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Rosenblum writes: "It is lunacy to open schools too early, the Fruit Lady told me, and after driving a school bus for 41 years she ought to know. 'Those kids are all arms and mouths,' she said. 'Tell them anything, and their first word is 'Why?'"

Donald Trump supporters. (photo: Damon Winter/NYT)
Donald Trump supporters. (photo: Damon Winter/NYT)

In the Strangest Country on Earth

By Mort Rosenblum, Reader Supported News

04 August 20


RO VALLEY, Arizona – It is lunacy to open schools too early, the Fruit Lady told me, and after driving a school bus for 41 years she ought to know. “Those kids are all arms and mouths,” she said. “Tell them anything, and their first word is ‘Why?’”

“You think they’ll keep safe distances?” she asked. It wasn’t a question. “Little ones are all over each other. They hug you, sneeze on you. Middle-school kids are the worst, spoiled by busy parents. How do you protect teachers, staff – or bus drivers?”

The Fruit Lady is the sort of voter Democrats need in purple states like Arizona. She is 69, retired, and divorced after 45 years when her husband got fed up with peaches. With part-time hired help, her pick-’em-yourself orchard hasn’t made money in two years.

Rising prices eat into her pension and social security checks. Tax cuts for the rich paid for more fancy houses along the highway north of Tucson but did not trickle down to her hardscrabble acre or the clapped-out ex-mobile homes on rutted roads behind them.

And now a killer plague stalks the state, getting steadily worse despite nonsensical happy talk from a president who allowed it to run wild yet demands that schools and businesses get going again. She sticks close to home with her trees and tomato vines.

After we talked for a while, the Fruit Lady sniffed out a likely liberal. “I should tell you,” she said, “I’m for Trump.” 

I left Tucson in 1967 for a life as a foreign correspondent, eager to probe all those corrupt, dysfunctional societies I’d read about. After poking into the depths on six continents, I have found the strangest of them all right here where I started out.

The Fruit Lady has a name, and her quotes should be attributed. When I first reported around here as a student, we even added street addresses. It is a different America now. First Amendment aside, people worry about what they say in public.

Polls and pundits mislead. That hoary “silent majority” is all over the place. Facts are what anyone thinks they are. Labels replace nuanced analysis. A wannabe despot condones wholesale death to get reelected. His cultists find someone else to blame.

Trump people with bedsheet-sized flags and bumper stickers are easy to spot but hard to interview. They know they’re right. Period. But the kindly Fruit Lady likes to talk. I battled wasps for a basket of ripe peaches and then sat down with her.

“Oh, I know he is arrogant,” she said, “but he says what he means, and he’s doing a good job.” Joe Biden? “He’s an idiot, and he has dementia. My sister knows dementia, and he has it.” I asked if she had other sources.

“I listen to Fox sometimes,” she said. She won’t look at the Arizona Daily Star, owned by a conservative chain. “It’s a liberal rag.” I asked what she read instead. “Just the Bible.” But is Trump a good Christian? “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

She wants the Wall, the higher the better. After 45 years in a place Mexicans settled seven generations ago, making a desert bloom, she learns from Trump they are rapists and murderers. “With me here alone,” she said, “I don’t trust them on my property.” 

She denies climate change despite a freak lightning storm that ignited dry pines and burned 120,000 acres of the nearby mountain. Heat rises each year as endemic drought worsens. Scant rain falls at the wrong time for crop cycles. She irrigates from a dwindling aquifer and doesn’t worry about it. In any case, Judgment Day is nigh.

“The world is coming to an end,” she said. Devout Christians will go to heaven – you, too, she added, because Jesus was a Jew – but all those Muslims and Buddhists and whatnot will find that a 110-degree Tucson summer is chilly compared to what awaits them.

And Covid-19? “I turn off the news when they talk about it,” she said. It’s a plot by the godless Chinese that the Lord will sort out. “We should have nothing to do with them. Around here, when people see something made in China, they refuse to buy it.” 

But, I said, after the Chinese tried to hide it, they came clean on January 9 and airlifted protective gear to America. Trump at first praised China’s reaction. He called the virus a Democratic hoax until mid-March. She gave me that look: don’t waste your breath.

“The China virus” is Trump’s gospel, and Republican candidates play that to the hilt – no one more than Martha McSally, now fighting for her appointed Senate seat. Driving home, I passed the Safeway that now symbolizes how badly America has gone wrong.

In 2011, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords drew a crowd outside the Safeway for her usual “Congress on Your Corner” parlay with constituents. A drug-addled, rightwing misogynist opened fire with a 9mm pistol, killing six and wounding 20 more. Giffords barely survived a shot to the head.

McSally lost the Republican primary in a special election, and then the next general election to replace Giffords. She succeeded in 2014, winning a House seat by 67 votes after five weeks of recounts. In 2018, she ran for the Senate, and Kyrsten Sinema beat her. But the governor later named her to fill John McCain’s empty chair.

McSally opposes Mark Kelly, Gabby Gifford’s popular astronaut husband against whom her “I-was-a-pilot” sounds lame. The Democrats say Mitch McConnell has put at least $20 million in PAC funds into her campaign, desperate to keep her shaky seat.

“China is to blame for this pandemic and the death of thousands of Americans,” one McSally ad says, with a Bloomberg news clip saying the Chinese hid the early outbreak. A close look shows it is dated January 4, five days before China shared genome sequences.

Then it got personal. An ad claimed Kelly invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in China. In fact, those were mutual funds, including Chinese securities, he had already sold. She, however, disclosed last August that her own funds held Chinese stocks, including Tencent, which invested in World View Enterprises. Which takes this deeper.

In 2012, World View’s co-directors persuaded county supervisors to build a $15 million spaceport in Tucson for high-flying tourism. Kelly was hired to manage flight crews. New people now run the company, Kelly moved on, and the spaceport is still there. McSally’s ad saying Kelly “ripped off taxpayers for $15 million” is an outrageous lie.

McSally, after criticizing Trump before he was elected, cheers his every move. She was the one who sneered at a polite question from Manu Raju of CNN. “You’re a liberal hack,” she said, “I’m not talking to you.” Then she boasted about that on social media.  

These mosaic pieces reveal a corrupted, ill-informed nation in which truth matters less by the month. So far, political vitriol plays out largely in dueling yard signs. Still, the potential is frightening in a nation armed to the teeth.

As Covid-19 rages on and artificial Wall Street underpinnings erode toward collapse, it is likely a Biden administration will veer back toward sanity. But the place I left in the 1960s, the land of the free and the home of the brave, has changed beyond recognition.

Next door to the Fruit Lady, a sign on the lawn reflects a different  extreme: “Any Functioning Adult – 2020.” I would have gone in to ask questions, but another sign on the high chain-link fence read in bold letters: “Beware of the dogs.” 

Mort Rosenblum has reported from seven continents as Associated Press special correspondent, edited the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and written 14 books on subjects ranging from global geopolitics to chocolate. He now runs

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