A week ago in Middle America, a father and son piled into an old red Pontiac and hit the road for a weekend outing.
“Dad, can I say, ‘The truth hurts’?” the 12-year-old asked.
“No, son, that’s my line!” the father said. “You can say, ‘Who are you voting for?’ ”
“Trump! Trump! Trump!” the son rehearsed in the back seat as his dad gunned it down a potholed highway in North Canton, Ohio, until they reached a Kmart parking lot where people were starting to rally around a huge American flag.
“Let’s do this thing!” the father said to the boy as they joined the crowd, and soon, another scene in the upending of the modern Republican Party was underway.
It was in so many ways the moment that 38-year-old Ralph Case had been waiting for, one building since June, when the single father with a one-truck renovation business was watching TV in his living room. A breaking news alert flashed on the screen, followed by the scene in a brassy lobby in New York. “Rockin’ in the Free World” was blasting. A crowd was facing an escalator. And then, gliding down it, came the man Ralph recognized as the “great builder” and reality-show host Donald J. Trump, who was announcing his bid for president.
“Oh. My. God,” is what Ralph remembers thinking. As Trump spoke of an America that doesn’t “have any victories anymore,” he felt something stirring inside — “like something hit me in my gut.”
“I’m thinking, it’s time,” Ralph recalled. “Like, this is big. This is bigger than big.”
He began making the first of dozens of unreturned calls to Trump headquarters in New York. He used his own money to rent a defunct tanning salon and plastered its windows with Trump signs. Now it was just days before the critical March 15 GOP primary in Ohio, and here he was with his son at a Donald Trump for president rally, becoming someone he’d never imagined.
“That Ralph guy in Ohio,” was how the Trump campaign had begun referring to the freelancer from North Canton.
“I’m Ralph Case, chair of the Stark County Trump campaign,” was how Ralph had begun referring to himself.
In an improbable campaign season, Ralph thought what was happening to him was perhaps the most improbable story of all.
On a Friday a year ago, he might have been fixing a gutter. On this Friday, a day before the rally, he was setting up a phone bank in the former tanning salon in North Canton, becoming part of something that felt larger every day, more like an important, even historic, struggle.
Republican elites were flying to a fancy resort in Georgia for a strategy session on how to defeat Trump. Millions were being spent on negative ads. Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney had just made a nationally televised speech calling Trump a bully and a con man.
It seemed to Ralph that the whole political world was mobilizing against Trump, and by extension, people like him — an everyman with an 11th-grade education, aching knees and chronic ailments requiring four prescriptions and a monthly IV infusion to keep him going.
All of it only affirmed Ralph’s instinct: that Trump was an outsider telling the truth about America’s decline. “He’s honest,” said Ralph. “And the truth hurts.”
“Hey, Ralph,” said a volunteer named Mike, arriving at the office to pick up signs. “You see what the Republicans are trying to do to us? It’s just sad. They will never get another vote from me.”
“Me either,” said Ralph, who had actually rarely voted before but was now so energized that he had called John “Couchburner” Denning’s radio show that morning, waiting on hold for 35 minutes to tell people about the new office on Tuscarawas Street, where a portable sign in the parking lot said “Tru Headquarters” because he’d run out of letters. Now people were streaming in.
There was the former Democrat who voted for Obama twice: “There’s this elite group that says you have to think a certain way, and if you don’t we’re going to tell you what to think,” said David Sexton, 41, who works for a bank collections department.
There was the veteran who couldn’t care less that Trump was vulgar: “I feel he’s talking to me when he talks,” said Terry Smerz.
There were Lucia Zappitelli, who worked for 30 years at Diebold until her division was outsourced to India — “He tells it like it is, and we are sinking,” she said — and Pam Henderhan, who was handing out the phone number for the Republican Party so people could complain.
“They talk to us like we are stupid,” said Henderhan, a retired detective. “I don’t have a 200 IQ, but I have a college degree and 30 years in law enforcement. I watch MSNBC. I watch Fox and CNN. It’s insulting the way they talk down to us.”
And there was Ralph, who spoke in vague but emotional terms about Trump.
“I go by my gut, and my gut tells me to keep going forward — things are about to change,” he said. “And I don’t mean change in a little way, I mean change in a big way.”
Now his phone was ringing.
“Gavin? I’m on my way,” he said, and headed to meet his 12-year-old after school.
Ralph had never really thought of himself as especially angry about his circumstances. He wasn’t one to rail at the television news. He was too busy scrounging up renovation jobs, or fixing his work truck that has 323,000 miles, or adjusting his medications, and mainly trying to be a good father after a life that had included being bullied in high school and the night he said he fell asleep driving and wrapped his car around a tree.
“Gavin!” he called out when he arrived home, a vinyl-sided rental off a four-lane highway. A Trump sign stood in the yard.
Ralph headed through the kitchen, where dishes were piled in the sink and Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” was on the table, dog-eared to Page 16, where Trump ponders investing in the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. Ralph went into the bedroom, where he had built Gavin a plywood bunk bed in the shape of a castle.
“Gavin, where’s your favorite place to go?”
“Kalahari!” said Gavin, referring to a water park where admission costs $69 a ticket.
“We’re going to Kalahari this summer,” Ralph vowed, but now it was time to head back to work at “Trump Central,” as Ralph called it. He had promised himself he’d put in at least two hours a day on the phone bank.
“He’s got to win,” Ralph said as they piled into the red Pontiac, which had a license plate that read “Gavin1,” a Speedway coffee cup and a prescription bottle in the console. As they sped along, Ralph found himself ranting about things he had never ranted about before.
Fox News host Megyn Kelly — “That was wrong what she did!” Hillary Clinton’s email server — “That makes me very angry.” Trade deficits — “We’re losing billions!” The media — “They lie.”
“Trump’s a man of his word,” Ralph went on as they passed a landscape of pawn shops, payday loan stores and faded strip malls. “He’s blunt. He’s straightforward. Why did Mitt come out and say what he said? Because the truth hurts.”
They wheeled into the Taco Bell drive-through for dinner.
“He started crying when he heard he was going to the rally,” Gavin said, referring to a Trump rally that Ralph was planning to attend in Cleveland. The campaign had secured him VIP access.
“Whew,” Ralph said as they idled in line.
“What’s wrong, dad?” Gavin asked.
“I just can’t wait until March 15,” Ralph said, referring to the Ohio primary. “I want him to win.”
He rubbed his aching knees.
“Darn boots,” he said, cursing the steel-toed boots that aggravate his arthritis. “Okay, son, what would you like?”
“Quesalupa,” Gavin said, and soon they were back in the office, where they stayed late.
That night, Ralph barely slept.
“I’m a nervous wreck,” he said Saturday morning as he and Gavin were speeding toward the rally in front of the Kmart.
“We’ve got to keep this going,” Ralph said, referring to the momentum he was feeling for the first time in his life. “He has to win. He will win.”
He saw a van with a Trump sticker and started honking. “Yeah, buddy! Go Trump!” Ralph yelled out the window. He saw another bumper sticker and started honking again. “Woo!”
“Dad, what are you doing?” Gavin asked.
“It’s attention, son!” Ralph said.
They pulled into the Kmart lot and joined a dozen or so people rallying along a sidewalk by a busy four-lane, one of them waving a huge American flag, the rest waving Trump signs and handing them out to passing cars.
“Hold it up proud, son!” Ralph told Gavin, who hoisted up his Trump sign like his dad, who raised a two-by-four stapled with three “Silent Majority Stands With Trump” signs toward the gray Ohio sky.
“Woo!” Ralph yelled out at a Durango driver who gave him a thumbs-up.
“We need to save America!” he called to an Audi that pulled over for free signs.
“Yeah!” he yelled out to a rusted-out Buick, punching his fist in the air.
And when the occasional driver yelled “F- - - Trump!” Ralph yelled back his favorite line of all.
“The truth hurts, my friend!” he screamed into the cold mid-
He yelled it at a driver who flipped him a middle finger. “Hey! The truth hurts!”
He shouted it to a man who gave him a thumbs-down. “The truth hurts!”
He screamed it at a woman who did the same thing — “The truth hurts, lady!” — who now rolled down her window. “What truth!?” she screamed back.
“That we’re gonna make America great again!” Ralph yelled back at the top of his lungs.
A man at a stoplight rolled down his window. “F--- you!” he yelled.
“We love you! We love you!” Ralph called back.
“You don’t love Mexicans!” the man yelled.
“The truth hurts! Drive safely!” Ralph yelled as the man drove off.
After two hours, they were finished. There had been far more supporters than detractors. The volunteers had given away about 200 signs.
“See, Gavin?” Ralph said to his son as they went back to the car. “The positive outweighs the negative.”
On the following Monday morning, Ralph dropped Gavin off at school.
“Do something positive today, okay?” he said to him, then headed to the hospital.
“Ralph Case?” the nurse called into the waiting room, and Ralph went back and settled into a reclining chair for the monthly IV infusion that helps with his chronic arthritis and a skin condition.
“Left arm today, Ralph?” the nurse asked.
“Sounds good,” he said, rolling up the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
“How was your weekend?” she said, checking his blood pressure. It was high.
“I was on this Trump campaign . . .” Ralph said, smiling.
“How are you feeling?” the nurse asked.
“The pain is about a five. My knees hurt. My feet hurt.”
“Okay,” she said, smiling and wiping his arm for the needle. “Please state your name?”
“Ralph Case,” he said, and soon the other Ralph Case, 69, arrived to sit with his son until he fell asleep, a ritual they have performed every month for three years.
“Hi, Dad,” Ralph Jr. said to Ralph Sr., a Vietnam-era veteran and retired Cadillac mechanic who is originally from West Virginia. He handed his son the newspaper.
“State of Decline: Ohio’s 15 Year Fall,” read the banner headline of a two-page article chronicling Ohio’s dropping median income, down 16.1 percent, and its manufacturing job losses, nearly 400,000. Ralph read his horoscope out loud — “You grow wiser as you accept things the way they are . . .” The IV dripped.
“Sometimes I find them true,” Ralph said, putting the paper down.
“You guys have a new location for your meeting?” he asked his dad, who is on his neighborhood watch committee.
“Yeah,” said his father, who went on talking about all the foreclosed, abandoned houses around his neighborhood and how squatters and heroin addicts are moving in. He said he had just seen a woman shooting up in her car at the gas station.
Ralph struggled to stay awake.
“It’s bad,” his father said.
He tried to think of a time when it was good, a time he thinks of when he hears Trump say he is going to make America great again. He looked off. His son drifted off to sleep.
“My high school years,” he said of his childhood in Akron. “Oh, I loved ’em. Akron had a population of about 500,000. We’re down below 198,000 now. We come up here and you’d have the smell of rubber, fumes, vapors — everybody’s working. Everybody was happy, had money in their pocket, had cars, working two and three shifts day, but then . . .”
In the afternoon, Ralph woke up. His dad had gone.
It was sunny out, and he stopped for a coffee before heading back to Trump Central.
Now he was thinking about what “Make America Great Again” meant to him. When was the last time that things were “great” for Ralph? When was the last time he didn’t have to worry? He looked off.
“It’s been a very long time,” he said. “My health, jobs. . . . I’m always worried about something.”
Surely there was some worry-free year. He thought about his childhood, when his parents divorced and his mother worked two and three bookkeeping jobs. He thought about his young adulthood. He kept thinking.
“I’m not able,” he said finally. “I couldn’t give you a time. I couldn’t give you a date.”
What he did have was a sense of purpose that was growing with every sign he waved and phone call he made for Trump. He felt excited. He felt hopeful. He was sure that life in a Trump world was going to be better.
“I feel strongly he’s our final hope,” he said.
And if Trump doesn’t win?
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Ralph said, and headed back to the office to make more calls.