He watched me through one of the windows that grace a small, light blue house located in a somewhat rundown neighborhood in the rural eastern North Carolina town of Mount Olive. Moments later, the wiry man, in a worn gray hoodie and camouflage-pattern hat, approached my car on a bicycle well past its prime.
“Can I help you?” he said in a Southern drawl as he peered into my front seat.
I’d stopped at this particular home because of the signs that stood in its front lawn—placards that bore a slogan that has become both a meme unto itself and a conservative call to action. I was there because I hoped the man who put them there could help me understand what drove the angry, white, rural Americans who helped Donald Trump win to support a thrice-married billionaire who knows nothing of their struggles.
Fifty-four-year-old Joseph Mozingo, a Trump supporter who fit the stereotype perfectly—white, no college degree, born and bred in rural America—had his answer.
It didn’t take him long to display his love for all things Trump, from his ability to “get what he wants” to his call to deport millions of Hispanics, many of whom work on cucumber farms that provide produce used by Mount Olive Pickle Company and in the tobacco fields that surround much of the town he calls home. He was both passionate and unapologetic.
“Attention public: there will be thousands and thousands of jobs coming up after January 2017,” Mozingo said, recalling one of many Facebook posts he crafted during the campaign. “Bus drivers needed to haul illegal immigrants back to Mexico.”
Mozingo’s support for Trump is rivaled only by his hatred of President Obama, which is fueled by the false claim that the president is not a natural-born citizen and therefore is an “illegal” commander in chief.
“His mom was a white German and his dad was a black African, and he was born in Honolulu,” Mozingo told me. “How do you get somebody from here and there, clear across the world, over here? And you’ll show a copy, but you won’t show your original birth certificate? It’s in a lockbox? Why not show it? Be proud.”
(Obama produced his long-form birth certificate in 2011.)
Welcome to Wayne County, one of the reddest counties in the state; Trump won Wayne 55–43 and the neighboring Duplin County 59–40. This is my home, a microcosm of Trump’s America, a place where people like Mozingo are everywhere. Take Ann Sullivan, the vice chairwoman of the local Republican Party. She decided to support Trump because, during a prayer session, she had an epiphany.
“Before I do any major decisions, or any general decisions, I pray about it,” she told me. “And Trump’s name kept coming to mind, so finally I threw my arms up and said, ‘Really? Seriously?’ Then, the name came to me again [so] I said, “OK, we’ll do this.’”
Then, as news coverage of postelection protests took over her television, Sullivan became incensed.
“I want somebody to tell me why is it, and you don’t see Republicans do this, but why is it that Democrats—and the mostly young and black—as soon as something goes wrong they take to the streets and start burning?” she said. “They should start driving paddy wagons and start tossing them in there by the twenties.”
With that, a rant about Black Lives Matter ensued, and Sullivan said protesters “better be glad that Trump is going to be in charge” rather than her. “I’d get out there and form a little net around them, take them to jail, and whoever bails them out, I would watch them and find out where they are going, and find out how much they got paid to do that,” she said.
It’s worth noting that this sort of anger is not what drives every white Republican in eastern North Carolina counties like Wayne. Some supporters are wealthy and want tax breaks. Others are members of the military (Goldsboro is the home of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base) who believe the U.S. should have stuck it out in Iraq and committed ground troops to fight ISIS. And then there are the Bible Belt evangelicals who were told that this election would help create a conservative, anti-Roe v. Wade Supreme Court. But still, comments like those made by Mozingo and Sullivan are not at all fringe in Wayne County, where some white people—according to a Food Lion cashier—regularly stare down African Americans who shop with food stamps and “throw their hands up when they see that EBT card.”
“The craziest thing is how open they are about it. Like, they aren’t hiding it. This one man, two days after the election, said to this old black lady, ‘Enjoy it while it lasts,’” said the cashier, who requested anonymity for fear of losing her job. “And I’ve seen guys in here laughing at Mexicans and mumbling stuff about, ‘Where are your papers?’ It’s crazy.”
Lenny Bolton, who rents a house between Mount Olive and Goldsboro, insists it was the state of the economy, not prejudice, that troubled him. Even so, bigotry appears to linger not far below the surface.
“I mean, there ain’t no jobs around here because the aliens are working for next to nothing,” he said. “Does that sound American to you? We’re giving our prosperity to them.”
When asked if he’d be willing to pick cucumbers or tobacco, Bolton got defensive. “Just because I don’t want that kind of work doesn’t mean some Mexican should get it. A part of me says we should let them stick it out on them fields, but it ain’t right.”
So who, then, should companies like Mount Olive Pickle and Butterball hire to take on jobs men like Bolton want no part of?
“Give ’em to the blacks who sit at home on the porch all day,” he said. “Make ’em earn that government check. Know what I’m sayin’?”
Wayne County, though it has voted Republican in the last thirteen presidential elections, has more registered Democrats than Republicans. It also produced the Reverend William Barber II, the leader of the state NAACP and Moral Monday organizer. And yet, among its white residents, disdain for minorities isn’t uncommon. The fact that such vitriol could propel a man into the White House stunned Stephanie Kornegay, formerly the chairwoman of the Wayne County Democratic Party.
Like so many others, she was baffled watching the results come in. All she could do was guess what went wrong. “The answer is, I don’t know,” Kornegay said.
Mozingo thinks he knows. The cigarette in his hand had burned down to the filter, but he continued to take long drags from it. Unlike Kornegay, he was relaxed as he considered the prospect of a Trump presidency. Things were going to get better in a country that had, in his view, gone to hell in a handbasket. And, with a deep breath, he looked me square in the eye and said something that seemed to epitomize what I’ve learned in my nearly three decades in the rural South.
To “make America great again,” he told me, requires going back to the “beginning.” And while he didn’t say exactly what that meant, he did tell me this: “They better watch out. He is about to shake America to its roots.”
If you’ve lived in Wayne County long enough, you can read between those lines.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Trump’s America”