Donald J. Trump brought his campaign here to the heart of Long Island last week with a huge rally at the old Grumman Aircraft plant on Route 107. But he may as well have taken the night off: He had the 10,000 attendees locked up already. Locked up in the same way they are locked up on a Long Island that long ago lost Grumman and most of its manufacturing base; locked up in service jobs without benefits or union protection; locked up in suburbs that were avatars of the future back in the Fifties and Sixties, but are now fraying at the edges with peeling paint and potholed streets and strip malls featuring nail salons and dojos and we-buy-sell-gold shops. The Teenage Wasteland that Voice writer Donna Gaines chronicled years ago in her classic book set on Long Island has since morphed into a Middle-Age Wasteland, only now it’s only more tattered, more broken, more… wasted.
“The weird thing is, half of my friends from the island could be there at the Trump rally and half could be outside protesting,” said Donna, an old friend, when I spoke with her last week. “Trump is appealing to values that suburbia breeds out of you with separation and alienation. He’s reminding people that things used to be different when they were on top. He’s promising them that they will win again. He’s giving them hope.”
They sure as hell need it. Bethpage used to be the red-hot center of the economy out here. The sprawling Grumman plant with its enormous hangars generated jobs across the island — all the way out to Sag Harbor, where I live. Down on the dock, the Agawam factory used to make parts for Grumman Aircraft; it closed years ago when Grumman did. Tourism stepped in to rescue the economy of the East End of Long Island, but no similar salvation arrived for the West, for places like Bethpage and Ronkonkoma and Babylon. Driving to Bethpage last week, I was hammered by the pathological despair of the sprawl at every exit off Route 27. Used-car dealers offering no-money-down, guaranteed-approval loans cozied up to furniture stores with “SALE SALE SALE” banners so faded you know they’ve been up for years.
Making the turn for Bethpage, you’re within rock-throwing distance of Levittown, which became the very first suburban development in the country when it was thrown up with two-by-fours and plywood after World War II. Then the beacon of a hopeful future, today it’s a suburban backwater among the island’s thousands of other suburban backwaters. You can smell the depressed economy coming from the greasy exhaust fans of the fast-food joints along 107; you can see it in the sparsely filled parking lots in front of the mini-malls. Indeed, you can feel it through the suspension of the car as it bumps and jerks and shimmies over unmaintained streets. This is the place Trump came to last Wednesday to present his vision for the future to his adoring fans, for whom a Trump rally seems to occupy the same mental space as a Slayer concert.
The Donald must have known these were already His People, because he spent not his usual hour-plus but just 37 minutes reminding them of his magnificence and exhorting them with promises to win again and build that wall and get rid of those illegals and keep out all those threatening Muslims.
What he didn’t bother with was the fact that the people he despises are already right here in Bethpage, a few hundred yards from the hangar where he was spreading the word. Right over there, a wife can pick up a salwar kameez for her husband or he can buy her an elegant Gul Ahmed-stitched lawn dress at the Salai Junaid Jamshed Boutique. Across the street is the Madina Kabab House, where you can eat an excellent plate of beef tikka and lamb kofta and spicy brown rice with shredded carrot and raisins; and next door is the Madina Market & Grocery, where the selection of nuts fills a counter about twelve feet long. Riding the shuttle bus to the Trump rally, I heard a couple of guys behind me complaining about how the Mexicans were taking over the pizza joints. “One of them comes up from Mexico and he takes a job washing dishes and a year later he owns the place,” one of them said. “They’re taking our jobs.”
No, dude. They’re taking the storefronts. They’re starting businesses. They’re building the American Dream.
That dream ended at least a generation ago for the Trump fans. These were guys, largely, who came from families with fathers who had good union jobs, who bought the little houses in Levittown, who worked hard and provided for their families. Who got ahead. Last Wednesday, Trump addressed a hangar full of guys, largely, for whom that dream was dead before they were born. So they cheer when he hits his heavy metal high notes about building the wall and running out all those people who are Taking Our Jobs.
But it’s not just about Trump speaking his truth to underemployed white guys. It’s about a physical world that surrounds you, in places like Bethpage, with a palpable sense of doom. I could take a yellow highlighter and draw a line on a map from Bethpage straight through Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Allentown, Harrisburg, Carlisle, and on down through Hagerstown, Winchester, and Roanoke, to Bristol and Knoxville and into Cookeville and Nashville, and every single place that highlighter passed through would look pretty much like Route 107 and the neighborhoods surrounding it.
The middle class has been sold a lot of horseshit over the last 40 years or so — that if you worked hard and played by the rules and increased your productivity and took whatever crumbs the swells brushed from the tablecloth, you would be rewarded with enough of the American Dream to keep you and your kids contented, even happy. But perhaps the biggest bill of goods it was sold was the Bush-named “ownership society,” the fantasy that you could earn enough to own your own little piece of Planet America. But the thing is, owning a house isn’t worth much when the house starts to go to hell and the neighborhood falls apart and you can’t keep shocks on the car because of the potholes at the end of the driveway. If it’s all falling apart, physically, right in front of your eyes, you don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to check your bank balance. Hell, you don’t even have to watch Fox News. All you have to do is look around you.
Bethpage is us.