'Ambling on stage, more bronzed than usual, he raises a fist of defiance to one section of the crowd' (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

April 16, 2024   6 mins

John has PTSD. The 78-year-old is a Vietnam war veteran, but that’s not the source of his trauma — at least according to his t-shirt. PTSD, in fact, stands for “Pretty Tired of Stupid Democrats”, which is why John has made the 560-mile pilgrimage from his home in Wilmington, North Carolina to Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. He is here, along with thousands of others, to support “the best president of our lifetime”, who is holding his final rally before travelling to New York to face trial over an alleged hush money scheme. “It’s a bogus trial like the rest of them,” John says. “But at least he’s still coming to places like these — he’ll never stop doing that”.

Schnecksville might seem like an odd choice of venue: barely 3,000 people live here and until recently, the land was home to 1,800 acres of apple, pear and peach orchards. The politics of the area, though, are far from conventional. Schnecksville is in Lehigh County, a swing region in a battleground state that Biden won by roughly 80,000 votes in 2020 and Trump won by an even smaller margin (45,000) in 2016. It is so competitive that the neighbouring Northampton County voted for Obama, Trump, and then Biden in 2012, 2016 and 2020 respectively. What happens in this region could presage what happens elsewhere in the country later this year.

The mood here is buoyant. I arrive at 4pm, roughly four hours before Trump was due to speak but at least eight hours after his most devoted followers arrived. “I got here at 6am,” Sarah Wyncer tells me. “But there were still a good few hundred people ahead of me”. Wyncer points to a queue snaking through muddy fields lined with pick-up trucks draped in Trump regalia, which range from the heroic (Trump superimposed onto Rambo’s body) to the profane (“#FJB”).

Reports of Iran’s drone strikes on Israel slowly filter through the crowd, but the news does not dampen the mood. If anything, it gees them up. “Fuck Joe Biden” chants ripple down the line moments before Trump takes to the stage. Those who can’t get into the main area climb on top of gravel heaps, JCB diggers and pick-up trucks to get a better view of their man.

At around 8pm, an hour late, the former President finally takes to the stage. Blaring from every speaker is Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless America” and a sea of red Maga hats bob from side to side in unison. Ambling on stage, more bronzed than usual, he raises a fist of defiance to one section of the crowd and applauds another. He milks the atmosphere, shuffling from one side of the stage to the other, until he slows to a standstill. “The people of Israel are under attack right now,” booms the former President. “That’s because we’ve shown great weakness. It would not have happened if we were in office”. 

He chews on every syllable, repeating words he fears may not get a reaction: “they said inflation was transitory
 they said it was temporary — temporary, they said”. Everything is in the superlative — Biden is the “worst president of our lifetime”, Trump is the “greatest” — and the tangents remain as delightfully esoteric as ever. “Gettysburg, what an unbelievable battle that was,” he drawls. “It was so interesting and so vicious and so horrible and so beautiful in so many different ways
 Gettysburg — wow.”

Any time Trump, ever the impresario, senses that he’s losing the crowd, he quickly returns to the classics: inflation, crime, the border and, of course, “crooked” Joe. “Everything he touches turns to shit,” he states. “We’re like a house that’s burning down and it all happened in the last three years.” The crowd howl in agreement, splintering Trump’s comments with whoops, jeers and screams of “USA”. Megan (not her real name) nods along solemnly. She is standing next to me with her puppy called January (named after the 6th) nibbling at her ankle. I ask why she thinks the house is burning down. “Globalists took over,” she says. “And if Trump loses, then they’re going to be back in power once again. The streets will be lawless.”

Megan says all this with a kind of casual insouciance, as if the prospect of civil unrest was just another item on her shopping list that she needed to pick up. The 56-year-old tells me that she’s been in and out of prison, but likes Trump because he “lays down the law”. “Look, I’ve had my issues but I’ve always respected the police,” she says. “During the BLM era, the police were treated like dirt and that appalled me. Trump was the only one trying to bring back some respect for our men in blue.” 

Megan introduces me to her fiancĂ©, who works in roofing. He used to run his own business, but claims he was undercut by cheaper — and illegal — Mexican labour. “During Obama’s presidency, I had a pretty good business,” says Jake (not his real name). “But during the second term I could see all this cheap work coming through and it was hurting my bottom line. Everyone kept telling me to just use the Mexican workers and save on costs. But I didn’t think that was fair to my American workers.” Eventually, Jake had to close the business. “Nobody seemed to care about how bad the problem was — until Trump came”. 

As voters in Pennsylvania, people like Megan and Jake will have an outsize influence on the election. The state has 19 electoral votes, but it remains a toss-up as to where those votes may go in 2024. According to the RCP poll of polls, Biden has the slenderest of advantages over Trump: 0.1%, which is why the President will be making three different stops of his own across the state this month. 

Both men will be fighting hard for the overwhelmingly white, working-class vote in the state. Historically, Lehigh Valley was populated by the Pennsylvania Dutch, described by one local historian as “the most conservative people in America”. But, in recent years, the make-up of the region has begun to change. Over the last couple of decades, the Valley has become the East Coast’s “supply-chain empire” for transporting one-click goods on interstate highways. Given its proximity to New York and Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley serves as a node for 100 million people living on the eastern seaboard to receive their deliveries, bringing new jobs and revenue to the region. 

That has also caused a population boom, much of it driven by Latinos who moved to the area in search of work. Allenstown is now a majority-Hispanic city — a demographic that Trump has been actively trying to court. A recent poll found that the GOP contender now edges out Biden among Hispanic voters, with 46% supporting the former president. A separate poll shows that 42% of Latinos now support a border wall — up 12 points from December 2021. In a state where Latino political power is growing, this could pose a threat to Biden’s re-election prospects.

“No one can replace him”

But it is not his appeal to Latinos that makes Trump rallies so different from any other. It is how he electrifies a segment of the population in a way that no other politician can. These are people who weren’t interested in politics before Trump and, troublingly, won’t be interested in it after him. In some respect, it is a revolt of the disenfranchised. So much was confirmed by Megan, who told me that she hadn’t cast a single vote for a politician until Trump arrived in 2016, and she likely wouldn’t cast another after he left. “No one can replace him,” she says.

Unfortunately, though, someone does have to replace him. Standing among the Trump faithful on that chilly Pennsylvania night, I asked several supporters who they would vote for after Trump left the Oval Office for the last time in January 2029 (assuming he won). A few murmured “Vivek”, while others mooted — semi-seriously — a third term. “The forces of evil are circling, but Trump can at least delay it if he’s in office,” Megan said. “I’m a Christian and I believe that the forces of good will ultimately prevail. So even after he goes, I have faith the good will prevail.” Yet what form this “good” would take remained unclear. 

Not everyone’s here for Trump. One man wearing a Maga hat cautiously beckons me to one side as I am leaving. “I heard your accent — why are you here?” I tell him, before he confesses to me that he’s an undercover Biden fan. He pulls off his Maga hat as if it is some great disguise: “but I’ve got to admit — this guy can talk”. And even though he talked for over an hour, it wasn’t long enough for some. “That was one of the best speeches I’ve ever listened to,” a father told his son, while another stood transfixed, as if trying to commit the whole thing to memory. 

Despite the festive atmosphere it was hard to ignore an element of despair that seemed to flow through the crowd too. Nearly everyone I spoke to expressed doubt that “they” would let Trump win, and even if he did, “they” would be working to bring him down. “Whether it’s in the courtroom or at the ballot box, they will never let it happen,” Cindy, a bartender, tells me. “It’s just too important to leave to chance”. But what will she do if Trump loses — or isn’t allowed to win? “Go back to serving beer, I guess.”

So this is how the world ends: not with a bang, but a whimper. If we really are on the cusp of civil war, then few soldiers-in-waiting were to be found in this crowd. Once the show was over, the crowd quietly made its way home. The same surely won’t be said of Trump. 

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.