Hey Republicans, I want my country back too!
When I was a kid, my dad took me fishing and hunting in many rural areas of Pennsylvania. We were spending the night with his friends, people he had mostly worked with or met at the archery or shooting club. Along the way, we passed through small towns interspersed with state playgrounds and stopped at restaurants to have breakfast in the pre-dawn chill of late November, or dine at an unnamed little restaurant. after spending all day in the woods freezing our asses off. There was never much, if any, allusion to local politics on these trips – no street signs, no bumper stickers to speak of, no overt statements of political allegiance that I remember ever having seen. For the most part, it was just beautiful land, farms, mountains, and nondescript small towns with a few worn shops in what passed for downtown. I liked it.
My dad and I were exploring trout streams in the spring, looking for deer tracks and good deer hunting spots in the fall, weeks before the opening day of the buck season, always the first Monday after Thanksgiving. . On these trips we would see squirrels nesting in the trees, goats brushing up against tall birch trees and fields with ring-necked pheasants. Occasionally, a grouse would emerge from a bush and fly away noisily as we approached.
We were driving early in the morning on dark roads through towns off the beaten track. These were towns you had never heard of and consisted of a few buildings, maybe a post office if you were lucky. We slept with a friend of my father’s, someone who usually lived in a small cabin with a big, wide yard in the foothills of the same mountain that we would plod up the next morning in the cold, before daybreak, with our guns, our seats, and our packs. Maybe there would be an old drive-in along the way, well back from the road and barely lit by our headlights. Beyond, nothing but a horizon dotted with distant and quiet farms.
Many of those places are gone now, replaced by malls, Applebee’s and Starbucks. Fields that once housed pheasants are now being taken over by corporations, and pheasants have long since disappeared except in special areas where they are kept. Some areas are off limits due to hydraulic fracturing. And you can no longer fish for bass in rivers and lakes or trout in streams and expect to eat what you catch unless you space it out to two fish a week, because of mercury and other contaminants. from runoff. Open hunting grounds are harder to find. In the true lower parts of the Commonwealth, however, those same small towns still exist, much unchanged.
But in the last few years there has been something new, something impossible to ignore. And that’s why I don’t have the same feeling when I ride through the countryside in this state. In fact, I no longer have that feeling when I leave my suburban enclave of Philadelphia and drive a few miles into the more rural areas of surrounding counties. Because it seems like every mile or so between those bucolic silos and fields, inevitably, there’s a sign, often oversized, hand-painted professing that owner’s undying love for Donald Trump.
Sometimes these signs are accompanied by some sort of overt insult against liberals or people of color, perhaps a Confederate flag or just a bumper sticker affixed to the back of a black pickup truck. Or it’s a “Let’s Go Brandon” banner flag hanging on someone’s porch. In all these rural and semi-rural Pennsylvania towns east and west of Harrisburg—Mountville, Ickesburg, Coudersport, Galeton, Hanover, Manheim, Chambersburg, Perdix, Duncannon, Mifflintown, Bradford, Clearfield, Bellefonte—it’s the same thing: we love Trump, we hate you liberals. We have guns. And we want you to know that.
So when I walk in these country stores or eat in these restaurants (the same restaurants as New York Time likes to send its reporters), what I feel most now from the people who work there walking in and out of their doors is something akin to a sense of… not really threat, but a kind of hostility. I don’t think it’s a projection on my part. There is a attitude now it wasn’t there even ten years ago. I feel like an unwanted visitor. Invariably, of course, there is only one news channel in each of these little bars and restaurants. You know what this news channel is.
You also know that there are liberals and democrats in some of these cities, but for the most part they are invisible, some because they don’t want to rock the boat, but many of them now out of fear. No one wants to turn off the lights, fall asleep and wake up to a nasty insult or worse in your front yard. You don’t want someone in a black van trying to run you off the road because of your Biden sticker. Because there’s a rage out there now, a simmering cauldron of resentment among many rural residents, and you just don’t know which ones they are. It is unpredictable and dangerous.
It doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t make it any less real. These yard signs are no longer simply affirmations of a given homeowner’s belief system: they are more like “in your face” threats. That’s the intention of the big flags flying over their cars and trucks: to intimidate. I know others have experienced this. Pennsylvania is a so-called purple state; in the red states, it’s pretty much the norm everywhere except the big cities. My perspective is of a privileged white male who can blend into that environment to some extent, and I feel that; I’m sure anyone of color experiences it a hundred times worse than me.
How the appearance of first Fox News and then Donald Trump on the political landscape of this country has damaged everything that Americans like me only a few years ago took for granted in our assumptions about our fellow citizens, has never really been stated. But now it has resulted in a complete tearing of the fabric of the nation; the total negation of the bonds between Americans, the bonds we all thought existed when we were growing up, all those decades ago. That country, the one where you didn’t have to think about or recognize the political environment wherever you went, no longer exists. The mask has been ripped off, and what lies beneath is unbridled, unabashed racism, seeking an outlet.
And, boy, do they hate us. The truth is that many of them would be more than happy to kill us. It’s a natural result of all the relentless demonization Fox News pours into their ears and eyes every day. In the end, it doesn’t matter what grievance is motivating them, because they’ve been taught to hate. As long as Fox News and Donald Trump tell them, it’s fine, that’s all they need to know.
I had read the story of the McCarthy period in the 1950s, when Americans turned on each other because of the machinations of a corrupt, alcoholic and unscrupulous Wisconsin state senator. I knew how he had ruined so many lives through sheer demagoguery, spreading a pestilential and paranoid anticommunism that gripped the nation for a few years, targeting then liberals, actors, writers, politicians, even icons like Charlie Chaplin with sinister insinuations, accusations and threats. He was eventually overthrown in public disgrace, but not before causing irrevocable damage.
But it’s a different kind of McCarthyism that exists now, one that smolders just under the thin veneer of civility, one that recharges every night thanks to Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and the endless panoply of virulent racists who chatter on platforms. addictive social media. He’s not a person who can be wiped out just by removing an individual from the picture. He can’t be ashamed because he doesn’t know shame in the first place. And it’s channeling something far deadlier and older into this country than the fear of communism ever was.
So I expect most of these large hand painted signs to be gone for a year or two. But they will be back in 2024 and far beyond, marring Pennsylvania’s idyllic landscape until this nation collectively realizes that allowing hate, racism and grievances to be monetized by people and corporations unscrupulous for profit is a recipe for the destruction of society. Until then, the campaign that I loved so much as a boy will never have the same appeal for me.
These people always say that they “want their country back”. Well, I would love to find my country too. But I’m sure that won’t happen anytime soon.
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