ROBESON COUNTY, N.C. — Looking back, the sign-stealers were a portent of sorts, an early indication that 2016 would be like no election in recent memory.
While it is not uncommon for people to steal campaign signs from other people’s lawns in the heat of an election campaign, normally people confiscate the signs of candidates they oppose.
But something quite different happened in Robeson County, N.C., as Donald Trump started to gain traction in the presidential campaign. As Bo Biggs, treasurer of the county’s Republican Party, tells it, “People were stealing [Trump] signs to put them in their own yard.”
Trump won North Carolina and its 15 electoral votes by claiming seven rural counties that had voted for Barack Obama in 2012. Among them was Robeson County, the state’s largest county, and one of its poorest and most violent.
An easy explanation of Robeson County’s transition from blue to red focuses on economic stagnation and cultural despair. But from another vantage point, one my brother Jordan Allott and I saw during a recent visit to the county, Trump’s 5-point victory had more to do with his ability tap into the same desire for hope and change that Obama retained in an 18-point victory four years earlier.
Robeson County is the most racially diverse rural county in America: roughly 38 percent American Indian, 33 percent white and 25 percent black. It is also traditionally Democratic. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 2 to 1. Until last November, the county hadn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1972 or for a Republican state senator since Reconstruction after the Civil War.
But the first thing one notices upon entering Robeson County isn’t its racial diversity or its politics but its pervasive poverty. What was most evident to us was pervasive loss. It was there in abandoned manufacturing plants we saw along Interstate 95 as we approached Lumberton, the county seat.
Robeson County’s median household income of $30,000 is half the national average. Nearly a third of residents live below the poverty line, and two-thirds are classified as low-income, making it one of the most impoverished counties in the nation.
Ask anyone in Robeson County about the causes of this poverty and sooner or later, probably sooner, they’ll start talking about NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, any mention of which is usually accompanied by some form of the verb “devastate.”
“It is a very economically deprived area. They’ve really been hit,” said Robert Pittinger, Robeson County’s new member of Congress.
“The loss of textiles, the loss of manufacturing. It already was a poor county, but [NAFTA] really devastated it.”
Signed into law in 1994, NAFTA toppled trade barriers between Mexico, Canada and America. Subsequent trade deals did the same between the U.S. and other countries.
Thirty-two Robeson County industrial plants closed over the following decade, displacing thousands of workers, many in the textile industry. First Sara Lee Knit Products closed three plants and fired 1,275 workers. Then Alamac Knit Fabrics laid off 750 people. Then came the big one: The shoe-maker Converse, once the county’s largest private employer with 2,400 employees, shuttered in 2001. One researcher estimated that Robeson County lost as many as 10,000 jobs due to NAFTA, more than any other rural county in America. That’s out of a total population of 134,000.
Tech, industrial and other professional jobs are scarce now. More residents find work in the hotel, food and retail industries that serve travelers on Interstate 95, which bisects the county, than in manufacturing. “If it weren’t for the interstate, we might not be sitting where we are today,” said Phillip Stephens, who heads the Robeson County Republican Party.
Against this backdrop, Trump’s pledge to create jobs, protect workers and renegotiate NAFTA, which he assailed as “one of the worst trade deals ever in history,” won him an enthusiastic following in Robeson County.
“When Donald Trump made this statement, it was very profound,” Stephens said. “He says, ‘You guys passed NAFTA, and that’s supposed to be free trade, but it’s not free trade if it’s only free one way.’ That one statement resonated with citizens here regardless of their ideology, regardless of their party affiliation, because that transcended ideology. This was economy, which was even more important.”
By redefining free trade, Trump inspired hope among Robeson County residents not unlike that which Obama cultivated in 2008. But whereas Obama promised to bring about an era of post-partisan politics and a post-racial society, Trump emphasized something more plausible — economic renewal.
“You mostly hear the word ‘hope’ associated with President Obama’s campaign. I mean, it was a central tenet in his message,” Emily Neff-Sharum, who heads the political science department at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke in Robeson County, said:
“But when you think about the Trump slogan of ‘Make America Great Again,’ I think that really resonated with this area, [which] has really struggled since the closing of factories after NAFTA went into effect. For a lot of the country, most people don’t really think about NAFTA, but those free-trade agreements, when they started becoming a centerpiece of debate, absolutely hit really close to home in this area.”
“Hope” and “change” were words we heard over and over while traveling through Robeson County as a way for people to explain their support for Trump. Many of those we spoke with said they had once voted for Obama.
We met Mark Locklear, a Lumbee Native American, at his home in Prospect, in the western part of the county.
He said he had been proud to support Barack Obama twice for president, and he still keeps an Obama bobble head and framed portrait of the former first family in his home office.
But Locklear lost confidence in Obama when he withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq and failed to deliver on his healthcare promises. “My premium went from $347 a month to $604 a month [because of Obamacare], which is pretty hard, financially, to maintain,” Locklear said. “I was misled.”
Trump became the new hope and change candidate for many Robeson County voters, including Locklear. “[Trump] was not your normal politician. He didn’t have the political savvy. He talked about draining the swamp in Washington. He was not a politician. He didn’t talk like a politician.”
Many pundits initially saw Trump’s lack of political experience and his combative and erratic style as political liabilities. But they were assets to many voters here. “There [were] a lot of individuals I spoke to who would say, ‘Well, this guy isn’t liked by Democrats. He isn’t liked by Republicans. Maybe this is the guy that is actually standing for me,”’ said Jarrod Lowery, who sits on the Lumbee Tribal Council.
Robeson County has learned not to place too much hope in politicians, even unconventional ones, and especially those in Washington. Still, many residents are cautiously hopeful about Trump. “If you’re asking me do I have 100 percent trust in Donald Trump, at this point in time, my answer is no,” Locklear said. “Has Donald earned the people’s respect yet? I don’t think so. He hasn’t earned mine. But with that being said, he is the president and I am willing to give him a chance.”
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