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Gary Younge

The archetypal US town ... downtown Muncie, Indiana. Photograph: AJ Mast/Getty Images
‘Trump hasn’t just done a good job, he’s done a great job' – the view from Muncie, Indiana

Griffin Timmerman, six, is a runner. Given the opportunity, the small, lively boy, who has autism and prefers to play on his own, would just keep going. He once ran into the road; this is one of the reasons why his family moved out of Muncie, Indiana, to the country, giving him more space and free rein for his energy.

It is also why his family paid $20,000 (£14,500) in health insurance last year, which they bought on the Obamacare exchange. For that they got, among other things, a regular assistant for Griffin, who accompanied him to school and helped him integrate socially with his peers. “It’s crazy,” says Kelsey, his father, who is an author. “It’s our biggest expense as a family. But since it got Griffin what he needed, we were prepared to pay it again this year.”

Only this year was not like other years. Since Donald Trump took office, the Republicans have not been able to get rid of Obamacare. But by eliminating many of the provisions in the legislation they have managed to make it even more expensive and less available. “There used to be three or four companies that offered what we needed,” says Kelsey. “This year there was one and it didn’t cover an in-school therapist.”

The last time I saw Kelsey, he was watching the presidential election results come in with a couple of friends. As Pennsylvania fell to Trump, and Wisconsin and Michigan wavered, the nation’s self-image changed overnight – it was not the country many thought it was. When we meet again, it is Griffin’s first day back at school without a teacher’s aide. Kelsey’s wife has been awake at night worrying about it. “Trump’s win came at great personal cost to us,” says Kelsey. “It makes it tough to drive around town and see the Trump signs and bumper stickers.”

It has been a long year since Trump’s inauguration. In Muncie, a town of 70,000 in central Indiana, where I spent a month before the last election, some things have changed. Schools have been removed from local control and taken over by the state; the leader of the local Republican party has moved to Florida; and in the town’s Kennedy library, just above the advert for a Dungeons and Dragons game day, is an advertisement for a day-long course on the subject of spotting fake news in the internet era.

Most people I speak to now ration their news consumption. For liberals, it is because they cannot bear it. “I have a very hard time watching the news now,” says Bea Sousa, 75, the former spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters of Muncie-Delaware County. “I have to limit it. I stay informed with the radio and newspapers. I’m just not sure what hunkering down into it on TV would affect, apart from damaging my own mental health.” For conservatives, it is because they do not trust it. “He could come out of the Oval Office with a cure for cancer and CNN would be talking about ‘this crazy imperfect cure’,” says Jamie Walsh, who voted for Trump. “They’ve been on full tilt for so long everybody’s just tuned them out.”

 Democrat and organic food store owner Dave Ring is thinking of running for office in the town. Photograph: AJ Mast/Getty Images
Democrat and organic food store owner Dave Ring is thinking of running for office in the town. Photograph: AJ Mast/Getty Images

Delaware County, where Muncie sits, backed Barack Obama twice before delivering Trump a double-digit victory. But much has remained the same in this town, once branded “Middletown” – the “archetypal” US town. The Democratic-controlled city council is still under investigation by the FBI for corruption, while civic organisations are still working hard to reinvent Muncie following the collapse of manufacturing.

“We’re a year down the road,” says Walsh. “I wish people would stand up, take a look at their lives and see what is so different. What have you been screaming about for a year? I struggle to find anything bad that has happened to everyday Americans and their lives.”

As Griffin’s story illustrates, quite a lot has happened to many people as a result of Trump’s policies. The status of “Dreamers” – people who were brought to the country illegally as children and have lived here all their lives – is once again in question, with protections secured by Obama now under threat; transgender troops were told they could no longer serve in the military (until the courts told them otherwise); when it comes to eight specific countries, it is harder for people with roots there to see family members because of the travel ban; more than 200,000 Salvadorans, Haitians and Nicaraguans given temporary protected status in the US following natural disasters in their countries have been ordered to leave by 2019.

For most people, though, whether they live in Muncie or not, Walsh has a point. Relatively little in their daily lives has changed materially as a result of Trump’s election. Given his explosive agenda – he made 38 promises for his first 100 days alone – you might think his base would be disappointed by the lack of progress. But there are two surprising things about those who voted for Trump in Muncie.

The first is that every Trump voter I speak to thinks he is doing a good job. Since only one of them voted for him in the primaries, they cannot be written off as core supporters. Among achievements cited are cutting taxes; deregulating; putting a conservative on the supreme court who will oppose abortion rights; defeating Isis; and presiding over jobs growth and a record high on the stock market. “I don’t just think he’s done a pretty good job,” says Ted Baker, executive director of The Innovation Connector, which provides office space, advice and support for local entrepreneurs. “I think he’s done a great job. It’s not easy when you have the mainstream media in your country battling you all the time.”

This particular set of Trump voters defies caricature. Some do a lot of charity work. One is spoken of highly by everyone from Bernie Sanders supporters to community activists in Whitely, the black area of town. Brad Daugherty, a small business owner who voted for Trump because he favoured less business regulation and wanted an anti-abortionist on the supreme court, carries new pairs of warm socks with him in his car in case he meets homeless people. Walsh is a working-class woman who backed Obama in 2008 and told me, shortly before she voted for Trump in 2016: “[He is] a 70-year-old white man. He’s been supported in bigotry his entire life. He’s been validated his entire life. And people wonder why he acts like this. No wonder he acts like this.” Daugherty seriously considered voting for the Libertarian party. Nearly all made the choice to vote for Trump with a heavy heart – none could bear Hillary Clinton.

 Trump man ... executive director Ted Baker. Photograph: AJ Mast/Getty Images
Trump man ... executive director Ted Baker. Photograph: AJ Mast/Getty Images

They seem far more generous to him at this stage of his presidency than I recall Obama voters being at the end of his first year. Arguably, that is because Obama inherited an economic crisis that had not yet reached bottom, whereas Trump inherited a strong economy on its way up. But it is also because, while Obama tried to damp down the expectations engendered by his victory, Trump has governed in the same tone as he campaigned.

They blame a lot of the negative coverage not on Trump, but on the media. They give him a pass on much of his bloviation and bluster on the grounds that “he’s not a politician”. Indeed that’s ultimately what they like about him. “President Trump is a disrupter,” says Baker. “And I felt politics needed some disruption. Now disruption’s never easy. But it is important.”

The evidence from Muncie is anecdotal but it chimes with national surveys. On the one hand Trump has the worst approval ratings at this stage of his presidency in modern polling. But, while there has been some tapering off, so far his base remains loyal. In November, while his tax cuts hung in the balance, 82% of those who voted for him said they would do so again and 85% of Republicans approved of the job he was doing.

The second surprising thing is that, with one exception, they voted for him even though they did not particularly like him. “There’s lots of things he’s said that I can’t defend,” says Daugherty, referring to Trump’s “pussy-grabbing” comments. “And I’m not going to try to.” Talking about Trump’s tweets, Daugherty says: “He just keeps opening his mouth and spews out word-vomit and I cringe, because he doesn’t have a filter. You can think things. You don’t have to put them out there.”

Walsh says, with a smile: “He’s completely embarrassed the United States more than a handful of times. He’s like your drunk uncle at a party.”

But they weigh his boorish behaviour against what he has done and what he might do. “He wouldn’t be someone I’d want to socialise with,” says one woman who did not wish to be named. “I don’t appreciate his bad manners and his bullying. But I do appreciate his business and negotiating skills.”

 For most people, in Muncie or not, little in their daily lives has changed. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
For most people, in Muncie or not, little in their daily lives has changed. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Walsh puts it more bluntly. “I would take an arsehole doctor who was going to fix me over a nice guy who wouldn’t. The nice guy doesn’t always get things done.”

This is new territory. As head of state, the president is a figurehead of sorts – the personification of a national aspiration and mindset in a given moment. Dwight Eisenhower’s military persona at the height of the cold war, Kennedy’s youth and glamour in the 60s, Obama’s global upbringing and multiracial identity following a period of diplomatic isolation and racial division were all carefully crafted images that chimed with the times. That these men should exhibit “character” befitting the office was considered important.

That was not unproblematic. Assumptions of what that “character” might be is loaded with a range of prejudices rooted in broader inequalities. Yet it is hard to imagine that Clinton or Obama could have had five children from three marriages and display flashes of anger, as Trump does, but still be considered viable candidates. Trump may be faithfully reflecting the belligerent, parochial mood of a deeply divided nation – but, even if that were true, many of those who appreciate him most are not impressed. Presidents are supposed to be relatable to, if not entirely.

In November, a few civic organisations in Muncie held a non-partisan programme, Candidates for the Future, to educate people about what they needed to know if they wanted to run for local office. Hoping for 30 to 35 people, they planned two weeks of radio ads to promote it. After four days, they were fully subscribed.

“We completely underestimated it,” says Mitch Isaacs, executive director of Shafer Leadership Academy, one of the groups that organised the event. “People want to make a difference. That’s the zeitgeist and we managed to tap into that.”

Dave Ring, owner of the Downtown Farmstand, an organic food store and deli that uses locally grown produce, catered the event. One evening, he takes me to the American Legion, where Team Democrat are holding a meeting of about 30 people. These are dissident local Democrats who started a caucus within the party in 2010 to challenge what they saw as the corrupt grip of the Muncie machine. Ring, who backed Sanders in the primary, is now seriously considering running for office.

 ‘He’s completely embarrassed the United States more than a handful of times. He’s like your drunk uncle at a party,’ says Trump voter Jamie Walsh. Photograph: VIEW press/Corbis via Getty Images
‘He’s completely embarrassed the United States more than a handful of times. He’s like your drunk uncle at a party,’ says Trump voter Jamie Walsh. Photograph: VIEW press/Corbis via Getty Images

He says he has been thinking about it for a while, but many Democrats I speak to have become much more politically engaged since I left. This has mostly been due to local issues. A lot of effort went into trying to prevent the state from taking over the local school board, which many fear will lead to further racial and class segregation. Others are working on gerrymandering, which has delivered Republicans a huge majority in the state house. Membership of anti-racist group Race Muncie and the League of Women Voters has swelled.

Beth Hawke, 57, who went to DC with her daughters for the Women’s March, has been making calls to defend Obamacare. “When Trump won I thought: ‘I really need to do something.’ I’ve always been active in my community over schools and things like that, but the last election I actively participated in was Gary Hart [in 1984]. The march was cathartic. I hadn’t really done things like this since my student days.”

Indiana, which leans heavily Republican, has a Democratic senator whose seat is crucial to any chance of the Democrats taking over the Senate in November. Beth’s husband, Jim, 55, has signed up to campaign for the Democrats, which is not something he contemplated in previous elections.

Also at the meeting are a few supporters of Muncie Resists, which emerged shortly after the inauguration to campaign for social justice and against the Trump agenda. About 70 people showed up to their first meeting, after which they held town hall meetings on healthcare, gerrymandering and Black Lives Matter. Next year, they plan to orientate towards electoral work: registering voters, getting out the vote and possibly endorsing candidates.

The left is not alone in this surge of activism. At the Candidates for the Future event, participants were asked to share their political leanings on a form. Isaacs says the split was broadly 60% left and 40% right. During one interview, the Tea Party Express called, asking for a donation to “stop career politicians” in Washington. But there is already some evidence nationally that a resurgent liberal-left could have electoral consequences. In Virginia in November an increased turnout, particularly among the young, who increasingly skew Democratic, helped deliver not only the governorship but also many house seats. Similarly, in last month’s Alabama senate race, an increased black and youth turnout secured a narrow Democratic victory against Republican Roy Moore, who had been accused of child molestation.

More often than not, in Muncie at least, the left’s response has emerged from a pervasive sense of psychic frailty. Most have found the past year traumatic. Morgan Aprill, who used to run the Progressive Student Alliance and, since graduating, helps with a chapter of Food Not Bombs, could not get out of bed for a week after the election; she was so down that she almost went to see a doctor. “I’m 24 years old. How sad is it that I’m this young and feel this miserable?” she says as her eyes well up.

Most refer, in some way, to managing their anxieties over a year in which every day has brought new drama and previously unimaginable presidential posturing. “He’s got everybody anxious,” says Cornelius Dollison, one of the town’s most celebrated community organisers. “Every morning we’re waking up and thinking: what did he do now?”

Very few could bring themselves to watch the inauguration. Intriguingly, in several interviews, nobody brings up Russia, Charlottesville or the Take a Knee protests, although all have opinions on them when I raise them. Most, if not all, mention North Korea, although that could be because Trump issued his “bigger button” jibe at Kim Jong-un the day after I arrived. While Democrats are motivated because they lost, there seems precious little analysis of why they lost.

Indeed, Trump’s tweets and demeanour come up far more than his tax bill or his efforts at deregulation. People often relate his most egregious offences while laughing, only occasionally chilled by the knowledge that this is real. He is the man the country chose.

“I hoped that after he won he would sober up to the demands of his office, like a drunk dunking their head in the water,” says Kelsey. “But it’s just far worse than I imagined it could be and is having real consequences. Maybe we had to go through this to get to a better place. I just hope he doesn’t do too much permanent damage in the meantime.”

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