WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Donald Trump’s campaign battle cry was “Make America Great Again,” but there were many stories Wednesday of how the 2016 presidential election divided families and destroyed friendships.
One of those stories was told in detail by Lynette Villano, a lifelong Republican who has been called Trump’s No. 1 supporter. Villano, who talked about a still-unsettled rift with her grandson over politics, was one of three panelists who joined author Ben Bradlee Jr. at Barnes & Noble in the East End Centre.
The panelists — including Ron Felton, a former president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and Brian Langan, a retired Pennsylvania State Police detective — were featured in Bradlee’s recently released book, “The Forgotten: How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America.”
Bradlee was in town for a book signing/panel discussion on how Luzerne County, a Democratic stronghold for decades, flipped so significantly that Bradlee credits/blames it for electing Trump.
About 150 people attended the event Wednesday night, most there to show and vocalize their support for Trump. There were a few Democrats who challenged the overwhelming pro-Trump sentiment in the room.
Bradlee said he decided to focus on Luzerne County because of the numbers — the number of registered Democrats over Republicans, and the large margin of victory for Trump over Clinton that resulted in the county vote deciding the state race and its 20 electoral votes.
Bradlee said what made Luzerne County so distinctive was how so many Democratic voters, who voted for Obama in 2012, clearly and enthusiastically flipped to Trump in 2016.
For the most part, the question-and-answer period that followed the panel discussion focused more on basic philosophical differences between Trump supporters and detractors. Not much time was spent on embellishing what Bradlee found in his research for the book.
Villano told a heartfelt story about how she and her grandson became estranged because of their differences in the 2016 election. Villano said her grandson attended a “very liberal” college and was a strong opponent of Trump. Villano and her grandson exchanged many emails and had many conversations that only drove the two further apart.
“At times, his responses were so visceral, I was shocked,” Villano said. “I didn’t even attend his college graduation. I haven’t talked to him since 2016.”
One of her grandson’s emails went: “Donald Trump is a bigoted imbecile who tapped into the racism and ignorance in America.” The email was lengthy and filled with similar comments, prompting her to respond, “I’ve saved America and I am very proud.”
Bradlee seemed to still be somewhat shocked by the fact Trump remains as popular today as he was in 2016, calling his winning the nomination “improbable,” and his election “even more improbable.”
Bradlee also continues to be amazed at how Trump’s popularity among voters continued to rise, despite several scandals that came out during the campaign.
“None of it mattered much at all,” he said.
The author noted he traveled to Luzerne County to interview residents about four times from December 2016 to June of this year, usually staying a week or more each visit.
‘What a fact is’
As Trump nears the end of his first two years in the White House, Bradlee, the panelists and attendees discussed how the election polarized the country and wondered if anything can be done to unite people.
“It seems nobody can even agree on what a fact is,” Bradlee said.
Villano added, “Some of us can’t even have a dialogue in our own families or with our friends. So I can’t imagine how we would ever get to that point as a nation.”
Bradlee said 11 of the 12 people featured in his book have told him they remain staunch Trump supporters. He didn’t identify the one who has jumped off the bandwagon.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.