In a struggling factory town, residents want Washington to cut the ‘drama’ and get to work
LUMBERTON, N.C. — Sitting at a table at Jeff’s Corner Cafe, Brenda Allen professed thanks for the good things before her. There were the creamy grits she ate and the jokes she shared with the other diners, most of whom she’d known all her life. But she was most grateful that the small, blurry television set hanging in the corner of this no-frills breakfast spot was silent.
“You know, I stopped watching Fox, and all the other channels, too,” Allen, a 70-year-old retired nurse practitioner and Democrat, told her friend Julie. She sipped a little Mountain Dew. “So much negativity about the president. I think in Washington, there’s just much ado about nothing. They got their own world created for them over there.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Julie responded.
The controversies enveloping President Trump in the nation’s capital were having the odd effect of bringing people together here. No matter which side of the great Trump divide they were on, one complaint rose above all: Washington had again proven to be as blurry and distant as the reception on that old TV.
There was the flood of news that consumed Washington. And then there was the actual flood that almost consumed them. Entire blocks in the southern end of this city are still uninhabited seven months after being ravaged by Hurricane Matthew. And just on Wednesday, while politicos gawked at the announcement of a special prosecutor for an investigation that many residents here don’t fully understand, news spread around town that another garment factory would be closing. More than 150 jobs would be lost in a town where nowadays little was being produced other than resentment.
“We need to get Donald Trump down here so he can pull a Carrier,” said Bo Biggs, a longtime Republican operative, referring to Trump’s role last year in helping to keep jobs at an air-conditioning plant in Indiana. “We got a president concerned about our jobs, but still we got all this drama.”
Into Jeff’s cafe walked Mable Moses, 70, who has never stopped wearing Converse sneakers even though her former employer left town in 2001. She rolled her eyes when she heard Allen and her friend “talking about that Trump thing again.”
“He’s an idiot, but he’s in Washington,” she said dismissively while sitting at a counter and scrolling through her Facebook page. She had grown exhausted with Trump’s presidency and instead concentrated on articles about hundreds of families still being displaced after Hurricane Matthew.
Andrea Whitted, 69, dined alone. She could think of only one other time that Jeff’s was so sedate.
“During the  election, all these white people were talking about how they hated [President Barack] Obama and couldn’t wait to see him lose,” said Whitted, who is black. When the results came in, she said, she asked her friend to join her at Jeff’s the next day because the prattle among the Obama haters was sure to be delicious.
“And don’t you know, there weren’t but five people in here?” she said. “That’s how it is again. Inside, they know this president is delusional. Look at all the scandals he’s been involved in. It’s only been 100-something days.”
In some sense, the concentration on the FBI investigation and its fallout aroused the worst of each side’s worries about Trump. For Allen, it displayed something simple and fixable: “Trump’s ability to communicate with other people needs improving,” she said. For Whitted, it cut deeper, revealing how corrupt and unprepared she thinks Trump is to lead the nation.
Regardless, the result here was the same: Gov. Roy Cooper (D) had asked the federal government for $929 million to assist with flood relief, but only $6 million was included in the current spending bill.
Whitted’s church flooded so badly that congregants were meeting in a parking lot for weeks, and they still could not use their fellowship hall. “Sometimes,” she said, “it seems like the only thing that can save us now is Jesus.”
Bill Clinton country no more
Robeson County is one of those Obama-to-Trump areas that helped the reality TV star win the presidency. It is a third white, a quarter black and 40 percent Native American. One in four people here didn’t graduate from high school, and the county’s economy has been plummeting since President Bill Clinton held office.
There was a time when this was Bill Clinton country, but Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had left them cold. They despised that the couple turned their political ambitions into a vast network of wealth, and, over time, residents began to resent the Clintons’ support of free trade, which they believe shipped their jobs to other countries.
“I’m for a woman president, but I didn’t think it was the time for any woman president,” Allen said. “We have to deal with all of these countries who we need to be tough with and none of them respect women. That would make it too hard for her.”
Trump saw America like Sherry Hammonds saw America. Lumberton, the 51-year-old said, was filled with good people who just wanted good jobs.
As the community gathered at an outdoor stage to watch a cover band croon Justin Timberlake songs, Hammonds remembered the days when you could graduate high school and get a well-paying job at a local textile factory. She worked for a company that produced clothes for the Gap, and that provided the best quality of life she had ever experienced. She lost her job in 1994 when the factory moved to Honduras.
Hammonds now works at the Department of Motor Vehicles, a decent bounce back, she said. So many others she knew had to take jobs in the service industry, at restaurants and gas stations, and their wages and their stations in life have not improved since. Trump’s promise of more prosperous times outweighed whatever theoretical peril he may cause.
“We just need to accept Donald Trump is president and give the man a chance,” Hammonds said. “It’s only been 100-something days. So I’m not really watching TV to see what happens next. You know what I’m watching?”
Every morning on her way to work, she said, she drives past the Days Inn, where she watches a school bus pick up displaced children at the motel.
“Heartbreaking,” Hammonds said. “That’s what we need to care about.”
A similar feeling permeated the conversation on the porch of Whitted’s ex-husband, Morris Whitted, 74, who was the only person in his neighborhood who was able to move back in after the flood.
One of the main reasons the neighborhood sat empty: It was filled with renters, and their landlords had difficulty getting grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rebuild their homes.
One of the men on the porch was a landlord. He complained that it made no sense for him to take out a loan to rebuild. He was 71 years old and would die before he could pay it off.
Another friend, a butcher, said he couldn’t find a steady job since his meat-processing plant was flooded. He earned some extra money helping Morris Whitted repair his home, which was the only good thing he said has happened to him since Hurricane Matthew.
When the conversation got too intense, Morris Whitted shifted to a favored distraction.
“Have you been seeing what’s been going on with Trump?” he offered. “You remember Watergate? We could be living through another Watergate.”
“Man, if that man ain’t given me a grant to fix my houses, it don’t mean s—,” his landlord friend said.
Raymond Lee Stevens Jr., a longtime Democratic operative and owner of the flooded meat-processing plant, could recall a time when his Republican buddies would take him to meet Republican Sen. Jesse Helms or dine with Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Used to be, Stevens said, people would ask for his political play by play. Nowadays, he said as he dined at a restaurant named Candy Sue’s, everyone seemed too exhausted to ask.
His neighbors had begun to internalize politics. Everyone had a conspiracy. With Obama, there were questions about his faith and his birthplace. With Trump came questions about his taxes and alliances with Russia. How could you know whom to believe? Why jump to conclusions?
“There’s no evidence yet,” Stevens said of the Trump inquiry. “Trump got off on the wrong foot with the people and now they are just going after him.”
His wife, Nancy, disagreed. “I regret my vote,” she said. “I don’t know why you don’t see what’s going on. He’s embarrassing our country every day, and making us look weak to the world. He’s spilling secrets. I can’t believe it’s going so badly.”
“He needs time,” Raymond Stevens replied. “It’s only been 100-something days.”
Overhearing the conversation, the restaurant owner uttered, “I’m not sure they’re gonna give him 100 more.”