Lebanon, a town of 203 people in the geographical center of the United States, has been forgotten. It’s a place lost in the immense plains of Kansas, where history is a thing of the past.
Monday though Saturday at noon, Gladys Kennedy crosses the main street in town and goes to the Ladow store to eat potatoes and green beans. Sitting in the grocery store, the widow remembers how this was once a prosperous Midwest town – times when money flowed in abundance and the town had a hospital, a hotel, a school and even Sunday dances. It is a dream that has been in decline for decades and one that Gladys, a white Republican, is convinced that only one man can revive: President Donald J. Trump.
During the last 50 years, Republican presidential candidates have always won in Kansas
“Why? Because he is the only one who wants to change things.”
A year ago she voted for the businessman and she would do it again. Gladys is the granddaughter of the founder of Lebanon and witnessed the Great Depression; her neighbors revere her. She is 100 years old and has 32 great-grandchildren. That’s why she caused a commotion on the day she stopped drinking Pepsi-Cola.
For decades, she drank one can a day. But a month ago, she switched to Coca-Cola. The reason? To support her president. It was a small but revealing act. Pepsi is an NFL sponsor, the American football league criticized by Trump. Many of their black players kneel during the anthem in protest against racial abuse. For Trump, the gesture is an outrage. For Gladys too. “They have no right,” she states.
That is Gladys and that is how Lebanon is: a conservative bastion. This is not surprising in Kansas. For the last 50 years, Republican presidential candidates have always won in this state. Trump took 56.2% of the votes compare to Hillary Clinton’s 35.7%. A resounding difference, but small compared to the results in Lebanon. There, in the highest result seen in the town’s history, Trump took almost 82% of the votes and his rival only 15%.
It was an overwhelming victory and, when studied closely, explains one of Trump’s secrets. People went crazy over his win in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, three small states where only 77,759 votes made the difference and made him president. The theory was that the Republican, despite having 2.8 million votes less than Clinton, had won because of his popularity in the decrepit industrial belt.
There was another factor behind that triumph. The New York outsider had earned the loyalty of a giant conservative base – an achievement that allowed him to crush the opposition in towns such as Lebanon where God, homeland and family are everything.
The screaming showman – twice divorced and well known for his lack of religious fervor – needed to choose a highly religious vice president and undertook a transformation where he gave nationalism free rein and went back on past beliefs – including supporting the right to access to abortion procedures. The metamorphosis resulted in a Trump adored by the ultraconservatives and hated by the Democrats.
“Trump has abandoned the presidential tradition of bringing Americans together. As with his campaign, he lives by the motto of dividing and conquering. His only goal now is to keep his base happy,” explains Professor Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
The formula has worked. So far, those who anticipated rapid deterioration have failed. Neither the Russia scandal, nor his failure with Obamacare, nor his delirious tweets have done him harm. The polls show that after nine months his base remains intact among registered voters.
Trump is as American as they come, just like this town.
The town’s bookstore is run by 30-year-olds Sherelle and Kareena. They are both married and have small children. They admit that they lack clients, and that in a town with an average age of 51, mystery and wild-west novels are the most popular. When they are asked if they are bored, they laugh and reply that they never for lack things to do. “This is a good place to be a Christian,” they say.
For them, Trump’s devotion to God is what’s most important. “I hope he sticks around for a long time. He loves this country and will protect my values, and he will not allow abortion,” explains Sherelle, adding that she likes his tweets and insults.
“It shows that he is a man who says what he thinks; that he is not afraid to be criticized for telling the truth,” she explains.
In the Trump era it does not matter if you are accused of lying and demagoguery. The president has established a connection with his voters. His Twitter account (41.7 million followers) and his television appearances are not aimed at university elites or to the cultured city-dwellers of the East Coast. He is aware that he lost in all cities of more than 100,000 inhabitants and that his strength is the small rural towns of white and poor America. In these places, people look to the president to face the forces of evil and return the United States to splendor.
A future is what Lebanon wants. While many prefer to flee, others, such as the mayor, carpenter Rick Chapin, 62, have decided to stay. He voted for an independent candidate and is one of the few who distrusts Trump. “I don’t know where he’s going, he generates too much division,” he says. His dream is to bring an industry that will revive the town and give a boost to their per capita income, which is four times lower than the national average.
The mayor is sitting in the Ladow store, the meeting place of the town. Dana, 36, the owner’s daughter, was born in Lebanon and is one of the few locals who has traveled abroad. She spent six months in Reinosa, Mexico and two years in Zambia on an evangelistic mission. She returned from Africa pregnant with the little girl who is now running around the store. The girl’s Zambian father, Boycken, returned with Dana. He works as an electrician and is the only black man in town. “Everyone here is Republican and, of course, they only say good things about Trump,” she explains, avoiding the conversation.
Despite having a job, a child and an American wife, Boycken only counts on a temporary residence permit, but the couple are hoping to change this for a permanent one.
“Trump is going to make it difficult. He does not like immigration and he is trying to fulfill what he set out to do,” Dana says.
She does not discuss much further. She is expecting another child and is convinced that God has blessed her. Her family will live in Lebanon and they will be happy.
English version by Debora Almeida.