The New York Times sent a reporter down to Wilkes County, NC, to spend the day hanging out with the barely-getting-by white people at the local vape shop. It’s a powerful vignette, with some hard-hitting photographs. It’s not too far from the town of Mount Airy, birthplace of Andy Griffith, who played Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry. Excerpts:
In an America riddled with anxieties, the worries that Mr. Foster and his neighbors bring through the doors of the Tapering Vapor are common and potent: Fear that an honest, 40-hour working-class job can no longer pay the bills. Fear of a fraying social fabric. Fear that the country’s future might pale in comparison with its past.
Wilkes County, with a population of nearly 69,000, has felt those stings more than many other places. The textile and furniture industries have been struggling here for years, and the recession and the loss of the Lowe’s headquarters have helped drive down the median household income. That figure fell by more than 30 percent between 2000 and 2014 when adjusted for inflation, the second-steepest decrease in the nation, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Still, the regulars at the Tapering Vapor — overwhelmingly white, mostly working class and ranging from their 20s to middle age — provide a haze-shrouded snapshot of an anxious nation navigating an election year fueled by disquiet and malaise.
Know what the name of the shop’s manager is? Andy Taylor:
The Tapering Vapor was almost empty save for Andrew Taylor, the manager. He stood behind the counter under a Guy Fawkes mask, the universal symbol of protest and disaffection, and near the dry-erase board listing dozens of flavors for sale. The names suggested fantasia and abundance: Summer Melon, Broken Neon, Caramel Latte, Unlimited Power.
… But this afternoon, as he sucked on a mod loaded with a banana-strawberry concoction, he was trying not to think about the trouble he was in. About how he messed up by buying the little white Ford off the showroom floor in 2012; the $265 monthly payments were killing him.
How his Verizon bill inched close to $300 the month before because he lost track of how much video he had streamed.
How he, his wife and their 4-year-old son were living at his mother-in-law’s place after the landlord sold the house they had been renting for $400 per month. How even a two-bedroom trailer in a crummy neighborhood around here was going for $600 per month. “More than I can handle,” he said.
And how his second child was due in July.
“It’s not just me. There are other people in similar boats,” Mr. Foster said. He acknowledged that maybe he was to blame for some if it. Maybe he should have stayed in college. Maybe he should have kept better track of his cellphone’s data plan.
But in his America, he said, it seemed that just a few bad choices could doom anybody who wasn’t born with Donald Trump money. “If you make just one poor decision,” he said, “then you’re screwed.”
A fascinating sociological phenomenon mentioned in this piece: the Internet makes all kinds of ideas — even conspiracy theories — available to anybody who wants them. Like I keep saying: one of these days, some bad man is going to give these people, who are “united in their belief that they are living among the ruins of a lapsed golden age,” a reason to quit drugging themselves with video games and hanging out at the vape shop, and get high on rage.
Or maybe someone good will come along, and give them real reason to hope that their lives can change for the better. Which one do you think is more likely?
Read the whole thing. The story quotes Mike Cooper, a young lawyer who stayed in town, and who now defends a lot of the people he went to high school with, who are in court on drug charges and the like. I’ve quoted him here before; if you haven’t read his US News & World Report essay from earlier this year, “A Message From Trump’s America,” you really, really should. Excerpt:
So if there are winners and losers in America, I know the losers. They lost jobs to China and Vietnam. And they’re dying younger, caught in an endless cycle of jail, drug charges and applying for disability to pay the child support bill.
They lost their influence, their dignity and their shot at the American Dream, and now they’re angry. They’re angry at Washington and Wall Street, at big corporations and big government. And they’re voting now for Donald Trump.
My Republican friends are for Trump. My state representative is for Trump. People who haven’t voted in years are for Trump. He’ll win the primary here on March 15 and he will carry this county in the general.
His supporters realize he’s a joke. They do not care. They know he’s authoritarian, nationalist, almost un-American, and they love him anyway, because he disrupts a broken political process and beats establishment candidates who’ve long ignored their interests.
When you’re earning $32,000 a year and haven’t had a decent vacation in over a decade, it doesn’t matter who Trump appoints to the U.N., or if he poisons America’s standing in the world, you just want to win again, whoever the victim, whatever the price.
… Unlike registered independents who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative, America’s non-voters tended to be poorer, less educated citizens who are fiscally liberal and socially conservative. Neither party listened to them, let alone represented this populist center, until Trump gave them a voice.
Establishment conservatives don’t really care about people like them. Middle-class Christians like me have no idea how to reach them, or where to start if we wanted to (which, let’s be honest, many of us don’t). Leftist college students and professors see these rural and small town white people, with Confederate flags on their beat-up pickup trucks, as objects of hatred. Establishment liberals would only really care if the men in the vape shops put on wigs and dresses and demanded to use the women’s room. Then you’d see the media and the White House on crusade, that’s for sure.
The thing is, their poverty is not simply a lack of money. That’s hard to fix, but it’s not the hardest thing to fix. Acedia is the problem. The spiritual exhaustion of a nation.
Cyril, a reader in Russia, commented on a thread yesterday:
Well, Rod, I doubt that it will make you feel easier but what you describe is a trend which is present in many western countries nowadays. It’s a twilight of civilization. The only difference is how far has any particular country moved on this path. Russia is probably way ahead of everyone (which may be good, because we might be the first ones to get over it). Also from what I gather a lot of identitarians bear a striking resemblance to some young Russian nationalists I know and what you and other people of your generation (both in US and in Russia) deem to be their flaws like having no moral restraint,no fear, being aggressive, valuing things like blood and soil, might just be their advantages which will allow them to survive this future Dark Age, for which, frankly speaking, they are not responsible, because it is their parents and grandparents, who have failed to preserve their culture and moral decency. So brace yourself, since the whole world is going for a bumpy ride.