“My wife’s the perfect woman, already has kids and she’s fixed,” said Bill. He was reminiscing about the first time he met his in-laws. I forced a smile and realized no customers had stopped into Gulf of Maine Gunsmithing, the gun store Bill owned, over the last two hours. It was just us.
Bill was standing in front of a gun rack stocked with AR-15s, double barrel shotguns, and rolls of toilet paper that had former President Barack Obama’s face printed on them. Minutes earlier, his wife Kathy had detailed to me how she unsuccessfully asked her doctor to “untie her tubes”.
“I had two kids when I was in my early twenties and said that’s it, no more. But then I met Bill... I’m diabetic, so it’s dangerous. We decided to just get the dog instead,” Kathy said, pointing to a half-blind chihuahua prancing on top of a glass display case loaded with handguns.
“That’s what happens with kids that age. They’re young, dumb and full of cum,” Bill replied.
Kathy handed Bill a McDonald’s cheeseburger as she finished up her story and unwrapped her own. Bill wasn’t excited, asking what “chemicals” might exist in it, but ate the burger anyway. The two tossed the wrappers in a box of DVDs that included the movie “The Neverending Story”.
That was June 14th, the first time I visited Bill’s locally famous gun shop, which occupies a piece of prime real estate in the small tourist town of Raymond, Maine. When I introduced myself to Bill, I broke the ice by telling him I was “buying a handgun for my Texan girlfriend’s birthday,” which he was excited about.
“You can fit these right in your pocket if you want to carry ‘em on your person,” Bill said excitedly, slipping a Smith and Wesson nine millimeter handgun into his cargo pants. “This here is good too,” he continued, showing me another handgun, this one with a laser pointer sight attached. “Tell her to aim it at the head, not the chest, it’s more intimidating, most people don’t know that.”
Over the last few decades, Gulf of Maine Gunsmithing has gained notoriety because of its old-school changeable letter billboard. When I drove past the sign several weeks ago it read: “Are the demarats taking bribes from the drug cartels for open borders?” Before that, “Send all libtards to Venezeula for socialism ABC bernie style”.
The most frequent targets of Bill’s sign are the "demarats," "libtards," “Osama” Obama and Hillary “hildabeast” Clinton. During the 2016 election, Bill garnered national attention for a billboard post that read, “Beware the beast, Hildabeast Clinton, and its vagenda of manocide.” The phrase “vagenda of manocide” trended briefly on Twitter and ultimately a URL with the same name was turned into a fundraiser for Clinton.
Bill chuckled when I asked about the ever-changing sign. I had just shown him a Rolling Stone article about my work titled, “Meet Nathan Bernard: The Man Trolling The Alt-Right On Twitter”.
“I keep each post up for a week, but if I hear it pisses people off then I keep it up for a month," he said. When I asked him why, he told me it was to “piss people off”, that it was “his right” and if people don’t like it they could “shove it”.
Bill doesn’t own a computer, cell phone, or have access to the internet, so he uses the billboard like other people use Facebook. “Nope. Won’t ever own ‘em (phone and internet). They steal your time and money. I get my info from these right here, cable sometimes too when we had it,” he said, showing me a large stack of National Review and Washington Examiner print magazines.
Whether residents of Raymond like the billboard or not, it's almost impossible to ignore given its location. One lifetime Raymond resident, Davey, 31, told me he had been watching the changing billboard his "entire life."
"It’s on a very busy road, which gets even busier during tourist season," said Davey. "His signs are filled with hate and vitriol, but it’s also so extreme that it can be kind of funny. You just imagine an old man spitting out the lines and paint a picture in your mind of who he is. The people I know in town figure he’s trying to play for a reaction.”
When I asked Bill if he’d ever been “silenced” for his billboard’s rhetoric, he delivered a tirade about multiple attempts to shut down his sign and gunshop. I went to verify Bill’s claims online and found that, according to an obscure right-wing blog “Urban Infidel”, Bill used to have two signs: the billboard and a ‘spider sign’ that sat on the ground next to the highway. The town of Raymond banned all spider signs several years ago, citing a 'safety hazard' for drivers. A 2012 “Urban Infidel” post said the author believed the spider sign ruling was actually an effort to restrict Bill’s free speech, “really it's because there were some people in town who objected to his political messages.”
But the residents of Raymond told a different story than the “Urban Infidel.” The folks I spoke with were generally not fans of the billboard’s messaging, but they didn't feel the sign should be removed. It reminded me of the narrative that liberals want to “silence” conservatives on social media. A faux conservative victimization narrative is deployed when their speech draws criticism for being incendiary, and ultimately is used to gin up outrage among their base.
“People realize it’s his right," said Davey. "It’s protected. He’s kind of made his bed, he’ll get the business he gets. There is a case to be made that it's dangerous, because words matter. But it is his right at the end of the day."
"When you go in the store, though, he’s a nice enough guy until you get him talking about politics," Davey added. "Cognitive dissonance would be the best way to describe it."
I talked to Bill on a number of occasions over the course of several weeks. He frequently repeated comments you’d expect “conservative boomer uncles” to post on Facebook—the people who share MAGA memes and get extremely mad about NFL players kneeling for the anthem. Bill is the living embodiment of those guys—when I asked him about the environment, Bill said he “burns plastics in his backyard” because recycling is a government conspiracy and because it's his right to do it.
On immigration, Bill said he was "fine with legal immigration, just not illegals.” Often times this rhetoric is used by conservatives to delineate between “good” and “bad” immigrants. Good immigrants are advanced degree holding white Europeans that work high-skill jobs. Bad immigrants are people of color and those seeking asylum. It’s thinly veiled racism.
The “illegals” Bill was referring to are refugees from war torn, sub saharan Africa that crossed the US southern border as part of their journey to safety. When the city of Portland accepted these refugees the move was widely critiqued by Fox News and Maine GOP members who said this was part of the globalists plan to “erase western culture and civilization.”
Maine’s culture and “western civilization”, also known as “white people” are not facing a dire threat from several hundred refugees. There are 1.3 million people that live in Maine and 95% of them are white. But fear is a powerful tool, and Bill is a perfect example that you don’t need social media, Trump, or “algorithms” to believe fear mongering narratives. These stories are deeply rooted in all levels of our society, from the White House to a remote town in Maine.
“Raymond is a small town. We still run things based on town meetings,” Jani, a retired school teacher of 38 years and lifetime resident of Raymond told me. She currently sits on the school board for the district. A few weeks ago, Bill posted about education on his billboard: “universities are home to mentally barren professors that indoctrinate libtards.” In person, Bill had mentioned to me how “all college professors should have to wear 100 volt shock collars to keep them in line.”
“I used to get so mad at every sign he posted,” said Jani. “But now, I just ignore it. It’s just background noise. We’ve seen him (Bill) show up to town meetings for years. Usually he wears full camo gear to meetings. There are ex-Navy seals that come to these things and they wear polo shirts.”
Jani let out a long sigh.“We’re just like, ‘okay, man’.”
I felt the same exasperation as Jani. Bill and the MAGA boomer uncles of the world will never stop posting and they certainly aren’t going to change their minds, regardless of how mad we get. That is the one fact I learned from Gunguy.
But I by no means feel hopeless. Instead, this local story gave me clarity and context to the national problems we face. We can get mad at every Trump tweet, but that isn’t going to change anything. What needs to be done on all levels of our society is to offer up new, bold visions for our future and take action on those ideas.