Old America Turns Bleak, Young America Comes to the Rescue: Reflections on the 2020 Election
It’s easy to dismiss someone who supports Donald Trump as ignorant or stupid but it’s really not that simple. There aren’t just two Americas, there are hundreds and each exists within a bubble. People tend to live near others with a similar worldview, meaning that the people you come into contact with will agree with you on most things. It can become a dangerous thing. Not just for people trapped in a cycle of hate, but for any who decide to stay well within their comfort zone. It’s easy for people from New York and other major cities to judge people in rural communities, because they live in two different worlds. Over the years I developed a respect for these people: farmers, union workers and what’s left of the American middle class. Over the course of the 2020 election I travelled all across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in an effort to understand its people. I settled on documenting the efforts by young activists working on the ground to turn out their peers because I felt I could relate to them the best. I had previously made a documentary on the youth behind the election of Antonio Delgado in NY19, an upstate congressional district that has a lot in common with the Commonwealth.
The decline of American industry left a lot of people out to dry, and they were willing to listen to anyone who promised them a return to prosperity. Still, despite Hillary’s failure in 2016 — and it was immense — I never thought they would fall for the Don’s Con. I’ve studied the Trump family from Fred to Donald and through it all they’ve always appeared as obvious grifters and phonies. It genuinely astounded me how many people bought into his ideas, but it was just indicative of how desperate they were.
Deep down, white Trump voters in rural Pennsylvania are scared. They know this is their last gasp. We are headed towards a complete multicultural, multiracial society. A society that is becoming increasingly urban and secular. Trump offered a trip through a time machine back to the 1950’s or even further to the industrial boom of the late 19th and early 20th century. God, it makes me sad. Here you have the descendants of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy, Ireland, coming here, being discriminated against, finding a place for themselves and immediately looking for someone below them to blame. It’s not their fault these people didn’t find the American dream. It’s a never ending cycle. Everything was about (white) American greatness. Of course the Trump machine makes overtures to the Black and Hispanic community. But it’s tokenism. It’s trivial.
Throughout my travels in central and western Pennsylvania, I hit three Trump rallies, but I only made it past the press pool roadblock at one. Both candidates were very fond of Johnstown in Cambria County. It has a lot of symbolic elements to it. Not as extreme as the backdrop of Bethlehem Steel, but pretty close.
As in Altoona there is a great train yard which was the center of the old industry. Johnstown has more factories than Altoona. Some of the steel mills are still in operation, employing about ten thousand souls. On one trip to the city to cover a Biden rally, I stopped in Coney Island Hot Dogs, probably one of the busiest places on the block. I had parked in a nearby garage where they still had parking meters. Being a New Yorker makes you really paranoid about parking, so I asked the gentleman making my chili dog if I should be concerned about getting a ticket. He laughed and said “no one’s worked at that garage for 50 years.”
COVID: IN THE BAD DAYS OF FALL 2020, IT WAS THE DIVIDING LINE
The differences between a Biden rally and a Trump extravaganza were stark. The Dems campaign was largely defined by the Biden people trying their hardest to create safe events for everyone, not to mention their elderly and at-risk candidate. Trump rallies only showed lip service to the idea of masks and gave up completely on the idea of social distancing. A few poor volunteers had to stand in the front of the entrance encouraging people to pull their masks up and even handed out free ones. It was a futile effort when the star of the show, Trump himself, made fun of them and never wore one on stage. Younger Trump supporters who I talked to seemed more inclined to wear masks. It was really based on social cues. As they walked in people feigned to put the masks up but as soon as they got into the main body of supporters the masks came off.
Walk into a diner in a place like Bedford, PA, off the Penn Turnpike, right in the middle of the state, with your mask on. You’ll be the freak everyone stares at. It became cultural overnight. Just get the eggs and bacon, eat it, read the paper, drink your coffee and leave. The economy of South Central Pennsylvania is tied more into West Virginia and the rest of the South. It is agrarian, filled with huge wooded expanses and of course, Appalachia. A majority of the mineral extraction and fracking occurs in this area.
The eastern part of the state has been influenced more by the New York/ New Jersey area. Although Trump won in places like Scranton in 2016 because of similar economic conditions to other Rust Belt parts of the state. Little hope, raging opioid crisis, traditional jobs fading away. Strip malls and commercialization rampant.
Being inside the Trump rally near Martinsburg at the Blair Airport was my only experience 15 feet from the man himself. I wanted to take it in anonymously. They are suspicious of anyone with camera gear. Their leader likes to lash out at the press of course. At past rallies I had seen from the outside, they ferried everyone in on buses to create two points of contact. The rally at the Johnstown airport had everyone park at a nearby mall and get on these buses to the airport. In Martinsburg they just let everyone drive up and park in a farmer’s cornfield. The town of Martinsburg, which is about twenty minutes from Altoona, is covered in Trump banners. Every business, including a pizzeria in the town square, has a Trump sign or banner of some kind.
Being at a rally in the last few weeks of the election campaign was like going to see Bon Jovi. The crowd wanted the hits. Since Trump had little good to talk about he talked about how he was screwed by the pandemic. He tried touting Judge Barrett for a while to the cheers of the rather large Amish and Mennonite crowd. But people were still riding the wave of the 2016 triumph, it was clear. The President didn’t hate it either. He liked to work the crowd. At the mention of the 2016 race the whole crowd immediately went to the “lock her up” chant. Trump stepped back from the podium and smiled.
The image the president’s supporters have of him is constantly reinforced by all of the images around them. From the merch depicting him as god to the depictions of him as a gun-toting Rambo-like figure. They then fly in three military style Osprey helicopters before he lands on Marine One, which does a loop low over the crowd. They drop him off on a red carpet that leads directly to the podium. Everyone cheers and immediately takes out their phone when he gets within view. There is a large group of coal miners that have been set up behind him. When he talks about fracking, he looks around for some workers and the crowd points him to the miners, “We Love Our Miners”. There are a lot of “Trump Loves Coal” and “Trump Loves Oil” signs around rural Pennsylvania.
There was some concern that the science based Biden approach would end up costing them in the end. It’s true that the Democrats suffered without their massive ground game of 2018. But the groundswell was still there. Some young progressives were disappointed, because at one point during the Democratic primary it felt like we had an array of good young candidates to choose from. Voters were forced into the same situation those candidates were. Stay in the race, postpone the unity moment, and risk losing to Trump; or drop out and embrace the guy everyone is telling you is most likely to win.
SALVATION: YOUNG PEOPLE FINALLY STRIKE BACK
2016 was a low-point for the youth vote, when less than half of people 18–29 voted. Young people favor Democrats at huge margins, so their absence guaranteed Donald Trump’s victory. It was a painful lesson that would not be easily forgotten. Fortunately the situation improved by the next cycle: young people came out in droves in 2018, surging to their highest turnout numbers in 50 years and helping to seize the House for the Democrats.
In Pennsylvania, a combination of third-party progressive groups and college organizations used massive in-person voter drives and door-knocking campaigns to help young people triple their turnout rates in the 2014 midterms. According to preliminary data from CIRCLE at Tufts University, youth voter turnout increased ten percent in 2020 compared to 2016. A lot of young activists got their start in 2018, organizing for campaigns or turnout groups.They emerged a hardened, determined core of people prepared to do anything to stop Trump.
During the primaries in 2020, young people initially backed Bernie Sanders and some of the other more progressive candidates.The difference this time was apparent as soon as Joe Biden was selected as the nominee. Trump unified people like never before because of how bad he was as president, especially on issues that matter most to the young. And you can’t ignore his handling of COVID or the racial justice movements of the Summer of 2020. The George Floyd protests got many people that were apolitical out into the streets and many of those protest organizations then transitioned to voter outreach.
In Pennsylvania, activists began focusing on turning out people 18–24, especially on college campuses. There was a lot of untapped potential in the youth vote because both Dems and R’s had ignored them for so long, and thousands of unregistered voters were up for grabs.Transferring to digital was a big adjustment because of the pandemic, but young people already control the digital sphere so switching to it didn’t do much harm.The difference between campaign styles was drastic: the Trump campaign continued aggressive door knocking and registration, which greatly outpaced the Dems. This was a worry for the Biden campaign, which then needed to shift to making inroads with young people.
Pennsylvania, a state that voted for Obama twice, flipped to Trump but by a mere 44,000 votes in 2016. For context, the student population of Penn State’s main campus at State College was 46,720 in 2016. The key swing state has long been the prototypical political battleground. 2020 was no different. Democrats had to rely on youth organizers to turn out the unreliable 18–25 demographic, and they did.
According to preliminary data from CIRCLE at Tufts University, youth voter turnout increased ten percent this year compared to 2016. It made all the difference.