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Gary Younge

 A Trump and Pence election sign outside a house near downtown Muncie Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
The view from Middletown: 'Trump speaks to us in a way other people don’t'

From the vantage point of the second floor of Chris Hiatt’s print shop, the prospects for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign do not look so bad. Every two weeks the Citizens of Delaware County for Good Government, a conservative group, meets here primarily to discuss campaigning on local issues.

Nationally Hillary Clinton is ahead in most polls; regionally they suggest she is mounting a challenge in states such as Utah, Georgia and even Texas, where Democrats haven’t won in decades; early voting is on balance looking promising for the DNC. But when I ask the 12 people in the room how many still think he has a shot, they nearly all raise their hands.

A reader of this project suggested I contact Hiatt, who told me: “I don’t necessarily think the polls are rigged. But I think there’s a hidden vote and people are giving the PC answer they think people want to hear rather than how they’ll actually be inclined to vote.”

Secret Trump supporters are waiting to cause an earthquake, goes the theory. To the CDCGG members present, the alternative – that Trump loses – is unthinkable. “If she gets elected ...” says Judy Campbell and then shakes her head where the end of her sentence might be. “People can’t seriously be thinking about voting for that woman. I mean what in the world ... What can they be thinking?”

“A lot of what he’s done and said is indefensible,” says Jim Arnold. “But when you compare it to what she’s done they’re not comparable.”

“It makes me worry about the intelligence of some of these people,” says Margaret Niccum.

“Well you can’t fix that,” says Arnold.

More than 50 million people are likely to vote for Trump, even if he goes down in flames. It would be unhelpful to generalise about all of them, reducing them to caricature only to dismiss them. Something is happening here and it behooves people to try to understand it, whether or not they like it. From interviews with a range of Trump voters in Muncie, it’s clear most are not blind to his flaws, even if they wouldn’t necessarily describe them in the manner of his detractors.

The CDCGG was originally set up to repeal property taxes in Indiana which the group argued were exorbitant. After a successful campaign, they gained the ear of the governor and won a cap on property taxes statewide, and transformed themselves into a local group rallying around local issues. Mostly small businessmen and retirees, half male, half female, all white, it feels like a reconstitution of the Tea Party.

Good government, in this context, means small government; with Muncie’s Democratic administration under investigation by the FBI for corruption they feel like they are pushing at an open door and would push harder if the local Republican hierarchy were not so reticent. The atmosphere in the room is cordial; these are not just ideological allies, with a keen sense of civic engagement – two are running for local office and the conversation touches on water rates, sewage rates and teachers’ contracts among other things – but also friends.

Only a couple had wanted Trump to win in the Republican primaries earlier this year. Most preferred Ted Cruz, the Texan who has tried to style himself as a Reaganesque disruptor of Republican politics, or Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator from Florida. “I would have been happier with almost anyone else,” says Arnold. “I wanted [Ben] Carson, then Cruz then Rubio. Trump would have almost been my last choice.”

When I ask if they are worried that he will do something embarrassing again they mostly laugh and nod.

 Trump window sticker in Muncie. Photograph: Gary Younge for the Guardian
Trump window sticker in Muncie. Photograph: Gary Younge for the Guardian

Dave Jamison, who is retired and voted for Obama twice, says he thought Trump was an “arrogant SOB when he was on The Apprentice”, but his hunting buddies in southern Indiana persuaded him to take a second look and now he’s thinking seriously of voting for him.

Jamie Walsh, who is in her early 30s and training to be a mortician, variably describes Trump as “garbage” and a “word-butcher”. Walsh, who got in contact with the Guardian through this project, grew up in Muncie but moved away because she saw drugs, single parenthood or incarceration claiming her peers on the southside – the white working class part of town – and felt the need to escape. She now lives in the Indianapolis suburb of Brownsburg and probably would have voted for John Kasich, one of the more moderate Republicans in the primaries, if she had registered for a party. “I hated Donald Trump during the primaries,” she says. “He was a mockery.”

Walsh has only voted in a presidential race once: for Obama in 2008. She is likely to vote for Trump now, but says of him: “He’s 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.”

One local senior Republican tells me privately: “Look, he’s a bully. Everyone can see that.”

The question of why they would vote for a man of whom they apparently have such a low opinion brings us to something else that connects most of them: their loathing of Hillary Clinton.

It is a disdain of such depths that not a single virtue can be salvaged; a contempt nurtured and tended with such animus and anomie over the decades that she has been in the public eye that any redeeming features she might claim have long been stripped away. “Unlike Hillary, he hasn’t done anything criminal,” says Hiatt.

Niccum believes this moment is the culmination of a longstanding plot hatched by the Clintons several years ago. “She’s been planning this since she was in college,” she says.

“How do you let all this stuff go?” asks Walsh, referring to things Clinton has been accused of of late. “That’s crazy stuff going on in these emails if you read ’em. This is all the stuff the crazy people have been talking about for years and now it turns out it’s most likely true ... She’s a professional politician. How do you make millions of dollars as a politician? You’re supposed to be a civil servant.”

Jamison is rare among Trump supporters I’ve met, in saying he could vote for Hillary, if Trump were “to go off the deep end again”.

But for the overwhelming majority, Hillary hatred is their driving force. What they see as the apocalyptic scenario of Clinton running the country has them reaching for the largest immovable object to stop her. This cannot simply be dismissed as misogyny. Until just a couple weeks ago Clinton and Trump were running almost even among white women, while white women without college degrees still favour him 51-42.

“What has she ever done for women?” asks Campbell. “Just look at the kind of women she has standing behind her.”

When Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman” at the last debate he not only faithfully reflected their sentiments – he actually understated it. They do not only think she is dishonest, they think she is a criminal, scheming, cheating snob who will sell America to the highest bidder and pocket the proceeds.

 The Indiana Steel & Wire Co used to employ 300 people but closed operations in 2002 and now only two staff members remain on site. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
The Indiana Steel & Wire Co used to employ 300 people but closed operations in 2002 and now only two staff members remain on site. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

“They look at things through the global order,” says Will Statom, the head of the Delaware Republican party. “A lot of people are looking at Hillary Clinton as nothing good. It’s laughable that she can relate to the middle class – laughable. They’re elitists. They have always have been elitists. They were elitists in Arkansas. They have just found a way to get ultra rich with that sham called the Clinton Foundation.”

There are policies of Trump’s they like too. “Underneath all the crap there are decent ideas but people don’t see them,” says Walsh. “You have to go looking for them. That’s his own fault. His position on tax reform, trade reform – they’re not bad. And the plan to privatise the Veterans Administration, that’s a really good plan.”

The US Department of Veterans Affairs is the government agency that is supposed to provide services, including healthcare, to those who have served in the military. It is so notoriously badly run that Jon Stewart made improving it a campaign on The Daily Show. Walsh’s husband served in Iraq and has PTSD and hearing loss, following an IED explosion. The VA care he is entitled to is hard to access and inadequate when he does get it, so he uses his employer’s health insurance instead.

“Once they get home the VA just hands them pills and sends them home,” says Walsh. “But psychological pills aren’t one size fits all. You need therapy and treatment and they’re not getting that. It’s like a flow chart of pills. It’s a mess. We have soldiers killing themselves in epic proportions and it’s because they’re waiting for care.”

For Arnold it’s the supreme court – currently hanging in the ideological balance after the death of the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia left a four-four split between liberal and conservative judges. “That can change our lives,” he says. “I can’t see how anyone who calls themselves a Christian can vote for her. There’s Roe v Wade, LGBTQ and then she says she’s for the second amendment but then she’ll tell you all the restrictions she’ll put on gun owners.”

But the economy is the biggest issue of all in a town like Muncie, which lost much of its manufacturing base as companies moved south. About a third of what was once a thriving blue-collar town lives in poverty; huge factory plants lie abandoned, sitting like gigantic art installations depicting the post-industrial era. The broad consensus is that the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which liberalised trade between the US, Canada and Mexico, helped kill the economic life of this town: an agreement championed by Bill Clinton and supported by Hillary.

As Statom drove me around the empty factories, elegising about the loss of both jobs and communities, the tumbledown streets where his grandparents lived and the shuttered buildings where they and his father used to work, he tells me he helped load the last machines on to the trucks in nearby Anderson that took the jobs to Mexico. “I’m not anti-union,” he said. “But the unions got greedy. That was part of it. And then Nafta did the rest.”

“That’s why I like Trump,” says Jamison. “Get America back, middle-class jobs and everything. I think we need some of that.” Do you think those jobs are coming back? I ask Jamison. “No, I don’t,” he says.

The devastation wreaked by that hollowing-out is what Walsh felt the need to escape when she left Muncie. “I have friends from high school who were incarcerated for bank robbery. One of the guys I went to high school was killed not so long ago. My best friend, who has a daughter, she’s on her own. It’s just a mess. People addicted to drugs. There’s nothing to do. It’s a sad situation. It’s textbook of how you create an inner city.”

During the primaries, when all but a couple of the Republican contenders had dropped out, Trump did well on the southside where Walsh grew up. The white working class – and particularly white men without a college degree among whom he leads by a whopping 60-21 – form a significant part of Trump’s core support. But it would be a mistake to conclude from that that he has the bulk of support in these areas. Nationally, Trump supporters are generally wealthier than most Americans and considerable wealthier than those who voted for Clinton. Democrats outpolled Republicans by a significant margin during the primaries in most, if not all the southside precincts in Muncie. Bernie Sanders, the “democratic socialist” insurgent on the Democratic side, got more votes than Trump on the southside and even though Clinton lost to Sanders there, she wasn’t far behind Trump in vote totals.

“Nobody speaks up for the poor,” says Walsh, explaining Trump’s appeal to those she grew up with. “There is systemic racism but black people have advocates. Poor white people don’t. They’re afraid. They’re afraid that they’re stupid. They don’t feel racist, they don’t feel sexist, they don’t want to offend people or say the wrong thing. But for them white privilege is like a blessing and a curse if you’re poor. The whole idea pisses poor white people off because they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand.

“You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don’t have it. I understand how it works but I don’t think most people do. So when Trump says stuff, they can understand what he’s saying and he speaks to them in a way other people don’t. And then you’ve got people calling them stupid and deplorable. Well how long do you think you can call people stupid and deplorable before they get mad?”

Pictures by David Levene and Gary Younge

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