election 2016

What It Felt Like to Spend Last Night in Trump Country

Arizona. Photo: Peter Carroll/Getty Images/First Light

My wife and I spent election evening with a bunch of Trump voters in a little café in the small, unincorporated town near the White Mountains of Arizona.

Over the time my wife and I have been out here (I’m working on a book, the events of which largely took place nearby), I’ve met many residents of the area, almost all of whom I’ve gotten along with quite well. Almost everyone seems to get a kick out of the fact that I am from Brooklyn. When they ask me what I do, I reply by saying, “I am a member of the mainstream media.” This almost gets a look of surprise: like what am I doing here and what do I want? If that doesn’t get them, I just say, “I’m that devil you heard about.” But for the most part, soon enough, everyone begins to laugh and talk about how the similarities between members of the human species far overshadow political differences.

Since we’ve been out here, we’ve learned how to shoot guns. Items like Sig Sauer 9mms and even the dreaded AR-15s have become part of our little cult of equipment when we’re out here. We’ve been taught how to use these things by friends who are equally big on preserving their Second Amendment rights and on gun safety. It works both ways: When our Arizona friends come to visit us in New York, as they have done, we go on the subway, enter a crowded car, and ask our guests whether they think it would be a good idea if everyone on the train was able to openly carry their weapons as people while shopping for dinner back home. They do blanch, quite properly. There is a conscious acknowledgement that there is a time and a place for everything.

The other night, we were staying in a cabin on a large ranch not far from Eagar, which is a largely Mormon town in the White Mountains. It was late at night, but we thought we’d go out for a ride to check out the Milky Way, which we don’t have in Park Slope. But we never made it out to the main road. One of the ranch horses had gotten its leg caught in a cattle guard. Its right hind leg was stuck between the bars, and it was struggling to get out, which only made things worse. We were the first ones to notice the situation and, not having a clue about what to do, sent out the word to more experienced hands. It was a tense situation. If the animal’s leg was broken, it would have to be shot. After that, the legs would have to be sawed off. But the people who arrived had seen all this before. The horse was freed from the cattle guard. A vet who happened to be staying on the property showed up and announced, to his great surprise, that the horse’s leg was not broken. The sojourn in the cattle guard hadn’t done it any good, but it would survive. That was “one lucky horse,” everyone agreed, united for the moment in the shared experience.

As the vet wrapped padding around the animal’s hind leg and we waited for the ranch hand to arrive with a horse trailer, about dozen of us chatted about the state of the upcoming election. Everyone was for Trump, as we figured they would be. After all, Hillary was going to take away everyone’s guns and regulate the environment so no one could make a living raising cattle and working in the now almost-vanished lumber industry. It was what many of the people around here were raised to do, and to not be able to — because of what they believed to be excessive federal intervention — was a soul-crushing experience. If Clinton got 100 votes from the 4,000 or so people living around here that would be a lot. Still, there was a kind of levity in the conversation, along with the acknowledgement of the shortcomings of their own candidate, whom I did not hesitate to downgrade. Someone said, “If in a country of 350 million people, the only ones they can find to run for president are these two, then you know something is wrong.”

Two nights later, we were up in a little café out in the ‘Zona boonies sitting around waiting for the results of the election to roll in. We’d been there a few nights before, and a woman toppled over from drinking too much. Everyone said she did it all the time and would be fine — besides, she was “a Democrat, let her lay there.” This was a joke everyone loved. On the evening of November 8, the mood was still happy. It seemed as if no one really thought Trump would win, but he was their guy. When the returns began to roll in, the mood changed a bit. People started to let their hair down a bit. We expected the Hillary bashing. She was a symbol of connected power, a near-scriptural-quality spawn of Satan, the Benghazi murderess, the condoner of her profligate husband’s behavior. Someone sang, “Ding dong, the bitch is dead.” They were all for putting Hillary in prison, one of their candidate’s most prominent campaign promises. Not that anyone was mad at us Brooklyn types. We’d been around, and we were big supporters of our friend, who was running for county supervisor. We’d spent the entire day going around the various polling places, including the all-important Navajo reservation up the road, convincing the people there that our guy would actually do something to help them, not like all the rest of the bellagonna white men.

I suppose it began to get to us when people seemed very put-out at the news that Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Biblically harsh attention-whore anti-immigrationist from Maricopa County, was out of a job. “Sheriff Joe is out?” they moaned, like this was a tragedy! The general election could not be rigged because Trump was winning, but the fix must have been in to get rid of Arpaio. It was around then that that homey feeling of belonging began to fade, when we began to look around and notice that we weren’t on the A train anymore.

I suppose as a reporter it would have been the right thing to stay until Trump went over the top, just to record the moment. Trump was at 264 at the moment, any one of the states leaning to him would do it. Up until then, we’d been getting texts and phone calls from our friends back in New York, all of whom were having mental breakdowns. We told ourselves there was nothing to be done about it. At least these people, who aside from the patently nutty things they apparently believed, were really nice. But nothing was going to keep us there to see that number hit 270. We didn’t want to witness that. Not on your life.

So we left, got in the car, and drove through the night. The same stars that had always looked down upon this puny planet were up there. On this night, they appeared to be winking, saying, as they are wont to do, that this too would pass. As it did, more or less; the next morning we went out to breakfast. Everyone was nice, as always. We laughed together, but not as easily.

What It Felt Like to Spend Last Night in Trump Country