I drove through my hometown of northeastern Pennsylvania late this May, on my way from one quarantine location to my actual apartment. As I drove, I felt the familiar warmth of my childhood stomping grounds pass over me. These are moments of nostalgia that warm me. A Tiger’s Jaw song on a rainy day. Antol’s ice cream on a hot summer day. Then, I braced myself for the Trump signs. Flags. Trump 2020 signs that went up after the 2016 election. And worst, the one house with the Trump-themed mannequin. My bleeding liberal heart was reminded of the very kind of place that made the current administration possible. My hometown. Here’s how.
I grew up in a countryside that was rich for dairy cows and sparse for humans. Every summer the corn in our fields grew taller than I had, despite having played in that same dirt. This felt like a convoluted metaphor for the lack of nourishment I found in my hometown. I like to think that I’m smart, or smart enough. Despite this, I still worry that I speak and read slow — even with a Master’s education.
I went to public school, which was also THE only school in our area. My preschool, elementary, middle, and high school were all in the same building. A long hallway with an indoor pool joined the elementary and junior high. Our high school adjoined the county’s trade school. I learned to weld in the same hallway that I took AP classes in. I learned to love working with my hands and love exercising my mind in the same building. We all held the same beliefs under those beige concrete brick walls — to be mediocre at best was our pipe dream. To graduate diploma in hand and go to a state school. Maybe after, returning to a halfway decent job in a nearby city. To commute from our sleepy towns. For many, the reality became to have enough for gas, a pack of menthols, and to land a job that makes more than the minimum wage. I see no shame in this either.
Perhaps it was that I was always destined to be this way. I always knew I had to make it out fo my hometown. My queer identity became one that I knew I couldn’t fight, even when accepting it meant becoming othered from my home. I always viewed myself as open-minded, knowing the experience of an outsider. For this, I felt destined to leave my hometown for higher education. To lean liberal. To welcome new perspectives. I’m curious if my peers felt this way, or if their need to leave was less compelling. Less available. The important detail that’s been left out here is that I had the means to get away. To get out. I had a middle-class upbringing and two parents who could support me if I fell on hard times. For those who didn’t?
I’m writing this from my comfortable apartment in a city that Trump has loudly declared a shithole, more than once. I ended up here in equal (or unequal) parts because of the effort I’ve exerted and the cards that I was dealt in my game of life. I was given an opportunity to leave my hometown and took it. I went to college, got a degree, and was offered a fellowship to get paid for a graduate degree. I have a stable job now and a list of things to be beyond grateful for.
This is unlike the path of my peers. While I’ve seen many take similar paths, some have not. I’ve watched friends struggle without an opportunity. In our hometown, there are few paths of upwards economic mobility. We have one manufacturing plant, one meatpacking plant, and some natural gas wells. Beyond that, you can do the minimum wage circuit through local retail chains, fast food, and restaurants. Growing up in this environment, I didn’t know what was possible — the ideas of entrepreneurship, world change, these were all lost on me. My point is that limited options exist. There is no clear path to an American dream. Rather, there exists an American lie. People work a lifetime in blue-collar jobs just to survive. They’re sold a dream that if you work hard you will be able to thrive. Achieve your dreams. In the same vein, they’re sold a lie. This simply isn’t possible.
This opportunity doesn’t exist. My hometown doesn’t have a clear or sustainable path to wealth. Instead, it breeds poverty. The extra special kind of white poverty. The kind that is deep-seated in opioid addiction, hopelessness, and despair. This creates folks who feel oppressed and unseen, that don’t have the college education to work through this intersection of class and oppression. Instead, they seek out scapegoats to their problems. They look for the cause of this disdain. This is where Trump came in, selling them the scapegoat they were craving.
Trump seized on this opportunity. He made an effort to speak directly to these people that had felt so ignored by politicians past — and current democrats. He provided them their scapegoat. With promises of “building the wall” and “draining the swamp”, he secured their vote. Finally, someone understood their woes. Suddenly, it was the immigrants, the fake news, the democrats that were holding my hometown back. You know, despite the fact that we had virtually no immigrants in our town. The logic was lost.
Trump sold poor white America a dream. And a lie. He made them feel heard for the first time in a long time. In return, they played the election directly into his hands. While Hilary was preaching job creation through new and better green energy initiatives, Trump was spinning it into an attack on their coal and natural gas careers. When he was elected? He’s broken more promises than he’s kept.
Instead of draining the swamp, he filled it with his friends. His fancy border wall? Mexico isn’t paying and it’s falling down in places. Not to mention, large portions of the border wall already existed. Good for the economy? Even prior to the COVID-19 crisis, annual GDP has grown between 1.9%-2.3% during his presidency. This falls short of his 4% growth promise. Aside from these broken promises, he’s steered our country to disaster during a trying and unprecedented pandemic. I’ve watched a failure of national leadership and accountability steer our nation into disaster. How can I sit by and simply accept that the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans “is what it is”? I cannot.
So, what gives with the Trump 2020 signs in my hometown? It’s upsetting, to me, that this man has managed to lie to, hoodwink, and then lie again to the people I grew up with again.
The moral of this story is that I’ll take my outrage to the polls this November. I’ll be voting for an America that I believe in. One that’s rich in opportunity. One that provides not takes. If I could ask you to do one thing in my virtue signaling, it would be to vote. And when you do, ponder carefully the promises you would like to see fulfilled.
In closing, here’s a photo of some of the beauty that my hometown has to offer.