Occasionally I leave the city. I don’t mind driving long distances and I always leave with a gear bag of field recording equipment and a few camera lenses. Half of it is to get fresh air, swim or take the bike on a new extension on one of the East Coast trailways. The other half is to work, recharge and re-experience parts of America outside of the city. I go as far as I can and the less familiar the better. As long as we are grounded, this is how I can make the best of it. A trip I tend to make when possible is to Pennsylvania. Not the manicured suburban half you read about in the weekend edition of the Times, but the other half, beyond the Continental Divide. You know, the part that the Times forgets about until there is a Presidential election cycle. When not taking the train, I take the turnpike which eventually exits the sprawling affluence of the East through the flat farm country over the mountains and down the slopes to the formerly industrial West. Mid-October is the time of year to catch the leaves change on the old slopes and valleys in the Central and Southwestern corridors. You can feel the continent opening up when you get through the mountains.
As phenomenal as the season is, one would have to be willfully ignorant to not notice the political brandscape competing for your eyes against the natural world. The issues of the state are clearly outlined on billboards and ads raised in the fields are constructed with the care and deliberation of a barn. The ads (which I remember not-too-long ago focused on local dairy and furniture) now echo the talking points one would hear on right-wing talk radio. I keep the radio off and prefer to listen to my language CDs. I am still trying to learn Icelandic which reminds me — this time four years ago from late August to early November in 2016, I was partaking in a composer residency in Iceland so I missed most of the election season to come back to the US a few nights before election day. At the time, I remember seeing the vivid enthusiasm for the failed Casino realtor turned reality HR star from the window of the Amtrak. However, this time it’s different. Whereas in 2016 there was no voluntary support for Hillary now you can notice a fair amount of progressive ads for Biden and progressive causes (in the East) as well as bizarre logic on billboards for the fossil fuel industry. Oh, and don’t forget the cops. It seemed like every one of these counties were hiring cops with “no experience required.”
Mid-state, you will notice the signs reading T-R-U-M-P are brightly lit, shiny and facing the road to create some type of childlike fortress, perhaps a wall, as if to protect his most benevolent believers. In contrast, signs that read J-E-S-U-S don’t have lights or 4″ x 4″ lumber frames labored into the earth. Jesus faded into the roadside brush and ivy like an old Chevrolet or a Whirlpool appliance that lost its use long, long ago. The person serving as President put on a show for these folks four years ago. No one does that. No one comes here. Hillary didn’t. It’s a big deal for these people and they remember it. The engulfing display of support is a reflection of what he means to them. Somehow he resonates and their signs are their shields. Protection from what? I don’t know, we’ll make it multiple choice; A) Anarchists B) Communists C) Socialists D) All of the above. Highway nativity scenes come and go every xmas. They get blown over by the wind, weather beaten and thrown out, baby Jesus and all. But the structure, maintenance and upkeep here tells me what the signs don’t have to. Their support for him is solidified.
What gives with these people? It is as if the word Trump means Lord Christ in a Rambo body here. It is like he is the embodiment of their prayers and gifted to the earth. In the absence of divine intervention to perpetually fleeting economy he, and his spawns, have transcended the television set to the fields and Wal-Mart parking lots (2016) and airports where they get left in the cold (2020). Now without the theatrics. His baseless claims and damning tweets are Gospel and his 4th of July speech on Lakota Sioux land in the middle of a deadly pandemic was a Sermon for his core base of aging whites. Through the power of linguistical laziness, he alludes to blurred memories of a selective past based on pre-civil rights advertising with some vague dark fear of the future — if the position were to ever to be filled by someone who is, you know, qualified. He descended from the mount with no actual product but just the sale of what should be, rather than what is. There is no now, only the comfort of then and the fear of what’s next. You have seen the reaction of the faces on these carefully staged, disease spreading rallies: the result is a dopamine rush of salvation like Eucharist placed on the tongues of a trembling alcoholics. Every racist statement is like Christmas morning to these people — a holiday, and a high, that the (circle one): Anarchists / Socialists / Communists / All of the above are trying to take away from them. There are no festivals or monster truck rallies this year, so it’s the only show in town. It’s as if he only does well when there is no competition. In return, they honor his vanity-salvation with yard signs, flags and spite towards their neighbors.
I keep driving West and set up camp after descending from the Continental Divide. My favorite trails, forests and swimming holes are over here. These photos in the video were gathered from three counties in the state: Westmoreland (Western slope of the Appalachian mountains), Somerset (just North of the border of the Mason-Dixon line with West Virginia) and a few from the southern tip of Allegheny County (where you can follow the Monongahela River North to Pittsburgh). The video slideshow just for the nature, mostly accessible though the Great Allegheny Passage, the bike trail that connects Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. The sweeping landscapes are interrupted only by the political propaganda which overwhelmingly leans for a certain candidate. The goals is to overwhelm and intimidate but unlike 2016, there is an optical resistance, often in front of the better maintained and more inviting homes.
I’d like to take my days off just for recreation but the visual displays people show against each other is tragically exciting. I grew up here. K – 12, undergrad and quickly left when opportunities that presented themselves elsewhere; The United Kingdom, Scandinavia and ultimately my home, New York City. When I do return, it is always in either the late Spring (when the birds return to the North) or like now, when the leaves change and the frost hits the ground to inaugurate the heavy winters here. Almost every recording or artwork I have made has some object or backdrop from here in it. The natural world delivers a magic with each season here. The dynamic ecosystems and their micro-climates along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Youghiogheny (Lenape, meaning a stream flowing in a contrary direction) attract the migratory birds circling back from South America. The mineral rich soil here creates the bio-diversity and thus industrial and political occupation, so the acts of aggression reflect the temporary industries and conservative idealogues that slither through every decade or so — holding zero regard for public health let alone any concept of sustainability. They campaign hard to keep their posts here, as you see in the slideshow. The violence and intimidation by the disenfranchised youth seems to be the trauma response of the abusive nature of these industries. Just a thought.
As we know, toxicity is taught not inherited and naturally these people are angry. They are hurt. Opiate addiction and young death is out of control. From my phonebanks and canvassing, that seemed to be the biggest issue among voters here. Add to that — opportunity, like the sun, is very difficult to find here. Minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour here, which has not risen since Clinton was president. The Christian Right lobbies against any increase in wages or health care. Naturally, people leave find opportunities and and raise families elsewhere. Scarcity is a sound that echoes with the coal trains. You can feel it. According to the world population review, population growth, of Westmoreland is -0.49%. No one is being born here, no one is moving here. Life is measured in negative numbers. Obviously, the quality of life and thus tax dollars diminish and blame is shifted to the left along with all of its long-term, sustainable thinking. Again, select the culprit: A) Anarchists B) Socialists C) Communists D) All of the above.
But the road signage demonstrates childlike obedience for authority but alas, the state police can’t shoot or arrest their way out any of the problems facing this half of the Commonwealth. It is as if salvation is awaited with an iron fist. If only more aggression, policing and violence could somehow bring American back to Hula Hooping and driving Oldsmobiles again (is that when it was great? Asking for some friends who weren’t allowed to vote then). In addition to the “Pro-Life Pro-Trump” and “Make the Liberals Cry Again” you will see the blackened American flag with the blue line through it with “Cops for Trump” and “Back the Blue” signs — but these are the houses obscured from the road and appear to be half abandoned, like Buffalo Bill’s house in Silence of the Lambs (which actually just a few miles south from where I write this).
History taught us (or at least those that showed up for class) us that a core mechanism of any fascist regime is violence and terror. Before seeing the barrage of signage on the route here, I heard about the violence as I was phone-banking to the region as a friendly, elderly female voice told me about her yard signs (for Biden/Harris) being stolen. I didn’t know what that meant at first. You forget about things like yards in the city. Folks with liberal or pro-left signs had to reinforce them or place “Private Property” markers to preface them. Yes, these are micro-aggressions but the pre-meditation required here alludes to something more sinister, bigger and a problem that will not be going anywhere regardless of the election results on Tuesday. They are emboldened and encouraged by their leader. A person who does not value honor or respect does not project it and his disciples act accordingly — just like the issue with masks or any topic of public safety or social well being. These people don’t care. They want to see you hurt. It is as if they intend to destroy our social fabric, institutions and all of that starts in the American yard. The yard is the place where we invite each other and come together, but it has become yet another weapon in this current climate.
One could look back in time and see where all of this originated. In the movies, the bully always fails in the end, usually by their own doing. A line of right and wrong is quickly drawn and even with a shred of basic decency. But all of this seems out of place. Something is wrong here. There is no way that in the land of opportunity and food abundance we could have fallen to a place of helpless destitution and moral anemia like this. Sometimes I wish a team of Blue Helmets from the UN would arrive. i see these people in that difficult of a situation. They are crying for help but are lashing out to an economy that failed them and taking the anger to the voting arena. Again choose one to blame: A) Anarchists B) Socialists C) Communists D) All of the above.
America is a land of dreams, belief and realization. Everything is possible here and in the times I doubt this, I reach out to my first-generation friends, colleagues and neighbors that come from every end of the earth to pursue their dreams whether it be in business, education or just to have a better life here. Their stories inspire me. in contrast, these fucking nativist white boys make me sick. Perhaps it is a position of privilege that I don’t see how they could be so self-isolated and dedicated to hate towards any form of decency. My only answer: Opportunity left these places where he polls well a generation ago and instead of playing their hand at the table, they would rather flip over the table and attack the other players. Rules no longer matter and any kind of competition is looked at as unfair. Yet, winning is all. They do as their leader does. He represents their cynicism against our society as well as instills otherwise unnatural fears and you could not ask for a deadlier mix. Heroes defend and reinforce faith in the pillars of our democracies and defend against and the villains that seek to cheat them. He represents a way “around the system” instead of serving as a steward of our institutions. We are now hostage to the outbursts and, ultimately, the vote of most desperate victims of this stage of capitalism. As good ideas never need to be advertised, the signage represents both a defense mechanism and also an ideological motivation. The latter is where the discussion ends and signifies the point of no return.
In the end, I commend the millions of Pennsylvanians who defend the values of the Commonwealth in their own front yards, and continue to do so since the day John F. Kennedy asked each of us to serve the greater good. I never thought I would see the day where we would be facing off against neo-Confederate, nazi-sympathetic turncoats who’ve traded their country for a red hat. In these times of unhinged ideological warfare it is brave to demonstrate support of any institution in our democracy. But as I gather from the canvassing, these folks are winning the long-game and redefining the union state, brick by brick. I only hope the same for the rest of the Nation.
Thomas is a visual artist and experimental musician working in New York City.
This post was inspired from a painting (part 1) made earlier last year, based on a real place: https://thomaswatkiss.bigcartel.com/product/trumpland-hellscape
Related reading (Westmoreland County is mentioned): https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/politics/battleground-states-trump-biden.html