THURSDAY, JULY 28, 2016
Junior Goes to the Fair
Note: This story was originally written on assignment for VICE, but slipped through the cracks when my editor was reassigned.
Donald Trump Jr. looked a little hot and bothered as a small crowd gathered around him at the Neshoba County Fair, just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he arrived on a sweltering Tuesday as a stand-in for his father, to address what looked like a strongly supportive demographic.
The crowd at the fair, an annual event held since 1889, was uniformly white, and the hundreds of political signs plastered to trees, posts and cabin walls were almost all for Republican candidates. Oldies rock songs about the U.S.A. blared from speakers around the grandstand on the horse racing track where Trump Jr. was scheduled to speak, while a man paraded through the crowd with two oversized flags – one the U.S., the other the Confederate, which begged the question: Historically speaking, which side did he support?
An unknowing outsider plopped down on the racetrack could have been forgiven for thinking the scene was an easy read – that this was an echo chamber in the red dirt hills of a county that became infamous as the setting of the murders of three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964. The fair is widely viewed as a Republican bastion, centering on a temporary town of hundreds of rustic family cabins, the consumption of copious amounts of food and drink, and, during political campaign years, candidate speeches. It’s where Ronald Reagan made his famous appearance after clinching the Republican nomination in 1980, during which he proclaimed his support for “states’ rights,” a euphemism for white political control.
But this being the bizarre 2016 U.S. presidential race, and the venue one of the most deeply conflicted regions of the Deep South, everything was not as it appeared to be. Underlying the cheering crowds when Trump Jr. appeared on the grandstand was plenty of evidence of questionable allegiances and unexpected opposition.
There was Bee McNamara, standing beside a Trump sign stapled to a tree, wearing shorts printed with GOP elephant logos, who said he wasn’t at all interested in Junior’s speech. “I’m a conservative Republican, and I won’t vote for Trump,” McNamara, a Mississippi native who now lives in D.C. and whose family has a cabin on the fairgrounds’ venerable Founders’ Square, said. McNamara also supports replacing the state’s controversial flag, which has the Confederate emblem in its canton corner. Given such conflicts, what would he do in November? “Probably vote Libertarian,” he said. The problem, he said, is, “It’s all about hate, on both sides.”
If a conservative Republican wasn’t buying Junior’s spiel, the responses of other fairgoers illustrated that the overt outpouring of support was actually riddled with fractures. The main allure of Junior’s speech, according to many fairgoers, was for bashing the other side in entertaining ways, which made the fair a colorful local microcosm of the national campaign. There were plenty of staunch Trump supporters on hand, but every effort to raise a chant of “U.S.A.” or “Trump” quickly petered out. At a cabin festooned with numerous large Trump banners, one man looked annoyed when asked about his political leanings, and said, “We’re here to watch the races,” referring to the horses, not the candidates.
At a cabin with a Trump banner and another with an image of Hillary Clinton behind bars and the words “Hillary for Prison 2016,” Robbie Fournet was anything but politically strident. Instead, she offered food or drink – as routinely happens at nearly every cabin, and when asked about the banners, said, “I have a brother who’s a sign maker, who probably has stronger feelings than the rest of us.”
Like many fairgoers, Fournet is an expat who came home for the annual fair ritual — she and her husband Richard now live in Singapore, and she admitted she enjoyed the unconventional campaign. “It’s nice for people to feel strongly about what they believe,” she said. “I like the lack of apathy. I don’t like the violence. Let’s talk without getting violent.” Then she issued an invitation to come back that night for a meal of her mother’s chicken and dumplings.
The undercurrent of past violence in Neshoba County is impossible to ignore, though the fair is far more mannerly than the comment threads of social media posts, and the county seat, majority-white Philadelphia, now has an African American mayor. As one woman with more liberal political views, who asked not to be identified by name, noted, “There are a lot of good people in Neshoba County, but we all know who the former Klan families are. They’re still out there. Trump has brought back those people from the Sixties whose hatred got pushed down, and went underground.”
Rob Hill said he was shocked earlier in the day when he encountered a group of young people in a truck as he was on his way to shop for groceries. Hill has a “Hillary for America” bumper sticker on his car and said the kids in the truck tailgated him for a while and then pulled up beside him and flashed a hand-lettered sign that read, “Trump! White Power!” Hill took a photo of the truck on his cell phone which shows the entire back window covered with a decal that read, “Give God the Glory.”
At another cabin facing the racetrack hung a lonely Hillary Clinton sign, small in comparison with the Trump banners.
“It was the biggest one we could find,” said Kelli Nichols, a National Guardsman whose family owns the cabin. Not everyone in the family supports Clinton, she said, but they tolerate her views. Close quarters and long-time family relations and social connections require that, she said, even in the face of a divisive candidate like Trump. Being polite and hospitable are hallmarks of the fair, to the point that some families don’t allow political banners at all and, this year, some have forbidden discussing politics inside the cabins.
“There’s a deeper level of seriousness elsewhere, but here, we just want to chill out, hang out together,” Nichols said. “People don’t want to offend one another.” She said that if, for example, a black man walked up to a cabin that displayed a Confederate flag, he would be invited in for food and drink. It’s partly about manners, she said, “but there’s also a level of hypocrisy. When you leave, their conversation doesn’t change.” Nichols said her 17-year-old daughter is a diehard Clinton supporter and is excited about voting for the first time, but that many of her daughter’s friends support Trump. “They’re just going with a popular movement. And a lot of adults are worse,” she said. As if to support that observation, a boy of perhaps six who was walking through the fair’s carnival rides could later be heard lamenting, “I’m the only one in the cabin who doesn’t have a picture of Trump.”
Some fairgoers felt Trump Jr.’s appearance was inappropriate, in that he isn’t an actual candidate, and said it was foisted upon the fair by Mississippi’s conservative Republican governor. But others welcomed him with open arms. Soon after Trump Jr. made his entrance, three men proclaimed their support, though like many fairgoers, two declined to give their names. One of them was a fair aberration – an African American who wasn’t there to groom or race horses, so it seemed logical to ask if he, too, supported Trump. Unruffled by the obvious typecasting, he said he did. When Lindsey Lang, the only one who gave his name, said, “We need change, we need that wall,” he agreed.
At her family’s cabin on Founder’s Square, Dianne Walton sat in a porch swing under a ceiling fan languidly parsing the humid air and said she had no intention of listening to Junior’s talk, which was wedged between a cake walk and an Eagles tribute band.
Walton said she was distressed by the preponderance of Trump signs on the fairgrounds, many of which had been placed by campaign workers. There was even one on the porch of the cabin of the family of football greats Archie, Eli and Peyton Manning, though in their defense, a neighbor pointed out that not everyone in every cabin could be held responsible for the signs out front. In his speech, Trump Jr. boasted of having been received in the Manning cabin, saying, “Now I know what it’s like to be one of you.” Some fairgoers said they had been approached about hosting him and had declined, but mixed support did not stop Trump Jr. from doing some late afternoon fundraising at select cabins.
For Walton, it was hard to write things off to simple political differences. “It breaks my little Christian heart to hear the venom spewing out of the mouths of people who claim their politics are based on faith,” she said. “I’m going to wax on Rodney King: Why can’t we just get along? Seriously, I’m scared to death. I’m scared of what our country would become under Trump. ‘Muslims: Go away!’ ‘Mexicans: Go away!’ I’m not in any of those groups, but what if I am in one of the groups one day?” Fairgoers in the quiet back alley known as Happy Hollow, which is known as a predominately Democratic neighborhood, expressed similar sentiments.
But there was no visible dissent in the crowd that gathered to hear Trump Jr. at the racetrack, where “R-O-C-K in the U.S.A.” and other patriotic songs were blaring so loudly that older fairgoers could be seen bending their ears to hear each other. A young guy in a Trump mask posing for photos appeared at first to be a protester, but his t-shirt read “Hillary Wasn’t Invited” and he carried a Trump sign. When Trump Jr. came onstage, it appeared that someone asked the man with the flags to lower the Confederate one, and he complied – it was, after all, a tantalizingly damning photo opp.
Trump Jr. did not speak long. He noted the size of the crowd, which numbered in the thousands, and said, “I thought the RNC was big!” Then he talked about how he is a hunter (“He kills elephants!” Dianne Walton blurted out when she heard about it), and said the election is all about the Supreme Court and the 2nd Amendment, which drew polite applause and scattered cheers. Later, on the porch of a Happy Hollow cabin, a Clinton supporter noted that a lot of people went to Junior’s speech just for amusement, and that it was impossible to say how many actually support Trump. As for the size of the crowd, he said, “There were more people for Miss Neshoba County.”