In rural South, Trump victory brings relief at finally being heard

In rural Georgia, voters say they chose Donald Trump because he 'was able to relate to people.' But some don't want their vote to go to his head.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Luke Garrett works on his chicken farm in Between, Ga.

Here on Ho Hum Hollow Road, Luke Garrett knows he’s a dying breed: A chicken farmer who has watched three kids go off to college and fly away, only to return to the ramshackle farm at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Yet on Tuesday, Mr. Garrett, a Republican, watched as 13,000 Walton County residents became part of an unexpectedly powerful movement that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency, giving him 80 percent of the county's votes.

Small counties had never seemed so overwhelming on election night maps. Mr. Trump won because white voters in rural areas and small towns chose him by huge margins, while urban voters were cooler toward Hillary Clinton. The heartland often seen only as emptying out, increasingly irrelevant, and naively traditional roared back, big time.

“This is rural America screaming: ‘Stop overlooking us,’ ” said MSNBC's Chuck Todd Tuesday.

Not everyone in farm country was enthralled with Trump, says Garrett, adding: “I don’t even know if it’s about us being ignored.”

“But unlike past Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney, he was able to relate to people, to common people.”

While rural America has voted Republican for several decades, Tuesday became a rubber-booted stampede. Polling places at little Baptist churches here in Walton County looked just as busy, sometimes busier, than Atlanta’s in-town neighborhoods.

Just days before an election many thought Mrs. Clinton would win, perhaps comfortably, Trump showed up in the small rural town of Kinston, N.C. – a billionaire courting farmers and cattlemen.

“People asked why Trump was going to small places and having rallies. ‘To make yourself feel good?’ ” says Al Cross, director of the Institute of Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “No, he was exercising his organic turnout strategy, to generate enthusiasm and a feeling of purpose and being part of a movement among rural people. And it worked. Typically, the rural vote is a little bit less than urban. But that switched.”

In addition, there was the sense, both in the Trump campaign and among those he courted, that there was something more than politics at stake.

“Trump understood that the conservative side of politics is no longer a party in the sense that we think of coalitions of interest groups, and has become more of a social movement,” says Mac McCorkle, a public affairs professor at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. “While there is a prairie fire social movement in rural America, the Democrats want to say, ‘It’s all the Koch brothers or elitist manipulation.’ But it’s something that is clearly real and powerful. He may be riding on top of a tiger, but you’ve got to give him a lot of credit for understanding that.”

“It’s a triumph of a movement to be heard even more than it is a triumph of Trump, and it’s something that’s not necessarily conservative the way we understood it,” he adds.

A portrait from rural Georgia

To James King, a Monroe, Ga., resident, Clinton became as much of a motivation as anything Trump said. Clinton, he says, betrayed an “underlying mentality” that disrespected traditional rural ideals. That may not be entirely fair. Clinton, after all, once proposed a federal Office of Rural Affairs. But that idea never percolated up this campaign.

Many Americans saw evidence of darker motivations behind the rural Trump vote. “This was a white-lash against a changing country,” CNN commentator Van Jones said Tuesday. He said immigrant families are “terrified” and suggested that he knows Muslims who are considering leaving the country.

Jack Brooks, a retired Marine and martial arts instructor who waved Trump signs outside a Newton County polling place Tuesday, said he didn't think of it that way. But he added that Trump's proposed ban on some Muslims entering the country “is about super-vetting immigrants from places that have showed a proclivity for hurting Americans.” 

For Mr. Garrett, the chicken farmer, Trump’s rhetoric has raised old racial and cultural fault lines, at least here in the South. In one Kentucky county, voters chose a Republican for local office who had once depicted the Obama family as apes. “Here at the farm, we have always gotten along with black people, and I hope it stays that way,” Garrett says.

'A leader for that the people'

There have been growing signs – missed by Democrats – that rural America had started growing disgruntled, some say. United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at one point offered his resignation to President Obama, saying the administration lacked any focus on rural America. Mr. Obama convinced Secretary Vilsack to stay by appointing him to chair a commission investigating an opioid crisis, but he appears to have missed the underlying warning.

“Here’s Vilsack, giving a warning that 15 percent of the country is feeling disrespected and disregarded, and Obama should have put two and two together there,” says Professor Cross of the Institute of Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

Trump’s promises to rewrite trade deals to give rural America a better shot at jobs have resonated here in Walton County. Yet, according to lifelong resident Gerry Maffett, the Walton County seat of Monroe is “one booming little town right now.” The postcard county courthouse is bracketed by a busy downtown brimming with traffic.

The fact that much of rural Georgia is making gains economically under Obama underscores the extent to which the shift has been cultural and political.

Gail Epting, a manager at a local manufacturing plant, voted for Trump because Trump seems to have heard a cry of distress from America’s rural reaches.

But like Garrett, who says many here held their noses in some ways to vote Trump, Ms. Epting hopes that Trump doesn’t read his win as a mandate to punish other Americans on her behalf. She hopes the office shapes Trump as much as he shapes the office.

“He’s ready to be a leader, almost,” she says. “He is so headstrong, but I hope he will open up and make sure he’s a leader for all the people. One person does not have all the answers for the whole world.”

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