GATLIN, Nebraska — In this rural Trump-supporting town, home to barely 100 people and 35,741 Christian churches, the word “holiday” doesn’t seem to exist. Neither do the words “Democrat,” “liberal,” “government,” “road,” or “corn.” Since Donald Trump’s election, residents of Gatlin—a town that supported Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 100 points—have reveled in their newfound freedom to say “Merry Christmas,” proudly and, perhaps for the first time, without fear.
In the town square, a giant Christmas tree is festooned with handmade ornaments donated by students at J. Lindsay Almond Elementary School, where the town’s rural, hard-working citizens pay more than $10,000 in annual tuition to send their children. During the Obama years, the ornaments occasionally conveyed cheeky political messages—“Assassinate the Obungler! I Mean This Extremely Literally!” and the like—but this year, for the first time since the school’s founding in 1954, every bauble, snowman, and angel has been carefully inscribed “Merry Christmas!” At City Hall, a giant “MERRY CHRISTMAS!” banner hangs over the door, echoing the town’s holiday message. And on the football field at Stanley High—the center of so much of Gatlin’s social life—students have painstakingly traced out the familiar letters with rocks from the town quarry, spreading seasonal cheer—or perhaps a warning—to passing planes.
“Merry Christmas!” local hairdresser Stromfina Halvány explained, proudly showing off her “Merry Christmas” sweater and “Merry Christmas” earrings. Asked how she survived the terror of the Obama years, she replied enigmatically, “Merry Christmas.”
“Do you feel that the election of a Godless, misogynistic white supremacist like Donald Trump has validated the strong Christian values that have always been an important part of the social fabric of this heartland town, which in many ways functions as a stand-in for all America in the minds of our readers?” I asked, insightfully.
“Merry Christmas?” Halvány responded. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas merry Christmas merry Christmas!” she added, gripping me by the lapels. “Merry Christmas!” she screamed to the other patrons in her salon, provoking a wave of alarmed murmurs of “Merry Christmas.” In the back of the shop, I noticed a member of the town’s security force, whose tall cap and impeccably polished boots cleverly alluded to Christmas nutcrackers, eyeing me with hostility as he picked up the telephone. Clearly, the holiday season was very important to Gatlin.
“Merry … Christmas?” I timidly offered. Instantly, Halvány calmed down. “Merry Christmas,” I added, soothingly, as her white-knuckle grip on my coat relaxed and the phone was returned to its cradle. “Merry Christmas!” I said as I backed out the door. “Merry Christmas!” everyone in the shop responded, in unison.
At the Blicero Diner on White Street, Gatlin’s old guard holds court, spreading Christmas cheer to anyone who ventures through the jingle-belled door for a holiday meal. The menu quickly puts paid to stereotypes about flyover cuisine: old favorites like biscuits with country gravy are there, true, but the signature dish, a cauliflower and egg white omelet, would fit in just fine at a heartland-diner-themed restaurant in one of New York or Los Angeles’ up-and-coming neighborhoods. Since the Weissman Mill—one of the nation’s oldest mill mills, which, at its height, manufactured textile mills, paper mills, sawmills, and treadmills for the entire country—closed down early in 2017, the Blicero has served as an informal, never-ending town meeting for Gatlin’s blue-collar movers and shakers.
“Merry Christmas!” Bort Blek—a.k.a. Gatlin’s unofficial “Mayor of Christmas”—hollered from a back booth as I entered. The retired mill miller, 73, was visibly thrilled to be living in a country where Christianity had been legalized. “Merry Christmas!” cried the rest of the diner, as waitress Bianca Vit, 47, showed me to Blek’s booth.
“Have you been enjoying the disproportionate attention the national media has been giving you since your town’s shocking and very out-of-character decision to support a white supremacist for president?” I asked Blek, hoping to gain some insight into the reasons Gatlin—which, in years past, voted for mainstream candidates like John McCain, George W. Bush, George Bush, and Ronald Reagan—responded so positively to Trump’s openly racist appeals.
But Blek wasn’t about to let the national spotlight interfere with his celebrations, even if it was already Boxing Day. “Merry Christmas!” he said, gesturing wildly at the waitress, then pointing to me. “Merry Christmas merry Christmas merry Christmas!” she shrieked in reply. The other patrons of the diner, perhaps overcompensating now that Obama’s reign of terror had ended, began chanting “Merry Christmas,” in a tone that, honestly, didn’t convey much hospitality toward out-of-town visitors. Fortunately for this reporter, their reverie was broken by local schoolteacher Bronco Branco, who burst through the diner’s front door at that minute, his face a gruesome mask of fear and agony.
“Merry Christmas!” Branco screamed. “Merry Christmas merry Christmas! Merry Christmas? Merry Christmas! MERRY CHRISTMAS!”
By now, I knew the local customs. “Merry Christmas!” I responded with a festive smile. At this, the rest of the diner returned to their meals, but Branco only became more agitated.
“Merry Christmas! MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!” he told me. Inspiration striking, he poured a saltshaker out on my table—much to Vit’s dismay—and began tracing letters in it with his index finger. “M – E – R – R,” he scrawled, before looking at what he’d written in horror. “Merry Christmas!” he sobbed. “Merry Christmas merry Christmas merry Christmas merry Christmas.”
At this, Blek gestured to Vit. “Merry Christmas,” he told her, and she politely but firmly escorted the distraught Branco toward the diner’s back door.
“Merry … Christmas?” Branco asked, quietly, scanning the faces of his friends and neighbors, but no one looked up from their plates to make eye contact—or, indeed, acknowledged him in any way—as Vit walked him out of the building. Now that the room had quieted down, I hoped Blek would finally speak freely.
“What would you say to a reporter who is seeking exculpatory evidence about Trump voters?” I asked. “You know, the kind of thing that would communicate to our readers that you are innocent of any bad consequences that might come from your decision to enthusiastically hand the nation over to a pack of plutocrats in the name of white supremacy?”
“Merry Christmas,” he practically snarled at me. Sensing an opening, I continued.
“Many of our readers have friends and family who voted for Trump, and would like to hear from you about the ways in which you were misled, and are now disappointed, so that they don’t have to think ill of people they care about,” I explained. “Barring that, could you say something stupid that places you firmly on the bottom rung of the economy, so we can continue thinking of white supremacists as poor, dumb rednecks, instead of often-wealthy people who are culturally very similar to our readers?” From the alley behind the diner, I heard the sharp report of a Christmas firecracker.
“Merry Christmas,” Blek repeated. At the other booths, patrons were slowly getting to their feet, holiday grins plastered to their faces.
“Could you at least tell me that Donald Trump attracted you precisely because he was so different from other Republicans, so that those of us who have voted for Republicans in the past can reassure ourselves that we’re nothing like you and bear no responsibility for the current disaster?” I asked, as the crowd shuffled toward me, bells jingling.
“Merry Christmas,” Blek answered, picking up his steak knife.