I was standing in a bar in downtown Greenville—Grumpy’s, I’m pretty sure it was—off East 5th Street. This was about two months ago, when I was in town for my brother’s graduation from East Carolina University. The two of us were meeting up with some of his friends for drinks while our parents relaxed back at his apartment. The joint was a pretty standard dive bar with a porch out back, where one incredibly cute golden retriever puppy was laying as six people stood around it, all puffing on cigs.
Back inside, we were waiting to grab a couple cheap beers. I had already taken note of the translucent pigmentation that dominated the crowd the moment I walked in. I didn’t count, but it felt pretty clear that, save for the people that could spot us as a couple Sappony men, there were nothing but extremely drunk and extremely white college kids filling the place. One kid, standing three people over from us, with his hat turned backward, his sky blue polo unbuttoned to show a hairless pale chest, threw back a shot and slammed the glass onto the bar. He was speaking excitedly with another white kid sitting on a barstool. He leaned in close and grinned.
“YOU’RE A FUCKING NIGGER!”
He screamed it again.
Nobody paused. The trashy music blasting over the shitty speakers didn’t scratch to a halt. Hardly anyone so much as turned their head. The bartender, another white guy, nodded to his friends standing to his side. They laughed and patted his shoulder. His beer sloshed in his hand. He smiled wide. You know the smile. I certainly did. He was happy. He was content. He was with his people.
This week has been fucking terrible. Or fucking great. It depends on who you are, I suppose.
Last night’s rally, in which President Donald Trump doubled down on his racist remarks about Rep. Ilhan Omar and the Squad and brought the house down at ECU, was either yet another putrid blemish on the face of an executive office befouled with centuries of them or a joyous event that sparked hope in your soul that We might actually take this country back. It’s all a matter of perspective, which is exactly why it was ingenious timing for Trump to have Greenville lined up as his soft landing spot.
Not unlike the boisterous, racist bro who found himself at home shouting epithets in Grumpy’s, Trump was in his element, and locked firmly into a destructive groove for an hour-and-a-half. He flailed his arms and opened his mouth and read from the prompter and had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand, as the campaign had planned, just for showing up.
In the wake of the chants, a great many on the left and a handful on the right have decried the president’s racist words, the xenophobic chant, and the entire un-American sentiment underpinning both. It’s been nice to see, sure, but it doesn’t seem to matter to the people on the inside, the ones hooting and hollering and lining up to pass out from heat exhaustion just so they can get a chance to be castigated on the news the following morning.
See, there is always a They. It doesn’t much matter where you’re from.
The feeling you derive when you hear talk about Them varies greatly depending on where you are. In my current home, in the bubble of Brooklyn, They are wonderful; They are great; They are accepted. Not in the fancy neighborhoods with douche-tower apartment buildings ruining the sky for the sake of the rich, but certainly, in theory, They are generally welcome here, in this country and this city. But in Greenville and towns like it, or at least the ones I know, They are about the most dangerous force on earth. There, They take many shapes and forms, but rest assured, They are coming. For your jobs, for your schools, for your money, for your family. They they they.
But, as I’ve been told, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. That is, accomplishing the goal of muddying the waters so much that up is down and racist is right can take several forms, some more outright and some more veiled. Lucky for Trump and Greenville’s (and North Carolina’s and America’s) racists, they almost always get a choice.
For the folks seeking a more jagged, unpolished version of American racial conservatism—none of that “socially liberal” bullshit to be found here—I give you state Rep. Michael Speciale.
Speciale doesn’t represent Greenville. His district is located about an hour’s drive southeast. But this past spring, he ran for the the Third Congressional District seat vacated by the passing of Walter Jones, which includes portions of Greenville and the surrounding communities.
I’ve written about Speciale at length before; it’s not a pleasant rabbit hole to fall down. The short of it is that Speciale is a nut at best and a xenophobic racist dickhead at worst. He is a staunch Roy Moore defender. He called the Women’s March “a joke.” He has filed legislation allowing North Carolina to secede from the union. He’s called for completely deregulating handgun sales. And, naturally, he is a connoisseur of the deranged right-ring memes we know and love.
What’s most frightening about Speciale isn’t the fact that he holds a vote in the state legislature, though that is terrifying; it’s how familiar he is, at least to those of us who grew up knowing dozens of middle-aged white men just like him.
The last in-person conversation I had with one of my childhood friends ended in an argument that started with him pontificating about the possibility—no, inevitability, he stated so surely—of a race war in America. This was the summer of the Ferguson race riots, following Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of the racist police force. My friend’s reasoning for the forthcoming war was that They were growing too unruly, too wild, and, of course, too lazy to pull themselves out of the mess They got themselves into. The reasoning he was employing was nothing I hadn’t heard a million times growing up in North Carolina, but the hop, skip, and a jump he took to land from the notoriously casual racism to the concept of a violent nationwide battle for racial supremacy still caught me off-guard.
My surprise at hearing this diatribe, started out of thin air in between our third and fourth beers, was a result of my being close with him; had I been paying attention, I could have seen this coming and avoided or maybe even subverted the situation, either by undermining him or by severing ties. Instead, I found myself on my heels, and then leaning into a full-scale fight that effectively concluded our relationship. There was likely not much I could’ve done at that point, save for shouting and leaving, which I did.
But I kept thinking about that conversation as I went through the arduous process of detailing the last fifty years of my state’s political and social history. What I found was that, present within the dominating, boisterous strain of Southern conservatism made famous by Jesse Helms that my friend had latched onto so quickly, there is also another, almost more dangerous version of politician that allows people to make the same arguments—that of the genteel far-righter.
Enter state Rep. Greg Murphy.
Murphy beat out Speciale and a dozen others in the race for the third—last week, he claimed victory in the GOP primary over Joan Perry—and will, barring an upset from Democrat Allen Thomas, secure the seat. Murphy was more than pleased to be present at Wednesday’s rally and even happier to talk up the speech with Fox Business beforehand.
Murphy is decidedly not Speciale. While he is a gun lover, Murphy is also a doctor who purportedly supports at least some version of Medicaid expansion in the state, at a time when the GOP-led state legislature is willing to drag out the budget approval process just to keep that from happening. Mostly, though, he is white bread. He is the safe choice, as far as Republicans go—his edges are sanded and his rhetoric is plain. Yet as a candidate backed by the Freedom Caucus, NCGunowners.com, and Trump, he is happy to side with Rep. Mark Meadows and the far right in Congress in order to secure votes and political longevity. He does not need to shout his beliefs about where Rep. Omar should go, because that is what Trump and the crowd—his supporters—are there for. He is there to smile and shake hands and look like a normal human being by comparison, while still casting all the same votes as the crazies.
If you would like a preview of what a response to such behavior looks like once you’re elected, look to Rep. Mark Walker, representing the sixth, another eastern North Carolina district.
Walker, like Murphy, also feels familiar. They are the men you knew at church, the supposedly upstanding member of the congregation, who, from time to time, would also speak in hushed tones about “Them” and “Those People,” but in a tone of caution, of worry, not outright violence. It wasn’t the same instigation offered by Speciale or Trump. It was something worse. You couldn’t call them racist outright, because they didn’t screamed the n-word or call for mass deportation of your neighbors and friends. They’re just trying to protect their community, you see. And if that means quietly supporting the same policies offered by the authoritative ideologues shouting down from on high, then so be it.
My family on both sides hails from eastern North Carolina. I grew up in the Piedmont, in the middle of the state, in a mill town hollowed out by corporate greed that ultimately voted for Trump by a 4:1 margin. It’s all home to me, and even after being gone for three years, it still is, more than New York could ever hope to be.
Loving it as much as I do, I still recognize that there is a sickness there. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Yesterday, about four hours before the rally, I saw it online.
That meme, shared by a family member, is one of about a dozen I could pull from my Facebook feed from the past 24 hours about Omar. To cut you off: I know, picking memes from social media, in a space I’ve created and curated, is not a representative way to report the news or the political leanings of Real People. But as I’ve previously reported, the growing influence of social media in terms of being North Carolinians’ main source of political news has led to some truly heinous shit. (The infamous, botched Pizzagate attack on a DC pizza joint was carried out by a man from the next town over from where I grew up.)
The second comment beneath the above meme read as follows—keep in mind that this was posted roughly five hours before Trump uttered the same smear:
Now, fast forward to this morning, after the speech and the chant, to check in on how Fox News chose to contextualize last night’s events.
I can’t help but hear the echoes, from Facebook to Speciale to my family to Fox News to Trump. It refuses to die down, to quiet itself. It is there, always, after every major political event. I used to believe it was a straight line—from Fox to Trump to the memes posted by my online relatives. Now I’m not so sure anymore. It’s hard to grasp where this mess starts and where it ends. It’s constantly growing outwards, sometimes rapidly and loud, sometimes stealthily, but always expanding its reach. It’s not so much a line of dominos as it is an ever-churning stew of shitty values and vast misinformation, tumbling and blending together until it’s difficult to delineate what’s coming from the Oval Office from the right-wing fever swamp.
There’s no immediate antidote for this sickness, because in order for that to exist, there needs to be common ground, or at least a shared version of reality. But that is not the case—and it’s exceedingly difficult to image how these poles realign themselves again.
I’d like to end on a happier note, to say that I see a way forward in which the economic pressures snap the chanters from their foggy reality, free from the racist and xenophobic tendencies that moor them to the Speciales and Trumps and Walkers and Murphys of the political system, and join arms with a candidate who offers solutions beyond the shallow “We’re going to bring [insert your long-dead local industry] back!” they fell for three years ago. But every time I start to feel hopeful, someone starts chanting, and I recede back into the acceptance of the fact that I was always going to lose that friend, that the shithead at Grumpy’s was always going to go without getting his ass kicked, and that Trump was always going to be the beloved president of my hometown.