US President Donald Trump (File image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Carolyn Gibbs puts on the striped pants first, then the striped jacket. The hat is the final touch. That’s if it’s an Uncle Sam day. For Statue of Liberty, it’s a mint green dress, a foam halo and a political sign, usually, standing in as the torch.
Before Donald Trump became president, Gibbs, 59, rarely dressed up for Halloween, only occasionally for a costume party.
But for the better part of four years, she has shown up to rallies in shopping centers of suburban Pittsburgh in elaborate costumes, ready for the role of playful protester.
“I’m willing to make a fool of myself for democracy,” is how she often puts it.
Yet for all her playfulness — and it is boundless — Gibbs is driven by a sense of anger and residual shock. How could so many of her neighbors in western Pennsylvania vote for a man she saw as a threat? She still finds herself stuck on the question.
“I had begun to think we were including and serving everybody in this country,” Gibbs said. “But that’s totally not true anymore.”
For the past four years, Gibbs and half a dozen women (along with one man) have poured countless hours into Progress PA, a political group they created to get Democratic candidates elected in western Pennsylvania, a part of the state that helped fuel Trump’s victory last time. Joe Biden is counting on voters like them — older, suburban dwellers — to win back Pennsylvania, where polls show him ahead. But their work is less about their enthusiasm for the former vice president than their revulsion at the current occupant of the White House.
Before the Trump era, these women were hardly radical. Many have voted for Republicans, including George W. Bush. They represent not just the kind of feminist activism that Trump’s victory ignited, but the particular had-it-up-to-here-with-my-Republican-neighbors anger of suburban western Pennsylvania, where dozens of similar groups have cropped up in the past four years.
“I had never had this kind of burning unquestioning desire to do something myself,” Stacey Vernallis, 60, said, of her political life before 2016. “I was always willing to let it be another person’s job and just be a voter and maybe a donor.”
She described waking up the morning after the 2016 election with five different pits in her stomach. She imagined her children losing their health care, and her youngest stepson, adopted from Nepal, facing heightened discrimination.
So she made plans to join the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., which drew an estimated half a million people to the capital the day after Trump’s inauguration. When Vernallis returned to Pittsburgh, she started her own political action committee, Progress PA.
“This was just: We have to do it. We need everyone we can get,” she said.
Soon, members of the group were protesting weekly in front of the offices of Sen. Pat Toomey and then-Congressman Keith Rothfus, both Republicans. They then knocked on thousands of doors to help get Conor Lamb elected to Congress in a year when Democrats like him received record-breaking financial donations, totaling more than $1 billion.
“This is an enormous shift that is quite powerfully upending politics in the statehouse, Congress and perhaps in a national election,” said Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has written extensively about activism in the suburbs.
“In the wake of Trump’s win, people who had been tangentially involved woke up and said ‘This is not the world I signed up for,’” she added. “The people who stepped forward are often older, stable and forget about taking ‘no’ for an answer; they’re not even asking for permission.”
Now the resistance, as groups like Progress PA are happily called, is coming up on its more direct and important chance to resist: voting Trump out of office, and encouraging others to do the same.
It is doing so amid significant other stressors. Energy has ebbed since 2017, and for a moment it looked like it might extinguish completely because of the pandemic. Group members were caring for college-age children suddenly returning home, teenagers marooned to zoom-school and adult children worried about losing their jobs. A few were caring for older parents they feared visiting, worried they would infect them with the virus.
Who had time for volunteer political activism? But within a few weeks of the pandemic upending life as they knew it, it became clear that activism was a kind of coping mechanism, hobby and chance to be in control all wrapped into one group.
“We’ve got to reinvent ourselves basically,” Linda Bishop, who retired from international banking and had spent much of her life as a registered Republican, said during one Zoom meeting this spring. “We’re stuck here in our houses, we’re older, we have to be careful. We’re not doing anything stupid.”
Suddenly, Bishop had gone from taking care of her year-old grandson twice a week to only seeing him on FaceTime. It would be months before they embraced again.
The sadness mixed with rage permeated every Zoom session, which sprinkled personal frustrations with the strategizing.
“If I can’t laugh, I am just going to cry,” said Gibbs, who has spent much of the past several months managing her mother’s medical care. Still, the virus kept her away from visiting her mother in the nursing facility, a situation she described as “crushing,” as she moved her into hospice in September. As Gibbs drove to help her mother move, she left rocks she painted with “Joe” at several rest stops along the highway.
“I just get furious, and if I don’t act, I’ll be paralyzed,” she said.
Progress PA is now solidly behind Biden, but during the Democratic primary the members had different favorites — Gibbs preferred Sen. Cory Booker, while Mary Anne Van Develde and Linda Bishop liked Sen. Bernie Sanders. None really had Biden as their top choice, but they swore they would get behind whoever won.
“There has never been a year more important to the nation,” said Van Develde, 65, a former television news producer. “Whatever we do, it’s just get Trump out, get Democrats in. If Biden’s going to make it, he’s going to need all the help he can get.”
Unquestionably, the pandemic changed the group’s sense of what political activism looked like. The members were marooned in their homes, unable to do the same sort of street theater that had become central to their identity. They were determined not to be alone despite their physical isolation — meeting at least once a week over Zoom to dole out tasks and exchange local political analysis.
“I miss the times when we can do this together,” Bishop said during one meeting in June. “I am going to need a little more discussion time.”
When another member talked about making a trip to the supermarket, Bishop chided: “I think you go out too much for someone your age.”
And every day brought a new aggravation for them with the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic.
The group’s political action committees raised nearly $110,000 for billboards across the region, eventually placing them in 55 spots in 20 counties, so many that they were told the advertisements would register 5 million impressions per week.
But it still wasn’t moving their ideas “from the blackboard to the pavement,” as they put it. By August, they had grown agitated enough, and comfortable enough with physical distancing, that they began to hold protests in front of post offices, with signs like “End the Nonsense” and “Trump knew. He lied. People died.”
In the past, witty one-liners were a key part of the message, but little seemed funny this summer.
“We’ve always been about taking humor and just take it to the edge as far as we can go,” said Van Develde, acknowledging that approach is made easier by being white women of a certain age. “We know where we can make a difference — we’re not going to be able to bring out the Black vote in the city, but we can convince people like us, our neighbors, to see the absolute absurdity in this moment.”
On one recent crisp fall Friday evening, the group gathered in front of a post office tucked into a strip mall just off the highway, along with about two dozen other people — mostly women — who came to support the cause. They planted Biden-Harris signs and some for local Democrats as well.
This time, they set up southbound, facing cars driving toward Pittsburgh. They knew they would hear more friendly honks that way — on the weeks when they set up on the other side, the cars heading to the wealthy North Hills suburbs were more likely to throw out unfriendly comments and hand gestures. Even still, on this night, they saw quite a few middle fingers raised in their direction as drivers streamed past them. One woman waved an American flag, saying she wanted to remind people it does not just belong to Republicans.
They were there for just an hour, but they would be back the week after, and the week after that. The hope, they said, was to take a short break after Election Day. But during the next meeting, when someone asked if they planned to disband after the election, the reaction was unanimous: absolutely not.
“The work is not going to be done,” Van Develde said. “There’s just no going back.”
By Jennifer Medina
c.2020 The New York Times Company