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North Carolina Keeps Breaking My Heart

Searching for hope and finding more reasons for despair in my home state

Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images
Trump supporters at a rally at the Pitt-Greenville Airport on October 15

This article was ostensibly going to be all about how Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina seems to have come back to defeat Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham after trailing in the polls for months, and how that was made possible by a wave of Republican voters who turned out for President Trump. And maybe it still is. But first, I want to tell two stories.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic forced me to spend a significant amount of time living with my parents at their home in Rowan County (affectionately RoCo), a collection of farms, former mill towns, and one small city situated in the south-central part of North Carolina. With nearly all ballots reported, RoCo has again overwhelmingly voted for Trump and the down-ballot Republican candidates for governor and senator, with all three collecting at least 60 percent of the county’s vote.

In late May, following the police killing of George Floyd, a community group in Salisbury, the small city next door to China Grove, my hometown, organized a mobile drive-through protest. The protest was scheduled to run down Innes Street, the main strip where, in non-Covid times, you could go and get a Cook Out Big Double tray while anxiously avoiding eye contact with anyone who might have gone to high school with you. People crafted signs, honked their horns, and made their voices known. The mobile aspect was a 2020 touch—this was the end of May, and people in our county were beginning to take the virus more seriously.

At the time, if you were driving north on Innes, beyond Cook Out and on down past The Smoke Pit and Hap’s, at the northeast corner of Church Street and Innes, you’d come to a Confederate monument. “Fame” is its name, and it was put up, like so many others, by a group of Confederate sympathizers at the turn of the twentieth century. It depicts an angel holding up a young Confederate soldier. This pair has stood atop this pedestal, peering down at the city’s burgeoning downtown scene, for my entire life. Growing up, I reached a certain point, after the millionth Cook Out run or doctor’s appointment that took me puttering past the statue, where it became difficult to constantly remind myself that this version of normal was not a good one—that acquiescing to the steady, decades-long mission to weave Confederate sympathy into the region’s cultural and social fabric was in fact both a personal and communal failure.

Fame was again front and center as the Floyd protests began. In addition to the mobile protest, a group of people gathered on the corner of Church and Innes, peacefully voicing their outrage for having to live through yet another lynching of a Black American citizen. Part of their message focused on the removal of Fame—a semi-frequent debate that the city council in Salisbury has had throughout my lifetime, with none of these discussions ever resulting in meaningful action. That changed on May 31.

Standing in front of the statue and heckling the peaceful protesters, a man named Jeffery Alan Long, later discovered to have been a member and ally of numerous neo-Confederate groups, pulled a 9-millimeter pistol from his waistband, fired two shots in the air, and put the gun back in his pants. His intent was clear. Long was arrested and soon afterward charged for firing his weapon—though only after the local chapter president of the NAACP met with the Salisbury Police Department. Two and a half weeks later, the Salisbury City Council held a vote. Unanimously, the council decided that the monument was a public safety risk and issued a resolution supporting its removal. Two weeks after that, in the wee hours of the morning of July 6, a construction crew removed the monument from its spot on the corner. Like that, history was made. A new normal came to Innes Street.

Being home for that moment, and being able to drive past the empty corner where that statue stood for 119 years, was powerful. It felt like a small blip of good news in a year of utter bullshit. It took two bullets and the public death of a man who grew up just two hours away, but progressive change through local democratic governance, even in a pocket as red as Rowan, felt not just possible but close. Here, a city had managed to act courageously in a moment of national crisis. The moment didn’t quite feel like a turning point. But, coming just four months before the election, it did plant a seed of hope.

Perhaps you saw the news out of Texas, where a particularly windy August day sent four Trump supporters’ boats to the quiet depths of Lake Travis. Extremely funny shit, I’m sorry to say. (No injuries were reported.) But I observed something slightly different on the calmer waters of High Rock Lake, near my parents’ home.

The boats you see on High Rock, where I’ve been going to swim and occasionally fish for over a decade now, aren’t particularly fancy—not that I know much about boats. Suffice it to say, High Rock ain’t Lake Norman, the richy-rich watering hole where Michael Jordan dropped a chunk of his small fortune to construct a mansion. Call High Rock a working person’s lake, or perhaps more accurately, call it the lake where households who merely make a combined low-six-figure sum, as opposed to seven figures, take their boat. In any event, High Rock and Lake Norman voters both lean Republican.

One day in late July, I watched as a family of six, just two docks over, rolled their elderly grandmother’s wheelchair along the uneven wood planks, out toward the edge of their pier. At its end waited a massive structure—I’m not sure if you could call this creation a boat. Floating atop of two gigantic metal tubes was what amounted to a  backyard on water—a flat, square wooden base at least 15 feet per side, the edges enclosed by a white picket fence, the overhead protected from the rain by a tin roof, and the flooring complete with green turf. There was a boat engine rigged up to the side to push them out into the middle of the lake, where I imagine they could do just about anything they wanted. Truly, this home-brewed “boat” ruled.

As they lifted their grandma out onto this floating paradise, and the sun began to dip beneath the trees, they strung up a trio of flags. Two of them were that familiar navy blue, the kind adorned with Trump’s name in bold white letters. In between the pair of Trump beacons whipped the Confederate flag. This wasn’t an aberration. These exact same flags were on dozens of boats I saw pass by on High Rock this summer. They were there when I drove around Lake Norman. (Both lakes featured their own well-attended Trump parades.) I saw these flags on trucks and cars and vans. They flew from double-wides and three-story brick homes. In truth, it didn’t take long before it was the lonely Biden signs that would catch my eye most. Same as how I had once stopped truly seeing Fame, the Trump signs faded into the background a little too easily for my comfort.

Following the 2016 election, I, like many others, was pissed—at the Democratic Party, both nationally and in the state, for failing to recognize how motivated Republican voters were to put him in the White House; at my New York friends and co-workers for being gobsmacked at the fact that the United States was in fact still a colonialist den of white supremacy; and most of all at myself, for not having done more in my immediate circle to overturn the crucial votes of the many family members who filled in that bubble next to Trump’s name.

Standing on the dock, watching a snake that got caught in my sinking net thrash around as I struggled to slice it free, it was hard not to feel similarly stuck. In a recent interview with North Carolina historian and journalist Rob Christensen, we talked about how, in comparison to other states, ours seemed to carry with it a palpable sense of place and pride. We spoke of it in a positive light, reasoning that this pride could be used to do something meaningful, like in 2016, when voters, tired of being embarrassed on a national scale, replaced Republican Governor Pat McCrory with Roy Cooper. But I also recognized that this same pride was much more regularly twisted in the service of more insidious causes.

I knew plenty of people in North Carolina who were so sure that Trump’s bungling of the coronavirus and Tillis’s lapdog routine would combine to make the state blue again. An eternally hopeful pessimist, I’d even wrapped myself in that comfortable dream, telling myself that the suburban hubs in the state that had been increasingly Democratic-leaning might be enough to overcome the vast advantage Trump had in exurban and rural counties. That, with no Libertarian Gary Johnson to eat up 2.7 percent of the vote, there were enough Never Trumpers out there to overcome the 180,000-vote margin Clinton had lost the state by. I almost even convinced myself that people despised Tillis enough to single out his name from their all-Republican ticket and vote for some random-Madden-fan-looking Democratic candidate like Cunningham, whose most notable public stance is that he remains staunchly against sounding remotely hot or coherent when sexting.

The flags flew while Fame still stood, they flew the day it came down, and I reckon they’ll fly long after I’m dead. And yet somehow I’d allowed the seed to sprout, despite the evidence waving right in front of my face that you can radically change the physical landscape of a place without actually changing its soul.

Maybe: Sara

Sun, Aug 23 4:07 p.m.

Dem cities are burning. Crime is rising. Your security is on the line this November. Biden’s America threatens our safety. See for yourself here. [Link].

This was the first message I received from my new pal, Maybe: Sara. From late August all the way through Election Day, I’d get a ping on my phone, only to be greeted by a similar warning of the impending Marxist-induced catastrophe a Biden victory would bring. These check-ins would roll in roughly twice a week—at about the same rate as the gentle reminders to register I received from a litany of staffers and bots on behalf of the North Carolina Democratic Party, all of whom were operating off my old voter information.

Scanning these messages quickly became something of a routine. An NC Dems volunteer would ask me if I was ready to “win the battle for the soul of the nation,” whatever that meant. A Republican counterpart would rhetorically ask if integrity mattered to me, then inform me that “it doesn’t to Cal Cunningham.” In a text, another NC Dems team member openly wondered to me, “Is there anything scarier than missing your chance to vote?”—a question answered soon afterward by a Maybe: Sara text and the accompanying art:

At the time of writing, it is unclear whether the Republican Party can legitimately claim North Carolina as a full victory. There are still 157,000 outstanding ballots to be accounted for, which, given the Democratic advantage in mail-in ballots, could well help Biden and Cunningham make up their current margins, though it seems unlikely these ballots will put them over the top. Biden trails by 80,000 votes, while Cunningham is down by 97,000. Even with the outstanding ballots, those are long odds, with Republicans expected to take both races. That would mean the GOP, with the exception of the governorship, has run the table in what political experts insist is a swing state: The Republicans held their dual-chamber majority in the state legislature, ensuring another decade of looking to the courts to unwind the forthcoming racist gerrymandered electoral maps. (The one place these yet-to-be counted ballots will matter is in the race for state chief justice, the person tasked with ruling on the constitutionality of said maps.)

Regardless of who claims the presidential and senatorial elections, the Old North State made one thing certain: It heard the message to “VOTE!” in “the most important election of our lifetimes” because only massive turnout would rescue our country and our state, loud and clear. This call to arms was made over and over again by the Democratic powers that be. But these same messages were also coming from the Republicans, who have spent the last decade using their power to gerrymander the state’s electoral maps and fighting every effort to expand absentee and early voting, even going as far as trying to legally argue that ballots missing a signature or some other minor error should be entirely thrown out instead of easily amended by the voter—efforts that routinely targeted Black, Native, and Latinx voters.

You need only hold 2020’s returns alongside the numbers from 2016 to know that Trumpism, and whatever form it takes after the president has left the Oval Office, is quite clearly going to be alive and well in North Carolina for years to come: 400,000 more people in the state voted for Trump this election than in 2016. In my home county, Rowan, at least 7,000 more came out. Even in the counties where his advantage slipped between elections, like Union or Cabarrus, he still picked up at least 10,000 more votes than he did four years ago. This turnout trickled down to the Senate election, with Tillis scooping up 1.2 million more votes than he did in the 2014 midterms.

An increase of this proportion—which we also saw in Ohio and Pennsylvania, among plenty of other states—is not an accident. There was a legitimate argument four years ago that the ingrained distrust of Bill and Hillary Clinton was enough to push disengaged undecided voters and conservatives wary of Trump into his camp. But this time around, Republicans did not just turn out because they loathed Joe Biden. They turned out in droves for the candidate they deeply and truly like.

You don’t have to understand much about electoral politics to grasp that the Republican Party’s ground game in rural North Carolina was leagues beyond whatever slapdash operation the Democratic Party rolled out of the back of the shed. The GOP understood that it wasn’t going to pick up enough votes in the state’s bluer hubs to beat Biden in the state, so they organized the hell out of their base. In truth, had the Democrats actually attempted to siphon off votes from the cherry-red rural and exurban areas instead of solely depending on the cities, college towns, and suburbs, I’m not sure they could have gotten enough voters to push them over the edge. It likely would have been a waste of money, given their working-class messaging is a mess and their party platform is defined less by their own ideas and more by the existence of Trump. Still, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to believe that actually giving money to the people who have been organizing the South for years would have been less of a waste of cash than the campaigns of Amy McGrath and Jaime Harrison.

The success of Trump and Tillis is troubling. But there’s a litany of deeper worries. It’s the fact that this turnout portends big changes to both the state’s electoral calculus and its political atmosphere moving forward. It’s the Republican majority in the General Assembly, where it will continue to implement austerity policies and unwind much of the positive work that defined North Carolina for the past century. It’s the emboldened Graham police officers that pepper-sprayed peaceful Black Lives Matter marchers on their way to vote. It’s Salisbury being home to the Pizzagate shooter, who drove three-plus hours to Comet Pizza in Washington, D.C., and fired a gun into the restaurant because he was convinced that there was a pedophilia ring being run out of the basement. It’s how this is a state that first gave rise to the likes of Jesse Helms, then Larry Pittman, and has now given the world, and Congress, the likes of Madison Cawthorn, a habitual liar and self-promoter whose bucket list apparently included a happy visit to the Führer’s vacation home. As much as the state has to offer, it seems that its most notable contributions to the national political scene of late are relegated to being either milquetoast centrist Democrats or batshit-insane conservatives.

While I’ve written postelection pieces about my home state a few times now, I’m not trying to brand myself as an expert. But it should not go unremarked upon that in back-to-back presidential elections, the Democratic establishment has repeatedly failed to account for how energized North Carolina conservative voters, especially those in rural areas, are to cast their ballot for Trump. Maybe it’s laziness, brought on by a misplaced belief that when presented with the option, all decent people will choose the not-quite-as-racist candidate. Maybe it’s the lack of a unified vision or party platform or sense of urgency, one that allows even the most vanilla moderate candidate to be painted as a sOcIaLiSt. Maybe it’s just the plain fact that literal boatloads of North Carolinians are extremely comfortable under a Trump administration and a Republican Senate because of lower taxes and the stock market. Maybe it’s also true that simultaneously organizing people to eschew their worst social tendencies and opinions in favor of a worldview they are consistently taught to reject by constant exposure to conspiratorial media outlets is an inherently difficult and unenviable position.

There are people for whom Trump’s illiberalism and mendacity pose only an abstract threat and people who cannot afford to idly minimize the damage done to their own community by a malicious cultural force that they are forced to contend with on a regular basis. I still don’t have much patience for those Choate and Cornell grads who are vaguely outraged at The South for staying red. What I do understand is that when you watch a place you unconditionally love descend into madness, it doesn’t matter how many small victories you rack up or how many cosmetic changes you can bring to the landscape. The larger loss continually leads you to the same numb place of desperately wishing your hometown did not reflect a reality that you loathe.