The hamlet of White Sulphur Springs, two hours northwest of New York City, tumbles toward the rolling foothills of the Catskill mountains off New York state route 52 in rural, verdant Sullivan county. The first white settlers, drawn by the dense hemlock forest, set up sawmills; later, dairy farms and tanneries were the area’s main economic drivers. But now and for the past hundred or so years, this bucolic wedge of New York countryside relies on tourism.
Nowadays in White Sulphur Springs, there’s one inn, a gardening store, a small grocery that doubles as the local post office, a quaint used bookstore, a Methodist church, and a Dollar General.
And, in 2020, anyway, a couple dozen Trump signs and flags. In a town of 377 people, where 351 of those people are white, you can’t help but notice the Trump signs, even if you’re just driving through.
Sheila Parks says this proliferation of insignia displaying the US president’s name might be her fault, at least inadvertently. Back in late spring, Sheila decided that she was going to put a Black Lives Matter sign and a Biden For President sign in the front lawn of the house where she lives with her husband, Jimmy, and their two teenage sons. Theirs is the only house in White Sulphur Springs with a Biden or a Black Lives Matter sign. Their home is right before the main stretch of town. You can’t miss it.
“All the Trump signs came up after,” she says. “It was in response.”
Sheila is Catholic but was raised in a Jewish hotel, where her parents worked, in nearby Swan Lake. She remembers guests with tattooed numbers from the Holocaust concentration camps. Her mother grew up in the Bronx, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and Sheila herself has traveled the world and lived in multiple places. She’s also an Army veteran.
She credits those experiences with broadening her perspective. “We were raised as people who, no matter your race or economic position, everyone should interact equally,” Sheila says. “Obviously it wasn’t that way when I grew up here in the ’70s and ’80s. They were still using the n-word, you didn’t see people of color in positions of power, and it’s pretty much the same way now.”
In 2016, Sheila supported Hillary Clinton, but she didn’t feel like she needed to put a sign out. Then, well, Trump won. This time around, she wanted to display a small act of resistance, but she was nervous. White Sulphur Springs is a conservative place –you’ll also see one or two Confederate flags if you drive through – and her husband’s family are Republicans all the way down, though Jimmy doesn’t count himself in that number. She was also concerned about consequences for her children, one of whom is especially supportive of progressive causes on social media.
But that was never going to stop her. She wanted to show that people who didn’t cleave to the town orthodoxy of “supporting the NRA, Trump, and hating AOC” wouldn’t be intimidated. And she wanted to show her kids that it’s important to stand up for what you believe in.
Plus, it’s not like Sheila is totally without support. Elderly Mrs Hogencamp, across the street, couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the signs. She supports Biden and BLM, but she doesn’t want the drama that comes with advertising that. Same goes for the Parks’ neighbors, a Latino family who moved to White Sulphur Springs about a year ago. And Sheila’s friend in town, Christina, is also supportive (her last name is being withheld at her request).
Christina is Puerto Rican and her husband is Black. He has been nervous since the pandemic began because when he wears a mask, people can’t see him smile when he goes to the supermarket, and that’s the best way to show you’re not an angry Black man. When their 13-year-old daughter saw the video of George Floyd being killed by police officers, she was devastated. “She was like, ‘Mom, I don’t want my dad and my brother to end up this way’,” Christina remembers. “To be a parent and have to express to your child, ‘I can’t promise you it won’t happen, but I’m here for you’ …” she trails off. “To see Sheila’s signs just gave me a little sense of hope. I reached out to her literally in tears. Because it’s hard.”
People drive by the Parks’ house and yell things like “Biden sucks!” or “Biden’s going down!” (Occasionally there are more supportive gestures.) But a lot of politically opinionated people in White Sulphur Springs feel like they can’t talk to Sheila – if they’d even want to. She’s the town liberal, a role she seems to take some pride in. Same goes for her eldest son, 16-year-old Dylan. (“He’s very opinionated,” says one Trump-supporting woman, who happens to be Dylan’s aunt. “Very opinionated.”) For his part, Dylan “can wholeheartedly say I don’t feel like I belong in this town at all”.
No, the individual who’s borne the brunt of the backlash is Jimmy Parks, who has lived in White Sulphur Springs for 54 years. Jimmy is like a lot of people in the US: his political identity is not neatly divisible along party lines. “I just want a good country,” he says. “I got kids.” He’s voted Republican in the past, but he’s colorfully unapologetic about his support for Biden and Black Lives Matter, and as for the Trump administration: “They don’t care, they’re racist people.”
Whereas most of the Trump supporters in town dismiss Sheila out of hand, they’re befuddled by Jimmy. He seems a lot like them: white, working class, from the area and never really left. His family goes way back here. There are people in White Sulphur Springs who simply don’t believe that Jimmy believes what he believes. He’s been approached at the store, confronted by cousins and strangers, all questioning why he has those signs on his lawn.
“A lot of people in these small towns, they don’t understand about equality, how much diversity there is in this country,” Jimmy says. As for whether they ever can, he’s not all that optimistic. “There’s so many people in this country who are truly set in their ways,” he reasons. “Racist people who just want that Chevrolet, apple-pie lifestyle. It’s not that way anymore, man, and really at the end of the day, it never was.”
April Kissel put up her Trump signs out of political loyalty, not in response to Sheila. She lives with her husband, Joe, in one of the first houses on the road into White Sulphur Springs. Joe is also a Trump fan. He watches Fox Nation all night, and was in the US National Guard for nearly two decades after joining in 1969.
The Kissels have had four Trump 2020 placards on their lawn for the past month, but April says she’s always advertised her political support, even for local elections. She’s not trying to start a dialogue, but “to help other people think a little bit”. Especially the people driving through. “It’s a small town; we all know each other,” April says. Which means: where everybody stands politically.
April is Jimmy’s first cousin, but despite the fact the Kissels and the Parks live half a mile down the road from each other, the families don’t interact much. “The Biden sign is fine, but I don’t agree with the Black Lives Matter sign at all,” April says. “Black lives aren’t the only lives that matter. It has nothing to do with politics.”
Paul Lindsley feels much the same way. “Whether Black, Spanish, white, Chinese – all lives matter,” he says in a laconic patois when I find him sitting on his front porch, with a beautiful view of the hills, smoking a cigarette in a green wool overshirt. Paul is “a hunter and a shooter”, and he thinks Joe Biden is going to take his guns away. His house is next door to the Parks’, and he’s actually related to Jimmy, too – a distant cousin. As is Judy Bradley, who lives across the street, next door to Mrs Hogencamp. When I first drive out to White Sulphur Springs, the Bradleys have two Trump lawn signs, an All Lives Matter sign, and a fire department sign. Judy’s not interested in talking. Two weeks later there’s a “Trump 2020: No More Bullshit” flag flying in their yard.
It’s not the most ostentatious display in White Sulphur Springs, however. That honor goes to Ed Roth, whose house is bedecked with three large flags: a thin blue/red line flag for policemen and firefighters; a flag depicting Trump standing proudly atop a panzer tank, assault rifle in hand, with an explosion in the background and a bald eagle soaring into battle; and, right in the middle, raised above the other two, an American flag. From the detached garage out back fly two more banners: A “No More Bullshit” flag and a Gadsden flag, the yellow banner depicting a coiled rattlesnake above the words “don’t tread on me”. (The Gadsden flag was originally designed during the American revolution, but has subsequently been embraced by Confederate war veterans’ groups, white supremacist groups, and the American Tea party, lending it the dual symbolism of revolution and racial animosity.)
When he speaks, Roth has to hold his thumb to the hole in his throat, which was cut out on his 50th birthday. The cancer is on his tongue now. “I’ve beat it twice,” he says. “Having trouble beating it this time.”
To him, flying flags is all about respect. He used to be a Democrat, but he left the party a long time ago. He says he’d hang a Confederate sign if he had one. “They believed in what they were fighting for, just like the north believed in what we were fighting for,” he explains. “It was the same thing.”
Not everyone is motivated by grievance politics, though. At the far end of town flies a bright blue Keep America Great banner, a gift to logger Dale Klein from his dying grandmother. Klein fashioned a makeshift pole out of two-by-fours painted blue and stapled together to raise the flag in her honor.
And the self-censorship of political expression isn’t only exhibited by supporters of Democratic causes in White Sulphur Springs. When Alan Werlau hung a Trump banner from his front deck, his neighbor expressed support, but said he couldn’t put one out himself because he works in real estate and is concerned it would harm his business.
Dale is friendly. He refers to strangers as “buddy”. When I find him, he’s wearing a racing cap and a t-shirt that reads “Intercourse, PA,” which is a real place in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. The makeshift pole where the Keep America Great flag hangs will be replaced by a 30-foot aluminum pole as soon as Dale and his coworker find the time to pour concrete for a base.
As for the current setup, “we got a few compliments here and there, but that’s about it”, Dale says. “Never got no complaints.”
The Trump signs just keep going up in White Sulphur Springs, from supporters who run a typological gamut of rural whiteness: a tatted-up biker who lives in an old hotel, a bottle-blond housewife with hot pink nails, men in rocking chairs with cigarettes and American light lagers. They’re showing support, or acting out of fear or anger, or honoring some long-lost ideal. Mostly they’re affirming an identity.
What there isn’t much of is dialogue, in a place you might expect there to be some. Everyone knows each other, after all. The state assembly district that includes White Sulphur Springs has been represented by a Democrat who has run unopposed since 2014. The district voted for Obama twice before swinging to Trump in 2016.
As for the 2020 election, Jimmy Parks knows its importance – the pandemic, and its attendant threat to voter turnout, has only heightened the stakes for him. “That sumbitch ain’t gonna stop me from voting,” he says, referring to Trump.
The prospect of the US president winning reelection sends his mind to a scary place, though. Or at least an uncomfortable one. “I’ve been peeing in my backyard and living off the land my whole life thinking this is the greatest country in the world,” Jimmy says. But if Trump were to upset the odds again, “I think I’d want to move,” he says despairingly. “But where would I go?”