CANTON, Ohio — He had opened a Trump campaign office in an old tanning salon, waved Trump signs and knocked on doors right up until Election Day, and now Ralph Case, a home contractor in paint-splattered jeans, went to his mailbox and pulled out a thick envelope with a Washington, D.C., return address.
“Holy cow,” he said, walking back into his kitchen, where he and his friend Jim Murphy were organizing a bus trip to the inauguration of the 45th president, Donald Trump, whom they often referred to as “The Man.”
“You know what that is,” said Murphy. “Brian got one.”
Ralph tore it open and pulled out an ivory card embossed with a gold seal.
“Mr. Ralph Case . . .” he read out loud, his hands shaking. “The President-elect requests the honor of your presence at the inaugural ball.”
He looked at Murphy.
“I’m in!” said Ralph.
In so many ways, it was true.
He was a single father of two with a high school education who’d never been involved in politics before he saw Trump descending the gilded escalator. Now he was a minor power broker with a coveted and growing list of hundreds of the most ardent Trump foot soldiers across Stark County, Ohio. The proprietor of Ralph’s Renovations now knew someone who knew the new head of the Ohio GOP, not to mention the incoming deputy co-chair of the Republican National Committee in Washington, a place he’d never been.
But more importantly to Ralph, it seemed like the president-elect knew him. He looked at the invitation again. “Black tie,” it said in calligraphy.
He put it on his dining table, next to a stack of bills.
How did it feel to be a winner in Trump’s America?
“Well, congratulations, Ralph,” Murphy said to his friend, who said his last victory was a mother-son bowling tournament when he was 13.
Now his mind was spinning with all that was to come: He had to confirm the 28 people signed up so far and scramble up another 28 to fill the 56-seat bus, a black private coach with a blazing orange stripe running down the side. He had to find money for tuxedos for him and his 13-year-old son, Gavin, who was also going, and an overnight stay in D.C., where rooms were now going for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a night. He needed to fix his back deck. His phone rang. His landlord. Ralph ignored it.
“What am I going to do?” he said. “Mom. Mom to the rescue.”
“Mom!” he shouted into his cellphone. “I got an official invitation to the inaugural ball. . . . I’m thinking if dad called Aunt Lulu,” he said, referring to an aunt in suburban Virginia. He realized he was screaming. “Sorry, Mom. I’m excited. It says the president requests my presence. Mom. This is real, Mom. It’s real.”
Ralph hung up and tried to focus on organizing the bus. Murphy, an Air Force veteran, handed over his $88 bus fare, and they talked over how they would deal with the protesters they expected to see.
“They are planning on disruption, so don’t wear anything Trump,” said Ralph, who was worried about getting beaten up. “Or if you do, wait till you get to your spot in the crowd, and then . . .”
“Let it shine,” said Murphy.
“Let it shine,” said Ralph.
“They’re going to be so pissed he’s president,” said Murphy with a note of glee, and they talked about how impressive security was going to be, and how glad they were that Trump had appointed three generals to his cabinet, and how ISIS spelled backward sounds like “sissy.” Ralph’s television was blaring Fox News coverage of a confirmation hearing, and now protesters were interrupting.
“Take ’em down!” Ralph yelled at the TV. “Tase ’em! Get ’em outta here!”
“You’re not at a Trump rally, man,” said Murphy. But Ralph said the truth was that with all the opposition out there, winning still felt like campaigning.
A Trump supporter named Leslie Redmon, a retired supply chain manager, stopped by to pay her bus fare, and now the three of them were talking about how none of the criticism of the incoming administration had stifled their enthusiasm for Trump.
“I just don’t feel any skepticism,” said Murphy. “I tried to.”
They felt no real concern about the prospect of conflicts of interest between Trump’s business empire and his role as president: “The guy’s a billionaire, he has hundreds of companies. What’s he supposed to do, sell them all?” said Redmon.
No great concern about the appointment of the former head of Exxon, who has a long-standing relationship with Russia, as secretary of state: “I trust him more than these politicians being paid by special interests,” said Murphy.
No worries about Russia at all. “Overplayed,” said Redmon.
Putin is “an aggressive guy, kind of like Trump on his end,” Murphy said. “He wants the best for his country and Trump wants the best for our country. Not everyone is a globalist.”
Ralph put a check mark beside Murphy’s name and Redmon’s, confirming their spots on the bus, and soon, he got into his car to go see another person on the list.
Out into Canton he drove, a landscape of potholed roads, payday loan shops and aging strip malls that helped hand Trump the election. He dialed up J.J. Steward — “Crazy Jay,” Ralph called him — a nutritional supplement salesman originally from eastern Kentucky who, like Ralph, had never been politically active before.
“Jay!” Ralph said into his cellphone. “What’s going on, buddy?”
“Waiting for next week!” said Steward, whose business slumped during the recession.
“Trump Revolution!” said Ralph. “I love it, I love it!”
Steward loved it so much that he had campaigned for Trump by installing a mannequin with a Trump mask in the passenger seat of his van, which he plastered with “Hillary for Prison” signs. As he saw the world, Trump was an authentic outsider, unlike all the other candidates, who he believed were actually “operatives” acting at the behest of a global elite headed by the financier George Soros.
“Now I have a leader I can trust. He’s one of the greatest patriots ever known,” said Steward, even though now, as a winner, he had a new set of worries. He was concerned about Trump’s security and the prospect of a “manufactured catastrophe like 9/11,” which he believed was staged by the government. He was worried that he himself might be placed in some “database of white men” and targeted for his campaign activities. At the same time, he felt a renewed sense of purpose believing he had made a difference, and now Ralph was on the phone, telling him about the invitation to the ball, which only confirmed his faith in Trump’s bona fides.
“Yeah, it’s $50 for a sit-down with Mr. Trump,” Ralph was telling him, referring to the price of the tickets. “Yeah. My mom’s freaking out. Like tuxedos are expensive! You need dress shoes! It’s like a dream.”
Ralph drove past a used car lot and a weedy field with the rusted-out hulk of some building.
He dialed Dave Buell, an accountant for small oil and natural gas producers and the owner of the new Canton Brewery downtown, which Buell was trying to make great again.
“Dave, buddy!” Ralph said to Buell, who did not believe in conspiracies, or any of the more extreme proposals Trump had made. What he believed in was Trump — not so much his policies but the man himself, who he was sure would bring back jobs, loosen credit and solve problems in the practical-minded way of a businessman. As a winner, he wished to tell all those people upset about Trump’s victory that they should not worry.
“Oh, not at all,” he said, explaining that their fears — about racism, about a Muslim registry, about mass deportations — had been “hyped by the media.” The protesters would soon understand what sort of man Trump is, he said.
“I don’t think he’ll be donning a KKK robe anytime soon,” Buell said, laughing. “He’s going to lead our country to greatness, and when he does, they’ll be happy.”
Happy like Ralph was, talking on the phone about “the black-tie situation,” and pulling up at Frame’s Tavern, a corner bar across the road from the Timken Steel factory.
“Hey, Danny,” Ralph said, walking inside.
Ralph sat in a wooden booth with Danny Frame, the owner, who wore a National Rifle Association ballcap and a “Heroin Destroys Families” wristband and who had in recent months begged the county to let him keep some Narcan behind the bar. It is a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses. The county declined. During the campaign, he kept a stack of voter registration forms on the bar. He passed out Trump fliers during shift changes at Timken.
“I’ve got to see it through to the end,” he told Ralph now, confirming his seat on the bus to Washington, where he’d never been in his 62 years. His school field trips were always to the auto plants in Dearborn, Mich.
“So we are leaving at midnight,” Ralph began, going over the plans. “Excited?”
“Thrilled,” said Frame, who said he still got chills thinking about all the people he met campaigning for Trump — “all the common folks responsible for keeping the country going.”
“Any questions?” Ralph said.
“No,” said Frame.
There were no questions now, just the buzz of victory.
Ralph got back into his car, and began dialing again.
He called a young man named Reed.
“You might want to bring some snacks, maybe granola bars,” he said.
He called someone named Joe.
“Yeah, I saw the protesters,” Ralph told him. “It’s like, come on, grow up!”
He called a guy named Mitch.
“I feel good,” Ralph said. “I talked to so many people who didn’t support Trump, and I said, ‘Just watch. Just wait and see.’ ”
Now it was just days before the inauguration, and Ralph was at his kitchen table finalizing the list for the bus.
He had gone on a local radio show to say there were still seats left, and that tickets were being slashed to $60 per person, and now someone was calling.
“Yeah, Case, that’s me,” Ralph answered. “Yeah. I ran the Stark County campaign, so he should know who I am. Are you sure you want to go? Because I’ll hold this seat.”
He was up to 38 people, and now the FedEx guy was at the door.
“Don’t tell me I got another!” he said, opening the envelope and pulling out two tickets to the inauguration.
“We’re blue!” Ralph said to Gavin.
He looked at a map of the inaugural seating and found the blue square indicating a standing section to the left of the U.S. Capitol steps where Trump would be sworn in.
“This is where we’re going, Gavin! Standing blue!” he said.
Gavin looked at the map.
“Standing blue,” Ralph said again.
It certainly felt like he was winning. But Ralph had also come to the conclusion that winning was expensive; there was no way he could afford to go the inaugural ball.
“It’s $100 for the tux, so that’s $200,” he explained to Gavin. “And $50 each for the tickets, that’s another $100, and $40 each way for gas because we’d have to drive, and then turnpike fees, that’s another $35 to $38 bucks, and then you’ve got the food.”
“It’s called pack your own food, genius!” Gavin said.
“And then the taxi,” Ralph continued, ignoring him.
He had checked the price for a room at the new Trump hotel.
“It’s $8,500!” Ralph said, promising Gavin that they’d stay there another time.
Gavin sulked. Ralph tried to change the conversation back to the bus, and the inauguration itself.
“We’re standing blue,” he said again, and Gavin began imagining it.
“How much you want to bet Trump’s entering the inauguration in his helicopter?” he asked.
“I think he’s going to get out of his limousine and walk,” Ralph said.
“I told you he’s the new JFK,” said Gavin.
“He’s going to walk, even though I know he’s instructed not to get too close to the crowd,” said Ralph. “He’s going to get out and walk.”
That was the Trump Ralph believed in.
Now he opened his laptop to send out one more email reminder about the bus.
“Argh!” he said because the Internet wasn’t working, and then it came to life.
He began typing.
“LET’S MAKE HISTORY TOGETHER,” he wrote in all caps. “LAST CHANCE.”