I moved to Lexington, NC, when I was about two and a half years old. My dad had gotten his degree in forestry and had found a job working for the NC Forest Service (Smokey Bear, basically) in Davidson County, nearly the geographic center of the state. An hour north of Charlotte, a half-hour south of Greensboro, two hours west of Raleigh, two hours east of the mountains.
Lexington was about 15,000 people in the 1980s and a minor boomtown. The lifeblood of the city was furniture. The names of all the companies escape me this far out, but at least three well-regarded and profitable furniture factories had major operations there. Given the size of Lexington, you couldn’t drive more than ten minutes without finding yourself in the shadow of industrial apparatus: smokestacks and brick edifice, the whirring of machinery and the smell of oak.
There was more. There was a textile plant. A porcelain tile factory. A large fiberglass manufacturer. A Duracell battery plant. A downtown which was bustling with local stores; I remember the bookstore, and a department store named Zimmerman’s, where a bald man with a black goatee worked.
And I remember how strange it was when I grew up and realized nobody really had lots of municipal pools in surrounding areas. In Lexington, there were just pools dotting the city, open to the public, where everyone went on hot summer days.
I remember going to a party down at one of the plants, honoring the mother of one of my friends as worker of the month or something. We all got free food and the entire place, even though it wasn’t unionized, all turned out. They cheered her. She was so proud, I remember her sun-beaten face turning a sheen of bronze beneath big, black false eyelashes.
After that, we went to a separate party. It was — and forgive me here, for slipping into stereotype — just about what you might expect from a pool party with a bunch of mostly white rednecks in 1987: fucking hair metal, barbecue, smoking cigarettes, cheap beer, and a little grab ass between drunk adults as they got deeper into their cups.
The thing about that party which I remember so much is wondering how one of my friend’s co-workers afforded an above ground pool and a split-level house. It wasn’t ostentatious living, at all; it was just what you might think of as working class but lower middle class prosperity. The owner wasn’t a boss or anything, though I believe he was one of the shift supervisors. And everyone had this, more or less.
This is not to make an idyll of it. It was the South, in the 1980s. The North Carolina of Jesse Helms. The North Carolina which killed communists. I remember being in 6th grade and some throwdown happened which I can’t remember all the details of, an interracial shooting or something outside my limited understanding of things.
The KKK was set to show up, or so the rumors said. And in response, even more rumors said the Black Panthers were going to show up to stand them down. And I had these two friends, real ne’er do wells, who were friends with each other, one black, one white, and completely ensconced in what you might consider the typical Southern working class experience for each race. I won’t use names, but my white friend showed me a pair of metal nunchaku in his backpack. For the race riot, he calmly said. And then, literally on the other side of me, my black friend (who was also friends with the other guy) showed me a switchblade. Also, for the race riot, he just as as calmly said. Then they looked at each other and laughed. I didn’t know how to react so I just sat there, terrified of things I didn’t understand and mystified about why these two were still friends when they were arming against each other.
The race riot never happened.
Lexington died in the 1990s. It’s still there, of course, but it’s not the Lexington of pools and factories and new cars and weird race riots. It’s even grown, to 17,000 or so, I can’t remember. My parents still live there, as do my in-laws. I visit, rarely, but I visit.
NAFTA blew in and in a scant handful of years, all the factories were gone. They didn’t even unpack their offices; I remember you could drive by one of the offices and there was still furniture in it, long after it had moved its operations out of the country. We’d skateboard down in the old factory district, and the office of whichever one it was had this big glass edifice, so you could see everything. Broken window, broken window, tag, window, overturned chair, vertical blinds.
We think of it as just jobs, but it was so much more. Lexington once had one of the best school systems for its size in the state. We sent people to Ivies and Duke. We produced good lawyers and doctors. By 2001, it was a disaster, a ruin, with a diminished tax base and some of the worst test scores, regardless of district size, in the state.
The stores closed. Nothing replaced them. One by one, the lights went out downtown until nothing was left except a few stragglers. The grocery stores closed, leaving a couple Food Lions and a Wal-Mart as your only options; I hear it’s tough to get decent produce in any of them, since Lexington doesn’t have much pull for the top end stuff from the distribution warehouses.
You can go there today, into the country club, where the “rich” folks live, and the roads are a disaster, like nature saw the flight of capital and decided to rush in through the cracks in the asphalt. You’d hear whispers about or know people who took second mortgages on their houses, only to get wiped out when the Great Recession destroyed the markets. They’d lose everything, joining the swelling masses of the listless once weres.
The pools closed. All of them, I think, though I haven’t searched it out to be sure. No money. I checked the one I frequented when I went to my best friend’s house to spend the night, on Google Maps, and it looked like a spot of moss dropped on a matte painting, it was so covered in algae.
The whole town, a way of life, just disappeared, replaced by some shambling simulacrum of what was. There are jobs, of course, but not the factory jobs. Menial jobs, by comparison. Working at Wal-Mart for minimum wage, fast food. The unemployment rate isn’t so bad right now — Democrats like to remind everyone that it’s not that bad anywhere these days — but the type of employment is dogshit. 25% of households are at 15k a year or less. The median per capita income is around 16k.
But at least unemployment is only about 6%.
When I think of Lexington, I think of trauma. Every town goes up and down, even the dark days have their bright spots. Lexington is having some green shoots. They’ve got a good mayor and city council doing the only thing they really can do, which is to try to make the city attractive as a bedroom community for Winston-Salem and Greensboro. So they want to get a transit hub in, beautify it a bit, and revitalize the downtown. And they have; people my age that I knew from school have come back to open businesses. Good ones. There’s a decent bar downtown, a couple shops where there were none. A large cidery moved from Durham to Lexington, bringing with it dozens of jobs; small compared to what was there 20 years ago, but a big deal, given the context.
Yet something is always off when I go there. There’s a deep sense of unease when I talk to people (and that is mostly white people). When a shooting happens, it’s the mark of something far more sinister at work than just random violence; it’s gangs, or “them”. When the Paris attacks happened, I’d pick up that the Muslims were coming up for them next. Mexicans became a blanket group to be distrusted, even though they were mostly in the same boat as everyone else, save in local construction firms.
Racist? Sure. Yeah. But exacerbated by two and a half decades of slow burn destruction. It’s almost reflexive; in a country run by people who deliberately, systematically dismantled what it meant to be Lexington, everything becomes conspiracy. Everything becomes force and pull and counter-pull. Nothing simply is. The soft, ugly racism which permeates all white households — the kind of thing where an aunt or cousin recoils when they recount, in hushed tones, the scandal of an interracial relationship at work — becomes weaponized, meaner, crueler. It becomes racial paranoia.
My friend Doug had a really good quote on election night just past. It read, “They’ve never had a politics that makes them think about blaming the boss instead of minorities. And they didn’t get one this election cycle.”
That’s mostly right, and perfect rhetoric. But I do think people know it’s their bosses, or they kind of do. I remember hearing grumbling about those bastard factory owners packing up and the bosses going back to some of my earliest memories. But nobody could act on that. How could they? All the bosses were gone or fortified in gated communities after cashing out.
And this is how we get here. The psychic trauma done to a thousand Lexingtons was done. This is one of the things which all the rosy economic figures can’t explain. If these places recover, if they’ve got the 5% unemployment, the wound is still there. This isn’t ancient history. It’s not the Great Depression. It’s still real. Not just the loss, but the remembrances of what was there. They remember and, by god, if they can’t get back at their bosses, they’ll get back at someone.
Who’s on their side here? The Democrats? The ones who floated NAFTA? Who deregulated the banks? Who gutted unions which might’ve stepped in and mediated these ugly, ugly racial disputes?
What have mainstream Democrats offered? Mostly, a bunch of candidates who speak more like adding machines than people. There were times, sifting through ACA plans, I felt like I’d rather die than put up with the dumb horseshit plans or shop for insurance anymore. Some people actually did decide they’d die rather than do it, and they voted accordingly.
I think about that in Adam Curtis’ terms, about how one of his central theses is that liberalism ceded the ability to tell a story which makes sense of people’s lives in favor of an endless managed math equation,. There’s no story behind why my taxes are so complicated when all of the tax credits are tossed in besides “wonks like math, so they assume everyone does”; when the flat-tax advocate screams “15% FOR EVERYONE”, there’s an easily relateable story there.
What’s the story behind Lexington? The Democrats will tell a tale of competitiveness, about globalism and retraining. About streamlining and creative destruction. Implicit in that story is that the people left behind couldn’t compete, that they were — and forgive the Trumpism — losers. Because if it’s a competition, there have to be losers and you don’t need to be a liberal wonk to figure out who it is.
Trumpism is happy to go along with that story. Because it’s true about the contours in a very basic way: the game was rigged and the losers were predetermined. For all the talk of competition, those factory towns never had a chance. But it never gets to the why, that capitalism moves from the nice days of everyone having enough to devouring everything it created for the sake of profit seeking soon enough, and that this larger, meaner game is even more rigged.
But the rump working class whites of places like Lexington didn’t turn out to vote for Trump. They didn’t really buy all of that, either, and Trump is even less popular than Hillary Clinton. They just didn’t vote at all; turnout was the lowest since 2000. They didn’t bother when a Clinton was the alternative, with all the pain and uneven growth the 90s had. They remember.
Which brings us to the present moment and my god. The Democrats have wonked themselves into the lowest ebb of power of any major party since the Republicans during FDR’s reign. They have nothing. Don’t kid yourselves on this; if the Democrats ever get back to power, it can’t be, it won’t be, on the old lines. Even discarding ideological differences, the Democrats are bad at this. They’re bad at winning elections and they’re bad at wielding power. Listening to a member of the DNC on how to pull us out of this is the first thing that has to go from the discourse.
And looming in the background, two hours away from my little house in Raleigh — and too far to see from my computer screen — is Lexington. The story Trump has to tell doesn’t have a happy ending for whatever Lexington you know. Let’s hope we can figure out a way to change it and quickly.