To get to Elliott County, Ky., from Lexington, you drive east on an interstate highway for an hour before turning onto a narrower, meandering state highway, then again onto a perilously narrow local road that would break a snake’s back. In the morning, mist rises off the lush valleys, and the trip ends at a paradox: at once deep in the American heartland, and pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
The county seat is Sandy Hook, officially designated as a city but, with 622 resident souls, barely more than a village. Most mornings Sandy Hook residents with time to kill like to gather for coffee and small talk at the Frosty Freeze on Route 7.
The kitchen at the Frosty Freeze can make what you want, if you don’t want anything strange, and a hand-lettered sign under the television in the corner quotes from Romans: “Owe no man nothing, but to love one another. He that loveth all, fulfilleth the law.”
I visited Elliott County because it has a particular electoral history. From its formation in 1869 until 2016, it had voted for a Democrat at every presidential election, the longest streak of Democratic loyalty of any county in America. This is a stubborn loyalty. Elliott County voted for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan, for Michael Dukakis over George Bush, for John Kerry over George W. Bush, and—admittedly by a squeaker in 2012—for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney.
But in 2016 the people of Elliott County took one look at the Democratic party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, and voted 70 per cent to 26 per cent for Donald Trump, snapping a streak that had lasted a century and a half.
So how are they feeling about their choice?
When I got there, President Trump was still in the news for his reactions to the violence in Charlottesville, Va. The Charlottesville city council intends to remove a statue honouring Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general in the Civil War. White supremacists and neo-Nazis had gathered in a “Unite the Right” rally in protest. Other people had come to protest against the hate marchers. Amid a weekend of sometimes violent confrontation, one man drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. It was a horrible business.
The president took a few runs at his response to all this. On Aug. 12, he condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides—on many sides.” On Aug. 14 he tried again. “Racism is evil,” he said, reading prepared remarks that had been crafted to put the blame on one side, not many. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.” This seemed better, if woefully belated. But only a day later, Trump essentially took this second statement back.
In a news conference at Trump Tower, ostensibly to discuss infrastructure spending, Trump defended the Unite the Right protesters. “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.” Trump was particularly amazed by the prospect of removing a Confederate statue. “So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” he said. “I wonder—is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
A few days later, at the Frosty Freeze on Route 7, there was no sign of buyers’ remorse. “I’m rather impressed with him, myself,” Wesley Lewis, 67, said of the president. “I mean, his effort. I really am.”
“I believe he’s trying a lot,” Lewis’s friend Lovell Mayse, 73, replied.
“Well, yeah,” Lewis said. “He’s trying to help this country.”
How so? “Well, look here,” Lewis said. “They’ve already opened up one of the big mines in Pennsylvania. Right now they’re opening the second coal mine. And there’ll be more. Fourteen per cent rise already in coal production. Things like that.” All of this, I learned later, is true, though it’s hardly clear Trump’s policies are the cause. The demand for coal to be used in Chinese steelmaking accounts for the bulk of the production increase.
At this end of Kentucky, prosperity and the fortunes of the coal mines have been synonymous for a century. A friend of coal is still hard to beat politically.
As for everything else Trump has vowed to do, “he’s working on the promises,” Lewis said. “He’s working on ‘em.”
Wesley Lewis grew up in Elliott County. He’s done a bit of most things over the course of his life. “I’m retired from pipefitting. But I worked coal strip mines. I worked heavy equipment. Sold insurance in my early years. All kinds of things.” On this morning he was wearing denim overalls over a pink T-shirt. His slim face, with a tidy white goatee, was capped by the peak of a ball cap.
If there’s a typical Elliott County voter— someone who swung Republican for the first time only last year, Lewis isn’t it: he hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter. “And the reason for that is because they’re not morally sound enough to vote for.”
At the start of our chat, Lewis affected a certain skepticism about the new president. “I don’t know that Donald Trump is gonna be the answer for much of anything.” But the more he talked, the clearer it became that for Lewis, Trump’s side of any argument is pretty much the correct side.
“Donald Trump’s not causing these riots and things,” he said. “That’s a bunch of idiotic people looking for something to raise Cain about, and cause trouble over, that’s none of their business to start with. These white supremacists and these black people that are causing all these problems… That’s just crap is all that is. Crap.”
Lovell Mayse took a little longer to draw into the conversation. Mayse spent 22 years in the Army and served in Vietnam. He taught school in nearby Lawrence County, then became a property-value assessor. Clean-shaven and wearing a polo shirt, he tended toward economic explanations for the nation’s woes, whereas Lewis preferred the theological.
Three issues got Trump elected, Mayse said. “Number one was, control the illegal aliens that’s coming into this country. Have a check on ’em, make sure they’re not lawbreakers and that they’ll work.” Number two was that Trump had promised to fix Obamacare. “And number three—really, in this county, state, and most others, they have given all of our jobs away, sent them overseas. The billionaires take them without any regard to our people working here. There’s no jobs for high school graduates here that they can sustain themselves or support them, let alone a family.”
So: keep out illegal aliens, fix health care, and keep jobs in the United States. “I think that’s the reason that most people in Elliott County and Kentucky went Republican,” Mayse said.
And how’s it going so far? After all, Trump hasn’t managed to put a dent in Obamacare, and it’s hard to see any evidence he’s bringing jobs home. (Here in Elliott County, unemployment is stuck around 10 per cent, more than double the national average.)
“Well, the number one thing that I think he’s done is, he has tried,” Mayse said.
Trump’s efforts on immigration scored especially high with these two. “We’re all big believers in charity here,” Lewis said. “But it’s like Lovell said, lettin’ these illegal immigrants in here, and then idolizing them, supporting them and all this, while they kill people that were born and raised here—or came here legally—that’s not kosher.”
Study after study shows that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than native-born Americans. Lewis and Mayse did not seem to be in the market for rebuttal.
“This thing with the—supporting this transgender stuff? Now, pooh-pooh. That’s what I say,” Lewis said. “I say build them an island somewhere and put them on it.”
As I pondered which end of that to handle, he said: “Here’s a statement or an idea or a thought. He is, what, 71 years old?” This is indeed the president’s age.
“He is always working. Always. He’s so busy doing things for the people of this country that I wonder how he rests, myself.”
I have, I said, fairly often seen Trump on a golf course. The website Politifact says that by Aug. 1 of their inauguration year, Trump had played golf on 21 days, Obama on 11.
Lewis was unswayed. “How many—in person—how many days have you seen him on the golf course?” he asked.
None, I said, but there are photos. At this, Lewis was triumphant. “But what you see—you saw that on television!” he said. “They impress things on people’s minds by way of television, radio, media—I tell you, they’s a lot more murky business through the media than there is through Donald Trump or anybody else.”
The more he considered Trump against the forces arrayed against him, Lewis said, he was left wondering why he hadn’t registered Republican a long time ago. Much of the answer lay in force of habit: Elliott County is still a Democrat county, where Democrats hold most local elected office. But where did that come from?
“Well, that was just the way that it was,” Mayse said. “At that time, the Democrats were the poor people. And the Republicans were the rich.” Now it’s more or less flipped around, as far as they see it. A Republican president is bringing back the coal trucks. Democrats won’t stop talking about climate change.
“The thing about this environmental thing —and you can quote me on this,” Lewis said. “Climate change? That is hogwash. It is. This—the climates, the atmosphere, the elements, everything that’s been here since God created it, has been changing, and it was changing before there was nearly as many people on this earth as what there is now.”
The height of foolishness, Mayse said, was this business of taking Confederate soldiers’ statues down. “That’s got to be the most idiotic thing.” The Confederacy is a part of history, both men and others in Elliott County insisted. What’s the point in taking history down? The Civil War, Mayse said, “wasn’t over the slaves to start with, in my opinion. It was that the North couldn’t stand the South having all of that free labour.” So the Civil War was not over slavery, but “free labour.”
“There’s many, many good works to support that belief,” Mayse told me.
Back in Lexington, an almost unbelievably more affluent city surrounded by impeccably manicured horse farms, Russell Allen met me at an Irish pub in a shopping plaza near the airport. Allen is 29, works in health-care information, and records hip-hop music as R.E.A.L. Tha Poet. For the last year he’s been a volunteer activist with Take Back Cheapside, a community group dedicated to getting two Confederate statues taken down from their perches next to Lexington’s old town hall. A few days earlier, the group had scored a major victory: Lexington city council had voted unanimously to remove the statues. But since it needs to find some other place to put them, the statues remained in place, and Take Back Cheapside was on hold, waiting to see what would happen next.
Did Allen grow up wishing he could be part of a movement to take down Confederate statues? “I never had any aspiration to do that,” he said. “A lot of times, especially being a minority, it seemed quite far away or impossible, just given the structure of the statues. They’re so large and they sit up so high. And that’s kind of the point we’re making: that mentally, those type of statues have an effect on how black people see themselves. And going across the United States, how other Americans feel.”
Take Back Cheapside gets its name from the plaza next to the old town hall. For decades it was the largest slave market in the South. For Allen and his colleagues, this fact emphasizes the constant power struggle over who controls depictions of history. There was a plaque commemorating Cheapside’s contribution to chattel slavery, paid for in 2003 by Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically black fraternity. It was vandalized in 2015. Its replacement is in storage, awaiting major renovations to the town hall itself. But even by the time it made its first appearance in 2003, the statue of John C. Breckinridge had stood around the corner for 116 years.
Breckinridge is a good symbol of the divisions that racked Kentucky for decades before the Civil War and have not often left the state in peace since. Kentucky was a slave state. Breckinridge spent two terms in the House of Representatives defending slavery. In 1856 he was elected Vice President of the United States. He served for a term under President James Buchanan. In 1860, he ran for president, essentially defending the South’s right to hold slaves and finishing a distant second to Abraham Lincoln.
Foiled as he surely knew he would be for the presidency, Breckinridge went to Washington as a Kentucky senator until he joined the Confederacy—as many Kentuckians did, even though the state itself never seceded. By the war’s end he was the Confederate Secretary of War. Later he toured much of the world as a Confederate fugitive, living briefly in Cuba, Europe, the Middle East—and Toronto, where Mrs. Breckinridge found enough expat Confederates “to form quite a pleasant society among ourselves.”
By the time Breckinridge came home in 1869 he was greeted as a hero. When he died six years later, the Kentucky General Assembly set aside $10,000 for his monument, but voted 23 to 1 against giving any money to a statue of a Union officer. This in a state that had stayed and fought with the Union throughout the war.
Newspapers in the North took note. “Thus are we conciliated,” a New York Times editorial mocked. The Cincinnati Gazette asked, “What shall be the moral to young Kentuckians?”
I get all of this Breckinridge stuff from a fascinating 2010 book, Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State, by Anne Marshall, a Kentucky-born associate professor of history at Mississippi State University. Marshall starts with a quote from E. Merton Coulter, a noted Southern historian, to the effect that Kentucky “waited until after the war was over to secede from the Union.” She sets out to show how that happened. Led largely by Confederate women—who had often held positions akin to CEOs on large plantations—Kentuckians soon joined the rest of the South in regarding the Civil War as Lincoln’s assault against their noble autonomy.
And in a pattern that has become familiar to anyone following the debates over Confederate statues across the U.S., these pushes to “commemorate” one skewed and self-interested side of the war’s history bubbled up every time African-Americans sought to affirm their own rights. Lexington’s second statue, honouring a dashing but unlucky Confederate general named John Hunt Morgan, went up in 1911, just as state after state was passing Jim Crow laws to roll back African-Americans’ early civil-rights gains.
In August Marshall wrote an opinion article for the Lexington Herald-Leader calling for the statues of Breckinridge and Morgan to come down. It was a late conversion, she said. As recently as 2012, as a young historian of the South, she hoped for the success of Freedom Park, an effort in Louisville to provide context to that city’s Confederate monument. “Designed by both historians and community members, the park includes multiple interpretive panels, which present and honor the struggle for black freedom over the course of the city’s history,” Marshall wrote.
It didn’t work. “In a present in which racial injustice pervades the everyday life of so many, it turns out that no amount of historical context is particularly helpful,” Marshall wrote. “The public continued to protest and the city and the university responded by removing the statue last year.” I asked Marshall about the statues and the aftermath of Charlottesville. The failure of Louisville’s Freedom Park “was a real revelation for me,” she said. “Historians are pretty good at explaining context in the past. But we’re terrible, just like everybody else, at controlling context in the present. So in the end I think we have to answer to the context in the present and realize that it really is time for [the statues] to come down.”
Surely they won’t all come down. Louisville’s Confederate memorial didn’t even leave public view. In May it simply moved an hour down the road to Brandenburg, Ky. Men in Confederate regalia saluted as the monument was rededicated to its original mission of keeping the losers’ revisionist history of the Civil War alive on the soil of a Union state.
This is not entirely surprising. History is always a struggle over the interpretation of the past in light of today. In another survey of the post-bellum history wars in the South, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation, Purdue University historian Caroline E. Janney traces the methods and institutions Southern revisionists used to rewrite the war’s history over decades. That struggle was already well underway in 1871 when Frederick Douglass, the former slave and pioneering civil-rights activist, spoke at a Memorial Day service in Arlington, Va.
“We are sometimes asked in the name of patriotism to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life, and those who struck to save it,” Douglass said; “those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. I am no minister of malice, I would not repel the repentant, but may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between the parties to that bloody conflict. I may say if this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember?”
Today the President of the United States seems, on occasion, unsure of when or whether Frederick Douglass has yet died, and he keeps scrupulously equal admiration for those who struck the nation and those who saved it. At the end of the snaky road to Elliott County, and in countless other corners of the land, there are voters who are happy Donald Trump is there and content to let him continue his work.
Russell Allen, from Take Back Cheapside, stands ready to continue his own work for as long as it’s needed. In Kentucky and across the even deeper South, “there was never a reckoning with defeat and what it means,” Allen said. “And there was never a reckoning with what the men [who led the Confederacy] actually said. Because if you go back in history and look at all the defectors, the seceders, the governors, the generals, it’s explicitly mentioned that the reasons that they decided to secede were for slavery.
“People say it was economic and people were infringing on them, but the fact is, they were infringing on their right to own people. And that’s something that we’ve never reckoned with on a large scale in America.”
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