Frank Greve and Jane Chalmers
When Jane and I realized that we knew no supporters of President Trump, we were dismayed but not surprised. Trump won less than five percent of the vote in Washington, DC, where we live, and lost four to one in Montgomery County, MD, our nearest suburb. So we decided to spend the first week in March in Conway, SC, seat of a county that President Trump carried two-to-one in a state he carried by a landslide. Our purpose was to listen and learn from the president’s supporters, and we are grateful to the candid and hospitable people of Conway who taught us so much so graciously.
Conway (pop. 17,000) is an easy town to like. Its roads yield right-of-way to live oaks, and conversations in Conway never seem to get cut short. Busy, locally owned stores and restaurants, and county offices, dominate a charming downtown hub founded in 1732. And although Myrtle Beach’s dense summer-hectic strip of Atlantic shore and condos lies just 12 miles east, it seems twice that far away.
In fact, Conway’s economy relies heavily on the resort’s seasonal surge, and many Conway residents know more about boom and bust than they’d like to. Five of the 15 Conway supporters of President Trump with whom we spent the most time turned out to have been through bankruptcy or to have had businesses collapse under them, most since the Great Recession of 2008-9. (That high proportion of economic victims was mostly coincidental: we spoke with anyone with time to talk.)
The five seemed to have recovered to some degree, but two other Conway residents who spoke with us were in dire straits. Former Obamacare participants, they’d each found this year’s $780 monthly premium for their family too costly. So they were again without health insurance. “We can’t afford the insurance OR the penalty, which is unfair,” said one of the pair, who work together from 8-to-8 cleaning resort condos. One’s the mother of a child with autism; the other of a child with diabetes. One’s spouse, a construction worker, faced knee surgery two days after we talked, along with a $15,000 hospital bill. Asked how they could afford the surgery, the woman shrugged, made a face half-grin and half-grimace, and went back to folding bed linens hot from the drier.
Accounts of close-to-the-edge family economics make us wonder how much differences in economic security account for the political gaps between Conway and Washington DC or, writ larger, Washington’s detachment from the rest of the country. “We’re madder down here because we’re not doing so well as you people up there,” said a local auto broker. “We’ve gotta work a damn long day to earn half what some bureaucrat up there earns.” Worry about money appeared especially stark to us in Conway’s leaner suburbs, where billboard after billboard tells people with bad credit that they can still get loans if they’ve a car title or property deed to use as collateral. Other billboards tout payday loans, or lawyers seeking bankruptcy clients or soliciting personal injury cases.
Non-economic worries abound, too. As we drove from Charleston’s International Airport to Conway, a conservative radio talk show host solicited money for victims of pedophilia and sexual slavery. An ad on the same program promoted the safety of gold against the day when the Federal Reserve seizes personal bank accounts (‘Add gold to your portfolio. The politicians can’t mess with it.’) Another ad promoted the application of dark plastic coating to vehicle and home windows as a security protection for those within. An orthodontist promoted himself as “a dentist you can trust.” A gun shop offered to rent firearms for training purposes, then deduct the rent from a gun’s purchase price. Another ad touted a meat thermometer as protection against food poisoning caused by undercooked meat. All this in a conservative religious environment where the torments of Hell are often vividly conjured.
In one startling Conway conversation about the case of Dylann Roof, slayer of nine members of Charleston’s leading black church, guns came up in a bracing way. “I’ll tell you one thing,” the Conway man said. “If he tried that in my church, he’d never make it out alive.” He estimates that half those attending services wear concealed weapons. (That’s not because they consider church especially dangerous, mind you, but because concealed carrying is as automatic in Conway as remembering watch, wallet and car keys.)
There’s a theme here: that people in Conway, and perhaps listeners to conservative talk radio more generally, find lots more to worry about than most people we know in Washington do. Might their anxieties find resonance in President Trump’s very dark view of the state of the nation? We’ve no idea how to examine that question.
You will by now have guessed that our research method was seat-of-the-pants. Upon arrival, we simply asked people where Conway residents with time to talk tended to gather. That yielded the names of luncheonettes, barber shops, bars, parks, laundromats etc. We then introduced ourselves to people by saying we were from Washington, where supporters of President Trump were scarce. We added that we were Quakers, whose view it is that if we don’t understand people, it’s time to start listening to them.
Conway residents seemed very open to us. No one spurned us. Many bought our coffee. And we were serious about just listening: We took no contemporaneous notes (although we did write up our encounters afterward.) We did not contest assertions we disagreed with. We did not ask for last names and have forgotten even a few first names. We mainly asked open questions that encouraged people to talk. One useful question went like this: Presidents always offer a kind of buffet of promises. Some you really like, others you’re willing to try a little of, and others you choose to pass on. Of what President Trump’s done since Inauguration Day, what have you really liked, liked somewhat, or decided to pass on?
Without exception, Conway supporters liked best President Trump’s efforts to deliver on his promises immediately. Most popular among them seemed to be bringing jobs and US manufacturers back to America, shrinking government and reducing regulation. The Mexican border wall was popular. Increased spending on defense and infrastructure didn’t come up. Nor did President Trump’s pledge to name a conservative to the Supreme Court. There also seemed only to be wobbly eagerness to kill Obamacare, and about the same to fix it. We found little enthusiasm for deporting “illegal immigrants.” The town’s small but significant Hispanic population (6 percent) seemed to be widely respected for what several described as their work ethic and conservative family values. “They know what to do, and they do it. They don’t need managing,” said one Conway employer.
Admitting refugees into the United States was another matter, though, and Trump’s discouragement of them was popular. “I’m all for immigrants, but why are we spending so much money on refugees when people here already are in need of help?” one of the condo cleaners asked. “All the jobs we’ve got for them are cutting grass and raking leaves, and we’ve already got people to do that,” said a retired surf-shop owner.
Many we spoke with distinguished President Trump from politicians gratefully and praised his experience as a businessman. Several expressed disdain for all politicians. “Democrats and Republicans aren’t two parties; they’re the Washington party,” said an auto broker. Said one of the condo cleaners: “I blame the Democrats for bottling things up. But I blame the Republicans, too. President Trump isn’t one of them, really, and it seems like they can’t decide whether they’re with him or not.”
Many supporters of President Trump’s actions were less enthusiastic about his personality. “I don’t like Trump’s rhetoric and I wish he’d stop tweeting,” said the auto broker. A barber challenged President Trump’s business acumen: “If he were such a great businessman he wouldn’t have gone bankrupt so many times and left other people holding the bag.” Not surprisingly, an Evangelical Christian minister found morally “wrong” Trump’s videotaped 2005 claim that as a TV “star,” women let him do what he wanted.
“The Benghazi deaths and cover-up were much worse than Trump just being a dude,” the minister added. “We knew what we’d get with Hillary, and it was all bad. But with Trump, there’s a 50/50 chance he’ll make things better.” Even if President Trump fails to advance traditional family values, the goal the clergyman considers most important, “I’ll be satisfied if we come out ahead on the economic front,” he said.
Several viewed President Trump as the lesser of two evils. “It wasn’t that we here voted for him because we loved him. He just wasn’t Hillary, and we damn sure weren’t going to vote for Hillary,” the auto broker said.
Although many of our Conway commentators held strong views, none saw themselves as experts. Who but a policy wonk has even five minutes’ worth of thought-through ideas about how NATO should be restructured or trade deals with China rewritten or regulations trimmed wisely? Instead Conway’s commentators offered the sounds of common sense in brief, simple generalities. “If you don’t have strong borders, you don’t have a country,” said a laundromat visitor. “Everyone feels much better since the election. I mean, look at the stock market,” said a former military facilities contractor. Regulations shouldn’t have the force of law “because they’re issued by people who aren’t elected,” said a retired utility plant operations supervisor. “We should make Congress approve regulations.” Climate change must be a myth, one skeptic said to general agreement, because his grandfather had, during an unseasonably warm February in the last century, swum in the ocean at Myrtle Beach.
Many in Conway said they were vexed about news coverage. They said US media are split now along liberal/conservative lines and that they listen mainly to the conservative Fox line. Several said they considered liberal and conservative media equally biased although we didn’t ask how often they actually sought news from the New York Times, Washington Post or CNN. To avoid such liberal sources, the minister said, he’d stopped using Google News. For our part, Jane and I found it difficult to keep a pledge to rely strictly on conservative news while in Conway. We found it too clamorous, and some residents did, too.
“With 24/7 cable news and Fox and Hannity, you keep hearing the same thing again and again and again and it gets into your brain,” said the retired utility plant supervisor, jabbing his fingers into his temples. “I’d like to go back to the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, where you’d get what facts were known and then go on to watch Andy Griffith with your family.” Said a hair salon operator: “No one knows what facts are any more. It’s all one side’s news vs. the other side’s news, and it’s making us kind of tribal. I don’t believe they really know much of anything. I mean ‘alternative facts.” Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me.” Added the auto broker: “I hate the media, both sides. It’s all opinions now. It’s not fake news; it’s NO news.”
At the same time, we were impressed and daunted by how well-read some of President Trump’s supporters were. One woman was reading a biography of President Andrew Jackson to see how the nation’s first bomb-throwing populist dealt with Washington’s earliest elites. She’d also been reading the Federalist Papers, Number 9 especially, and wanted our opinions on it, of which we had none.
Someone else asked if we’d read Rush Limbaugh’s “See, I Told You So,” which he considered an essential primer on the errors of liberal ways. Another person asked if we’d read Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s memoir, “The Long Game.” Another Conway conservative, a lawyer, asked what we thought of the writings of Mark Levin, whom he considered worthy of nomination to the Supreme Court. We weren’t even conversationally smart about any of these writers or books. We concluded—duh--that it would take as much effort to be an informed conservative—or someone capable of engaging deeply with one—as it would take to be an informed liberal or liberal foe.
Our biggest discovery, however, was accidental and came on an off-duty Sunday afternoon. We’d driven to Murrell’s Inlet on the Atlantic coast south of Myrtle Beach in quest of oysters. Without TripAdvisor guidance, we picked a place called Nance’s. It was uncrowded in the very early evening and seemed, after we’d sat down and committed ourselves, to smell a little musty. Inexplicably, each table had a round six-inch hole cut in the middle, which I decided had anchored a lazy Susan in earlier Oriental restaurant days.
Put off by the place, I skipped the raw oysters and ordered (baked) Oysters Rockefeller and chowder. Jane had a crab cake. Pretty quickly Nance’s filled up, however, and nearly every diner ordered large clumps of roasted oysters that they pried open, dipped in butter, and consumed eagerly. Shells they tossed…through the table’s hole into a bucket a waiter had placed below to catch them. We’d never seen so many oysters consumed so fast or so eagerly and kicked ourselves for missing out
Our first mistake, we decided, was underestimating the restaurant. Our second was thinking that we knew all about oysters because we’d paid a lot for a lot of them over many years. Our third mistake was pure dumb pride: not asking why our table had a hole in it. Instead we’d condescended to what was probably the best oyster house we’d ever entered.
Hmm. On Monday morning we returned to a table of familiar Conway coffee-drinkers, and told our story about Nance’s to widening grins. “What we want to know,” we asked, “is how often Washington’s condescension drives you crazy.”
Bingo! The former utility plant operations supervisor said his plant, closed under EPA pressure, had not been even the dirtiest in his company’s system of coal-fired plants. And when he later sought advice from the EPA, he got none, he said, until a legislator phoned the EPA for him. “When you need help, you get condescended to by Washington,” he added. “You feel underestimated, as though there’s a difference between being ignorant and being stupid that’s being ignored.”
Another coffee drinker saw condescension in President Obama’s assurance that a 4.5 percent unemployment rate meant good economic times. Not for Conway’s under-employed and struggling households, he thought. He saw condescension, too, when President Obama declared Obamacare a success because the number of uninsured went down. The table of five agreed that candidate Trump, by challenging the accuracy of federal unemployment figures and attacking Obamacare, had won the support of Conway’s large number of struggling workers and dismayed Obamacare clients. The table also agreed that Trump never came across as condescending to them.
The mostly quiet former defense building contractor offered the last word on condescension:
“Deplorables,” he said, to groans and roars.
AFTERWARDS (As in “After we got home, here’s what we realized we’d learned.”)
One lesson was that President Trump’s supporters were not what TV often shows them to be: robotic boobs who’d follow him anywhere chanting, “Lock her up!” Rather, while they consider him their champion, they see him as a man with gifts and flaws and are hopeful but not certain that he’ll do the country a lot of good. This matches pretty closely our cross-fingered enthusiasm for past candidates and presidents we’ve supported. On one particular trait—President Trump’s effort to act immediately on his campaign promises—we wish past presidents we supported had been so determined to fulfill their promises. At bottom, while we still fear what President Trump may do, we don’t fear his supporters much at all.
Instead we are offended now to read derision of them by scholar/journalists like Mark Danner, who described them in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books thus: “They are his creation, permanent suppliers of the adulation and self-affirmation he craves. Now they cheer and hoot and scoff while their hero, saber in hand, slashes and hacks at his enemies among the hated status quo.” (Danner, ‘What He Could Do’ NYRB Mar. 23, 2017, p. 4.)
Danner’s hot rhetoric seems just as wide of the mark as this: “Thousands of professional progressive protesters are plotting to disrupt a town hall event for Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) here on Saturday morning, Breitbart News has learned, as part of a grander effort to grind down President Donald Trump and his America First agenda on the national stage.” (Matthew Boyle, Mar. 18, 2017, Breitbart.)
Indeed, the Washington Post sounded a lot like Breitbart recently in a front-page teaser promoting an inside-page story. The teaser was headed “Demonizing diversity, and this text followed: “Trump attacks cities because they show liberalism works.” Really? How does the writer know that?
It’s a truism to say that a Great Media Divide now splits the country along the left/right axis. To better understand the split, we vowed to get our news while in Conway from right-wing media only. Truth be told, that proved too vexing, too hard, too tedious. I sometimes cheated by reading the on-line New York Times before Jane woke up.
So it was guilt-relief to learn from New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert about a phenomenon called “confirmation bias.” She defines it as the tendency to “embrace information that supports our beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.” (“Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds”, Feb. 27, 2017). One reason I found opposition journalism so hard to take in, I now suspect, was the thankless work of taking in information that I’d already rejected.
In an earlier article, (“The Things People Say,” NYer Nov. 2, 2009), Kolbert recommends Harvard Law Prof. Cass Sunstein as a four-book authority on “how the Internet divided the world—sharply—into liberals and conservatives.” Reading Sunstein is our next assignment.
In another line of inquiry that grew out of our visit, we discovered that Washington’s two-to-one household income advantage over Conway was just the beginning of an important political and economic story. The key was not the household income number but the trend: The Washington area’s median household income rose 23 percent between 2000 and 2012, while South Carolina’s fell 11 percent. That’s largely because the Great Recession of 2008-9 hammered South Carolina but spared Washington thanks to its nearly untouched government workforce. (Neil Shah, ‘Washington Sees Incomes Soar as Most of U.S. Declines,’ Wall Street Journal Sept.19 2013.)
Jane and I had never noticed South Carolina’s pain. In particular, we accepted the declining unemployment and uninsured numbers by which the Obama administration measured its economic and health care successes. Conway people told us they had little reason to feel better off by either measure, and felt candidate Trump had sided with them when he said unemployment statistics were flawed and Obamacare was a disaster.
Funny thing: Trump won last November by carrying 13 of the 15 states that, like South Carolina, suffered household income declines of more than nine percent over the 2000-2012 period that Shah studied. Trump’s wins included Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin—each big enough to deliver victory to a Democrat deemed by voters more sensitive to their economic pain.
How did the Conway experience affect us? While it didn’t change our political views, it did give us a glimpse of what Washington looks like from the other end of the telescope – instead of the center of the universe, it began to seem more like a small but powerful anomaly on the national landscape. (One source described Washington as “70 square miles surrounded by reality.”) We became acutely aware that while, in our DC world, the coin of the realm is often what you’ve contributed to the insider games of government or journalism, in Conway, more relevant is what you contribute to the local economy – the number of people you employ or the amount of product you generate, or how well you provide for your family. No one in Conway cares much about the mechanics of the federal government – they only care about how it affects them. So it’s no wonder President Trump feels free to trash so many of Washington’s hallowed traditions. They have no meaning to the folks like those we met in Conway, especially those who feel condescended to and want that to change. That was a very useful thing to learn.
Finally, and discordantly, we need to mention two incidents that we learned of while in Conway that suggest declining tolerance since Election Day.
We sent copies of this draft to people we’d spoken to in Conway, in all maybe six of the 15 with whom we spoke longest. We got brief responses back:
Carol here...I liked the article for the most part. I didn't think the two comments at the end had anything to do with the rest of the article and/or were necessary. I also didn't get the point of the black army woman. Did she/you mean black/male/trump or white/female/clinton.. or some angry combination of all of it, which was not clear to me...and, the last two comments definitely showed bias. Northern bias...Thanks for the effort. For the most part, SC is ignored by Washington, just like the rest of the country.
We have read the article and the coffee group had mostly positive comments. The comment was made that if more people would talk things out and meet more people who didn't necessarily agree, we all would be better off.