“Crilly,” I barked at the receptionist. “Do you mind if I eat my cold miserable dinner first and then check in second?”
“Sure, honey,” she said in the sort of voice that suggested she had seen it all on the late shift and would only be fazed by a gun-wielding late-night Holiday Inn raiding crew demanding all her rings if they failed to observe the “masks must be worn at all times” sign. “There’s a microwave if you want to heat it up.”
I looked at the Wendy’s paper bag in my hand. The thin, cold burger inside was not going to be helped by 90 seconds of full power irradiation. It needed redemption, not reheating.
Life on the road. In campaign season. I had forgotten what it’s like. The driving and driving, the late-night filing and above all the moments of adrenaline followed by fast food and ennui in empty dining rooms.
But you don’t learn anything about American elections sitting in Washington. The place is full of bloviators bloviating. More than one pundit has taken Nate Silver’s new election modelling, his algorithm, his careful separation of signal and noise in the data to calculate that Donald Trump has a 27 percent chance of winning the election, and told me (after presumably checking their gut and the wind direction): “Yup, sounds about right.”
Which is how I find myself in a hangar at the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, just down the road from Pittsburgh. If you want to know whether Trump will win you need to work out if he will hold on to voters here, the blue collar types who would have been Democrats six years ago but now make up the Trump base. If Biden can shave off a point or two here then he might have a chance.
Trump is arriving from Washington in a couple of hours for one of his hangar rallies, his new way of getting in front of supporters in the time of pandemic. (The crowd is teased with audio of the control tower talking to Air Force One — “You are on final approach” — before the presidential plane lands right in front of us, before taxiing back and providing the backdrop for Trump’s speech. You can read about it here.)
Wall Guy was there having lined up at 5am to bag a plum seat in Trump’s eyeline. He was on a tour of the US encouraging Trump supporters to wear pins to work, or their MAGA hats in their freetime. “You only hear about the bad things,” he said. “I want everyone to show their support and not be afraid.”
Members of Boilermakers Local 154 union arrived and took their seats to the side of the podium. The rest of the crowd erupted in cheers. Trump would thank them for their support later in the evening. His campaign rolled out details of their endorsement just before he took the stage – an important indicator that Trump reckoned he was holding on to crucial parts of the coalition that brought him to power.
That was perhaps one of the highlights of the speech. Go to enough of these things, watch enough of them on TV and you know the greatest hits – Sleepy Joe, Made in China, shout outs to the local Congressmen and women, Where’s Hunter. In Pennsylvania, you also get fracking and energy.
My pieces were written before he had got to the “together we will make America great again” line that means he is wrapping things up. I was on google maps looking for restaurants between the airport and my hotel that would still be open after I had allowed for an hour of so getting out of the car park. Then my phone blew up.
The Atlantic had published a piece about how Trump apparently cancelled a visit to an American war cemetery outside Paris in 2018 because he was worried his hair would get messed up in the rain. Worse, unnamed officials claimed he had dismissed the war dead as “losers” and “suckers”.
Had I seen the piece, Republican contacts wanted to know? Outrageous, they said. I messaged a couple of sources who might know. My phone started ringing just as Village People’s YMCA – Trump’s unlikely walk-off music – blasted through the PA.
“Hello, Hello,” I said. “Hello?.”
“Hello? Hello? Hello?” came the response. “Hello?”
There was nowhere quiet. The place was in pandemonium with Trump supporters dancing and cheering, and the campaign playlist booming through the hangar.
And so it was that I spent the rest of the evening sitting in my hire car as the parking lot emptied around me, making calls, firing off SMSs and trying to type it all up as I read my notes with the light from my mobile phone’s torch, cropping photos to go in an online story, messaging first one editor (who was going to bed) and then another.
It was after 11 by the time I pulled into a Wendy’s drive through. “We are out of bacon,” came the disembodied voice as I tried to order the big bacon classic. OK, I’ll have that without the bacon, I said, hoping that whatever I had ordered wasn’t simply a bacon sandwich. Were staff right now giggling about the English-accented customer who had just ordered a bun filled with lettuce and tomato.
There was no need to worry. The bun was patty positive. Albeit the sort of limp grey job that would have benefited from a layer of bacon. It tasted of fading adrenaline. Only 60 days to go.