Count on Donald Trump Jr to be the man to inject some sourness into the “sweetest place on earth”. In Hershey, Pennsylvania, home of a chocolate empire where 70 million foil-wrapped Kisses are manufactured every day, the president’s eldest son set up his own production line, delivering acid put downs for election season.
“Abracadabra, buddy!” he shouted in the general direction of Barack Obama (who had been campaigning down the road in Philadelphia that day), mocking the ex-president’s claim there was no magic wand to increase economic growth.
“Imagine Nancy Pelosi with a gavel,” he yelped, drawing audible signs of reflux from some in the mostly white, mostly elderly audience of Pennsylvania Republicans. “Ugh,” they gulped, at the thought of a Democratic woman in charge on Capitol Hill, as he followed with: “It’s insane, it’s literally insane!”
No one could say it was a glamorous scene inside the windowless, brown-wallpapered Chocolate Ballroom of the Hershey Lodge. But Trump Jr and his new girlfriend, the former Fox News star Kimberly Guilfoyle, increased both the wattage and the sense of urgency about the looming midterms.
The billionaire’s son was in jeans, checked pink-and-white shirt and a blue blazer, Guilfoyle in a red sheath dress. Brash midtown Manhattan accidentally dropping in for a night in the country.
The warm-up acts talked of certain victories to come, spreading a layer of complacency across the 60 tables which had sold for up to $10,000 each. “Pennsylvania’s Trump country, we all know that,” Republican state chairman Val DiGiorgio said.
But Trump’s first born had not come to Dauphin county for a premature celebration, even though he portrayed the first two years of his father’s administration as an unending parade of victories.
He reeled them off: “Iran deal? Gone.” North Korea – at the table. The US embassy in Israel – moved to Jerusalem.
“No one had the guts to do it, and that’s what separates my father from all the others,” he said.
At home, the boasts were of jobs and more. “Name one economic metric where we are not better off,” he said. “It literally does not exist.”
In 2016, Pennsylvania helped deliver the White House for Dad as he grabbed its 20 electoral college votes by beating Hillary Clinton by just 68,000 of nearly 6 million votes cast.
But in 2018, Pennsylvania might come back to bite Trump. The state’s supreme court ordered the electoral map redrawn, ruling it had been unconstitutionally skewed to favour Republicans. (One district was so haphazard, it’s wild outline led to the infamous nickname “Goofy kicking Donald Duck”.)
Now the redrawn state could see as many as six of its 18 House seats tipped from Republican red to Democratic blue. Victories here would put the Democrats on course for the net gain of 24 seats they need for a House majority.
For Trump Jr, his father may have lived up to his Make America Great Again promise but Republicans should be worried nonetheless.
“We need to get the MAGA voter out,” he said. “They have to get engaged the way they were in 2016. If they show up, if they recognise the fact that Donald Trump is on the ticket this November … we will win. We have to get that message out.
“The only weakness I see we could possibly have is that our side, we’re fat and happy, we’re getting everything we want. You gotta recognise it can go away tomorrow. That is the other side’s plan.”
Democrats, he said, were running on a platform of “hate and BS … they want to roll back everything that is working”.
The conservative crowd loved him.
Donald Jr may not be subtle, and he’s certainly not interested in reaching out to the unconverted, but his Trump tribute act is younger, funnier, slicker and with many more completed sentences than the original.
He is taking it on the road in Trump heartlands between now and polling day – six stops in four states this week, from North Dakota and Minnesota to Montana and Nevada. After that Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia – and even three dates in one day with Senator Ted Cruz, the former Trump foe who is suddenly under pressure and seeking help in Texas.
Liberals mock Trump Jr and hope he might be prosecuted for his orchestration of the infamous Trump Tower Russia meeting. But he and Guilfoyle are stars of the conservative right: Sonny and Cher for the Make America Great Again movement, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“A lot of people like Don Jr because they see him as a truth teller,” a source close to Trump’s son told the Guardian.
He goads liberals constantly and seems to relish a fight on social media: last week a clash with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) saw him branded a “callous creep” and “an entitled ghoul” by the group’s president, although Peta started the clash with a Don Jr Halloween costume, which had him being attacked by a leopard.
“He’s not afraid to take a jab in the face if it means he can throw a counter left,” the source said, describing Trump Jr as a counter-puncher like his father.
The source conceded Trump Jr was an ideological conservative with no interest in trying to reach people in the middle, a role his sister Ivanka has tried to play with limited success.
“That’s not Don. Don is a philosophical conservative, Don is a gun owner, Don is someone who likes to read Daily Caller and likes to read Breitbart and listen to conservative radio. That’s who Don is. So it only makes sense for Don to be himself, especially if being himself has the effect of energising the base … the days of inclusion politics are close to over and now it’s all about motivation.”
‘We were not divided before’
At the Hershey Chocolate World, where visitors can ride past singing mechanical cows through a simulated chocolate factory, design their own candy and buy bundles of chocolate, Lissa Conners and Mary Henderson had stopped off after traveling from Springfield, Ohio, on a church trip to hear the Christian author Joyce Meyer at Hershey’s Giant Centre.
When they learned that the president’s eldest son was also in town, they were unimpressed. Asked to sum up what she thought of the election of Trump, Conners, 56, said: “What a mistake. He is a bigot. That was the worst person you could put in office.”
And how did she feel almost two years on? “It’s been pretty much what I thought, but he’s still got worse to do. I don’t trust him.”
Henderson, 69, said she had voted for Clinton in 2016, “mainly because she was a female”. When Trump won, she said: “I thought ‘Lord! What’s going to happen to our country?’ I didn’t see good things for our country, even though he said he was going to make the country great again. We were not united before, now we feel even more divided.”
Close by, the original Hershey plant stands empty, its steepling brick chimneys inert, a discarded group of giant foil-wrapped unwanted Kisses rusting on pallets outside.
But Hershey remains a vibrant place. A small town of 9,000 people in the off-season, 1,200 still work in chocolate manufacture at a new plant, around 500 have jobs at the trust fund-supported Milton Hershey private school for low-income families, and 1,000 have jobs in the entertainment field: a chocolate-themed network spanning amusement park, hotel, spa and museum.
At the offices of the Local 464 Chocolate Workers’ Union, business manager Frederick Boltz said the union endorsed Clinton in 2016 (she won narrowly in Dauphin county).
Of Trump, he said: “He had absolutely no record at all on anything and he came in and just made promises. Is there anything that he hasn’t claimed credit for?”
Diane Carroll, the Local 464’s financial secretary/treasurer, went further: “I guess he was a big businessman and he really didn’t know anything about being a regular worker. He kept saying let’s make America great and his hats were made in China.
“Anybody that’s union or even American knows that if you’re gonna put something like that, it should at least be made in this country.
“I just don’t think he had a true understanding of what it is to be a regular worker, or what unions do, what good wages are.”
The union is yet to formally endorse candidates in the midterms, but has a lawn sign outside for one Democrat. Boltz said: “Anybody who is for the working person, that’s who we are for.”
Carroll is adamant, that is not Trump.
“I swear to God, I feel like there are some nights when I feel like I go to bed not sleeping because I never know what he’s going to do next, it’s so scary.
“I fear for the labour movement because I think he’s going to so badly destroy democracy, labour, everything that we have worked for. And as for women – I can’t even believe women voted for him. He was gonna put us back so many years that I don’t even want to live there and I don’t want my kids living in that either.”