. Barbara tells me her life story, how she grew up in Poland in the 1970s so knows communism when she sees it. (Obama, at present, is merely a socialist.) They don’t even mind when we admit we’re not nuts about guns.

Barbara, Scranton’s Queen of the deplorables”, in a crown made for her by some of her campaign mates.

All of them are convinced that the Trump campaign is enthusing forgotten voters. Barbara shows me a photograph of an elderly man posing with the campaign’s cardboard cut-out of Donald Trump. “He’s 93 years old, he’s just registered to vote for the first time.”

“Did you hear about the rallies?” Bernie asks. Trump, she says, is speaking in venues with a capacity of 10,000: they’re packing 12,000 in and there’s still a queue outside. “Clinton struggles to fill 1,200.”

Scot, the friend I’m travelling with, is asking about a pile of groceries in the corner. They’re leftovers from the supplies Bob Bolus, a local trucking magnate, collected to provide relief to the victims of Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina. “The media didn’t report that either,” Barbara says.

“While you’re here, you should go see Bob,” she adds. Three of his trucks are Trump themed.

The Democrats in Scranton have their own training wall.

We do – but first we go to see the Democrats. They, unlike the Republicans, had their contact details listed online, so know we’re coming.

That’s not the only way in which they seem the more professional of the two outfits. Since the summer the Dems have been occupying an office in the centre of town (prior to that, it was home to the Bernie Sanders primary campaign). They have a receptionist, and computers, and signs on the wall offering instructions on how to talk to the voters. Several of the young volunteers are in Halloween costume – but they’re all studiously getting on with their work, and are notably unimpressed by the arrival of a foreign journalist.

The local Democrats also have a paid campaign manager, in the form of Ross Svenson, a young Virginian who’d previously interned for Labour’s Rachel Reeves. He seemed quietly confident: the area is majority Democratic, he points out, and they have a small army of volunteers. Until recently, their job was to register new voters; now the key is the get out the vote operation on election day itself. “There’s no early voting in Pennsylvania, so we only have 13 hours to get everyone to the polls.”

He seems very calm. Isn’t this basically the front line, I ask? If Trump does win the election, won’t it be because of white working class voters in places like Scranton?

“I can put you in touch with our regional press office if you’d like to talk about that,” Svenson says. After ten minutes or so, he makes his excuses.

Bob’s truck in all its glory.

We find Bob Bolus at the front desk of his truck salvage yard in the neighbouring city of Throop. I’m not the first journalist to show up asking about his trucks – I’m not sure I’m in the first dozen – and he leads me to the garage-cum-workshop where his bright yellow anti-Hillary truck is stored, explaining his voting choices as we go (“Say what you like about Trump, but the man built an empire”).

The collage of images, Bob says, “tell a story”. One section concerns Hillary Clinton’s relationship to the truth: in a photoshopped image, her pant suit is alight. There’s a section on Benghazi, featuring pictures of those who died. Inevitably, there’s one on the emails scandal, too: a metal box beneath the truck is labelled “Dust of lost emails”.

Perhaps most strikingly, there’s a photograph of Bill Clinton, labelled “intern predator”. Hillary Clinton is the real misogynist in the campaign, Bob tells me: by staying with Bill after the Monica Lewinsky affair, she’s “degrading women into the ground”. As to Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment, he says, that’s no different from when women say “grab ‘em by the balls”.

At the rear of the truck is an exhortation to vote for Donald Trump – clearly the conclusion we’re meant to have reached of our own accord from the rest of the images. There’s also a flap at the back, which the security services can push aside when they wish to peer into the truck and check it doesn’t contain anything that might worry them.

Bob and his truck.

Outside there are two more vans which skip the Hillary stuff and focus on the greatness of Trump campaign. The three vans have been busy attending assorted political rallies and other events, meeting varying degrees of enthusiasm along the way. But they’re all in storage today, because, Bob says, he doesn’t trust people not to vandalise them as a Halloween trick.

We’re standing outside in the muddy yard, Bob telling me how the unions have ruined American industry, when I realise I haven’t seen Scot for ages – which worries me a bit because, apart from anything else, he has the car keys. Bob has moved on to how he admires Trump’s ability to reduce his tax liabilities, when Scot – an engineer, by training – reappears from behind a vehicle, grinning like a kid in a toy shop. “Love the trucks, mate.”

Bob takes this as some kind of signal, and for the next 45 minutes I find myself following the two of them around a muddy yard as Bob points out crash-safe truck cockpits that can survive falls of 100 feet, non-crash safe ones that very clearly didn’t, and other assorted parts. When we go to leave, he insists we take a ten minute detour to one of his other garages where he keeps his new gleaming blue and gold recovery vehicle fleet. He shows us his RV, and tells us about his attempts to bring the bodies of American serviceman back from Iwo Jima.

He seems almost disappointed when we have to leave.

This is not strictly speaking relevant, but I had to live through it so you’re damn well going to look at the pictures.

The Democrats we met in Scranton were organised, efficient, and made no bones about the fact they had better things to be doing than talking to me. The Republicans, by contrast, were disarmingly warm, and absolutely thrilled to be talking to the press. The whole thing felt pleasingly like a metaphor for how the whole campaign has played out in the media, with one side terrified of press attention and the other sucking it up, even when it’s potentially self-destructive.

The Republicans also looked a lot more like the grassroots uprising that Trump keeps telling everyone he has. They weren’t representative; they certainly weren’t young. But they didn’t look like the establishment. All the polling suggests they won’t win Pennsylvania – but I can see how it is they’ve convinced themselves they will.

If they don’t, Trump is extremely unlikely to win the election. Back in the campaign office, I’d asked Barbara if she believed the polls. “You see that television?” she’d said, gesturing. It was turned off: she doesn’t watch it. Too biased.

But what if the polls are right? I ask. What if Trump loses?

“We go to Washington,” she said. “Revolution.”

Images: Jonn Elledge.

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