I Found Trump’s Biggest Fan
The day after the 2016 election, Lynette Villano, a 72-year-old widow and clerk for the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, sent her grandson Connor Mulvey a text message:
“I guess you can probably figure out that I’m very happy today,” Lynnette began. “Donald Trump is to your generation what Ronald Reagan was to ours. I am so fortunate to have been part of both. … He defied conventional wisdom at every turn. … Hopefully, I will be going to the Inauguration.”
Connor, who was then starting his senior year as an undergraduate at Tulane, replied almost immediately.
“Donald Trump is a bigoted imbecile who tapped into the racism and ignorance in America,” he texted. “You’re right, he is like Ronald Reagan. He’s going to leave this country in ruins and completely ignore minorities’ problems. The fact that he ‘won’ this election is a blemish on the history of the United States. I will not be recognizing him as my President, because much like George W. Bush he failed to win the popular vote. The only difference is that I believe Bush was a good person who was manipulated by those around him. Donald is an arrogant asshole with a history of abuse, mistreatment, and greed. He and his supporters should be ashamed of themselves, but it’s evident they lack the self-reflective capabilities to do so. I want you to think long and hard about what you’ve aided in. My LGBT friends are scared. My Muslim friends are scared. My Hispanic friends are scared. My female friends are scared. I’m scared. The fact that you’ve gone along with his disgraceful rhetoric the entire way through disappoints me to no end. Congratulations, you’ve damaged America. I hope it was worth it.”
The fallout from this exchange, which continued over several more raw messages, still reverberates for Lynette. Despite the harsh texts, she sent her grandson Christmas presents in 2016. He returned them. She was also not invited to attend his graduation from Tulane in May 2017, or his 21st birthday the following day. When Connor took out a $10,000 loan after graduating and needed a co-signer, Lynette obliged him, but Connor still refuses to talk to her. She says she hasn’t seen him since the spring of 2016.
But as a die-hard supporter of the president, and one so enamored with him that during the 2016 campaign her co-workers called her “Mrs. Trump,” it’s the kind of rift Lynette has come to expect.
“I came out for Trump the day he came down that escalator in Trump Tower,” she recalls. “I went right online and got some pins. I did it to see what kind of reaction I’d get when I wore them in public. Most of the time it was positive. Sometimes it was relief—like, ‘Oh my God, here’s another Trump supporter I can talk to.’ People liked Trump because he had the answers to all our frustrations!” But there are many others, like Connor, who still can’t understand her decision.
I first met Lynette in December 2016 after traveling to Luzerne County in Northeast Pennsylvania for my book about why this traditionally Democratic area, a pivotal county in a crucial swing state, surged for Trump in 2016. Trump voters in Luzerne generally had a contempt for Washington and the powers that be, who they felt had mostly abandoned them and left them marginalized by flat or falling wages, rapid demographic change and a dominant liberal culture that mocked their faith and patriotism. They felt like everyone’s punching bag, and that their way of life was dying. They sensed a loss of dignity and stature. They felt like others were cutting in line, and that government is taking too much money from the employed and giving it to the able-bodied idle. They felt government regulations had become strangling to small and large businesses, and that the country was in danger of being inundated by immigrants, both legal and illegal.
For all these reasons, Luzerne is a good place to look if you want a window into the Democrats’ failure to hold the white working class. Over the course of the past 18 months, I spent five weeks in different parts of the county and interviewed about 100 Trump voters before selecting 12 whose stories I told in depth. The voices in the book are varied. They include a politician, a veteran, a lawyer, a union organizer, a retired state policeman, a landlord who owns dozens of apartments, a white nationalist, small business owners and a born-again nurse who believes Trump was sent by God to end America’s political dysfunction.
But one of the most fascinating people I encountered was Lynette Villano, whose support for Trump, like many others in Luzerne, is total, unconditional and unshakeable. These are the people Trump was talking about when he said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without losing any voters. To them, Trump’s scandals are barely worth mentioning, and his failures to follow through on many of the economic promises he touted in the campaign are unimportant, mostly because, on his Twitter feed and at his ongoing campaign rallies, he has fed them a steady diet of entertaining, rhetorical red meat. They know all his lines, and still thrill to hear him deliver them.