Trump’s Heartland

A china plate with a painting of President John Kennedy, Jackie, and the children hung in the place of honor above Grandma Mabel’s TV in the family room. She kept Kennedy’s autograph in her jewelry box. Scrawled in green ink on a grimy piece of plastic, my grandfather scored the autograph when Kennedy made a campaign stop in Muncie, Indiana, my hometown, in 1960. Grandpa Dale, who died of lung cancer when I was three or four, was a sheriff’s deputy at the time, assigned to Kennedy’s security detail.

Grandma had been a stay-at-home mom, raising their only child, my mother, Jerri. But she took on odd jobs as a bookkeeper. One of them was for the United Auto Workers Local, to which my grandfather belonged when he worked at BorgWarner, which manufactured transfer cases and other auto parts. I have a vague, probably unreliable memory of going to the Local’s headquarters with her one day to drop off some papers. I remember a lot of brilliant, gauzy sunlight in the room, which is why I think it’s unreliable. I see the room in my mind in the same reverential way she talked about the UAW.

She knew just about every Democratic officeholder in town, and she served as an election judge for the party, election after election.

Despite everything, my grandmother would have voted for Donald Trump in Indiana’s pivotal May 3 primary if she’d been alive. She would have helped seal his claim to the GOP nomination.

Grandma died unexpectedly late in President Bill Clinton’s first term. At 86, she took a nap one day and her heart just stopped.

She remained thankful for FDR and the New Deal throughout her life for saving her and her people from extreme poverty. But under Clinton, the Democratic Party embraced Wall Street and made a religion out of globalism. Its concern for the collapsing, blue-collar middle class was fake. I can’t imagine what she made of her party as she read the newspaper or watched the news with the volume turned almost all the way up.

A little more than two years ago, my step-father died of throat cancer. I flew into Indianapolis from San Antonio the day after to help Mom. She and a friend, who drove an old pickup, met me at the airport and drove me to Muncie at dusk. Louise took what I’d always thought of as the back way into Muncie, through Daleville and over country roads. Myself, I would’ve taken the highway in. The area had been hit with its worst blizzard in years and the narrow roads were iced over, snow swirling over their surfaces. It was dark when we drove into Muncie, and there were few streetlights on the road we were on. But it didn’t matter. I’d made only a few visits since moving away in 1989 with my wife and our kids — first to Bloomington, then Indianapolis and San Antonio, where we live now. But I’ll always know State Road 32.

To the right stood a long, low pitch-black rectangle against the piled snow and lesser darkness. That was the BorgWarner plant that closed in 2009 and remained empty. On the other side of the road was the cemetery where Grandma and Grandpa were buried. The plant had hung in the background, with all the shiny cars and trucks in the parking lot, when I visited Grandpa’s grave with Grandma.

A tornado never hit Muncie when I was a kid because, according to legend, Chief Muncee had blessed some bend of the White River, which runs through town. I was always fuzzy on the details. Nevertheless, I imagined a magic, invisible wall with tornadoes slamming ineffectually against it. It’s too bad Chief Muncee didn’t foresee deindustrialization. Protection against that would have been a much better gift.

That said, he may never have even existed. I learned recently there’s no solid evidence that Chief Muncee was anything other than a myth. Despite our many mobile homes, maybe we just got lucky with the tornadoes.

Muncie, a city in East-Central Indiana that made auto parts and other stuff, went to shit as manufacturing moved overseas and automobile production in the United States shifted to the Sunbelt states where labor was cheaper and non-unionized.

A low point was in 2009. A few minutes into a phone call with Mom, she said the mayor was talking about turning off hundreds of streetlights because the city couldn’t afford to keep them on. As Mom laughed — a “What can ya do?” kind of laugh — I imagined Muncie collapsing into darkness, with the streets lorded over by stray dogs and hopeless, violent teenage boys in muscle shirts.

Thankfully, the city council somehow found the funds to keep the lights on and stave off chaos for a while.

In 1970, the year after I was born in Ball Memorial Hospital, the Muncie area’s population was nearly 130,000. By 2015, the number of residents had dwindled to a little less than 117,000 people. Income is even grimmer than the population loss. Muncie has a median household income of $30,530, with one-third of the people living in poverty. The unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in March. Statewide, it was 5 percent.

I don’t know how much of Muncie’s troubles registered with my grandmother. Surely she noticed the anxiety setting in, felt the decline, despite the bulwark of her habits — the meetings of Amaranth and Eastern Star, her weekly hair appointment, her scheduled trips to the store. If nothing else, she experienced the trouble through my mother, who was divorced with me and my sister in tow, a drug addict, and either unemployed or underemployed, depending on the status of her luck.

Mom died of heart failure on January 30, 2015. She was in the throes of delirium tremens, and died alone in the bathroom of her small, heavily-mortgaged house. After a few months in Indiana state prison for theft in 1988, she beat drug addiction but years later had become an alcoholic.

Throughout my childhood, much of which I spent at my grandmother’s pink-and-white house on Hollywood Avenue, I watched her grow bitter. Never toward me, though. We watched the Cincinnati Reds together. We’d each have a Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza, she’d give me a frosted glass of beer, and we’d watch the game. She gave me quarters to read and to tie my shoes. But Mom was something else. My grandmother’s disappointment and confusion — how could her daughter turn out that way? — poisoned their relationship. So did my mother’s addiction to Valium and other prescription drugs, and her constantly bleeding my grandmother of money.

As Grandma’s bitterness deepened, her body began failing. Her hearing got worse, and she experienced stiff joints and mild vertigo every now and then.

I imagine her personal turmoil made her see Muncie’s decline more acutely. Everything was going to pot, as she’d say.

Muncie and the thousand cities and towns like it are the Waffle Houses at which Trump feeds. Disillusioned and angry, longing for a security that had been real but that’s gone now, the hurt raw, not eased much by Jesus. Suffering is not a virtue in Muncie.

My grandmother would have said, “Yes, finally — someone who knows what he’s talking about. Why can’t we be great again?”

The wall would have made good sense to her, and so would the ban on Muslims.

Trump’s racism would have pulled a trigger in my grandmother’s brain. She was too ladylike to ever say “nigger,” at least in front of me or my sister. But she routinely referred to African Americans as “jiggs” and “blackies.” Whenever Jesse Jackson appeared on TV news — which he did much, much more in the ’70s and ’80s than today — she would go apoplectic. Apart from the racism that was in the air in Indiana at that time, I think she blamed the break-up of the New Deal coalition on MLK and his disciples, including Jackson, and black nationalism, though she wouldn’t have thought about it like that.

In most ways, Trump would have been her man.

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