How White Evangelical Christian Nostalgia Drove Small-town America to Vote for Trump

A Trump flag hangs inside The Gift Box off Main Street in Mount Airy. (© Logan Cyrus/For The Washington Post)
A Trump flag hangs inside The Gift Box off Main Street in Mount Airy. (© Logan Cyrus/For The Washington Post)

From a perch on Main Street, the home town of actor Andy Griffith looks this day like it was plucked right out of the television show that bears his name. And it was.

Residents and tourists from farflung states mill along the thoroughfare, past the quaint low-slung shops made of Mount Airy’s famous white granite and named, like Floyd’s City Barber Shop, for references in “The Andy Griffith Show,” the folksy comedy set in the idyllic fictional small town of Mayberry that first aired in 1960.

And yet even as this city of about 10,000 nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains fills its coffers by selling nostalgia, many of its residents would agree with the now-popular saying “We’re not in Mayberry anymore.”

If only the real Mount Airy, which has experienced decades of economic and social decline, were like the Mayberry facade, muses Mayor David Rowe. If only his city and the rest of America could return to the 1950s again.

“Now it’s about secular progressivism, not the values you get out of this book,” like honesty and hard work, said Rowe, 72, jabbing his finger at the leather Bible on his office desk.

But as Donald Trump prepares to move into the White House, Rowe and many of his constituents are hoping for a return to the past.

“We’re going to hold him to it,” said Brad Thomas, 42, who used to work as an engineer building turbine blades for power plants before his job was moved to Mexico.

A yearning for an earlier time, especially prevalent in rural American towns and cities like Mount Airy, helped spur white evangelical Christians to vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. For these voters, the desire for change also could be viewed as a desire to change back to what they perceive as a more wholesome and prosperous time, when high-paying manufacturing jobs were plentiful, white Protestants were indisputably in charge and same-sex marriage and the Black Lives Matter movement were unthinkable.

Seventy-four percent of white evangelicals believe American culture has mostly changed for the worse since the 1950s — more than any other group of Americans — compared with 56 percent of all whites, according to a 2015 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. In sharp contrast, 62 percent of African Americans and 57 percent of Hispanic Americans think the culture has changed for the better, the survey said.

With his promise to “Make America Great Again,” Trump appealed directly to this sense of dispossession, and 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for him, according to exit polls.

“You think back to the 1990s, and conservative Christians could throw around the phrase ‘moral majority,’ and there was a kernel of truth to that,” said PRRI demographer Robert P. Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America.” “Even in 2008, they could say the country is on our side on [same-sex marriage], and that’s changed so quickly in this last decade. The election hit on fundamental questions about what America is and should be.”

Tourism isn’t enough
Scissors the size of gardening shears hang from a coatrack in the mayor’s office. They are reserved for Rowe’s primary job of cutting ribbons, he said, and have been used a lot downtown, where just a few empty storefronts remain on Main Street. An old-fashioned sheriff’s squad car drives tourists for $35, stopping at local favorites and ending at Andy Griffith’s childhood home.

Visitors to Surry County spent $116.62 million in 2015, compared with $66 million 12 years ago, according to Jessica Icenhour Roberts, who heads tourism partnerships for the county, whose largest city is Mount Airy.

But Mount Airy cannot live on tourism alone, the mayor said,

“We try to live the good old days, but it’s hard,” Rowe said. Just down the street from a bronze statue of Griffith and a museum dedicated to his memory, out of sight of the boutiques selling Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade artwork, sit many dilapidated textile mills that have closed in the past decade. From early 2000 to about 2010, about 9,000 private-sector jobs were lost when factories that made clothes went overseas.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey