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Why God's Country voted for Trump

Confused about how Donald Trump got elected? Maybe it's time for a road trip.

Trump voters Olga and John Snyder, who own a gallery / bar speak about the election in Coudersport, Potter County, Pa.,  Thursday November 10, 2016 ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )
Trump voters Olga and John Snyder, who own a gallery / bar speak about the election in Coudersport, Potter County, Pa., Thursday November 10, 2016 ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )Read more

COUDERSPORT, Pa. - Confused about how Donald Trump got elected? Maybe it's time for a road trip.

Hop on the Schuylkill Expressway and drive past Allentown and Williamsport and 'villes you've never heard of.

Head north until your ears pop from the rise in elevation and the light pollution fades away and the stars seem so close you can reach up and stir them with your finger.

Here, the Trump-Pence signs appear along hand-drawn ads for maple syrup, firewood, and dollar pumpkins. Deer heads perk up as you travel west on U.S. Route 6, past the wooden sign on your right with all-capital letters: "Welcome to Potter County. God's Country."

In Philadelphia, where 82 percent of voters chose Hillary Clinton, Trump's victory has triggered street protests and fears that the country is regressing along deep racial fault lines.

In Potter County, where 80 percent voted Trump, the result of Tuesday's election is neither surprising nor controversial.

"He said everything that the majority of Americans want," said Helen Rounds, 56, who runs a motorcycle shop on Route 6 and wants the Trump administration to "build a wall, get criminal illegals out of here, and end sanctuary cities."

Rounds, who had been a lifelong Democrat until this year, said Trump "didn't give a s- about political correctness, and 99 percent of the people around here don't give a s- about it, either."

Potter County, whose population of 17,451 is 97 percent white, borders New York state in north-central Pennsylvania. It's celebrated for its dark skies, a gift of its unspoiled nature. The natural gas industry has replaced some of the 1,800 jobs lost when Adelphia cable went bust in 2002, but the local economy never fully recovered.

Here Trump fared better than Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. One poll worker said Tuesday's turnout at her precinct doubled the existing record.

Trump supporters here didn't necessarily embrace his racially charged rhetoric and dog-whistle politics, interviews suggest. Instead, voters found a way to look past that, picking what they liked about his platform - immigration, gun rights, health care, foreign policy - like a political buffet.

Bill Pekarski, a registered nurse from the county seat of Coudersport, said Trump, a real estate mogul and reality TV star with no political experience, crafted an outsider message that resonated in Pennsylvania and other Rust Belt states that Democrats have traditionally won.

Clinton, the ultimate insider, never stood a chance in rural and working-class areas where government mistrust runs high.

"People around here are tired of career politicians," said Pekarski, 44, who was having lunch Thursday at the Christmas House on Main Street, where volunteers wrapped gifts for children in need. He wants a stricter immigration policy, the repeal of Obamacare, and less money spent overseas.

"Imagine what we could do with a little bit more of an influx of tax dollars," Pekarski said. "We have a beautiful little town. But we do a lot of things ourselves. Donald managed to hit on a lot of small-town core values."

John and Olga Snyder, the owners of a Coudersport gallery and café, said they liked Trump's pro-business, limited-government approach, even if they found his nativist immigration bluster distasteful.

"I just didn't want more years of the same thing. I'll take a chance," said Olga Snyder, 46, a Ukrainian immigrant who recently became a U.S. citizen and voted in her first election this year.

"I grew up in the Soviet Union, and I think a smaller government is better. I saw what socialism can cause," said Snyder, whose artwork fills the gallery. "In this country, so many people actually have government jobs, have very good paychecks, but people who try to work for themselves, we work 18 hours days, we work all the time to survive."

Trump's campaign was heralded by white nationalists and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. A large North Carolina chapter of the KKK is planning a celebration parade next month and has posted "TRUMP = TRUMP'S RACE UNITED MY PEOPLE" on its home page.

On Twitter, Trump has falsely claimed that most white people are killed by black people and has retweeted dozens of users - including the Nazi sympathizer @WhiteGenocideTM - with ties to the white supremacist movement, according to Fortune. He has more than 14 million followers.

"Some of the worst base instincts probably did motivate some people in this election," John Snyder, 45, said. "But the majority of folks that pushed the button for Trump, I don't think that's where they are at all."

Paul Heimel, vice chairman of the Potter County commissioners, said not only did his county back Trump, but the president-elect's appeal has helped breathe new life into the county GOP organization.

"We don't get heard much. I think we got heard in this election. Rural America had a voice," Heimel said.

But Trump's rise also appears to have emboldened neo-Nazi groups such as the National Socialist Movement and Aryan Strikeforce to reestablish their presence in Potter County, which hosted the Aryan World Congress in 2002. The groups have staged recent gatherings here, and KKK pamphlets appeared in Coudersport in September.

"People thought it was over, then in August we found out that there's a rally planned," said Alex Davis, a reporter at the Bradford Era newspaper who has covered local white supremacist activity. "For this to happen again is just unreal. I don't think anyone saw this coming."

The rallies led to the formation of Twin Tiers for Racial Equality, which holds counterdemonstrations against hate speech. Ryan Fairbank, an organizer with Twin Tiers, said he thinks neo-Nazis are probably "less reluctant to come out and expound on their thoughts and ideas" as a result of Trump's success.

"You have to think when people are so willing to go with a candidate that has racist and xenophobic tendencies, there has to be more than just an underbelly," Fairbank said. "They were willing to overlook it to embrace whatever other message they agreed with. There's a larger problem there."

Two woman in Coudersport who voted for Clinton were happy to speak of their motivation but declined to give their names.

"Too many rednecks," one woman said, adding that she took down her Clinton signs when she heard the neo-Nazis were coming back to town.

The second woman said she still couldn't figure out how voters tolerated Trump, let alone sent him to the White House.

"He got to the people," she said. "I guess they thought he was the common man. But if I bumped into him, I wouldn't want to have a conversation with anyone who speaks like that."

Daniel Burnside, state director of the National Socialist Movement, said he hadn't publicly supported Trump out of concern that a neo-Nazi endorsement could hurt his chances of winning.

"I'm glad he's there now - there's no doubt about it," Burnside said Thursday, sitting on the bed of his Ford pickup truck with a Ruger .380 tucked into his shoulder holster.

Burnside, a father of 14 with a wiry beard and gravelly voice, was parked outside a fire station near his home in Ulysses in Potter County. Inside, a Cub Scouts tour was underway.

"I think for a billionaire to want to step up and be a big piece of this country, to me, it's a humanitarian thing on his behalf," Burnside said. "He doesn't have to do this. He could go sip margaritas in the Caribbean."