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On a 2017 road trip to Washington, Ian Brown talked to Americans in the Rust Belt regions that helped bring Trump to power. Now, as Biden is about to be inaugurated, those same people see things differently

The U.S. Capitol, as seen through a car window on Jan. 16, is under tight security ahead of Joe Biden's swearing-in on Jan. 20.Photography by Mark Sommerfeld/The Globe and Mail

Four years ago this week, driving from Buffalo, N.Y., to Washington, through the Rust Belt of America to interview citizens and witness the inauguration of Donald Trump, one fact was very clear: Even the people who voted for him in 2016 weren’t sure he was going to be a good president. “I don’t know what to think,” a man said at a gun store in Bradford, Pa. “Time will tell, I guess.”

Time has now told. As Donald Trump finally (probably!) exits the White House today, the United States is closer to armed rebellion and possible civil war than it has been in 150 years.

The 45th and outgoing president was impeached a record second time last week for fomenting a Capitol Hill insurrection that killed five people and desecrated the world’s most famous icon of democracy.

Mr. Trump is as graceless – he refuses to attend the inauguration of winner Joe Biden today – and as obstinate as ever. He still maintains, falsely and without evidence, that he won the election.

A day before the changeover, the capital resembles a military encampment, packed with soldiers on guard against widely predicted attacks by white supremacists and Proud Boys and other outcroppings of hard-right extremism.

Evidence of Mr. Trump’s distracted presidency abounds: the unemployment rate, 4.8 per cent in 2016 when he took over, is now 6.7 per cent; the federal deficit (before taking into account any spending on COVID-19) has doubled; nearly 400,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, lately at a rate of more than 3,000 a day, in part because Mr. Trump refused to endorse masks and physical distancing.

And yet – and yet! – a third of all voters (and 67 per cent of Republicans) still claim, without a speck of evidence, that Mr. Trump won the election. The sheer number who refuse to admit the facts suggest either a) zombies have taken over the country, or b) there’s a fact-free and therefore unfillable abyss running down the middle of America.

But something has changed, if a recent revisit of some of the same Americans I spoke to four years ago is any sign. The most stoutly pro-Trump supporters back then are reluctant to talk today. Americans who were willing to give Mr. Trump a chance in 2017 are now disgusted by the President’s behaviour since the 2020 election.

He has a lot fewer loyal supporters than he had before. A new Pew poll bears this out. Three-quarters of all voters think Mr. Trump has done a fair or poor job, and two-thirds don’t want him playing any future role in politics. Even among loyal Trump voters, the number who disapprove of his post-election antics has doubled.

Scenes from Washington this past weekend: Biden-Harris merchandise, a thank-you note to the police and National Guard, a marquee outside First Trinity Lutheran Church and an inscription of the First Amendment on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Of course there are die-hards. Wesley Campbell, a Vietnam vet I met four years ago in Salamanca, N.Y., at a diner known locally as The Spoon and formally as The Plaza (still doing take-out as the pandemic rages), continues to believe “Trump did a lot of good. But he should keep his mouth shut.” Mr. Campbell is 74 years old and a former aircraft mechanic. His second wife, 10 years his junior, prefers “this new guy.”

He personifies every pro-Trump position the president’s defenders have hauled out since his go-get-’em speech on Capitol Hill.

“He got the economy going,” Mr. Campbell says. “He brought jobs back from China.” This is the best argument Trump supporters make, if only partially true. Between 2016 and 2018, the U.S. lost 1,800 manufacturers; in Ohio, for instance, Mr. Trump’s trade tiff with China helped knock annual job growth from 36,200 in 2016 to 3,700 in 2019.

Mr. Campbell thinks the election was “probably not fair. But what are you gonna do?” He heard stories that in Nevada, more votes were cast than there were voters. That fable has been roundly debunked, but Mr. Campbell still believes it. His sister, who lives in Georgia, was surprised Mr. Biden won that state because she lives in the country and was surrounded by Trump signs. He thinks she’s onto something, even though the president-elect won the state by concentrating on the urban population.

But he disapproves of the attack on the Capitol. “What good does that do? And who knows if they were Republicans or Democrats?”

Here Mr. Campbell pauses and becomes more ephemeral. “The Bible says the end of times are coming. Well, it’s been coming. And the Bible isn’t just for the U.S. It’s for the whole world.” Pause again. Apart from his COVID-19 vaccination, which he’ll get in the next month, “there’s nothing much to look forward to, except the weather.” Mr. Trump was a source of contention in Mr. Campbell’s life, but also of connection. The former President spoke to a yearning – to have a point of view no one else has, to know something the rest of us don’t, to somehow be in the secret know – common to a lot of rampaging Trumpers.

Wesley Campbell and police officer Tina Owens in Salamanca, NY, back in 2017.Mark Sommerfeld/The Globe and Mail

Tina Owens, a 43-year-old police officer in upstate New York, was happy with Trump and still is. “He supports police officers,” she told me in 2017. “He’s a Republican at heart.” Four years later? “I am still a Trump supporter and think he did an amazing job for our country.” Then she added: “His action this last week was not the best.” She claimed she wanted to talk, but she never returned my calls or e-mails, and finally demurred. Her faith in the former President abides, but her willingness to defend him does not. That’s reasonable, given his behaviour.

Others have defected completely from the ranks of Trump supporters. In 2017, I met Vaughn Lower as he read Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech etched into the Lincoln memorial’s south wall. The second inaugural is the longer, less famous address in which Lincoln admits the fate of men is sometimes beyond even their best efforts.

Mr. Lower was 28 at the time, a waiter from San Diego. He was wearing a red MAGA cap and had travelled to Washington with his father to witness what he termed “a historic occasion.” He lost friends supporting Mr. Trump in San Diego, but admired Mr. Trump’s desire to “kick butt for America,” as he put it. He had his doubts that day in 2017. “It’s kind of nerve-racking supporting someone with complete faith. I hope he doesn’t let us down.”

Mr. Trump did let him down. Mr. Lower, now 32, has stopped paying attention to politics. He doesn’t even watch the news anymore.

“The main thing that turned me off of politics” he tells me, “is how it causes normal people – neighbours, even family members and friends, who would likely be friendly in any other situation – to very much dislike each other.” This is a habit born of social media. “Also, I wanted to reclaim my own identity, and didn’t like being identified first and foremost as part of a group.”

He doesn’t resent Mr. Biden’s victory. “I am an American first and wish the greatest success of any president,” he says. “I look forward to what president Biden and vice-president Harris can do for the country. And I condemn the disgusting mob that invaded the Capitol. I pray for unity.”

Vaughn Lower visits the Lincoln Memorial in 2017.

Even Nick Patillo, a 53-year-old restaurateur in upstate New York, has turned off Mr. Trump. Mr. Patillo won’t say who he voted for in 2016, but he willingly supported Mr. Trump when he won.

Today? “The last couple of weeks, since the election has been decided, that challenging of the election, the disgusting acts that happened in Washington, have changed the minds of most Trump followers,” he told me last week.

He doesn’t know anyone who hasn’t abandoned the Orange King. He doesn’t blame Mr. Trump for the pandemic; it was the ex-President’s grab for power beyond democratic norms and the Constitution that put him off. “My hope is that the extremists that did all that will have the opposite effect and draw most people closer. Historically, he has besmirched his administration and the country.” American exceptionalism now feels only fettered and broken.

Joe Biden is a shining beacon of hope by comparison. “How can I not be positive about him? What’s my alternative?” As to the rump that still sticks to Mr. Trump, “I can’t speak for them. I don’t know any. I know lots of country boys that like to hunt and that like Trump, which I find fascinating. I say to them, ‘You think he’s gonna look out for you? He wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire.’ But I respect their opinion. Still, that shit you saw in Washington is disgusting.”

If that flame of outrage stays lit in former Trump sympathizers, Mr. Trump’s future as the Jesus of the Hard Right might be doomed. No wonder Republican Party operatives are working overtime to reconstruct the narrative of what happened on Jan. 6: It was antifa, it was Black Lives Matter infiltrators, it was the bogeyman.

Ryan Gettleman and Mr. Lower were in the anti- and pro-Trump camps, respectively, when this picture was taken in 2017. The past four years haven't improved Mr. Gettleman's view of the President.

Meanwhile, the people I met who were respectfully anti-Trump four years ago are now on fire.

I ran into Mr. Lower in early 2017 while he was debating another young American, Ryan Gettleman. Mr. Gettleman was a car valet then; now he’s a 32-year-old property manager in suburban Los Angeles. He wanted Bernie in the last election and Kamala Harris in this one, at least until he realized that “she’s Black and a woman, the two things the Republicans hate most,” which would have increased their ardour to defeat her.

“My fear,” he says now, “is that like any empire in history, ours is coming to an end right now. You’ve got 20 per cent of the country that wouldn’t mind a civil war and 2 per cent that really wants one. I just hope this country doesn’t come crashing down in my lifetime. But I think there’s a larger-than-zero chance of that happening.”

He hasn’t had the easiest time under Trump. He divorced, which imperilled his finances (“you need two incomes just to scratch out a living in this country”). Meanwhile, the Trump presidency was exhausting. “Every single day, that guy would generate some new scandal.”

He doesn’t sympathize with the hard-right Trumpists in any way. But after four years of Trumpian hyperbole, he can gauge their bully anger, however unfounded their complaints. The day before we spoke, he’d spotted a man wearing a MAGA hat at Costco, “and my first instinct was to punch him in the face. And I consider myself more educated, more logical than they are. So someone less educated? How wound up are they? The answer is, a lot.”

Instead, to bring the political pendulum back to progressivism, Mr. Gettleman is now considering running for public office himself. His first policy would be to impose term limits for congressmen.

Pam Gehringer, shown in Allentown, Penn., in 2017, thinks the Trump presidency was 'horrible.'

Pam Gehringer of Emmaus, Pa., paid $5,000 a year less in taxes during the presidency of Donald Trump. She never needed the money: she’s the comptroller of Yocco’s Hot Dogs, a beloved chain of restaurants in Pennsylvania. A Democrat, she nevertheless wanted to give the newly elected Mr. Trump the benefit of the doubt. “I do wish him the best,” she said in 2017, “because you wish your country the best.” She even liked some of his ideas – lowering the price of prescription drugs for seniors was one – but had her doubts about his personality. “His insecurity, that bothers me,” she said. “The tweeting, my God.”

This time around, for the 2020 election, her lawn sported 15 anti-Trump signs. She made them herself, quoting civil rights leaders such as John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. She figures three-quarters of her surburban Allentown neighbours were supporting Trump, but her Hispanic neighbours across the street sent her a dozen white roses. Another couple in their 60s down the road had never voted before in their lives. Thanks to Ms. Gehringer, they did this time.

She thinks Mr. Trump’s reign was “horrible” and speaks for itself. The prescription-drug fix never came to pass. Minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour, which puts someone who works 40 hours a week below the poverty line.

What Ms. Gehringer finds most discouraging, though, is that “even after what happened at the Capitol, people won’t embrace the truth” – that is, that the GOP’s strategists miscalculated the power of the Democratic mail-in vote, blew the election, then called the vote a fraud to set themselves up to dismantle voter turnout the next time around. Meanwhile, they left the base of Mr. Trump’s more credulous supporters to believe “the steal” was real. Ms. Gehringer considers them a cult: “It’s not a majority of people, but it’s significant.”

As to why 70 million people still voted for Mr. Trump, “I’m still trying to figure it out,” she says. Some of it is greed, some paranoia: “They think someone’s putting something over on them.” But mostly it’s fear and racism. “You have to be blind to not think that. The progress of African-Americans and Hispanics and Muslims into higher offices in politics and business, it’s freaking them out.”

Brandon Battle, shown at right with Radha Samuel, is a former Air Force intelligence analyst. He wasn't surprised that Mr. Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol earlier this month.

How does the insurrection and the divide it underscores look if you’re a Black American? I didn’t meet Brandon Battle, a 34-year-old self-employed options trader, on my trip down in 2017. But he lives just outside Washington and was visiting Capitol Hills’s Eastern Market the other day with his good friend Radha Samuel. A former Air Force intelligence analyst, Mr. Battle voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris reluctantly (as did Ms. Samuel). He has issues with policies they espoused in the past that have made life harder for Black Americans. Donald Trump, on the other hand, “silently acquiesces with white supremacists.”

In my experience, it is hard to shock Black Americans, politically. Neither Mr. Battle nor Ms. Samuel were surprised the Capitol riot occurred or went down the way it did. “The police in America were created essentially to catch slaves,” Mr. Battle said. “So when a bunch of white men stormed the Capitol, the police did not do their job. Because their job is not to catch white people.”

And why did the white men want to storm the Capitol? “I think what they ultimately want to do is get Donald Trump to invoke martial law,” he said. “These white guys feel that they’re forgotten people. That they are being run over by immigrants and people who don’t look like them. And Trump is a tyrant. I know fascism when I see it.” Needless to say, he doesn’t share the well-intentioned faith of Pam Gehringer or even the wavering faith of Ryan Gettleman that the canyon between right-wing America and the rest of the country will narrow any time soon. “Absolutely not. The U.S. is a white nationalist nation with a white nationalist agenda.”

And Mr. Trump’s defeat, Ms. Samuel added, “is just going to infuriate them and make it worse.”

The Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue has been fortified ahead of Mr. Biden's inauguration.

But when countries experience nation-wide trauma (and the United States certainly seems to be suffering from Post-Trump Stress Disorder), the triggering event can have unanticipated consequences. The defeat of Donald Trump – Joe Biden’s proven win over the most autocratic President in American history, and over his seething colony of loyal rats – will unquestionably create conflict. But it is already the event that has finally dragged hard-right white American nationalism out into the public square, where everyone can give it a kick and a poke.

Toward the end of my trip four years ago, in Baltimore, I ran into Woody Ranere and his wife, Jessica, walking their three-year-old son, James. A local policeman had warned me the pleasant neighbourhood was dangerous, which upset Mr. Ranere.

That emphasis – fear first, understand possibly never – has been the motto of Mr. Trump’s reign of terror. “It’s been a total assault for four years,” Mr. Ranere told me a few days after the mob attack on the Capitol, when I called him up to see how he was doing. Mr. Trump’s extremist rhetoric has inflated every issue and instigated the Capitol riot, but the ex-President didn’t start the trend. “This was egged on by 20 years of Republican rhetoric.” (Whatever else has happened in four years, ordinary Americans have become more detailed and articulate in their political critiques.)

After Mr. Trump was elected, “then it was hold your breath and wait and see. Today we have his second impeachment. He spent five years setting this up, beginning with the Barack-Obama-is-not-a-citizen lie.”

Twenty-thousand more lies followed as @realDonaldTrump tweeted the perils of immigration, expertise, climate change, a free press (”fake news”), gun control, self control, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, the pandemic, and even free and fair elections, undermining public faith in them all as he marauded. “It’s hard to feel bad for these imbeciles,” Mr. Ranere said of Mr. Trump’s crestfallen and furious supporters. “But they’ve been duped and lied to. The Republicans have propagated lie after lie. Fear-mongering is now an industry.” Mr. Trump has raised more than US$200-million since election day touting his false claims that the election was stolen. A quarter of that goes directly to the Republican Party.

Woody Ranere in Baltimore in 2017.

But Mr. Ranere believes Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and lying have also laid bare the rotten roots of both the insurrection and the former President’s appeal. White supremacy – a system controlled and maintained by white people, for the benefit of white people – isn’t a new story in the United States. It’s a central plot line and the main economic driver in the country’s origin story. “A white supremacy system has been around in this country since the beginning,” Mr. Ranere says. “And yet these white guys are running around playing soldiers, saying they’re the victims? Trump has given them way too much oxygen, and they’ve surfaced, like worms out of the ground.” But now they are exposed to the sunlight. He was been heartened by how many people have reviled and deplored the action at the Capitol. “I think people are surprised by it, thinking, … this isn’t a joke. This isn’t just cosplay.”

It’s an open question whether the United States can return to even a semi-rational embrace of democracy as a way to guarantee that power doesn’t pool in one place with the same people for too long. “It’s inevitable that this country will continue to be more and more divided,” Mr. Ranere believes. “But as more and more diverse people are elected to the system, it will change. People weren’t talking about white privilege until a little while ago. I think a lot of people have been learning about it for the first time in the last year or two.”

In the meantime, he takes comfort in the fact that the system worked, and that the Democrats will control the presidency and Congress. “Getting Mitch McConnell out of there is about as good as getting Trump out.” It wasn’t just a question of their policies. It was a matter of their incivility, their uncivic lust for power at any cost.

After all, his son is seven now and starting to look more closely at the world around him. “I’m so glad he doesn’t have to grow up with Donald Trump as his first President, seeing this liar in the White House. He’ll see instead a good man and a Black female vice-president to look up to.” That will be the new place he starts from.

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