Barbara Gibbons never used to be passionate about politics.
Then in 2008, the mother of six watched as President Obama won the White House amid allegations that he had ties to a controversial group accused of falsifying voter registration information. Four years later, a Pew Center report revealed that nearly 2 million dead people were still registered to vote in the United States.
By the time Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, Ms. Gibbons was convinced that the United States political system was corrupt and needed an overhaul. Today she sees in Mr. Trump the nation’s last real hope for change.
And should Trump lose on Nov. 8, Gibbons worries that drastic measures may be necessary to prevent further abuse of Americans’ constitutional rights.
“If the situation continues the way that it’s going,” she says, “it just might take another revolution. It just might take a civil war to get our country back.”
It’s a statement that appears to bolster growing concerns about unrest over the results of the November presidential elections. In voicing unsubstantiated charges of election rigging at the final presidential debate Wednesday night, critics said, Trump not only cast a shadow on the very foundation of American democracy. Liberal commentators also raised the specter of intimidation at the polls and gave implicit consent to post-election turmoil.
But interviews with voters in California’s Kern County – a region in the Central Valley with deep roots in cultural and political conservatism – reveals a less militant response to Trump’s remarks. By and large, residents agreed it would be disappointing, even upsetting, to see Hillary Clinton win the presidency. Yet few besides Gibbons said anything about responding with violence.
It may be a possibility “perhaps in some pockets of the country where we’ve seen anger at Trump rallies,” says Jeanine Kraybill, an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Bakersfield, Kern County’s largest city.
“But from my experience here, I don’t think it’ll get to a level of violence,” she says. “And I think there are definitely parallels with what is happening in the Central Valley with other states.”
California’s Bible Belt
Kern County sits at the southern tip of California’s San Joaquin Valley, just about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. In terms of culture and politics, however, the place looks a lot more like the Bible Belt than Hollywood.
Residents here have a firm tradition of conservatism – one that values smaller government, fewer regulations, and the Second Amendment. Severe drought throughout the 1930s forced millions of farmers and their families out of the Great Plains; by 1940, 200,000 of them had resettled in California.
Today the descendants of those transplants give Kern County a distinct Republican streak among both working class whites and the scions of oil and agriculture – the region’s two main industries.
In economy and demographics, the region also shares much with the areas of the Midwest and the South that animated Trump support nationwide. The Great Recession, coupled with California’s protracted drought, led to major cuts in manufacturing and agriculture in the region. Unemployment in Kern County remains nearly double the state rate.
And while the area has – like the rest of California – gradually diversified over the past two decades, there’s little interest in developing the cosmopolitan culture of Los Angeles and San Francisco, Professor Kraybill says.
As Bakersfield resident Craig “Buster” Barnard puts it: “We are in California, but we are not of California.”
“Everybody puts this part of California down,” he adds in his south Texas drawl, picked up from years spent there, where his grandfather grew up. “We had to be taught to be self-reliant.”
So when Trump brings up allegations of a rigged system, “that really causes [residents] to be suspicious,” Kraybill says. “Some of us might think, ‘That’s irresponsible and unprecedented to state.’ [But] that resonates with them.”
Fear and hope
For Gibbons, the mother of six, her support of Trump stems from a deep distrust of the current political establishment, which she calls “the regime.” She’s horrified at what she sees as government encroachment on her constitutional rights. The only way to reverse the trend, she says, is to elect someone to office who is outside of that system.
“We need to rally together and make a change,” she says, leaning out of the driver’s side of her pickup, adorned with a Trump sticker and a miniature American flag.
And should that effort fail?
“Violence is almost never the answer,” she says, but “there is genuine fear.”
At a pizza parlor in Bakersfield, members of the Kern County Young Republicans – a volunteer organization that helps local and national GOP campaigns – gathered to watch the final debate. For at least one person present, the notion of a Clinton victory was alarming.
“My parents call me a doomsayer,” says Bryce Zaden, a member of the group director of sales for a local equipment leasing company. “But I personally think we'll be at war soon enough, if [Hillary] wins.”
For others, Trump losing the election could be a reason to buy guns – but not to use them violently.
“I’d probably go buy some stock in a gun company,” says Phillip Peters, the group’s chairman. "It’ll probably go through the roof, the way it did after Obama was elected.”
In Oildale, an unincorporated area just north of Bakersfield, the mood was more sullen than enraged. Residents outright refused to talk politics. When asked about their support for either candidate, many shrugged and said neither was worth voting for. Most, however, sounded like retiree Linda Parker: Sure, she says, if Hillary wins, “I would be upset. But I don’t know what I would do about it.”
Still, some held onto the hope that the nation would manage to overcome its differences, regardless who becomes president.
“If Trump wins, the people who hate him, they’re going to come along, though they may not like it,” says Dean Haddock, a clinical psychologist and chair of the Republican Party of Kern County.
“If Hillary wins, the people are going to stay with it and they're going to support it because it's the will of the people,” he says. “The best thing I love about the United States is we’re able to exchange power and still we're going to be together.”
Even Gibbons acknowledged the possibility.
“Look, if you can change my mind, please change my mind,” she says. “I’m willing to listen. And I’m always willing to learn.”