CBS This Morning ran a segment on Mount Airy, Andy Griffith’s home town and the basis for the fictional Mayberry of the Andy Griffith Show. Ted Koppel explores why Mount Airy has become a booming tourist destination for people searching for Mayberry. The show, he points out, was an escape from the harsh reality of the 1960s and bore little resemblance to American society for many Americans.
At one point, Koppel interviews a group of visitors, almost all of whom are white, about their perceptions of Washington and the events today. All but two believe the 2020 election was fraudulent. He asks about the events of Jan. 6 and a man explains that it was really just staged and that Black Lives Matter activists were the real culprits. They agree with Donald Trump that the press is the “enemy of the people.” A woman says they don’t watch the news but get their information elsewhere, though she declines to say where. The kicker is a woman who then says she hopes “when the segment airs, it won’t show Southerners as a bunch of dumb idiots like so many parts of the country do.”
Almost all of these people are middle class, middle-aged white people, sharing a demographic profile with the people who stormed Capitol on Jan. 6. They are the people who voted for Donald Trump and they are the people who watch Fox News. They are children of the Reagan Revolution.
People between the ages of 50 and 64 grew up during or in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and came of age about the time Ronald Reagan took office. They may have been too young to form opinions about the integration that defined the period, but they heard the news and their parent’s thoughts. Over the course of their lifetimes, the changes in society would build distrust in government and deepen resentments that had lingered since the end of the Civil War.
In the South, many went to segregationist academies to avoid newly integrated schools. They heard Reagan talk about welfare queens, Black women who abused government programs and wanted something for nothing. They heard about affirmative action giving African Americans an unfair advantage without acknowledging that laws and systemic racism had denied them access to jobs, education, capital, and even housing. They saw Willie Horton ads that reinforced the Jim Crow stereotypes of African American men as dangerous criminals.
And they were told that the government was giving their money to lazy grifters. The government was forcing companies to give their jobs to minorities. The government was threatening their families by going soft on crime and tough on guns. By the end of the 1980s, they were primed for the rantings of Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing radio shows that said out loud what many people whispered among themselves.
They were also the last generation that could leave high school with no special training and expect to live a solidly middle class life style. And then trade policies and technology changed the game. Right as they were building their families and careers, NAFTA sent their jobs overseas and the advent of the computer age altered the skills that businesses demanded. To add insult to injury, Hispanic immigrants began clambering across the border for both economic opportunities and to escape oppression and war. Not only were their jobs going to Mexico and Central America, those people were coming here to take what jobs were left.
The leap from talk radio to Fox News in the late 1990s was easy. They gave up the broadcast journalists on the Big Three networks in favor of unabashedly partisan news that voiced their grievances. They had long distrusted the news shows like 60 Minutes and Face the Nation that often seemed to play gotcha with conservative leaders like Jerry Falwell and Oliver North while giving platforms to liberal ones like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
By 2008, the lives they had expected had never materialized. Instead, their society had been upended by the Civil Rights Movement, the loss of manufacturing, the influx of immigrants, and threats from foreign terrorists. And now a Black man was about to be president. During their lifetimes, the fortunes of African Americans had improved such that one of them could grow up to be president, while their situation in life had deteriorated so much that their children had to leave home to find work.
Just eight years later, they would get their revenge. Donald Trump was the political embodiment of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. He said out loud what they said in private. He was unabashedly on their side against the diversity that had wreaked so much havoc in their lives. He was the first politician since Jesse Helms to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear.
After almost three decades of propaganda from Fox News and talk radio, they eagerly believed what they were now told on social media. Truth was no longer objective but subjective. Facts were largely whatever they chose to believe. They insulated themselves from the realities that other Americans lived and built bubbles to reinforce their world view.
Today, they make up the backbone of the Republican vote. In 2020, they comprised about a third of the electorate and gave Trump a five point advantage over Biden, his largest margin among any age cohort. While younger voters make up a larger share of the population, those children of the Reagan Revolution turnout at a considerably higher rate.
They are motivated to vote because they are angry. They saw Mayberry on television as kids and that’s the world they expected to inherit. Instead, they got a dystopian small town existence. The good jobs left and the shops and stores got boarded up. The only people moving to those towns spoke different languages and practiced different religions. Mayberry may have only existed on television but, in their minds, it would still be here if not for government interference giving unfair advantage to the Blacks and refuge to the Mexicans.
So today, they rail against socialism when it was capitalism and the free market that crushed their dreams. They believe Reagan’s mantra, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m here from the government and I’m here to help,” but government support and infrastructure are key to restoring any of the prosperity they watched wither away. Ending all government programs from food stamps to social security would just hasten the demise of the small towns from which they hail and disproportionately harm rural America. They routinely vote against their own self-interests because it’s easier to blame immigrants, Black Lives Matter activists, or Democrats than the economic and societal forces that they largely don’t understand.
In 1980, Mayberry was still fresh on their minds when they reached adulthood, but they could see it slipping away. The rallied to Ronald Reagan who belittled the same people they resented and for forty years, they have taken William F. Buckley’s advice, standing “athwart history, yelling STOP.” Today, history is rolling over them. The Mayberry that they seek is little more than tourist destination. In fact, that’s all it ever was.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Mills spent 20 years as a political and public affairs consultant.