It's early evening in Laurens, South Carolina, just a couple of days before the Republican presidential primary. I'm in the Capitol Theatre and Café with Laurens County's state representative, Michael Pitts. Pitts is a Republican, in some instances almost to the extent of parody, the man who last month proposed a bill to create a registry of "responsible journalists," just to prove a point about the media's coverage of gun laws. Last spring, after 21-year-old white nationalist Dylann Roof gunned down nine people at a black church in Charleston, Pitts proposed 54 amendments to stop a bill that would remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina's state house grounds. It didn't work. The flag came down. Now, I'm here to talk to him.
In person, Pitt is generous and forthcoming, watchful in a paternalistic sort of way. He's wearing shiny silver suspenders and a red tie. He has the kind of face you might see on a coin, bald on top and with a white mustache that hangs down the sides of his mouth.
"You remind me of my bunkmate in the military," he tells me, working through a slice of red velvet cake with the precise strategy of a man who has considerable experience eating cake. "He looked a lot like you. Smaller. A gypsy from New Jersey. I called him rat because he was so small. He was a good guy. Really good guy."
I tell him I think the flag symbolizes a period of brutality, racism, and destruction. "It was a tough time for poor white folks too," Pitts says. I say I don't think the experiences are comparable. "They were during Reconstruction," he says. "All you gotta do is read the history. The Reconstruction itself, it was in-your-face to white Southerners. If you don't believe that, look at why the South became the Democratic South."
Later, Pitts and I walk through the town square. I'm not sure how to reconcile my categorical objection to almost every one of his political ideologies, and the fact that, at times, I find myself entranced by his long-syllables, his tangents about some local building—any building, point to one—listing off the names of its owners, their families, and what those families liked to cook. Many of his stories conclude with an oh-by-the-way that would make you cringe. There are lots of racist oh-by-the-ways in this town, actually.
The city was named after the 18th century slave trader Henry Laurens, a Revolutionary War politician who was a partner in one of the largest slave-trading houses in North America. In 1776, Laurens wrote in a private letter of "the galling abject Slavery of our Negroes." His son, John, pleaded with him to free his slaves. Henry did—one of them, his personal servant, George. The other 260, he decided not to bother with. During Reconstruction, the county of Laurens, like most of the Upcountry, was a locus of Klan activity aimed at suppressing the black Republican vote, and the town continued to be a hotbed of white nationalism for the next couple of centuries.
Pitts takes me to an abandoned building, boarded up and dark. It was a movie theater once—"I got my first kiss in front of that theater," Pitts says. In the 1990s, a demented local Klansman turned it into the Redneck Shop, selling hooded figurines and white satin robes, "David Duke for President" stickers, and pictures of cross burnings.
"I wore a Confederate flag to school. I played football with black kids, drank liquor when we could sneak it in. No one thought nothing of it," Pitts tells me, looking at the building that once hosted international gatherings of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. I don't quite get his fondness for this place, and he doesn't seem too concerned that I'm getting it.
The Redneck Shop shut down in 2012; I don't see any white hoods in Laurens today. But there's a belief here—a dangerous and pervasive one, I think—that any racial prejudice tamer than snarling dogs, fire hoses, and "Whites Only" signs isn't really racism, but something ingrained in a lost culture, something not malicious or active, but embedded, covert, and therefore forgivable. A belief that if a history of subjugation is tangled with a sanitized, whimsical idea of a time and place, then we should excuse all the viciousness that came with it.
Donald Trump's decisive victory Saturday in South Carolina's Republican primary seems to amplify this sort of semi-disguised racism. A PPP poll released a few days before the primary found that, among Trump supporters, 70 percent think the Confederate flag should still be flying over the state house, and 38 percent wish the South had won the Civil War. According to the poll, 80 percent of Trump supporters also support a ban on Muslim immigrants—just 44 percent think Islam should be legal in the US at all—and about a third think that the US should bar gay immigrants as well.
At the VFW post in Laurens, I meet a 77-year-old named Lamar Patterson. His teeth are cracked, and he laughs at his own jokes and bounces like a man who has made his life a fuck you to age and the war he survived. He's wearing a gold watch and a T-shirt tucked into his jeans. His short, thick hair covers his entire head, like a pure-white tennis ball. I ask who he's voting for in the primary on Saturday. He said he liked Marco Rubio at first but changed his mind when he heard Rubio had missed committee meetings in the Senate. Now, he's voting for Trump. "He's a loud mouth but a lotta people are when they get angry," he tells me.
I also ask him about the flag. "I think people want to use the flag issue to start trouble," Patterson says. "When I was a kid, I would hang out down at the drug store. There was a black kid—we both had '56 Chevys. We had this little club called the Rebels. The kid never thought anything of it. I think blacks and whites got along much better then than they do now. The more years go by, these quotas make things harder."
Later, in another part of town, I talk to a car mechanic named Klaus. He works out of his garage, on a dead-end road, at the end of a long driveway lined on both sides by tall trees. When I get there, he's crouched down next to a 1965 El Camino the color of a ripe strawberry. Klaus, who wouldn't say his last name, got out of the US Navy in 1969; he worked for the next 30 years in a local factory that made bearings—not ball bearings, just bearings. Now retired, he spends his days in the garage, working on Chevy Impalas and Malibus, taking things apart, putting them together.
"I don't like new things," he tells me. Cans of Ajax and unlabeled spray bottles with blue-green liquid are on every surface. He has car magazines stacked on shelves literally to the ceiling, the pages stained black with years of dust and grease and crinkled by the heat. There's a sign on the wall that says "RESTORE IT DON'T CRUSH IT." There are posters of blond girls in bikinis, Tom Selleck, the 1970s Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, and a space shuttle preparing for launch.
I ask him about Trump. "Too much mouth," Klaus says. "He don't have any manners either. He claims to be a Christian, too, but I don't know about that. You don't call people stupid, liars, downgrade them." He won't say who he's voting for, but he does tell me he thinks Obama is a Muslim—it's pretty obvious, too, he says. He adds, "I'm probably the most conservative guy you're gonna meet."
At the VFW, Patterson mentioned to me a bar in Laurens called the Waterhole. Later, I ask Pitts about it. His eyes stretch open, looking me up and down, considering my gypsy-New-Jersey-ness, maybe. "If you go in there and look sort of like a Puerto Rican or something, you have to be careful what you say," he warns. "They can be... some of them are like Neanderthals."
I decide to go anyway. A sign on the front door forbids concealed weapons. It is the sort of bar that smells like urinals wherever you stand, populated by grizzled men with wild beards and motorcycle club patches on leather jackets. There is a fog of cigarette smoke so heavy that, later, when I get back to my hotel, I can smell it under my fingernails and on the dollar bills I take out of my pockets. Something is playing on the jukebox that is not definitely Lynyrd Skynyrd but is almost definitely Lynyrd Skynyrd. Either way, a short woman with crunchy blond hair is telling the guy she's with to give her some money so she can play Lynyrd Skynyrd. The guy she's with is called "Catfish."
There are people in here who are not Neanderthals, and no one accuses me of being a Puerto Rican. "We're not KKK members," a woman named Diana Norris tells me. Her friend, Shannon Rayford, the only black person in the place, leans over. "We're not like that," Rayford says. "Some are. But they usually can't afford beer anyway."
There are some in here, though, that seem at least a little like that, people who don't want to be convinced. Nearby, standing against the wall, is a man named Steven Pettit. I ask him about Trump, about South Carolina, and about the Civil War. "Slavery was eons ago. We're past that," he says, drinking a can Budweiser in a foam koozie. "I didn't own slaves. The people I know, my friends, they didn't own slaves. We're just living our lives." The flag, he adds, "isn't just my heritage—it's the blacks, whites, everybody."
"It's a crock of shit that the flag came down, if you ask me," says Kelly Holtzclaw, the bartender, sweeping away a can of Miller Lite. About Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, she adds, "That little idiot, he didn't know what it meant to us."
Around this moment, I realize that while conservatives might stridently object to authority and big government and the EPA, they endorse a kind of Environmental Protection Agency of the mind—regulating the way people think, determining what's racist, when it's time to get over it, how easy it should be to get guns, how hard it should be to get food stamps or birth control, how a black man can behave after he scores a touchdown. They think, because they grew up with black kids, they can decide minorities are being too sensitive, and also when America's not being sensitive enough to the Constitution. They're tough guys who want to be allowed to tell the teacher when their feelings get hurt.
"I wish people would be smarter, learn about the history of the Confederacy, instead of bringing racism back in," Pettit says, "Let it go. What happened in Charleston, we hated that shit, but it didn't have anything to do with any of us."
You can board up the place where they used to sell white hoods, you can have a grand ceremony and wind a relic down a pole, but it's not going anywhere: That quiet white supremacy, beating you to shit, it's in smoky bars in leather vests, in diners shaving thin slices of red velvet cake with a fork.