I was understaffed the day of the eclipse, and it was fucking stressful. I work in the restaurant industry in upstate South Carolina at one of those hip taco places with margaritas and extreme fusion food. (We serve chicken-and-waffle tacos.) On August 21, my town, which was in the path of totality, experienced an influx of nearly 1 million people. They were all clamoring to catch the glimpse of a lifetime, and have an excuse to get day-drunk.
So my day was spent in a 95-degree kitchen, surrounded by Dia de los Muertos sugar skulls, unpacking nearly a thousand pounds worth of produce and proteins. I scrambled to do the prep work of eight people with only two, and to brace for the inevitable: a sea of onlookers set to get wasted and play “Total Eclipse of the Heart” the moment the totality had passed.
I suppose the CO2 delivery guy saw the terrified look in my eye. “What’s wrong, honey?” he asked, pleasantly enough. I told him I was ridiculously understaffed. “This is going to be a nightmare.”
He laughed a little and said, very casually: “I don’t want to get too political,” he said, two days after the Charlottesville protests, “but I bet you the people that called out on you today either voted for Hillary or Bernie.” He gestured toward the restaurant’s hipster decor.
Perhaps because I am young and not covered in tattoos, the delivery guy assumed I was a conservative—much like I assumed my co-workers were liberal because of their ink and Converse sneakers. But many of them weren’t even aware of the violence in Charlottesville. I’m a Democrat. I supported Bernie Sanders during the primaries and proudly voted for Clinton in the end. It was a lonely, occasionally frightening experience.
I come from the land of billboards of aborted fetuses and prayer circles around empty strollers, a place where you could have red paint thrown at you in a crude gesture of symbolism if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—say, an abortion clinic. Gay? Pray it away. Black? There’s another word for that. Female? It’s your body, but it’s a man’s choice.
We Southerners often presume other Southerners think as we do. Our culture is fueled by our Southern identity. We’re teased for our accents—which are regional, by the way—and our affinity for fried foods. At worst we’re considered uneducated and ignorant. Our sense of separateness is worn like a badge of honor. Our mannerisms are decoded, for the most part, wordlessly, between knowing gossipy glances and the casual phrasing of subtle jokes. Disagreements are settled by agreeing to disagree, or by simply changing the subject.
When you hear those jokes about Southern ladies saying “Bless her heart” as being code for “What an idiot,” they’re not making it up. A more troubling example: I didn’t know until very recently that the service industry referred to black patrons as “Canadians,” but I know why no one told me before now. I’m the liberal in my group everywhere I go.
The stakes were high for many Americans during the presidential election. Who you are as a person could often be directly correlated to your candidate of choice. To the average Southern person, voting for government regulation is rather like Lincoln winning all over again, Lord forbid. I was outnumbered early on and I knew it. I could tell by the number of bumper stickers and MAGA hats I saw on my daily commute. At first it seemed like a joke—until it wasn’t. I never put my Bernie sticker on my car because I was afraid it’d get keyed in the parking lot. The signs in my yard mysteriously disappeared. I was threatened with rape the first and last time I wore my Bernie shirt in public.
I wasn’t raised to think or vote this way. Neither side of my family is traditionally liberal. One side is staunchly Southern Baptist, the other a bunch of Lutherans from Texas. Once, during Thanksgiving break for college in 2009, I was driving home for the holidays, scanning radio stations, and happened upon the Rush Limbaugh show, where a familiar-sounding caller was telling Rush we should build a border wall and deport all Mexicans immediately. “They’re illegals, you know? They steal from the taxpayers. We gotta get rid of them,” the caller said. I recognized that voice. I called my dad. “What is wrong with you?” I bellowed into the phone.
My dad should understand why Bernie Sanders was my man through the primaries. I was a college student with FAFSA loans when the recession hit in 2008. I remember the phone call I received from my father telling me that he could no longer afford to help me pay my rent. I lived in downtown Charleston at the time—all College of Charleston students do, don’t troll and try to tell me there were less expensive places to stay—and although I worked all through college and before, a retail job on King Street that paid $8.75 an hour was not cutting it. Not even at 39 hours a week. I was given a choice: either drop out of school or not pay rent and be evicted. So I left.
It has been difficult to find a well-paying job ever since then, so Sanders’ promise of $15 minimum wage and free public university tuition was appealing to me. It meant that maybe I could have a life where I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night covered in stress-hives worrying about money, because I would finally be guaranteed a livable wage if I worked full time. I liked that his platform included major educational reforms, a social mobility plan for people of all creeds and colors, and actual consideration for the LGBTQ population.
But as Trump’s rise became more evident, it became less of a self-serving interest on my part and more about a big chunk of our country getting deported and/or killed. I was quite upset when Bernie did not win the Democratic nomination, but I knew the bigger problem was Trump, so proudly voted for Hillary Clinton on Election Day in response.
Our state went about 55% MAGA. I know a lot of people who stayed home. “South Carolina votes red,” they would say. “My vote doesn’t matter anyway.”
And now we live in Trump’s world, where the differences between now and the Obama-era presidency throughout the South are quite noticeable in tone. Right-wing voters feel entitled to speak their minds more openly, and they do not seem to mind if they come across as racist, sexist, or homophobic in the process. They’ve been given permission.
“I guess Allah wasn’t with her that day,” an old boss told me recently at the restaurant when he heard a woman in a hijab was sent to the hospital. (She’d been in a car crash with one of our co-workers’ sons, and he walked away unscathed.) My blood boiled. And I regularly hear women described as “stupid cunts” and “bitches” in a cavalier tone. People know what they’re saying is offensive. Sometimes derogatory comments are prefaced with an “I’m not a racist, but...” or “I have no problem with feminists, but...” This just means the commenter is acknowledging the presence of an outsider before saying their piece. It’s good manners, after all.
I’m not saying that these ideas and comments didn’t exist before Trump was elected. But they are occurring more frequently now that he is in the highest office in the land. America is now in a battle for its soul and we must all pick a side, Southern etiquette or no. I understand why so many of my friends may have refused to vote in the election—if you’re a liberal living in the South, you hardly ever win. But it’s time for rest of us to become more vocal: It is entirely possible for a red state to become a swing state. After all, politics are usually born at home.