In a living room in western Pennsylvania, the Republican National Convention was on TV, and Melanie Austin was getting impatient.
“Who’s that guy?” she said, watching some billionaire talk about prosperity and tolerance. “Prosperity and tolerance? Forget that sh–.”
She lit a cigarette. Her boyfriend, Kevin Lisovich, was next to her on the couch, drifting to sleep, a pillow over his head. On the ottoman was her cellphone, her notes on the speakers so far – “LOCK HER UP!!” she had written – and the anti-anxiety pills she kept in a silver vial on her key chain.
She was a 52-year-old woman who had worked 20 years for the railroad, had once been a Democrat and was now a Republican, and counted herself among the growing swath of people who occupied the fringes of American politics but were increasingly becoming part of the mainstream. Like millions of others, she believed that President Barack Obama was a Muslim. And like so many she had gotten to know online through social media, she also believed that he was likely gay, that Michelle Obama could be a man, and that the Obama children were possibly kidnapped from a family now searching for them.
“So beautiful,” Melanie said as Ivanka Trump walked onto the convention stage to introduce her father, and soon the soaring score of the movie “Air Force One” was blasting through the TV. Melanie sat up straighter. This is what she had been waiting for.
“Here comes Big Daddy,” she said, clapping. “The Donald. Big Daddy.”
Kevin was snoring.
“Here he is, babe,” she said. “Donald’s here, babe.”
Trump walked onto the stage, chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
“That’s right, Donald – USA, baby,” Melanie said to the Republican nominee for president, who began his speech by marveling at all the Americans who had gotten him here.
“Who would have believed that when we started this journey on June 16th of last year we – and I say we, because we are a team – would have received almost 14 million votes?” Trump said, looking out on the cheering crowd.
“I would,” Melanie said to the TV. “I would, Donald.”
– – –
The first time she had seen him, at a rally in June, she was just beginning to realize how many people saw the world the way she did, that she was one among millions. At the time, her hips were still sore from a series of injections intended to calm her. She had gotten them in February, during a difficult time in her life, when she had been involuntarily hospitalized for several weeks after what she called a “rant,” a series of online postings that included one saying that Obama should be hanged and the White House fumigated and burned to the ground. On her discharge papers, in a box labeled “medical problem,” a doctor had typed “homicidal ideation.”
Melanie thought the whole thing was outrageous. She wasn’t a person with homicidal ideation. She was anxious, sure. Enraged, definitely. But certainly not homicidal, and certainly not in need of a hospital stay.
“It never crossed my mind that I’m losing it,” she said several months after her release, and a big reason for this conviction was the rise of Donald Trump, who had talked about so many of the things she had come to believe – from Obama being a founder of the terrorist group ISIS, to Hillary Clinton being a co-founder, to the idea that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia may have been murdered in a White House plot involving a prostitute and a pillow.
“They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow,” Trump had told the talk-radio host Michael Savage, who was using his show to explain the scenario to his 5 million weekly listeners, who then spread it on Facebook, where it wound up in Melanie’s feed.
To Melanie, this was the glory of the 2016 presidential election. The truth about so many things was finally being accepted, from the highest levels of the Republican Party on down to the grass roots of America, where so many people like her didn’t care what some fact-checker said, much less that one day Trump would suggest that Obama wasn’t born in America, and on another say maybe he was.
More and more, she was meeting people who felt the same as she did, joining what amounted to a parallel world of beliefs that the Trump campaign had not so much created as harnessed and swept into the presidential election. As Melanie saw it, what she had posted about Obama was no different from what a New Hampshire state legislator and Trump campaign adviser had said about Hillary Clinton, that she “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”
“If it’s time to lock me up, it’s time to lock up the world,” Melanie remembered thinking when she had heard that.
And so when she was released from the hospital with instructions to “maintain a healthy lifestyle,” she did what seemed to her not only healthy but also patriotic. She began campaigning for Trump.
“Trumpslide 2016!” she posted on Facebook a few days after she got home in March.
“Lets build a winning team and GREAT UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!! #Vote for #Donald #Trump for #President!” she posted in May. “#STOPHILARYCLINTON #STOPBERNIESANDERS #SHUTUPMITTROMNEY.”
In June, Melanie heard that Trump was holding a rally in an airplane hangar near Pittsburgh, so off she and Kevin went. On a blazing Saturday afternoon, her red “Make America Great Again” hat bobbed amid the thousands streaming past hawkers selling “Trump that Bitch” T-shirts and “Bomb the Shit Out of ISIS” buttons and a man handing out pamphlets about the apocalypse.
Melanie took one to fan herself, and she and Kevin found a spot in the crowd. She looked around.
“I feel so inspired and uplifted!” she yelled over the blasting music.
“We need hope!” yelled Kevin, and soon the “Air Force One” theme began swelling as Donald Trump’s Boeing 757 rolled into view.
“We want Trump! We want Trump!” the crowd began chanting.
“There he is!” Melanie yelled as Trump stepped out of his plane. “Oh, yeah! Donaaaald!”
Her voice blended into the thunderous cheers, but as Trump began speaking, and people quieted down, hers became the lone voice calling out from the crowd.
“Boo! Booooo!” she yelled when Trump referred to “Crooked Hillary.”
“Traitoooor!” she yelled when Trump mentioned Obama.
And when Trump was saying how great it was going to be on Election Day – “If you pull the right trigger, we’re going to have fun together!” – Melanie was the one letting it rip from the back of the airplane hangar.
“Yeeeeaaaah!” she yelled.
– – –
A month later, she was backing out of the driveway of her house, a gray-sided two-story, the same one in which she grew up. It was late afternoon, and her check-engine light came on.
“Oh, that’s all I need,” she said during another chaotic day.
Her morning had gone by in county court with Kevin, a onetime local council member and firefighter who was now a laid-off production-shift supervisor checking in with a judge about charges related to using someone’s car without permission.
“We had to sit through all these arraignments,” Melanie said of the parade of heroin addicts. “I couldn’t believe all the women they brought in. They had tattoos. Blue and green hair. These are zombies, is what they seem to be.”
After that they went to help Kevin’s son fix his decrepit van. “So we tied the muffler up,” she said, and that was her day so far. Zombies, a busted muffler and now a check-engine light as she was driving.
Through the windshield was a part of Pennsylvania that is more than 90 percent white, ranks among the worst in the state on indicators such as unemployment and premature death, and is near the top in support for Donald Trump, who got two-thirds of the GOP primary vote in April.
“My crappy little corrupt community,” was how Melanie described it, speeding past houses with roofs sagging, porches tilting and buildings rotting into overgrown grass. She slowed as she entered the tiny downtown of Brownsville, population 2,292 and shrinking.
“My workplace was right there to the left,” she said, pointing to where a railroad office once was. “It was a big red building. Bunch of offices. I don’t miss it one bit,” she said, speeding up again. “And I have unpleasant thoughts.”
She had spent her whole life here. She was raised in a family of coal miners and railroad men, graduated from a technical school, and had been working as a secretary when her sister became sick and asked her to take care of her son temporarily. Needing more money, she started working for the railroad, first as a crew dispatcher and eventually as an engineer, running trains full of coal and equipment.
She was usually the only woman on a crew, but she prided herself on being tough, so when she heard that some higher-up had called a colleague and asked, “What’s Austin wearing today, her green miniskirt?” Melanie laughed it off. She ignored the boss who she said left a Penthouse magazine on her desk. But then came the sexually explicit graffiti about her in the train toilets, and a male colleague’s calling her “psycho bitch” over the radio, and another male colleague’s flying her underwear like a flag off the train – all of which became part of a sexual-harassment lawsuit Melanie filed against the railroads. In 2002, a jury awarded her $450,000 in damages, a verdict overturned by a federal judge who did not question the facts of the case but decided that the matter had been handled appropriately.
“The jury gave me my one moment in the sun as far as justice was concerned,” Melanie said. “But the politicians are never going to let a little girl slap two Class I railroads, and they didn’t.”
That was the moment when she began to see so clearly how the world worked, she said, and it wasn’t just about the judge. It was about a whole corrupt political system, starting with the governor at the time, Ed Rendell – “that dirty, filthy politician I call Swindell” – who she figured was in the pocket of the railroads and had influenced the judge.
And it didn’t stop there. Rendell was friendly with Bill Clinton, and Melanie was sure it didn’t help her case that Clinton was president and embroiled in sex scandals when she began filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “To see Slick Willy’s photo all over, you just wanted to barf,” she said.
“What could I do?” she said, driving along. “Nothing. I’m just one little girl.”
“Oh, be quiet!” she yelled out the window.
She was late taking her afternoon anti-anxiety pill.
“My anxiety’s through the roof,” she said, and then explained what came after the lawsuit. Her sister became ill with cancer. There were fights with doctors and insurance companies over bills. Her sister died. There was the housing collapse and the banking collapse, and her hours got cut back, and her colleagues were treating her as bad as ever.
“Every day was a different scumbum,” she said. “I couldn’t handle one more d—head.”
Her anxiety was getting worse and worse, and then one day in 2011, Melanie went to work, and in a moment she cannot recall clearly, ran her train through a red signal. No one was hurt, but she lost her job.
“I did cartwheels,” she said. “I didn’t have to endure this sh– one more day. Not one more creep crawling up on my engine. Still, it’s a hell of a transition from working woman, and then now to have to confront PTSD, anxiety and depression.”
She went on disability. After a while, she tried to get a job at the local firehouse but came to believe officials were stealing money. She tried to stay on top of her anxiety medication but thought her doctor was committing Medicare fraud. She joined a motorcycle club called Bikers for Christ but found the members to be just “filthy old men.” And every day there was Brownsville.
“When I was a kid, at Christmas time, you’d have lights and a big ‘Season’s Greetings’ banner hung up here,” she said. “There is none of that now. I don’t see much pride in this town. I don’t see much pride at all.”
What she did see more and more was not only a collapsing town, but also a collapsing country and world, and when she looked at President Obama, the person presiding over it all, what she saw was someone who seemed “to come out of nowhere.”
“Nobody knew him! I mean, ‘Dreams from My Father’ from Kenya?” Melanie said, referring to Obama’s memoir.
To her, the president seemed so far away, so oblivious to the decay she saw around her that when Donald Trump began suggesting that Obama was not American, it made sense. When Trump and others suggested that Obama was Muslim, to Melanie it seemed plausible. And when Obama started talking about, of all things, gay marriage and letting transgender people into bathrooms, it all came together: The president of the United States was a gay Muslim from Kenya working to undermine America.
The more she thought about it, the more certain she became, and with certainty came a feeling of confidence – a sense of liberation that culminated over several days in February, when she decided, “I’ve been pushed around all I’m going to be pushed around,” and began unleashing 20 years of feelings online.
“Melanie is taking the world by storm!” she wrote, alongside a cartoon of herself flying.
“Yippeeee!” she wrote when Trump pulled ahead in the South Carolina primary.
“Have a cup of shut up juice DemTARD!” she wrote during a Democratic forum.
“OUR NATION IS IN TROUBLE,” she wrote two days later. “WE ARE STARVING FOR GOOD, HONEST, CARING LEADERSHIP.”
She posted the name of a local firehouse official with a circle and a slash through it. She wrote to a local council member, “Buzz off blubberlips!” She wrote #hangslickwillynow, and in reference to Hillary Clinton, #hangtheskanknow, and then she turned her attention to Obama. The president should be hanged and the White House fumigated and burned to the ground, Melanie wrote, and soon after that, the state police were knocking on her front door.
She was in her nightgown. She was off her anti-anxiety medication. She thought that if she opened the door, the police were going to grab her, so she talked to them through a window.
“Oh, they were very placating. ‘Hello, Ms. Austin, how are you today?’ ” she recalled. “They couldn’t care less how I was today.”
The rest of the conversation was a blur, but Melanie remembered that she finally decided there was no use resisting, and as the police led her outside and into the hot back seat of a cruiser, she hummed the old hymn “Don’t Be Afraid” over and over. As she saw it, she was becoming a “political prisoner.”
Her neighbor John, a childhood friend who was watching the whole thing unfold from his yard, walked over and ducked his head into the police car. He was worried. Melanie told him not to be, that God was in control, and that “time will tell the truth.” She asked him to take care of her cat, and then the police drove her away.
– – –
Four months after that, the Republican convention was underway, and Melanie was online with her 2,795 Facebook friends and 1,430 Twitter followers and all the other people she was meeting every day across America.
She was in her garage, where she went most mornings at sunrise to say her prayers and check her social media feeds on her phone. She sat at a big picnic table set with some laminated Holy Land place mats she had gotten during a trip to Israel, and under the Christmas lights in the rafters.
“Oh, look,” she said, reading a headline. “‘A West Virginia member of the House of Delegates says Hillary Clinton should be tried for treason, murder and crimes against the U.S. Constitution and then hung on the Mall in Washington, D.C.’ “
“I want to find out if he’s going to the nut house because of it,” she said.
She lit a cigarette and squinted at the screen.
“Look at this,” she said, pointing to a photo of Michelle Obama with a caption suggesting she is a man. “It’s everywhere.”
And then she began explaining, step by step, how she had come to believe that the first lady might actually be a man named Michael.
She figured it started with the Christian televangelists she had followed since the 1980s. In particular, she loved John Hagee, who had said that the Antichrist would appear as a “blasphemer and a homosexual.” And Jerry Falwell, who had blamed the Sept. 11 attacks on “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians.”
“Also,” Melanie said, “Falwell disclosed that the first Christmas Bill and Hillary spent in the White House, Hillary collected ornaments from homosexuals all over the world. And those ornaments were hung in the White House foyer.”
And if that wasn’t enough to prove they were “anti-Bible,” she said, the Clintons went on to support allowing closeted gay people to serve in the military, which she saw as a watershed moment when America began turning away from God.
Then came Obama – “Obama and his gay initiatives,” she said – and her suspicions about him deepened with each one. First he supported allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Then gay marriage. Then came the one that struck Melanie as the strangest and most sinister of all: allowing transgender people to use bathrooms matching their gender identity.
“It’s like he wants to classify us – alpha, beta, gamma, delta,” she said, referring to the dystopian future described in the novel “Brave New World.”
As she tried to understand it all, the best explanation she found was that Obama himself must be gay, a notion introduced and reinforced by all sorts of stories and photos and videos showing up in her Facebook feed. Of these, few were more convincing than a video of the late comedian Joan Rivers, which was what brought her to the matter of the first lady.
“Here we go,” she said now, finding it on her phone.
She read the headline out loud: “Joan Rivers died two months after calling Obama gay and Michelle a transvestite.”
And then she scrolled through one YouTube video after another, including a 13-minute 28-second one with more than 1.4 million views that she watched again now. In it, a reporter asks Rivers when America will have its first gay president. “We already have it with Obama, so let’s just calm down,” Rivers says as she walks away, adding, “You know Michelle is a tranny.” “I’m sorry, she’s a what?” the reporter asks. “A transgender,” Rivers replies. “We all know that.”
“So,” Melanie said, explaining why she thought Rivers was serious. “There are societies out there, especially in Hollywood, that we don’t know about. Joan is in the LGTB community; she’s steeped in it. I watch her stuff on E! Anyone knows that.”
“So,” she continued, “I think if she comes out and says we already have a gay in the White House and Michelle is a tranny, I mean, do you think she’s nuts?”
She took a drag on her cigarette.
“Well, I don’t,” she said, and turned her attention to the question of the Obama children.
“Let’s look,” she said, and began googling.
She started with mrconservative.com, where there was a story, headlined “Evidence Michelle Obama Never Gave Birth to Malia & Sasha,” that said: “We have seen pictures of Barack and Michelle dating back far before they had children, like shots from their wedding, but when it comes to what would have been Michelle’s childbearing years, there is absolutely nothing. Not one picture of her pregnant or with a newborn baby.” It continued: “Ancestry.com and GenealogyBank.com have no records of Malia or Sasha being born,” and also said that “Malia and Sasha [bear] little resemblance to their parents,” which “could very well be because the two girls were adopted, possibly from Morocco.” After reading that, Melanie scrolled through links to versions of the story on americasfreedomfighters.com and redflagnews.com and others among the dozens of similar websites that have proliferated in recent years and draw millions of visitors each month. She looked up from her phone.
“I think those kids were kidnapped,” she said. “We should be looking for those kids’ parents.”
She kept scrolling for more evidence.
“Obama gay is on Infowars,” she said, pausing for a moment on the conspiracy theory website that now had more than 6.9 million U.S. visitors per month and a daily news program hosted by Alex Jones, who had interviewed Donald Trump. “I just want to finish by saying your reputation’s amazing,” Trump had told Jones in December. In May, Jones had devoted his show to “the possibility that Michelle Obama was born a man,” and as the Republican National Convention began, he had hosted a rally attended by Trump adviser Roger Stone. Melanie kept scrolling.
Obama Muslim. Obama ISIS. Christian beheadings. A link to an article on a website called commonsenseshow.com detailing how the U.S. government had imported 30,000 guillotines in preparation for martial law, and explaining that a single guillotine “reportedly can chop off the heads of about 100 people per hour,” so that “in one ten hour day, 30 million people could be executed.”
It was afternoon now, and Melanie got herself a glass of iced tea. She thought about the two legislators who had said Hillary Clinton should be executed, and all the memes, and all the stories on all the websites. The more she read, she said, the more certain she was becoming that she was not out of the ordinary, and that her hospitalization, for instance, was just one more example of an increasingly unjust world. She went over it again: the police cruiser, the injections, the medical bills after. Her hips still hurt. Her gait was off. She was almost out of cigarettes.
After a while, her next-door neighbor John stopped by.
“John,” Melanie said. “Do you remember when I was in the police car handcuffed and you came to talk to me?”
“Yeah,” said John, a laid-off coal miner. “I didn’t know what was going on, to tell you the truth. I said, ‘Well, something’s up. She’s pissed somebody off.’ “
Melanie asked him, “Did you feel I needed to be committed?”
John looked at her.
“That’s what Randy thought,” he said, referring to a neighbor. “He’s the one that said being where you’re at is the best thing for you.”
“John,” Melanie said. “I’m on the same meds today that I was on the day they took me out of my house.”
“Well,” John said. “Maybe they thought they had to settle your ass down.”
“There are a lot of people like me,” Melanie said. “What’s so special about Melanie Austin that she had to be hauled away to the nuthouse?”
John didn’t answer, and after he left, in the early evening, Melanie put on a CD of Chuck Smith, a 1970s preacher she’d long admired who was best known for converting hippies to Christianity.
“This is one of the last CDs he made, and it’s beautiful,” she said, turning up the volume on the classic gospel hymn “How Great Thou Art.”
“That’s the moment I’m living for right there, ‘When Christ takes me home,’ ” she said, referencing the lyrics. “I will say, ‘Thanks for remembering me.’ “
She kept scrolling. Hillary Clinton murderer. ISIS chops off heads with dull knife.
“I do feel happy and blessed,” Melanie said, singing, reading on her phone.
She was looking for news about the death of Scalia. She googled “Scalia murdered by prostitute,” and soon she was awash in stories about secret White House plots and embalmed bodies and the murder of one of the nation’s most powerful people. “Like so many other people around Hillary Clinton,” she said. “What are we supposed to think?”
She finished her last cigarette and listened to a song about surrender. A fan was blowing. The lights were glowing.
“So you see, the media, everybody helped me get to February,” she said, referring to the day the state police took her off to the hospital. “I didn’t get there on my own. But I’m supposed to be the one to pay the price for it for mouthing off? I need to learn my lesson?”
She got up from the table.
“It’s not that I’m some whacked-out whatever,” she said. “I had a lot of help.”
It was almost dark.
“Heaven forbid you should get pissed off and say, ‘Up yours,’ ” she said.
She was hungry and thinking about making dinner.
“I wonder if Kevin has a cigarette,” Melanie said, and went back into the house.
– – –
In the living room the next night, the Republican convention was on the TV.
Kevin was asleep on the couch with a pillow over his head, and Trump was on the television accepting the Republican nomination for president.
“Praise the Lord,” Melanie said.
The crowd roared.
“Finally,” she said. “Someone who thinks like me.”
Trump began talking about lawlessness, crisis, “terrorism in our cities” and how any leader who doesn’t grasp this horror “is not fit to lead our country.”
“Amen,” Melanie said, clapping quietly on the couch. “They’re traitors.”
“Safety will be …” Trump said.
“Restored,” Melanie finished.
“We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore,” Trump said.
“That’s right; cut the crap,” Melanie said.
“Killings have risen,” he went on.
“Mmm hmm,” Melanie said.
“Illegal immigrants . . . innocent young girl. . . . Her killer . . . now a fugitive,” he said.
Kevin jerked awake.
“You all right, hon?” Melanie said.
“Yeah, I was dreaming,” Kevin said.
“One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders,” Trump said.
“I was kicking someone’s ass,” Kevin said, and drifted back to sleep.
“Our roads …,” Trump said.
“Are a mess,” Melanie finished.
“Hillary Clinton. . .,” Trump said.
“Lock her up,” Melanie finished.
“Death, destruction, terrorism and weakness,” Trump said.
Kevin jerked awake again.
“You still fighting?” Melanie said to him.
“Yeah,” he said, groggy.
“You winning?” she said, but Kevin was drifting off again, and as Trump went on about “how the system is rigged,” and “wounded American families” and “our own struggling citizens,” Melanie said yes, yes, yes, over and over again, until Trump reached the final three words of his speech.
“I love you,” he said.
“He really does love us,” Melanie said, and soon, the balloons were dropping, Trump was waving to the crowd, and she was switching off the television. She didn’t need to hear any more.
“It’s finished,” she said of the 2016 presidential election, in which she was sure Trump would triumph and more and more people across the country would at last see the truth. “In my head, anyway.”
Stephanie McCrummen is a national enterprise reporter for The Washington Post. Previously, she was the paper’s East Africa bureau chief. She has also reported from Egypt, Iraq and Mexico, among other places.