AUSTIN – They are the campaign odd couple of Austin.
Victor Antic and Gail Morehead get along just fine, like two peas in a far-right political pod; it’s other residents of this former mining boomtown — not to mention the tourists who ramble along meandering U.S. Highway 50 — who find them rather peculiar.
Take the couple’s no-holds-barred endorsement of Donald Trump.
A few months after the outspoken billionaire declared his long-shot candidacy for the White House, the owners of the International Cafe & Bar here began plastering Trump signs outside their historic 1863-era building in the heart of town.
Suddenly, as in literally overnight, the sleepy little establishment became an unofficial, unapologetic, in-your-face, join-us-or-be-gone Trump headquarters.
A half-dozen Trump placards, including the ubiquitous “Make American Great Again,” are posted near a vintage pioneer wagon wheel and a Miller High-Life neon sign that blinks in the bar window.
Many in this unincorporated community of 175 residents have gasped, while their neighbors applauded. Others refuse to do business here. Weary road travelers have chosen to drive another 100 miles for food and rest — but not before stopping for a few selfies in front of the campaign spectacle.
Over the months, the couple’s aggressive brand of politicking has been marked by pilfered campaign signs, heated political arguments and lots of shaking heads.
Their reaction? Well, like their chosen candidate himself, they are outspoken and defiant.
They just don’t give a damn.
“We don’t care if they don’t want to eat here. We’ll tell them: Get out!” said Morehead, standing in front of the cash register, wearing a Trump cap she bought off the internet. “If you’re not a Trump supporter, don’t come in here. Otherwise, you might get eaten alive.”
All across America, the political battle lines are drawn as the nation moves toward November’s presidential election, but perhaps nowhere are they more indelible than in this little mountain burg in Nevada’s central expanse.
Like much of the rural U.S., Austin is politically conservative territory — many people here vote for a straight GOP ticket come Election Day. Some liked U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz or Floridian Marco Rubio. At the International Cafe & Bar, they weren’t having any of it.
“They’re just representing what they believe,” said Julie O’Hara, who runs a motel directly across the street. Other than that, she wanted to stay clear of the couple’s political steamroller.
Inside the cafe, Antic shuffled along with a slight limp he didn’t want to talk about, a refrigerator repairman with a shock of gray Albert Einstein-like hair who keeps the place running.
He was born in a small Serbian town and traveled around Russia and Eastern Europe before landing in the U.S. He met Morehead one Thanksgiving at a karaoke bar in Reno. A decade ago, the pair relocated here to put what Antic calls an international brand on Austin.
He stood at the counter, in front of a picture of Depression-era comedian W.C. Fields, and talked about the political uproar of the last few months. Nearby was some reading material left out for customers, including a book titled “How to Cope When You Are Surrounded by Idiots.”
Said Antic: “It hasn’t hurt my business one bit.”
He admitted though, that he senses hostility among some passers-by. “I can feel their attitudes,” he said. “I see them pull up in their cars and then drive off.”
Some Trump signs have been stolen — replaced the very next day with spanking new ones.
He said the young liberals cruising the venerable coast-to-coast highway are the most vocal, arguing their case for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Antic responds with his no-nonsense political beliefs — that both foundering political parties helped create Donald Trump, that police no longer work for the people, that Wal-Mart is the future of socialism in America with so many of its employees on the social dole, and that Bernie Sanders should head on down to Venezuela and help out with that country’s socialist revolution.
Just that morning had come a typical face-off when a motorist got into a tiff with Moorehead. “He said Trump was a stupid SOB and that he didn’t want someone so ignorant to have his finger on the nation’s nuclear button,” Antic said. “Some of these people get defensive. He just rattled on and then he left — wouldn’t give Gail a chance to say her piece.”
Many motorists don’t even make it inside the door to start an argument.
“We hadn’t even gotten to the door when we saw the prominent Trump banner and realized that we wouldn’t be welcome here,” one wrote in a Yelp review. “The food could have been wonderful … but nothing would have been worth eating in that poisonous atmosphere. No one complained as we left and drove another hour and a half to get lunch.”
Another Yelp reviewer added: “Try the food if you must, but the gas station down the road is a better decision if you have any type of moral compass.”
The couple has their supporters. When two people sitting on a bench in front of a local bar were asked for their take on Trump, one gave a thumbs-up sign; the other voted thumbs-down.
“Women in town won’t go in there,” one said. “How could they?”
Gail Utter, who works at the county courthouse, said she stopped in the cafe and when she left, noted that someone had put a Trump bumper sticker on her car.
She didn’t take it off, and wouldn’t say who she planned to vote for.
“When you go into that little voting box,” she said, “nobody knows your business.”
Back at the lunch counter, Antic speculated on what might happen if Trump loses: The U.S., of course, will descend into political chaos like the former Soviet Union. “Even if he loses,” he said, “he’s woken up a lot of people.”
Still, Antic won’t be able to help Trump come Election Day: He’s not a U.S. citizen, so he can’t vote.
But rest assured, Morehead will be the first to put the stamp on her mail-in ballot.
And that, Antic hopes, will make America great again.
TALES FROM THE NEW WEST
The Review-Journal today begins a new series exploring the people and places that make the West unique. Award-winning writer John M. Glionna spends his days traversing the backroads and byways of the West to find his subjects andtell their stories in Tales from the New West. Reach John at firstname.lastname@example.org.