South Carolina —“This is absolutely nothing to do with race,” says Ray, a Tea Party activist explaining why he still resents Governor Nikki Haley’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol grounds. One thing I learned early growing up in the South is that it is always about race. So I was not at all surprised when Ray, lest anyone misconstrue his concern with governmental overreach, elaborates: “If they can make us take down the Confederate flag today, they can make us take down all those statues of Martin Luther King tomorrow.”
I spent a week in South Carolina in January, driving from the north coast to the Georgia border, and while I saw statues of John C. Calhoun (secessionist and slave owner), Wade Hampton (secessionist and slave owner), Ben Tillman (ardent segregationist), and Strom Thurmond (ditto), as well as memorials to Robert E. Lee and the Confederate war dead, I didn’t see a single statue of King. So in reading what follows, the safest policy is to assume that whatever the topic, it is also, always, about race—especially when it isn’t supposed to be.
South Carolina is a state built on denial and silence. Nobody tells you that the pristine wildlife sanctuaries scattered throughout the Lowcountry were once rice plantations whose earthen dikes and sluice gates were constructed using slave labor. Or that the Citadel—the state-funded military academy in Charleston, which boasts that its cadets “fired the first hostile shots of the Civil War”—gets its name from an arsenal built in response to a slave revolt led by Denmark Vesey, a carpenter who’d purchased his freedom after winning the lottery. Or that in 2015, more than 60 years after the Brown decision (which included a South Carolina case), segregation in the state’s schools remains the rule rather than the exception.
And it’s not just the schools. Walking down King Street in Charleston, you see very few black faces. There are parts of the city where the demographics would be reversed, but those are steadily shrinking under the pressure of gentrification, to the point that even Emanuel AME Church—Vesey was one of its founders; his son Robert rebuilt the church, which was razed after his father’s trial and execution—is now surrounded by the city’s expanding white middle class.
Yet in the cracked mirror of race, it is whites in South Carolina who say they are oppressed—beaten down by political correctness and the heavy hand of Washington. Only in a state where everyday reality remains separate and unequal would the refusal to expand Medicaid make political—if not economic or moral—sense. While the days of “colored” and “white” drinking fountains may be long gone, political party has become such a reliable proxy for race here that it may come as a shock to learn that the state’s Republican junior senator, Tim Scott, is black. In 2013, Scott came to Myrtle Beach and told the Tea Partiers, “I know you’re not racist…. It’s the other side that plays favorites.”
This year, there are actually two African Americans on the program at the Tea Party convention here: David Webb, the conservative talk-radio host, and Ben Carson. The audience is as white as this year’s Oscar nominees. Politically, though, this turns out to be a surprisingly diverse group. The official program promises a beguiling panoply of swivel-eyed paranoia: “Tom DeWeese has built a career on conspiratorial warnings about Agenda 21…. Where others see sensible environmental guidelines, DeWeese finds sinister land-grabbing socialist UN initiatives.”
Sometimes it delivers. “Every Chinese restaurant in the US is a sleeper cell for the Chinese government,” warns Bill Cowan, a retired Marine officer and frequent Fox News commentator. He may have been joking. At times it’s hard to tell, as when David Perdue—the former Reebok CEO who won election to the Senate from Georgia despite Tea Party opposition in the primary—cited the New Deal as an example of the dangers of a Democratic supermajority in Washington. Without the New Deal, most attendees of the Tea Party convention would still be waiting for rural electrification.
Though the speakers onstage sound like caricatures, the audience runs the gamut from debt-phobic libertarians to Christian Zionists. And while racial and class resentments often lurk just beneath the surface, the people I talk with are too polite to mention them. “It’s the runaway growth in spending that really worries all of the people here,” says Conway Ivy of Beaufort, South Carolina, who wants to see education back under control of the states, and the current federal income tax replaced by a flat tax.
His wife, Diane Ivy, says her main concern is “the erosion of our civil liberties” under the Obama administration. Her anger, however, seems mainly directed at her fellow Republicans. “The Republican Party leadership sold us out,” she says. “John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would go ask Harry Reid what to do—even after 2014!”
“The candidates you have to vote for are the ones the Republican Party doesn’t want,” Diane Rufino tells me. A teacher, Rufino recently asked her class whether we have a moral obligation to resist unjust laws. Her text? Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” A Tea Party activist from North Carolina, Rufino describes herself as “dedicated to the work of Michael Boldin’s Tenth Amendment Center.” Boldin, who advocates the right of states to “nullify” federal laws, opposes Obamacare but frequently points to marijuana legalization and gay marriage as examples of the kind of state-level initiatives he supports. So I was curious to see what Rufino would make of the day’s two featured speakers.
Ted Cruz is Donald Trump without the charm. He opens with a joke: “The Democratic field consists of a wild-eyed socialist—and Bernie Sanders.” But soon he gets down to business: “How do we not get burned?” This is a movement crowd, and as Cruz repeatedly reminds them, he’s been with them from the beginning, unlike a certain New York City billionaire. “We’re Tea Party because we’re fed up with bailing out Wall Street and ignoring Main Street. No bailouts for any banks, period.”
Shifting his fire to Marco Rubio, Cruz declares: “Anyone who was AWOL on the battle of the Gang of Eight has no standing to say they will enforce the law.” (Rubio was one of eight senators—four from the GOP— involved in drafting a comprehensive immigration-reform bill in 2013, which Cruz opposed.) The crowd cheers, and when he asks, “Are you fed up with Republicans nominating liberals for the Supreme Court?,” they roar back in agreement.
But if Cruz is the boy next door made good, Trump is still the leader of the pack. From his opening “How are you?” through his long, rambling, self-glorifying account of the construction of Central Park’s Wollman Skating Rink, Trump has the room hanging on his every word. Far from flattering his audience, he seems to delight in provoking them, turning a smug dismissal of Jeb Bush—“All he does is run for office and lose debates”—into a slap at the state’s senior Republican: “Lindsey [Graham] is going to give Bush all the people who voted for him. You know how many that is? Zero!”
The boos don’t come until he goes after Cruz: “Give money to Cruz, and you can get whatever you want.” When he complains that the Texan “didn’t report his bank loans, and then he acts like Robin Hood,” they boo even louder. But when Trump finishes, the crowd rushes the stage. Swain Sheppard, a Rock Hill Tea Partier who took off his red “Ted Cruz—Courageous Conservative” T-shirt and replaced it with a white “Make America Great Again” Trump shirt, pronounces himself satisfied: “I like both. But I think the country needs someone like Trump.”
I ask Rufino why the crowd’s anger at Trump seemed so short-lived. Isn’t he a Johnny-come-lately? “Donald Trump is the creation of the Tea Party,” she replies. “And the Tea Party is a mind-set—that government is only supposed to do certain things. He gets that.” In the parking lot outside, two Southern ladies carrying Cruz signs are a little less forgiving: “Trump didn’t have to do that.” But when I ask if they’ll support Trump if he wins the nomination, both say they would.
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Meanwhile, back in Columbia two days later, thousands of mostly black demonstrators gather to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday by demanding equal access to education at an NAACP rally. “We couldn’t celebrate [King] and the Confederacy,” Hillary Clinton tells the crowd. “We had to choose. South Carolina finally made the right choice.”
The speech is typical Clinton: fluent, flattering to both her and her audience, with plenty of shout-outs to local worthies; it even name-checks Bree Newsome, the activist who cut down the Confederate flag in the aftermath of the murders at Emanuel AME Church. As she had in the debate the night before, Clinton wraps herself tightly in President Obama’s mantle. She also reads from Dr. King’s last speech—the passage about how he’d been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land. Around her are signs advertising Women for Hillary and African Americans for Hillary.
Lillie Hart isn’t impressed. “I don’t like being patronized,” she says. A lawyer from Columbia who’s supporting Sanders, Hart brought along her friend Maritha Frederick, a retired English teacher, who says that Clinton’s fame is also a burden. “She has some baggage,” Frederick adds. “There will be those who will resist her because of who she is.”
So far, the polls have shown little sign of that here, with the most recent CBS News poll—cited as evidence of a Sanders surge by his supporters—giving Clinton a 22-point lead in the state. Kevin Gray, who ran both of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in South Carolina, says Sanders may simply have started too late: “If you’re going to run a progressive campaign, it takes more than one campaign season to organize. You have to have a track record of being with people.” Gray, who says he’ll probably vote for Sanders, points to the September funeral of Jackson’s mother, Helen Burns Jackson, as an instance of a long-term relationship. “Bill Clinton spoke at the funeral. There were pictures of Bill and Hillary in the program. A lot of people feel they owe her one.”
The Sanders supporters I’d seen in Charleston the night before had been mostly young and mostly white. So I was surprised to see such a mix of ages—and so many African Americans—among his supporters at the Capitol. Tracey Houston, a recent criminal-justice graduate from South University, says he thinks Sanders will do well among young black voters. “Bernie’s been working to help us for a long time,” he says. “And the way he talks about police violence—it shows he gets it.” Though Sanders delivers his standard stump speech, with no discernible local content—apart from asking the crowd what King would “say about a nation in which 29 million Americans have no health insurance”—his supporters cheer loudly.
The next morning, Chris Covert, the Sanders campaign’s state director, tells me his volunteers have knocked on 190,000 doors since August 1. Between the CBS poll and a South Carolina New Democrats poll showing a 19-point gap—down from 36 just a month ago—Covert declines to predict victory, but says “we have a chance here.”
Given Clinton’s decades-long history in the state, and her energetic courtship of African-American women, even that should be surprising. Sanders isn’t expected to win South Carolina, but as Covert admits: “We have to do well here to show the country that this is a candidate that can relate to the African-American community.”
The campaign may have started late, but even Gray allows that “the most activity I’ve encountered has been from the Sanders people.” In late January, Justin Bamberg, the state senator representing the family of Walter Scott, who was fatally shot by North Charleston police last year, announced that he was switching his support from Clinton to Sanders after meeting with the Vermont senator.
Gray says he’s more concerned with “how to be useful when this is over” than which candidate to vote for. Still, the ferment in a state that expected to be taken for granted has its uses. “We need to decide whether the Democratic Party can be redeemed—and whether we can bring enough voters to the polls to make that happen,” says Gray. “We need to figure out how to apply pressure—locally—for things like redistricting.”
Covert argues that the San- ders campaign can be part of that. “Eighty percent of our volunteers have never volunteered before,” he says. “There’s a feeling that here is an opportunity that can’t be squandered. This isn’t just a homecoming for McGovern liberals—a lot of our volunteers were 10 or 12 years old when Obama was first elected. Their sense of what’s possible is much bigger than yours or mine.”
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“It’s like being in a parallel universe!” Larry Kobrovsky, chairman of the Charleston County Republican Party, is describing watching the Democratic presidential debate. “There are things in common,” he says. “Primary voters like authenticity. They like candidates who fight for what they really believe in.” But on a whole range of issues, from healthcare to immigration to the economy, the two parties are further apart than at any time that Kobrovsky, who grew up as a liberal in Allentown, Pennsylvania, can remember.
Kobrovsky is remaining neutral in the primary. The closest he comes to expressing a preference is commenting that “Kasich seems like he could get conservative things done”—while admitting the Ohio governor has little chance of winning. Instead, Kobrovsky is working hard to hold his party together, organizing debate-watch parties to keep disagreements friendly and preparing to back whomever the Republicans nominate.
Clinton, he says, will be a great unifier: “She’s the Leona Helmsley of politics.” As for her fellow New Yorker, “Donald Trump says things that people know are true, but are afraid to say. The news here showed his rally at the USS Yorktown on Pearl Harbor Day. They didn’t show the 3,000 people waiting in the cold to get in. Nobody else has generated near that much grassroots enthusiasm.”
Joe Semsar, a member of the South Carolina Young Republicans, reluctantly agrees with that assessment. A Clemson graduate who joined Teach for America and then worked as a recruiter for the group before becoming a management consultant, Semsar likes Marco Rubio—“primarily because I think he can win the general election.” He argues that Trump’s enthusiastic crowds may not translate into votes. “Trump promised a huge new wave of voters. Well, today is the last day to register in the GOP primary, and there’s been no huge uptick in registered voters.”
If Trump starts to win primaries, however, Semsar concedes that “people will coalesce around him…. The mainstream media on the conservative side has already started to shift in the way they talk about him. I was watching Hannity last night, and there were two or three people making the case for Trump.”
The next day I meet Carl Mabry, who describes himself as “libertarian. Registered Republican.” Mabry likes Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul, but practically he expects it to come down to “Trump or Cruz or Rubio. Trump is a braggart. He incites people. Cruz—he’s oily, slick. Nobody could trust him. Rubio—he could beat Hillary Clinton. He’s a little conservative for me, but I could take him over Hillary.”
Earlier that day, I sat down with Paul Thurmond, whose father’s statue stands just outside the State House. A state senator, Thurmond provided crucial support for the decision to take down the Confederate flag in a speech acknowledging that it was, indeed, all about race. “Our ancestors were literally fighting to continue to keep human beings as slaves, and continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of that heritage,” said Thurmond, who shortly afterward announced he would not seek re-election. Thurmond endorsed Jeb Bush early on, and so far he’s sticking with his choice. But to dismiss him as an establishment Republican is to overlook the man who also voted for the police to wear body cameras—“Though that was a Democrat idea, from my background as a prosecutor, I saw it as fair”—and who favors early voting and expanding ballot access. “The Republican philosophy is that people should be personally responsible. Opposing early voting is inconsistent with allowing people their choice,” he says.
Though his father may have switched parties, Thurmond says he intends to remain a Republican. The more we talk, the more conservative he sounds. Yet when I ask if he sees any potential for common ground in a new administration, Thurmond doesn’t hesitate. “The environment,” he says. “If you talk about conservation, you could get a lot done. Even if you don’t buy into global warming, we are trashing our world.”
What he says next is even more surprising: “Citizens United is a real problem. A lot of Republicans just look at the surface. But where does it lead? How can we rein in such a flood of corporate money? I haven’t seen a corporation go to jail yet.”
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I leave Thurmond’s office wondering whether what I’ve just heard can be real. He seemed like a sincere man, but he, too, was eager to get beyond race. “My generation has not been taught to hate people based on the color of their skin,” the son of South Carolina’s most notorious segregationist told me.
Yet someone taught Dylann Roof and Michael Slager, the cop who shot Walter Scott in the back. The Confederate flag may finally be on its way to a museum, but the attitude of racial arrogance that the flag represented is very far from being a mere artifact. That’s a fundamental truth of our national life—though not one that’s easy to see from Iowa or New Hampshire. Perhaps South Carolina’s role in our politics is to remind us of all those parallel universes—not just Republican and Democratic, or rich and poor, but yes, still black and white—we work so hard to ignore. We always have a choice. We can carry on pretending that it’s still morning in America, that we’re all in this together. Or we can take a good hard look in the mirror.