Having done everything from man the first cruise of the supercarrier USS America to stock shelves at Walmart, Raymond “Skip” Dempsey has now had to get used to another life accomplishment: Republican kingmaker.
As Donald Trump, the man Mr. Dempsey helped lift to the White House, takes his presidential oath of office on Friday, the former Navy mechanic from upstate New York is experiencing a rainbow of feelings: excited, optimistic, concerned – and determined, in his case, to watch the incoming Trump administration like a hawk.
Leaning on his rake, the grizzled Dempsey grins: “Everybody needs to relax and give him a year or two. If it doesn’t work out, impeach him.”
Rural precincts like Georgia’s Walton County, buzzing with evangelical fervor, played a decisive role in giving America its 45th president. The remarkable election came with uncertainty and upheaval, already measured from the global to the personal: Dempsey says his 50-something-year-old son hasn’t talked to him since Election Night.
But here on the backroads of Walton County, Trump-inspired church signs that read “From weeping to joy” and “God is doing a new thing in 2017” suggest a humbler, and perhaps more nuanced, portrait of Mr. Trump’s core support on the day of his inauguration.
Indeed, in this box-store-dotted cattle country on the fringes of metro Atlanta – a place where Trump won more than 3 out of 4 votes – the inaugural mood is hardly one of gloating. Instead, it’s notable for exuding a quiet pride in the feeling that they have moved the country forward – even though a majority of Americans seem to disapprove of the messenger and his methods.
Voters here for the most part shrug off Trump’s historically low 34 percent pre-inauguration approval rating, according to a Fox News poll. After all, they say, when you upend the applecart, it upsets a lot of guys with apples. They also know that, as with any incoming administration, failure looms just as large as success, perhaps particularly so with Trump.
“I know he’s a hothead because I’m one, too,” notes Dempsey. “But us hotheads need to learn to walk away and cool off. Twitter is not his friend.”
Yet for many, like furniture restorer Wayne Hurst, Trump’s election has already accomplished one important thing: shaken America out of a reverie.
The country, he and others here say, was declining alarmingly – heading toward a future of meager economic growth, diminished standing in the world, and callous indifference toward the working class that built America.
“The Democrats kept saying, relax, time will take care of everything,” says Mr. Hurst. “Well, after eight years, we can’t afford any more time.”
Less hardline than it seems
To critics, that general feeling among many conservative voters is at least in part a wistfulness for a bygone America that was built on privilege – where white, working-class males were the winners at the expense of women and minorities. Trumpism is really a push to “make white America great again,” says Ed Dorn, a University of Texas public policy professor.
Moreover, there is a sense among liberals that media-heckling Trump supporters can't abide criticism of their man. “This idea that the Trump supporters have seems to be that, if you are not with Trump, you are dead-set against him. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground,” MSNBC’s Cal Perry noted.
But interviews here offer a somewhat different portrait. For all the revivalist hope invested in Trump, the love, it turns out, isn’t all that deep, nor complete.
On one hand, expectations among Trump voters are high, according to interviews. But because of that, there is a keen awareness that a Trump presidency could falter out of the gate. That has led many Trump supporters, on the eve of the new presidency, to cut their excitement with a healthy measure of caution, even concern.
Take Hope Simpson, who sits behind the desk at Paperbacks Books in downtown Loganville, Ga., another small Walton County town. A Trump voter and mom of four, she says she will watch Trump’s inauguration with both a Biblical sense of certainty that she made the right choice and a measured excitement.
Trump’s antics during the campaign were enough to drive the life-long Republican to consider someone else, but every bone in her body resisted Hillary Clinton. She downplays his comments about sexually harassing women – “something he did 30 years ago” – as water under the bridge. More heartening to her is the prevalence of Evangelicals among Trump’s cabinet nominations, which, as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted last week, could “give evangelical Christians a level of power and influence on American life that they never had before.”
But at least in her case, that is not as hardline a stance as it sounds. On the one hand, she supports a border wall “100 percent – he has got to do that.” Yet she also echoes President Obama, who recently said that “American kids” brought here as babies and now protected by his executive orders should not be deported. “Republicans still need my vote, and they still need to earn it,” she concludes.
Moreover, she cites Trump’s tendency to throw gasoline on fires – she cites the John Lewis Twitter spat – as un-presidential, and even deeply worrisome. It’s not enough to make her regret her vote. But she says her eyes are more open as inauguration approaches.
“I think he can help this country if he does what he says he will do,” she says. “But if he’s not careful, I think he can also hurt it.”
An upswelling of hope
Across the street, in a two-story workshop built of red brick, Hurst, the furniture restorer, can hear a visitor below from the clacking of boot heels on weathered boards of Southern pine. “Come on up,” he yells.
Hurst has spent nearly four decades restoring furniture – the amber-colored varnish splatters on the walls prove it.
Sure, Hurst has concerns about Trump, and he gets why at least some Republican voters may be having buyer’s remorse. But, personally, he says he stays assured by one fact: “Listen, the guy’s name is on the line. And to him, his name is everything. He’s not going to fail.”
Hurst, too, has his name up on the side of a building. But on Friday, that building will be closed. Hurst plans to stay at home, watch the inauguration, and enjoy what he has identified as a long-lost feeling.
“I feel an upwelling – an upswelling – of hope,” Hurst says. “I can feel it in my bones, in the floors. It’s a momentous day.”