There’s a country called America. It’s a place where amber waves of grain dance along the horizon like so many sprouting capitalist entrepreneurs. It’s a country that built an impressive interstate highway system to provide weary travellers with easy access to Cracker Barrel restaurants. It’s a place that might elect as its next president a filthy-rich, xenophobic, muskrat-domed can of sentient Spray Tan.
Not every corner of America is Donald Trump country, of course. But if you wanna know what pockets of this great nation embrace the Great Orange Demigod, then look no further than the small towns and boroughs of William Penn’s old stomping ground. Referred to derisively or proudly as “Pennsyltucky,” the swath of ‘Murica that sits between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia like a super-sized Norman Rockwell diorama loves itself some Trump. In particular, there’s a region in western Crawford County (straddling the border of Ohio’s Ashtabula County) where you can watch ducks and geese traverse the wet backs of thousands of Wonder Bread-chomping carp. Here, amidst all the fish and fowl, Trump signs abound.
Before I get to The Donald, however, I need to flesh out some history of this little corner of the Keystone State.
Pymatuning State Park sits on the border of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Crawford County, PA boasts the largest portion of the park (21,122 acres), while Ashtabula County, OH contains the rest (3,512 acres). At the heart of the park is Pymatuning Reservoir (or lake, if you insist), covering 17,088 acres of the best crappie, perch, muskie, and walleye fishing you’ll encounter east of the Mississippi.
I have a lot of fond memories of the Pymatuning region. I grew up in Hubbard, Ohio, just under an hour’s drive to either the Buckeye or Keystone sections of the park. I spent many weekends of my otherwise fantastically mundane childhood tossing lines into Pymatuning’s waters with my Dad and Grandfather. Sometimes we’d fish from my grandfather’s boat, sometimes we’d just whittle away the hours reeling in panfish from the shorelines.
Pymatuning Lake is the biggest lake in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and it’s man-made. The lake sits on what used to be a stretch of godforsaken swampland. To combat flooding in the lower Shenango and Beaver Valleys, in 1913 the state legislature passed the Pymatuning Act and appropriated $100,000 to build a dam, but eighteen years passed before the state could collect the remaining amount of public and private funds to construct the dam. In 1931, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot — former chief of the National Forest Service under conservationist president Teddy Roosevelt — broke ground on the reservoir. Under Governor Pinchot, 7,000 workers completed the lake and dam by 1934. In addition to the reservoir, Pymatuning State Park also hosts a wildlife refuge, a result of Pinchot’s conservationist legacy.
Pymatuning Lake’s biggest attraction, however, is easily the Linesville Spillway. The Spillway is one of those so American-it-hurts roadside attractions that thrills the daylights out of every fresh-faced moppet who’s lucky enough to witness its glory.
Located within the town of Linesville, PA, the Spillway is a concrete, bowl-shaped basin built to impound excessive floodwater runoff from the drainage area above the dam. Water washes over the bowl, which forms a small pool where tasty organic material collects in a sort of man-made wildlife smorgasbord. Almost as soon as construction on the Spillway finished, hungry carp from the connecting Shenango River gathered in the basin, where they gorged on the food that washed in daily. The carp — LOTS of carp — have been there ever since, and they’ve been joined by ducks, geese, gulls, and other waterfowl.
Despite the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (DCNR) ban on feeding wildlife, visitors to the Spillway started tossing bread to the carp, and the tradition stuck. Today, the Spillway is a bona-fide wildlife tourist attraction, and it really is something to see. The mass of open-mouthed carp in the water is so dense that ducks can literally take a web-footed stroll on the fishes’ backs. As local historian Nalia Rahman notes, the town of Linesville seized on the Spillway’s marketing potential and dubbed itself the place “Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish.” Visitors to the Spillway go bonkers tossing loaves of starchy delight to the grateful fish and fowl. There’s even a t-shirt hut, tchotchke shop, and bread hawker to provide you with plenty of carp-feedin’ supplies and memorabilia, and the DCNR does a good job of maintaining the grounds.
My fond memories of fishing on the lake and tossing stale bread to the Spillway carp keep me coming back to Pymatuning to this day. Despite the fact that I’m now an American expatriate living in Canada, I try to make it to Pymatuning at least once a year on one of my visits to Ohio. This past Labor Day weekend, we took a drive up to old ‘Pyma. It’s quite the scenic route. The weather was unusually sunny, and the winding roads through the northeastern Ohio backcountry made for some great views of sweeping cornfields, red barns a plenty, haystacks and livestock, seemingly endless firearms sales, and lots of used tractors. Oh, and Donald Trump signs.
As we made our way into Crawford County, PA, signs touting the GOP nominee’s one-syllable brand name and lunk-headed slogan, “Make America Great Again” poked out from lawn after lawn, hung on tractors and backyard-parked boats, and even provided extra decor for some local businesses. Beyond the signs, more than one truck featured crudely snappy “Trump that Bitch” and “Hillary for Prison” bumper stickers. At least from the superficial yard-sign/bumper sticker look of things, Pymatuning and the surrounding areas were Trump country.
This isn’t entirely surprising. After all, with some important exceptions, the rural sections of America tend to lean Republican these days. The Center for Rural Pennsylvania officially designates Crawford County as a rural county, and it voted 54 percent for John McCain in 2008 and 58 percent in favor of Mitt Romney in 2012.
Demographically, Crawford County checks off most of the predictable GOP boxes: the population is 96 percent white, only about 19 percent of its residents hold a Bachelor’s degree or higher, the median household income is a solidly lower middle-class $43,969, and manufacturing makes up a slight majority of the employment sector at nearly 20 percent. Despite manufacturing’s dominance, farms do make up 35 percent of Crawford’s land. Crawford is also a county of small towns: 84 percent of its municipalities contain populations of 2,500 people or less. In most ways, then, this Western Pennsylvania county is prototypical of GOP-leaning white America.
As we passed through the Trump sign gauntlet and arrived at the Spillway, I got to thinking about why the Orange One resonates so deeply with people in this part of PA. It’s not as easy as saying that Crawford County already leans Republican. Despite being the standard-bearer for a party that has, in recent decades, adopted a platform of pathological anti-government anarchism, Donald Trump solidly favors Big Government.
If his bodacious border wall ever makes the transition from campaign bluster to actual policy, it will have to be funded with taxes, not by a strong-armed Mexico. As for kicking out all the illegal immigrants and blocking all Muslim immigration? These cockamamie schemes would require the most gargantuan amassing of police, military, and immigration agency personnel in U.S. history. Oh, and President Trump will need some serious congressional support for those protectionist tariffs, because the private sector ain’t chomping at the bit to set up new trade barriers.
So if The Donald doesn’t draw his support from devotion to the standard GOP shibboleths, how to explain his appeal in Crawford County? Trump stokes the free-floating constellation of resentments that, far more than bloodless ideological commitments to free markets and small government, define the conservative base in America. Rural areas like Pymatuning are tailor-made to foster a culture of generalized resentment towards “elitists” and outsiders, one publicly demonstrated via the relentless display of Old Glory and the promotion of the rugged outdoor lifestyle that seeks to contrast the small town from the city, all the while seething with rage at the lopsided socio-economic dominance the latter has over the former. The paradoxical realities of globalization only add more confusion to this potent mixture of amorphous resentment.
This Labor Day weekend, The Spillway was packed with people taking advantage of the sunny weather to feed some carp, and most of the license plates were from Crawford and surrounding areas. The visitors themselves — overwhelmingly white and often suffering from the obesity epidemic that plagues rural America — were decked out in cheaply made regalia marketed to “Real America” and sold at Wal-Mart: t-shirts blasting red, white, and blue colors and steely eyed eagles, Realtree camo and Harley Davidson swag, and Wrangler and Levis jeans produced in the nation to the south at whose border Trump wants to build a wall. Heck, most of these garments were likely woven and silk-screened in a foreign sweatshop. A good many visitors also drove to the Spillway in cars produced by foreign companies. Just down the road from the Spillway, a makeshift tent vendor sold Trump gear in the form of t-shirts, buttons, and stickers.
The weekend crowd at Pymatuning aptly symbolized the frustrations and contradictions that fuel support for Trump in the new globalized world. Much like the preferred fashion in this pocket of rural Pennsylvania, a huge part of conservative identity is all about trying to maintain and market an “Americanness” that seeks to isolate itself from an outside world that has already wormed its way inside the Heartland. Thus, Crawford County folks can flock to a xenophobic, isolationist candidate while decked out in Chinese-made flag-swag and driving the latest model Toyota. Just like Trump, the brand identity of “Real America” is all about style over substance, it’s an identity that rails into the void at illegal immigrants and foreigners instead of targeting the American companies that hire immigrants and foreigners to produce the goods that Real Americans buy.
If globalization is unavoidable, then so is Donald Trump. Just like the history of Pymatuning itself, an area built, in no small part, with deliberate government intervention in conjunction with private funds, the complicated reality of modern America can’t be neatly divided into “us vs. them,” into government vs. the private sector, into “American” vs. “Un-American” identity, into “America first” vs. “America last.” But reality is messy. It’s complex. It’s frustrating. It makes simple answers seductive. It justifies anger at nefarious “elites” who want to undermine good ole’ fashioned Americanness. And it makes it seem feasible that a blustery strongman with an attitude can make great again that which was great before.
So heavy were the crowds at the Spillway on Labor Day weekend that the carp were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of bread that covered the water’s surface like doughy channel markers. The onslaught of well-intentioned feeding threatened to make Pymatuning’s fish as swollen and puffy as the weekend visitors. This was a first for me; in all the years I’ve been going to the Spillway, never once had I seen the carp “tapped out,” so to speak. Their bellies surely stuffed, most of the normally dense schools of fish had retreated below the surface, much to the dismay of people who had staked their Sunday revelry on the normally impressive spectacle of duck-topped Cyprinus carpio.
The symbolism at the Spillway seemed fitting; only in modern America could we kill ourselves with abundance. Only in modern America could a region like Pymatuning vow to “Make America Great Again” while it simultaneously raged against, and embraced globalization via the unconscious consumption of shamelessly marketed “Real American” identity. Only in America could a demagogue like Donald Trump raise an army of victims that point their rifles at all the wrong enemies. As we drove away from the Spillway, I reminisced on all the time I had spent at Pymatuning as a kid. I didn’t really pay much attention to politics back then. Unfortunately, you really can’t go back.