Donald Trump was on a bus. The cameras were off. His microphone was on. He could do whatever he wanted with women’s bodies, he said. Because he was a star, he said. When you’re a star, he suggested by example, the rules of basic human virtue don’t apply to you. Eleven years later, he’s the Republican nominee for president of the United States, and he’s calling this airborne poison “locker-room talk,” which is a fancy way of saying “in private, men brag about being sexual predators to appear strong and so impress other men, but they're generally not real sexual predators, only pretend ones, and I'm one of the pretend ones.”
Then victim after victim after victim stepped forward saying he wasn't pretending, that a monster walks free on the biggest stage in the world, and now we have yet another blaring reminder that gender equality has never existed in America and very much continues to not exist today. Meanwhile, the presidential race has been pummeled so far into the ground that children should be made to leave any room that has news in it.
The stories of the women who stepped forward all but guarantee that Donald Trump will lose the race for president, but he won't lose everywhere. There are places where it does not matter that Donald Trump is a sociopath, where he will win because he has an R next to his name on a little piece of paper. And there are places where people aren’t terribly offended by his actions or his words, where his racism and misogyny and bullying aren’t racism and misogyny and bullying at all, but “telling it like it is.”
One of these places is Bakersfield, my hometown. It's a hundred miles north of Los Angeles, and it will go red as decisively as California will go blue. I drove up there over the weekend to talk to my old neighbors about nightmares we don't get to wake up from.
Bakersfield, like the majority of California, is a driving city. You learn a lot about a place from what people drive, and there are a lot of Fuck You F-350s here, a truck that might as well come bundled with a fading Bush/Cheney bumper sticker. I drove the town a few times over looking for people to talk to, and I saw more Calvin-urinating-on-Obama decals (4) than I did Trump/Pence regalia (3). I drove through neighborhood after neighborhood looking for Trump signs, but came up empty until I was leaving town, where I saw a “Farmers For Trump” sign was tied to a fence, half-obscured by vines.
My first stop was a Christian bookstore that sits along an old highway. It’s surrounded by tow yards and houses with their roofs caved in. The owner was present. She was sitting at a desk, wearing a shirt that read “So glad I'm a Christian mom.” I asked what brought her out here, to the agribusiness outskirts.
“We're back in my husband's house that he grew up in. This was his father's barbershop for 50 years. [After he died] we thought we could redo the barbershop, but it was too far gone. We had to tear it down. We prayed about it a lot and decided to open a Christian bookstore.”
I asked her who she supported in the election. No hesitation.
“Trump. He's not afraid to say what needs to be said.”
I asked if the sexual assault accusations bothered her.
“Not at all. I've been a waitress for 32 years. Being attractive is what made me most of my money, and I'm fine with that. I've been sexually harassed all my life, and I liked that! It was not insulting to me.”
I laid out the scope of the allegations against him.
“I would have immediately put a stop to that,” she said, referring to a woman who claims Trump put his hand up her skirt and groped her in the ’90s. “These women should have done the same. You can nip it in the bud. You don't just allow it and then go oh, poor me," she said, in the squeakiest voice she could muster.
“For heaven's sakes! Slap his hand, slap his face! That'll stop him!” she said, laughing. “How mealymouthed can they be? I think a lot of them are lying. Now, there's a few of the older ones that say it happened way back, and I kind of believe them, but I don't believe the newer ones that are like, ‘Oh, he did it to me too!’”
I asked if Bill Clinton's sexual scandals bothered her. “Yes, but not because he did it. Because he did it to his wife in such a public way.”
This got her talking, not about Trump’s wives and how they must have felt, watching their husband go out on TV and treat his marriages like a drunken game of mini-golf, but about the Clintons. “I don't trust either one of ’em as far as I can throw ’em. They're criminals. Going back to when they had their best friend killed. Supposedly he got ‘mugged’ in a park. I don't believe that. Liars.
“I don't trust them at all. And I do trust The Donald,” she said, and she meant it. “I trust him to make appropriate business decisions. Our country is in serious trouble. And I'm just so sick of political correctness. I realize it's a sign of the times, but ... I'm hoping for a little last hurrah for America before we have to go through what's coming.”
“What's coming?” I asked.
“Seven years of Tribulation.”
I asked where I should go next to talk to people; she said not around here, too many Mexicans, and I left.
“They keep putting down Trump, with the women and stuff,” the woman at the counter of a nearby thrift store told me, “but what about [Hillary Clinton’s] husband? He was president when he messed around, and nothing happened to him.
“I'll vote for Trump, and not Hillary, never Hillary. And not because she's a woman,” she said over the whirring of a rusted-out swamp cooler, “it's not about that.”
“Do the assault allegations bug you?”
“Yeah, because I've never seen a political campaign so dirty in my life, and I'm 68.”
“So you can vote for someone who brags about groping women?”
“It's got nothing to do with that. It's such a little thing. I've been assaulted myself; it's such a little thing.”
“So what matters to you?”
“I'd like to get water. We have no water. You should see my yard. It's dirt. I can't water my yard.”
An older man was rummaging through the dumpster behind the store. He was shirtless and his face was so scarred you couldn't imagine what he’d looked like when he was young. Across the top of his back, he was inked with the word “ROADKILL,” below which was a rendering of a muscle-bound demon and some knives on fire.
“Who you voting for?”
“I'm voting for Clinton,” he choked from the back of his throat. “Trump's no good! Trump's a piece of shit. He's not right. Things I heard him say ... he ain't right.”
A train roared by and he started yelling.
“He'd hurt the United States! More than he'd help it! Be the downfall for us! No good! The downfall!”
The next morning I stopped by Dust Bowl Days, a festival celebrating Bakersfield's Okie migrant heritage, featuring burgers and steel guitars and line dancing, held near the site of the Weedpatch labor camp. There isn’t much to see there, mostly dirt and a wide horizon line, but it’s where the migrants of the Great Depression, not quite a century ago, helped make the American West what it is today.
I met an old man in a cowboy hat with a long white scar running from the right side of his chin to just below his eye. He was smoking a cigarette and looking at some Depression-era cars brought out for display. He said he had worked in an automotive shop most of his life.
“I'm a Republican. I'm voting for Trump,” he told me. “I'm a veteran and I'm trying to get medical help, and it's tough now. Shit, I got cancer.
“I served in ’Nam, flew a C-130 spraying Agent Orange, and I do not trust Clinton with our military. She's a traitor. I don't trust that woman in the White House. She doesn't mean anything she says.”
“Do the sexual assault allegations against Trump bother you?”
“When you get to be about 50 years old, 60 years old, your ways ... change. I changed. You'll change.” Then he left to go see the line dancing.
By and large, over those two days, nobody wanted to talk at all. But when they did, they usually got their point across.
“You don't want to know what I think. It wouldn't be nice at all,” said the woman smoking against her truck in Oildale.
“You don't want to know what we think about Hillary,” said the two women sitting under the umbrella at the diner. “Nobody could print it.”
“I wouldn't vote for Hillary if hell was freezing over. That's all I know. Goodbye now,” said the woman drinking coffee outside the body shop.
Red-state anger, the kind you hear so much about, the conservative uprising, resides mostly in living rooms and on keyboards. There is no actual cleansing Trump fire scorching the perimeter of every town that will go his way. Working-class diehard conservatives, the kind who grew up here, they hate the Clintons. In places like Bakersfield, the idea that the leader of the free world could prey on women like that, it's immaterial. Because Trump is running against Hillary, the destroyer. George H.W. Bush beat Bill Clinton here by 11 points in 1992, and Bob Dole beat him by 17 points in 1996. Conservatives like the ones I knew growing up would vote for a blank line followed by the letter R before they'd vote for another Clinton.
This does not make them bad people. They were taught to live and think the way they do, by their parents, by their teachers, by their churches, well-entrenched echo chambers, and they were not seriously exposed to competing viewpoints. Those were away from them mostly, in colleges, in cities. And they are people, regular people, flawed like everybody, and they wake up at night with most of the same fears we have. How to hold on, how to keep going. They are not anthropological curiosities. We cannot forget about them just because the America we live in now is no longer the place they were taught to live in.
Out in the red states, women’s rights issues are too often filed under feminism, which is itself filed under liberalism, an abhorrent thing. They get pushed to the margins, if not ignored outright. So these discussions everybody keeps saying we should be having all over the country (and they’re not wrong), about consent and misogyny and hopelessly broken gender norms and how to treat women like human beings — places like this don't end up having them very much.
And that's a tragedy, because they need them. They need to have these discussions without feeling like it's an assault on their identity. They need to start discussing things like fight-or-flight, how people can freeze up when confronted by a predator, how a slap isn’t realistic survival advice, how victims of assault stay silent because of the threat of further trauma. And they need to start having these discussions right now. Each day that they don't, more damage is done.