When I was a kid, my dad took me fishing and hunting through a lot of the rural areas of Pennsylvania. We’d stay overnight at his friend’s places, people he’d worked with mostly, or met at the archery or rifle club. Along the way, we’d drive through small towns interspersed within state game lands and stop at diners to get breakfast in the pre-dawn cold of late November, or dinner at some nameless little restaurant after spending all day in the woods freezing our asses off. There was never much, if any, hint of local politics on these trips—no yard signs, no bumper stickers to speak of, no overt statements of political allegiance that I can ever recall seeing. For the most part, it was just beautiful land, farms, mountains, and nondescript little towns with a few worn-down shops in what passed for the town center. I liked it.
My dad and I would explore trout streams in the spring, look for deer trails and good deer hunting spots in the fall, weeks before the opening day of buck season, always the first Monday after Thanksgiving. In these trips, we’d see squirrel nests in trees, buck rubs on slender birches, and fields with ring-necked pheasants. Every once in a while, a grouse would pop out of some brush and loudly flutter away at our approach.
We’d drive in the early morning hours on dark roads through towns well off the beaten path. These were towns you’d never heard of that consisted of a few buildings, maybe a post office if you were lucky. We’d sleep at a friend of my dad’s, someone typically living in a small cabin with a big wide yard in the foothills of the same mountainside we’d trudge up the next morning in the cold, before daylight, with our guns, our seats, and our packs. Maybe there’d be an old drive-in along the way, set back well off the road and only barely illuminated by our headlights. Beyond that, nothing but a horizon dotted with distant, quiet farms.
Many of those places are gone now, replaced by strip malls, Applebee’s, and Starbucks. The fields that used to be home to the pheasants are now taken over by corporations, and the pheasants are long gone, except in special areas where they’re raised. Some areas are off-limits because of fracking. 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 by two fish per week, because of the mercury and other contaminants from run-off. Open hunting land is more difficult to find. In the real nether regions of the Commonwealth, though, those same small towns still exist, pretty much unchanged.
But over the last few years, there has been something new, something impossible to ignore. And it’s the reason I no longer have the same feeling when I drive through the countryside in this state. In fact, I no longer have that feeling when I leave my suburban Philadelphia enclave and drive for a few miles into the more rural areas of the surrounding counties. Because it seems like every mile or so, between those bucolic silos and fields, inevitably, there is a sign, often an oversized, hand-painted one, professing that property owner’s undying love for Donald Trump.
Occasionally these signs are accompanied by some type of overt slur against liberals or people of color, perhaps a Confederate flag or just a bumper sticker emblazoned on the back of a black pickup truck. Or it’s a “Let’s Go Brandon” banner flag hanging from someone’s porch. In all of 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 it.
So, when I walk into these country stores or eat at these diners (the same diners the New York Times loves to send its reporters to), what I feel most of all now from the people working in them and coming in and out of their doors is something akin to a sense of … not quite menace, but a kind of hostility. I don’t think this is projection on my part. There’s an attitude now that wasn’t there even ten years ago. I feel like an unwanted visitor. Invariably, of course, there’s only one news channel on in any of these little bars and restaurants. You know what that news channel is.
You also know there are liberals and Democrats in some of these towns, but for the most part, they’re invisible, some because they don’t want to rock the boat, but a lot of them now out of genuine fear. No one wants to turn out the lights, go to sleep, and wake up with an ugly slur or worse in your front yard. You don’t want someone in a black pickup truck trying to run you off the road because of your Biden bumper sticker. Because there’s a rage there now, a simmering cauldron of resentments among many rural residents, and you just don’t know which ones they are. It’s unpredictable and dangerous.
It makes no sense, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Those yard signs are no longer simply affirmations of any given property owner’s belief system: they’re more like “in your face” threats. That’s the intent of the big flags flying from their cars and trucks: to intimidate. I know others have experienced this. Pennsylvania is a so-called purple state; in red states, it’s pretty much the norm everywhere except the major cities. My perspective is that of a privileged white male who can blend into this environment to a degree, and I feel it; I’m sure any person of color experiences it a hundred times worse than I do.
Just how badly the appearance, first of Fox News, and then Donald Trump, on this country’s political landscape 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 spelled out. But by now, it’s resulted in a complete tearing of the nation’s fabric; the total negation of the bonds between Americans, the bonds we all assumed existed when we were growing up, all those decades ago. That country, the one where you didn’t have to think about or acknowledge the political environment wherever it was you were going, no longer exists. The mask has been ripped off, and what’s beneath is seething, unabashed racism, looking for an outlet.
And, boy, do they hate us. The truth is a lot of them would be more than happy to kill us. That’s the natural result of all the nonstop demonization that Fox News pours into their ears and eyeballs every day. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what ginned-up grievance motivates them, because they’ve been taught to hate. As long as Fox News and Donald Trump have told them, it’s fine, that’s all they need to know.
I’d read about the history of the McCarthy period during the 1950s, when Americans were turned against each other through the machinations of a corrupt, alcoholic, and unscrupulous senator from the state of Wisconsin. I knew how he ruined so many lives through sheer demagoguery, spreading a pestilent, paranoid anti-Communism that gripped the nation for a few years, targeting the liberals of the day, actors, writers, politicians, even icons like Charlie Chaplin with sinister insinuations, accusations, and threats. He was finally brought down by a public shaming, although not before doing irrevocable damage.
But it’s a different kind of McCarthyism that’s out there now, one that smolders just beneath the thin veneer of civility, one that gets its juices recharged every night through Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and the never-ending panoply of virulent racists yammering away on addictive social media platforms. It’s not one susceptible to being wiped out simply by taking one individual out of the picture. It can’t be shamed because it knows no shame in the first place. And it’s channeling something far more lethal and longstanding in this country than fear of Communism ever was.
So, I expect most of those big hand-painted signs may be gone for a year or two. But they’ll be back in 2024 and well beyond that, defacing the idyllic Pennsylvania landscape until this nation collectively figures out that allowing hatred, racism, and grievance to be monetized by unscrupulous people and corporations for profit is a recipe for societal destruction. Until then, the countryside I loved so much as a boy will never have the same appeal to me.
These people always say they “want their country back.” Well, I’d dearly love to have my country back, too. But I’m pretty sure that’s not going to happen anytime soon.