Driven over the river by a boring 56-36% presidential election NJ beatdown, the billboard garishly filled the post-storm, pre-Halloween sky on the way into Philadelphia. In a way it reminded me of the old drive-in movie theater-screen sized ads you used to see along the expressway in the 1980’s when you made your approach to Atlantic City, but then of course it did. It was a picture of Donald Trump, and this time it said, “Women for Trump,” instead of Trump Tropicana or Trump Taj Mahal. Vaguely messianic, the Fox News station-derived design and color scheme looked similar to the projection of an image of a benevolent preacher to a football stadium-sized crowd.
I got into the city, the momentousness of the occasion undercut somewhat by the news that Barack Obama would be coming in to campaign next week for Joe Biden. The city looked grim. The bohemian part of town bore the ravages of COVID-19: vacant storefronts, graffiti on the walls, smashed windows, overweight masked people waddling from block to block in search of food. A woman tugged open the corrugated iron partition in front of her shop – the only bookstore in the area amid vape lounges and nail salons – and disappeared inside. I followed sheepishly, finding a place crammed with lefty texts, universally calling for the end of the capitalist order. I stumbled into a skateboard shop, where someone closed the door behind me in the small space, prompting me to do an about face and evacuate.
Nothing crackled with a sense of conventional politics in overdrive. The one event that seemed to have some political punch to it originated in the vicinity of Independence Hall. The way the leader of the group plunged into darkness, elbows swinging and head down, almost frightening in his motivation, I figured he was connected to a political campaign. Must be a local rising star. Maybe he was leading the Biden canvassing effort in the neighborhood, and as I spoke out loud in bewilderment, a homeless man told me, “He’s a tour guide. He’s talking about the events surrounding the First Constitutional Convention.” So it had nothing to do with the election in three weeks? “Nah, he’s always over there,” the man explained, and hobbled off.
The person connected to the Biden Campaign with whom I was supposed to meet in Center City bailed on the connection, citing “virtual realities.” A second contact was mired in late-in-the-game legal troubles on account of the feds sticking their heads under the hood of his labor organization, a fierce Biden backer. Wandering in the area of the Philadelphia Art Museum later I heard a buzzing noise, not dissimilar, I’d imagine, to the noise Mike Pence evidently didn’t hear that night he debated Kamala Harris. I looked up in the sky. Artsy heads under the frieze of Bacchus craned skyward. There was a little low-flying plane dragging a “Trump-Pence” sign.
On my way home, I pulled off the highway and rambled through Yardley, which was interesting because it looked like a local concentration of that national battleground otherwise known as Pennsylvania (3,902,160 D’s to 3,249,919 R’s). Home to 1,000 Democrats and 700 Republicans, almost every yard in Yardley bore a Trump sign or a Biden sign. They seemed to be surviving there on a Saturday afternoon without fist fights or aggressive COVID-19 spitting and coughing spats. A man with a giant Trump-Pence sign on his lawn weed-whacked benignly around his mailbox next to a house where a young couple pushed a baby stroller on the walkway near a Biden-Harris sign. Downtown, you could see middle-aged guys in baseball caps climbing out of pickup trucks without masks and couples in masks holding hands as they entered the restaurant district. It was the ultimate political war in the middle of the most sedate-looking suburb on earth. All along Highway 13 between Levittown and New Hope the road was choked with dueling signs, underscoring the block to block stakes of this rustbelt state that four years ago went for Trump but where Biden – the Scranton native – now leads 53-46%, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Back in Jersey, I spray-gravel landed off the short turn from the highway into a driveway under a banner that screamed, in big red, white and blue letters: “Trump Store.” I walked over in a mask, rummaging amid the ballcaps, buttons and flags arrayed on red, white and blue bunting clad tables amid whole unmasked families already decked out in Trumpware. “Got to, man, got to,” said the guy under a MAGA hat behind the table of wares, referring to high visibility in the waning days of the race. I told him I had just taken a ride on the other side of the river and hadn’t observed much Biden action in that battleground state. “They’re all scared!” he grinned triumphantly. “They’re all underground hiding because of COVID.”
Another source-friend from Yardley told me a Saturday rally for Trump in Newton was “huge.”
Were all these pieces of stagecraft merely the impassioned gasps of a doomed confederacy or, in fact, the cobbled together expression of a real movement to reinstate the president?
I called Stephenine Dixon, who’s worked voter registration for the Biden Campaign in the City of Brotherly Love since the June Primary. She’d know what’s going on. Was her candidate indeed ahead by 53-45% despite the effect of, what might one call it, creative area visual for Trump?
“Philadelphia is going huge for Biden,” she told me. “Being out in the field, as I am, it’s so common to hear, ‘We’ve got to get 45 out of here.’ You hear it everywhere: ‘I’ll support Joe and Kamala overwhelmingly.’ If you went down to 15th and Market, the lines are around the block for Biden.” So they’ve had their heads down in the places that count and they don’t need little theatrical endearing public expressions of affection, is that the picture? “As soon as I’m done with voter registration in two days, I’m going into GOTV mode,” said Dixon. “I’ve been all over the whole city, and the support for Biden is solid. I don’t think we’re going to lose Pennsylvania. A lot of people are saying, ‘We already voted.’” And oh, yeah, a surely masked-up Obama is scheduled to physically teleport in for an actual event in Philly next week. But she did note, too, the Trump-bedecked motorcycle caravan making a slow drive through town, more evidence of visible passion supposedly checked by masked motivated anger.