Ever since decamping to rural New Jersey at the start of the pandemic, I’ve wrestled with what to make of the President Donald Trump campaign flags flying around these rolling hills.
Most are blue, with Trump’s name and the “Make America Great Again” slogan. Some are more succinct: “Trump: No More Bullshit.”
I saw one jacked-up, mud-splattered truck pull into a deli parking lot with a banner flapping behind that sported Trump’s head superimposed on John Rambo’s musclebound body, wielding a machine gun. It was both funny and hostile. I confess I waited in my car until the driver left the shop with his sandwich.
With the election just two weeks away, political signage of all types is once again blanketing American lawns and porches like autumn’s dead leaves. It’s a decidedly old-fashioned approach, a quaint contrast to the virtual texting banks and automated phone calls stalking voters.
Their usefulness is questionable, but their deployment is never seriously questioned.
Whether they persuade or pander isn’t the only point. Political signs can be a window into a campaign’s psyche, its self-image, an opportunity to capture a moment and make a statement that says both less, and more, than any debate or town hall. And like all public imagery, it can speak volumes to its place in time and the people it’s meant to reach.
In 2008, for example, Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster of Barack Obama became an instant icon. It was modern and clear, original and colourful, and seemed to capture both the historic promise and essential message of Obama’s campaign.
This is such a great poster, it seemed to say –how can we not get on this guy’s team?
Forty years earlier, in 1968, a black-and-white photo of a beaming Robert Kennedy, topped with simple “Kennedy” rendered in both red and blue, captured his boyish charm and the scrappy nature of his presidential campaign.
When the candidate was assassinated in June of that year, it instantly became a searing relic of a national tragedy. I daresay there isn’t a political operative or journalist of a certain age and stripe that doesn’t have one tucked away in his or her office. It still has the power to haunt us.
The stylistic goals seem more prosaic this time around, at least for the Democrats. Joe Biden’s visual approach is fairly straightforward – the standard blue and red type, the E in Biden rendered to look the stripes of Old Glory – subtle patriotism, spoken not shouted.
Running mate Kamala Harris’ last name is of roughly equal size to Biden’s—a signal that this is a team, not the monarchy promised from Trump, whose vice president, Mike Pence, doesn’t always make it onto the signage at all.
Biden’s signage, like his campaign, is meant to soothe and reassure. He wants to “Build Back Better,” not “ end the bullshit”. The cleverest element in his posters is the image of his trademark aviator frames with bits of the American flag superimposed on each lens. I’m still cool—in a safe way, the aviators say. And this year, that’s plenty enough cool for us.
Which brings me back to the Trump flags. For all their martial urgency and vague menace (see the Nazi-inspired film Triumph of the Will if you want to see a flag weaponised), what do the flags signify?
Should I think each banner translates into hundreds or thousands of other Trump supporters in the area?
Are the 20 or 30 I’ve seen a lot, or a few? Is all his support just as passionate? And if so, do these banners signal that, yet again, all those polls are wrong?
I used to find the Trump flags intimidating, a sign of his supporters’ great confidence. But I’m glad these flapping banners have put at least a bit of a break on any overweening confidence in a Biden win. Democrats and the media ignored these people once before. Now, in my rural exile, I can’t any longer.
That said, I see a few more Biden signs in my neighbourhood now, and I’m starting to see those Trump flags as something more of a plea than a cheer. Come November 3 (or thereabouts), we shall see if they fly in victory—or at half-mast.