When the mayor of my hometown Huntington, Indiana (population 17,000) and his wife invited 30 local residents to come along to their beautifully restored grand house that they’d converted to a B & B to discuss presidential politics with me, I knew they were intent on getting representative but diverse points of view in the room. I knew some of those who’d be coming. I’d been one of their high school classmates back in the late 1950s in Huntington. My only visits of consequence since I graduated was to attend several high school reunions. But in reality, I’d not really spent any relaxed time in Huntington in over 56 years.
I called our evening Pie & Politics because on offer was a slice of one of 6 delicious pies that I’d collected from Grandma Sue’s much loved shop in nearby Roanoke.
But the Mayor ensured that we’d get to the politics of the evening. He introduced me and explained why I wanted to come back and find out what my old hometown really thought about the Hillary-Trump race.
I told the 29 who showed up that I began thinking about coming back after the BREXIT vote in Britain. I told them that I’d been staunchly pro-Remain and was shocked by the results. I could only rely on what the polls seemed to be anticipating. I had no gut feeling about what was truly on the minds of those living in what amounted to the British counterparts of the American Midwest or communities like Huntington that had weathered tough economic times.
I was part of the London metropolitan elite and long-time member of the expatriate community in trendy North London ( we North-Americans consider ourselves expatriates not migrants )
I didn’t have a clue what life was like in those places such as Sunderland in the North or Thanet in East Anglica that voted a resounding yes to leaving the EU.
But did I really understand any more about the place where I grew up? Was I as clueless about it as I was about political realities in Britain?
So after confiding all this to our Pie & Politics guests, I asked them to enlighten me about what was on their mind.
To my great surprise, what I heard wasn’t what I anticipated. Part of the reason may have been due to local folks being polite or also being reluctant to divulge their views to their friends and neighbours.
Out of respect to the Mayor, and especially to the Mayor’s wife, I didn’t aggressively follow-up on what they said.
Still what I expected was a knee-jerk, Fox News driven consensus that Donald Trump was the man of the hour and would throw out anything linked to Barack Obama and his “8 years of Socialist rule.”
Many of them might have been thinking that but few were that outspoken.
In fact, many those in the room were struggling. Huntington’s bankers, engineers, librarians, teachers, housewives, ministers, factory owners, journalists, and pensioners were struggling to justify what I concluded in the end would ultimately be a vote for the Republican Trump and against the Democrat Clinton. This is how Huntington voters historically cast their ballots. Having said that Barack Obama somehow carried Indiana in 2008, and Robert Kennedy won the Indiana Democratic primary in 1968.
This may have been hard-core Indiana Republican territory but their doubts about Trump the man reflected the national polls and the highest negative scores in recent memory compiled by leaders of the national parties.
An old class mate of mine, a retired lawyer and a history buff spoke for the room when he said “We are not in love with either one.”
But later he said that “it was all campaign bluster; that after all Ronald Reagan was deemed an amiable dunce.”
Many asked how the system could have produced such a terrible choice. No one in the room proclaimed any great admiration for Trump or said he or she would vote for him with enthusiasm.
But if they were luke warm about Trump, they were white hot in their loathing of Hillary Clinton. When I asked whether there was any sense of history being made in voting for the first woman president, there were shouts of no and from one woman a loud ” no, no, no.” She’d held a grudge against Hillary for 20 years, she said. She couldn’t forgive her for her comments when she was interviewed on Sixty Minutes along with Bill Clinton during the New Hampshire primary ( 1988) after the disclosures about his long-term affair with Jennifer Flowers. Hillary’s disdainful comment aimed at housewives, or so she interpreted it, left a bitter taste in her mouth. ” She set back women, the right of women, to choose what we want to do and stay at home.”
There were many references, about Hillary being dishonest and a liar. (Earlier in the week a librarian in nearby Fort Wayne told me she’d like to have a sign saying Hillary to Jail in her front yard. Indeed I saw one in Huntington.)
For the former editor of the Huntington Herald Press newspaper it was down to who will name the next justices on the Supreme Court. He doesn’t want a Clinton in the White House making those appointments.
The few dissenting voices, the few who parted company with the consensus and even described themselves as Democrats were likely to wind up voting for Hillary. One woman who’d not grown up in Huntington said that ” 20 years ago to say that you were a Democrat would get you accused of being a Communist.” So times had changed for the better she said.
And a local minister was the only person in the room to say something about race. His dilemma was that ” for my friends of colour in the United States, one candidate ( Trump) would be very bad for them; while my friends of colour overseas have another concern: the other candidate (Clinton) is a strong devoted hawk who has no qualms about intervening. ( A reference to Hillary’s vote to support the invasion of Iraq)
Hearing a local minister say anything of substance about race and colour came as a pleasant surprise given Huntington’s history of being classified as a ” Sundown Town.”
Would a president as questionable in character as Trump or as despised as Hillary make a difference to their lives in small town Indiana? If they were afraid of Trump having his finger on the nuclear button and obliterating Indiana, they weren’t expressing those fears. Nor did they express anti-migrant views, that is during the formal discussion. Several did come up to me afterwards and express their opposition to migrants and said that’s why they liked Trump.
Nor did anyone seem to think that the presence of Indiana’s governor, Mike Pence on the Republican ticket as the vice-presidential nominee was of importance. He was never mentioned.
There was no sense of we’re doomed with either Trump or Clinton.
Nor did they seen to connect the quality of life that they spoke passionately about- protecting the values that let their children live safe and healthy lives in small-town Huntington- to who won the presidency. They weren’t arguing that Trump who doesn’t believe in global warming will reverse the kinds of initiatives that their energetic and environment conscious mayor has championed.
Where did they get their information that influenced their views about the candidates? I did press them about what they watched and read. But they weren’t forthcoming. One woman did say not to assume that they all sat around watching Fox News.
I thought that perhaps our “Politics and Pie” gathering was something that they did frequently in Huntington. As it turned out, no one could remember an occasion like this one,
I may not have agreed with much of what was said at Purviance House that evening but I came away feeling very positive about what I had the privilege of witnessing and how warmly I’d been received.
What was best about growing up in Huntington, Indiana is still there in the decency and likeability of so many of the people I had the opportunity to spend time with over the past few weeks.