By Mark DeVine
February 9, 2017
There he was as I drove by, oblivious to the wind and the rainy mist that day, not two miles from my Alabama home, waving that flag. I’ve witnessed this sort of thing before, of course. This is America after all, where, so visitors and immigrants tell us, more folks seem to fly their national flag with more frequency and fervor than one encounters elsewhere.
But this time, the sight struck something in me. I found myself braking and swerving onto the shoulder, lowering the window, fumbling for my phone, finding the camera app, somehow “needing” to capture and preserve this particular flag-waving. Sound and video would’ve been nice as well, preserving that distinctive flapping itself and the blaring horns screaming up in salute from the expressway below and the shouts of affirmation bursting from the lowering windows of passing cars on the overpass.
What motivated him—this flag waver? What was his message? What was his goal? And the horn-blowers and the shouting window-lowerers—why do they do it, and so spontaneously and with such passion?
In the aftermath, contentment eluded me at home. The scene kept playing out in my mind. I had to meet this man. Out the door I raced. But would he still be there? Yes! I interviewed him on the spot, right there on the overpass, enveloped by a moist fog, flag flapping amid a clamor of celebratory sound.
“They call me ‘Pappy,’” he said. Retired, blue collar (my people, at least before I got all educated and such). “Why are you doing this Pappy?” His answer came at me as if pulled from a well-worn, oft-employed holster—“People are so patriotic. They just need an opportunity to express it.” Hard to deny, given the joyous ruckus Pappy could apparently generate on demand with just his flag. Pappy struck me as sweet, gentle, earnest, uncomplicated. But was he?
Pure, innocent, untainted, and unassailable patriotic fervor. Surely that’s what I was encountering. And if so, that alone seems remarkable to me in middle age in ways it didn’t in childhood or even young adulthood. Because I’ve read some history, lived a little more history, and I have a fairly dim view of human beings (including myself) and of nation states.
Something in me wanted to retain an interpretation of the scene as harmless and wholesome as Pappy’s reflexive response. But the curiosity Pappy’s flag-waving uncorked in me included a sub-stream of darkness supplied by a little fountain of post-election cynicism mixed-up with Bible convictions about original sin.
I knew the spectacle of Pappy’s public gesticulation capable of evoking (and not without justification) a wide range of incompatible, even contradictory emotions and assessments from passers-by. Retired, working-class white man boldly brandishing a flag in our post-Trump election faces way down here in Alabama. Ok, it’s the Stars and Stripes, not the Stars and Bars, but still. Surely a dark, history-informed cloud of suspicion must hover over sanguine summations of Pappy and his celebrants. Surely pockets of social pathology must bubble just below the surface of that scene.
Because the flag-waving ensued not just anywhere but here, down around Birmingham a mere sixteen miles from the 16th Street Baptist Church where that other scene played out—that bombing that took the lives of four young African-American girls. Ages 11 to 14. In their crisp, bright Sunday best dresses, they made their way to Sunday School for the last time. White supremacists saw to it. Ten-year-old Sarah Collins lost her right eye after witnessing but somehow surviving the blast.
And white supremacists are still with us. Gaze for a bit into the eyes of Dylann Roof. Consider the words issued from that mouth with cold deliberation—words distilled over six weeks of reflection separating them from the perpetration of the massacre itself—“I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did . . . I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.” Not a bomb but a gun this time. But way down in Dixie again, this time Charleston; in a church again, not Baptist this time but African Methodist Episcopal. Look into his eyes. That’s pure evil. Those eyes and those words and those premeditated fired pistol shots? The handiwork of Satan.
Are we in doubt about who people like Dylann Roof voted for in November? I’m not. They voted for Trump. But what about Pappy? What was Pappy celebrating down there in the Heart of Dixie? “Did you vote for Trump?” I asked. “I voted for America” came the response. “Does that mean you voted for Trump?” Slight but conspicuous hesitation. Then a softish but clear, “Yes, it does.” “Why was a vote for Trump a vote for America?” I asked. “Because folks need jobs and America needs to be safe.”
Is Pappy to be believed? White men of Pappy-like profile in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania and elsewhere account for their Trump votes in strikingly similar fashion—work and security and the Supreme Court. These three issues repeatedly rise to the top when Trump voters explain themselves. But are Pappy and folks like him telling the truth? Do we need to know if they are? If Pappy and his kin are telling the truth and race played little or no role in their vote for Trump, does that matter? Are costs associated with getting this wrong?
Ought the raw numbers breakdown and percentage split between Roof-like and Pappy-like Trump voters inform the character, intensity, and weighting of acceptable outrage regarding the persistence of racism and other race-related challenges confronting America? If work, security, and the Supreme Court, not race, turned the election, might not Pappy’s little party and the happy spontaneous response it evoked warrant some modicum of measured but real hope?