LUMBERTON, N.C. – “Southern hospitality,” said my 19-year-old Cracker Barrel waitress, Evita. This was her answer after I asked why President Trump performed so strongly among voters last November in counties containing a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Then she added, “Gun rights, older folks with older ways. They’re from a generation that stresses an older American way.”
Evita was right: Nostalgia for “an older American way” is evident in every tool, sign, and photograph that adorns the walls of Cracker Barrel restaurants. It was also the subtext of Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to “Make America great again.”
Of all the compelling statistics to emerge from the 2016 election, one of the most interesting was this: Trump won 76 percent of the 493 counties with a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store; he won just 22 percent of the 184 counties with a Whole Foods Market.
The 54-percent gap is the largest ever recorded, according to the Cook Political Report. It compares to just 19 points in 1992, and it has widened every election since. The gap was smaller even in 2008, when Barack Obama cluelessly asked an Iowa audience “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately? See what they charge for arugula?”
Trump’s performance in these counties is a token of the increasing cultural divide between red counties and blue counties. But it’s more than that, as I discovered when I traveled with my twin brother Jordan Allott to Robeson County, N.C., a blue county that suddenly turned red in 2016. Trump won Robeson by 5 points even though Obama had cruised to 17-point victory there just four years earlier.
The county’s only Cracker Barrel is just off Highway 95 in the county seat of Lumberton. The Lumberton Visitors’ Bureau, the Greater Hope International Church, and the Lion’s Den Adult Boutique (“for men, women and couples!”) are on the same road.
Cracker Barrel’s 630 restaurants are in 42 states, but most are on the East Coast, in the Rust Belt, and in the South. It boasts “homestyle” and “made from scratch” meals. I tried the meatloaf, biscuit, coleslaw, and potato casserole (delicious), and then interviewed Evita. She said she’d worked at the Lumberton Cracker Barrel for two years and enjoyed it. It’s a friendly place and she gets along with her co-workers. “It’s like a dysfunctional family,” she quipped.
Alexis, a woman in her 30s from the Lumbee native American tribe, who was also in the restaurant, approached me to tell her story. A Robeson County native, Alexis had worked at Cracker Barrel seven years, and was now a manager.
Alexis pointed to high Obamacare premiums and Trump’s “generosity” as the reasons why he won in the county, and why she voted for him. Asked for specifics about the latter, she offered that Trump had given up his business and pledged to take no salary. “People appreciate that,” she said, adding that she thinks Trump is doing a great job.
Overhearing my conversation with Alexis, Danny, the store’s head manager, walked over and declared emphatically that he was a Trump supporter. At this point, almost all of the customers had left, and most of the staff was getting ready to leave for the night.
Danny talked as we headed to the doors, through the Old Country Store selling everything from fried apples to baby clothes. He urged me to visit again should I ever return to Lumberton.
The feeling of being welcome is important to most people, but perhaps especially to those in the Rust Belt, the South, and other places where many people feel ignored or disparaged by a distant elite. They feel excluded from the popular culture and alienated from the rich enclaves around Washington, where too many of society’s rules are made. They make a living with their hands or by driving things from one place to another. The people they feel ignore them don’t do that.
Comfort food is what people want in places where comforts are hard to come by. Places such as Robeson County, where nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty line, where church attendance is sagging, where schools are woefully inadequate, where families are fracturing, and where people are losing their lives to drug addiction and depression.
In these places, nostalgia for what Evita called “an older American way” is what people yearn for. That’s what they think Trump offers them.
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© Washington Examiner 2017