A farmhouse in western Pennsylvania serves as a mecca for the Trump faithful
Jessica Nicholson and her mother talked politics, or rather their favorite politician, Monday outside a farmhouse in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.
They were waiting for the woman who built the tourist attraction that brought them here: a century-old house painted as an American flag with a 14-foot metal version of Donald Trump in the front yard.
It's called the Trump House.
The owner, Leslie Rossi, arrived just in time to open the doors at 11 a.m., welcoming in people who had been waiting their turn to visit the home's tiny kitchen and grab the free items Rossi offers to her guests: Trump election tchatchke -- T-shirts, hats, yard signs and even pocket-size versions of the U.S. Constitution.
On a weekend, at least 1,500 people a day stand in line at the house, she said, pulling out thick guestbooks to prove it. On this day, an overcast Monday, about 60 people filed through in the first two hours.
Nicholson and her mother, Shirley Whipkey, took advantage of a day off to make the 30-plus minute pilgrimage to the house named after their icon.
"We support our president. We believe he's done a good job, even though the media puts him down," Whipkey said.
She and Nicholson pointed to a picture of Joe Biden at the house; it shows the presidential candidate coming out of the basement, wearing a mask. They're angry at the Democrats.
"If they wouldn't have tried to impeach him, if there hadn't been all this fighting, where would this country be today?" Whipkey said.
The coronavirus is a non-issue to them, and they don't blame the president for its spread.
"We trust in God to take care of us," Nicholson said.
Behind them in line, Barb McCullough of Harrison City chimed in to the conversation.
"I actually lost some friends who voted for Biden," McCullough said. "I told them: Do you want communism in this country?"
This is just the atmosphere Rossi wants, as she's created a bit of a campaign headquarters here. She opened the house in 2016 and reopened it this year, offering registration forms among the campaign paraphernalia.
Westmoreland County was once a Democratic stronghold, just like other collar counties around Pittsburgh. It's more red than blue now — not like the reddest of Pennsylvania's counties in the center and northern regions of the state, but Republican enough to vote in Trump four years ago.
"We’re still within striking distance," said Tara Yokopenic, chairperson of the Democrat County Committee. "For 2020, my goal is to lower the margin of victory for Trump. We’re not giving up this county."
Biden has visited three times recently with "insane turnouts," Yokopenic said.
Born and raised in Westmoreland County, she pinned the party shift in this part of the state to now-deceased billionaire businessman and prominent Republican Richard Mellon Scaife, who pushed his "right-wing propaganda" in the local newspapers he owned, Yokopenic said.
Rossi, also a county native, tells a different story of that shift.
"In 2016, (voters) didn't like Hillary Clinton. They didn't like Donald Trump either. ... He made a lot of promises that they didn't think were possible," she said. "But after eight years of Obama, they were really financially crippled. They weren't in good standing. Their healthcare was an absolute mess; it was more than their house payment."
That's how the scales tipped toward Trump and the Republican Party, she said.
When Rossi jumped on the Trump bandwagon four years ago, she displayed a massive campaign flag in front of one of several rental properties she owns. It drew profane expressions from passersby, and her bold party fanaticism even got her mother, a Democrat, to stop speaking to her.
Then she reimagined the farmhouse, another rental property, as an American flag. She later added the metal Trump figure, which has been shot at and beaten during the last four years, acts of vandalism she takes to court, she said.
The mother of eight children with a businessman husband, Rossi sat in the shadow of the farmhouse this week, telling the story of meeting Donald Trump just after he won the election in 2016.
At a victory rally in Hershey, she called out to him across a crowd of people: "Hey, I did the Trump House!"
"The third time, he heard me and he looked to the side and he went, 'Is that really you?' And I went, 'Yep,' and he went, 'Oh my gosh, get over here.'"
The photo of the two is displayed prominently in the farmhouse, which will remain the Trump House indefinitely because Rossi is anticipating four more years with the president.
She said: "Oh, he won't lose."
Kim Strong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.