PHILIPSBURG, Pennsylvania -- For over a decade, Pat Romano drove past the former Mallard Motel on his way to and from the construction business he owned in town. And the more he saw the motel fall into disrepair, the more he wanted to buy it -- which he admits was a bit crazy.
Perched on the cusp of the Port Matilda Highway (and dormant for decades), Romano, a hardcore Philadelphia native who grew up with a steady diet of cheesesteaks and attitude, decided he'd go with crazy.
Despite opening at the height of the pandemic in 2020, Romano has not just impeccably redone all of the rooms in the old motel (including each room having the traditional metal chairs sitting outside), but he has turned the former motel lobby into a delightful diner overlooking Philipsburg's lake with two of the rooms converted into an expansive bar. He has also added outdoor dining.
Romano has worked hard to make this dream come to fruition, rehabbing a place that hasn't had a customer since the '70s. Once the doors opened, he worked hard to create a community out of a place that had lost its value in American culture. Dubbed the "We Are Inn," everything has a Penn State theme, from the blue-and-white color scheme of the motel on the outside to the memorabilia on the inside.
"We are located 20 miles from Penn State. We knew people were always looking for a place to stay for the games, so we became a destination stop for them. On game weekends, there are tailgate parties in the parking lot with people bringing entire families or meet up with long-held friends or former classmates, and we provide a free shuttle to and from the games so people don't have to worry about overdoing it and then driving," said Romano.
In his own way, Romano has created a community -- something people want to join, to be part of. It is that shared aspiration Alexis de Tocqueville admired so much about the spirit of American exceptionalism: the instinct to form associations with one another that draw us together.
For the past few decades, the people in power in our country who also have the loudest voices in our culture (corporations, entertainment, institutions, media, government) have decided they can accumulate more power by dividing people using race, gender, vocation, educational achievement and geography as their means of division.
Sometimes they use every tool in the toolbox at once, sometimes just one at a time, but boy, do they use them.
When a party in power has aligned itself with those entities, for your average person like Romano, it feels overwhelming. That is part of why he is no longer a Democrat, a party he so identified with in Philly that he once worked to get Democrats elected.
"When I was growing up in Philly, I was a Democrat. I worked for the party, very, very diligently worked for the party, helping people get elected down there all over the place. But then, at some point, you start to look at what's going on with the politics in the areas. And to me, I just had an epiphany. I was, like, 'I'm on the wrong team,'" he said.
Today, the new Republican is an elected official in his new hometown and serves as the chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Rush Township.
Cultural attitudes have changed in the past few years. It began when the pandemic went from something we should be mindful of to a power that we should succumb to, making people who would not lean center-right lean in that direction when they began to question other power moves they never questioned before.
Because President Joe Biden won in 2020, many people missed how center-right the country moved in that election in every other race down-ballot. In 2021, when Virginia (as well as many other states across the country) went even further center-right in the election results, Democrats and those cultural curators in corporations, media, institutions and Hollywood remarkably responded by calling the voters racist.
And, of course, they said it was because of Trump; to them, I would say you all need to spend less time on Twitter measuring people.
It is important to note that the country moved center-right in both of those elections despite all of the pressure from these cultural curators to shame them not to -- from the "hate has no home here" signs in neighbors' windows to the stigmas about masks to the attempts to criminalize all parents (not just the handful that got out of hand) for expressing their concerns at school board meetings.
People grew weary of having everything they thought, did, bought and wore being called racist. That goes for black people, white people and Hispanics who are deeply frustrated that our politics and culture are constantly trying to pit them against each other -- people are simply just done.
Ask any suburban parent (mother or father) who has spent hours driving back and forth to swim meets and soccer practices for their daughters how they feel about women's sports today that have biological males crushing females in meets and tournaments.
If you think that hasn't pushed them center-right, you haven't listened to them.
If you think the violent crime epidemic in our cities hasn't pushed people center-right, then you haven't paid attention to the diversity of new gun owners who purchased their first guns in the past two years to protect their homes and their families -- or have moved out of those cities.
By the way, this is not about Republicans getting things perfect or even semiperfect or even partially perfect -- this is about Democrats overreaching so wide and so far that they can't see the forest for the trees.
What makes it worse for the Democrats is that they have done it in unison with our cultural curators for so long. When corporations and the media amplify this overreach in their advertisements, tweets or social justice positions or opinions, they just push people even further away.
Many Democrats will claim all of this culture stuff is ridiculous, an attempt to "astroturf" by the Right to make something that's not there. Their response will be that there is nothing to see here -- just a bit of gaslighting, if you will.
While Republicans would love to take credit for it (they deserve none), there was no master plan hatched by the Republican National Committee or former President Donald Trump. They did not create any of the backlash in the same way that Trump or the RNC did not create this conservative populist coalition that formed before he ever stepped on that escalator in 2015.
People will calculate that the midterm elections this year will be about a lot of things: Trump, racism and not getting Build Back Better passed. They will be wrong. It is the culture, and had they just spent some time listening to people, they would have known.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.