National

In Pennsylvania, a Trump supporter sees his mural in a new light

Randy Bunch, a 53-year-old construction contractor, commissioned the mural of President Trump in McConnellsburg, Pa. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

FULTON COUNTY, Pa. — On the day after the election, sometime between when former vice president Joe Biden was declared the winner of Wisconsin and when he was declared the winner of Michigan, Randy Bunch went to see his mural of President Trump. It always made him feel better.

“I’m not liking how this election is going,” Randy said as he stood next to the painting on the main road through the 1,000-person town of McConnellsburg.

People passing by slowed and honked when they saw Randy standing in the golden afternoon light, unmistakable with his Bunch Construction cap jammed down over thick salt-and-pepper hair.

“Hey, boy, what are you up to?” Randy called to a friend in a pickup truck.

“Hi there, how you doing?” he waved to another, and then turned back to admire the mural.

Fulton County in 2016 became the reddest county in Pennsylvania, with 84 percent of voters supporting Trump. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

There was nothing else like it in town, and Randy was its unlikely patron — a 53-year-old construction contractor with no political experience who had never thought of commissioning a mural before Trump won office and inspired him to reimagine what a politician could be, and what he himself could be.

It was not a small painting. It was 8 feet high and 8 feet wide, a depiction of Trump’s face rendered in blocky red, white and blue, with flowing hair and what Randy described as a “grin that says ‘Pennsylvania, I love you.’ ”

He had wanted people to see the president as he did — smiling out at them, brimming with energy to make their lives better.

“That expression. That twinkle in his eye. That’s what I see,” he said. “I see a person who loves America and the people in it.”

The mural was one of the few landmarks in Fulton County, which in 2016 became the reddest county in the state, with 84 percent of voters supporting Trump. McConnellsburg, the county seat, was a mountain town with two gas stations; one where the town’s old men socialized and the other where teenagers hung out. Most everything else — the movie theater, the bowling alley, the coffee shops — had closed after a highway bypass was built around the town years ago.

Randy had grown up poor here and dropped out of high school at 16 to work construction. After a while, he started his own company and soon he was earning enough to comfortably support four children. He built his family a wood-paneled home and decorated it with a dozen stuffed and mounted deer heads and one stuffed wild turkey. People in town saw him as a decent man who spoke his mind and charged fairly, and his business thrived. Voting was something he did every few years that interrupted his 12-hour days, and he rarely followed politics.

In Trump, and the mural, “I see a person who loves America and the people in it," Randy said. Here, he visits at home with his son Chad. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

That was the way it was in 2016 as well. Like almost everyone else in the county, Randy voted for Trump. In his case, it was almost automatic. But then as the months went by, he began paying attention because he liked Trump’s style. This was a man like him. A businessman, not a politician. A straight talker. Self-made. “He’s probably lost a lot of money by being the president,” Randy said. “He’s got a big heart.”

Two years after voting for him, Randy had come to like the president so much that he called up a man named Charlie Harr, the one person in McConnellsburg who was known as an artist, who had a studio in town and hosted regular “paint nights” to teach residents the basics, and told him, “Hey man, I need you to paint me Trump.”

The price: $300. The design was based on a photo of Trump that Harr found and Randy approved. For a week, Harr stood on a ladder, blasting heavy metal in his studio and painting in bright colors he hoped would help the mural stand out on the faded main street.

For $300, Charlie Harr painted the mural. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

As soon as Harr was done and Randy screwed the painting into the chipped blue cinderblocks of his building, people began coming to take their photo with it. First it was just locals, but then people began driving in from other towns. Randy had rented part of the building to a dog grooming business, and one of the employees there quit, saying it sickened her to have to see Trump’s face every day. But hers was the minority reaction in town, and the business owner quickly replaced her. She was a Trump fan, too. People started giving directions relative to “the big Trump head.” Over the summer, when spreading Black Lives Matter protests reached Fulton County and some people marched through town, other people stood guard in front of the mural armed with rifles.

Randy assumed that eventually someone would deface his Trump, but in the two years it’s been up, no one ever had.

By the time Election Day arrived this week, Randy was more enthusiastic about Trump than ever. Amid pandemic shutdowns, Trump had spoken up for reopening places like McConnellsburg, where a factory that was one of the last big employers had been forced to stop operating even though the town had seen just a handful of covid-19 cases. “He’s the best president since I’ve been born. God first. Pro-life. Freedom. And right on down the line,” Randy said. Trump seemed like a leader who would endure.

The mural had endured too, continuing to attract visitors.

“It reminds me of Andy Warhol,” a nearby store owner said on Election Day, looking at the mural as he took a break outside.

“I actually think it’s a good picture of him. Usually every TV station uses a picture of him that’s been all distorted,” said a woman who worked as a hairdresser.

On an Election Day visit to McConnellsburg, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, center, poses with Stuart Ulsh, left, Mendy Ulsh and Randy. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
Randy's line to vote. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
LEFT: On an Election Day visit to McConnellsburg, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, center, poses with Stuart Ulsh, left, Mendy Ulsh and Randy. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Randy's line to vote. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

It was like that all day long, as people wearing “I voted” stickers passed by, but on the day after, as the national results began turning away from Trump, a couple from out of town looked at the mural and wondered how long it would last.

“They might have to rip it down, unfortunately,” the husband said.

“If the town supports him, they should let it be,” the wife said.

A worker at the store next door was telling people not to worry. “If I know Randy Bunch, he’ll keep it up,” he said.

Now, though, in late afternoon, as Biden took Wisconsin and was about to take Michigan, and the person looking at the painting was Randy himself, he was thinking that even if the mural and Fulton County hadn’t changed, the country around him might have.

He was doing what he couldn’t have imagined doing even the day before — wondering what would happen if Trump lost. He wanted to think no one could take away the movement Trump had started, and what it had meant to him. “His energy, his rallies, and his uplifting spirit — nobody’s ever gonna forget that,” he said.

He took a few steps back. “The size always gets people,” he said.

He looked at his favorite part, the smile. “Around here, we would call it a s--- eating grin,” he laughed.

He looked at the colors. “Red, white and blue. So it’s patriotic.”

The light was waning, and all of it was in the shadows now, harder to see. If Trump lost, what would he do about the mural?

He could take it down and hang it in his home. Or move it to the shed behind the building. But his choice was to act like he thought Trump would, and follow the example of the best president of his lifetime. He would repaint the building, and have Harr refresh the mural if it started to fade. “It’ll be here for a good while,” he said.

It was dinner time now and the streets were empty. The few stores were closing. Ballot counting was continuing in other counties and Biden was picking up more votes. Randy took a last look at his smiling Trump, then turned away to drive home to watch the rest of the results.

The sun sets over McConnellsburg. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

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