“IMAGINE,” says Glenn Drummond, gesturing at the farmland beyond the window of his pick-up truck, “this was all pine forest.” Early 19th-century travellers on this part of the old federal road in Macon County, Alabama, “didn’t know what was behind the next tree.” There were bears, rattlesnakes and defiant Native Americans, on whose trading path the road was built. Today there is an archaeological dig at Warrior Stand, where a Creek Indian chieftain ran a hostelry, which has unearthed English pipes and French gunflints; at Creek Stand, a few miles along, is a quaint Methodist church. Then the modern road turns away from the old route, which is traced by a dirt track before disappearing into fields and copses.
Running from Washington to New Orleans, briefly known as the “Appian way of the South”, the federal road was soon made redundant by steamboats, railways and the telegraph. But during its brief heyday it sparked a war with the Creek, then helped to vanquish them. After conquest came migration: “Once the Indians were whipped,” says Mr Drummond, an expert on the road, “a flood of settlers came down it.” Some of the earliest took the fertile land of central Alabama—known as the Black Belt for its rich soil—and established cotton plantations, importing slaves to work on them. Others did the same on the floodplain of the Tennessee river. Later, poorer migrants settled the sandy Wiregrass region in the south-east, and in the beautiful but less fecund northern hills, where there were few slaves and fewer roads.
This economic pattern soon became a political one that, in essence, has endured across two centuries—even as the electorate has evolved and the road that helped to delineate it was reclaimed by the wilderness. In that pattern, Alabama’s yeomen farmers, and their descendants, have sporadically risen up against the plantation class and its modern equivalents, typically when hardship rallied them to a charismatic leader’s standard.
The cycle has been consistent, but the story is nuanced. Populism in Alabama—as in other places that helped to elect Donald Trump—has not always been driven by prejudice, as might be supposed; on the contrary. It was powered as much by a sense that government was a racket and politicians tools of the plutocracy, a deep and often reasonable conviction.
Birth of a free state
Mr Trump’s inauguration speech was well-received at Jack’s, a fast-food outlet in Double Springs, in northern Alabama, where the television was tuned to Fox News. “One of the best speeches I’ve ever heard,” said a customer who, like many, was dressed in work boots and camouflage gear. “He’ll be tough.” The enthusiasm was unsurprising. Alabama gave Mr Trump one of his widest winning margins in November, and Winston County, of which Double Springs is the seat, supplied the biggest in the state: 90% of its voters backed the new president.
Outwardly Winston County conforms to outsiders’ expectations of the rural South. It has two main religions: the University of Alabama’s football team and the Baptist church. Turnings from its forest-lined roads feature multiple signs to backwoods chapels. The county is still “dry”; Double Springs itself narrowly voted to permit sales of alcohol four years ago. (Arrests for drunk-driving have since declined, says Elmo Robinson, the mayor, as people no longer get their whiskey in Jasper, in neighbouring Walker County, and guzzle it on the way back.) On the eve of the inauguration, at karaoke night in the only restaurant that serves booze, men in cowboy hats crooned country songs about God and adultery.
But Winston and the counties around it are more politically complex than they might seem, and have always been. Instead of using the federal road, early European settlers there largely came down through the Appalachians from other mountainous areas, taking land that could be bought cheaply and in small plots or squatting on it for nothing. They practised subsistence farming, hunting and fishing for extras. Like Mr Trump, these yeoman farmers venerated Andrew Jackson, the brutal, populist president from 1829 to 1837.
Life was insular: Skip Tucker, former editor of a newspaper in Jasper, says it was called the Daily Mountain Eagle because the mule-driver who delivered its first press joked that only an eagle could gather the news. Still, tension soon flared with land speculators, bankers and domineering plantation-owners. After all, says Ed Bridges, retired director of the state’s Department of Archives and History, the hill-country yeomanry were the “descendants of the serfs and peasants of Europe” and “feared the rise of a new aristocracy”.
When the civil war came, tension escalated into conflict. Winston County was the poorest in the state. Like other Appalachian parts of the South, it contained few slave-owners—just 14. Some such communities were recruited to the Confederate cause through appeals to regional loyalty or white supremacy. Not Winston: as Don Dodd, a local historian, records in his chronicle of the county, a resolution passed by a meeting at Looney’s Tavern reasoned that if a state could secede from the Union, a county could secede from a state. (“The Free State of Winston!”, scoffed a dissenter.) The citizens asked to be left to pursue their destiny “here in the hills and mountains of north-west Alabama”. They weren’t left alone. Instead they waged a miniature guerrilla war against conscription officers and pillagers. Deserters sheltered in the secluded crags and coves; Bill Looney, the tavern-owner, was known as the “Black Fox” for his prodigious feats piloting them to Union lines.
Today a statue outside the court house in Double Springs depicts a hybrid Yankee and rebel soldier (most such monuments in the South mourn only Johnny Reb). Mr Dodd’s inscription notes that more than twice as many locals fought for the Union as for the Confederacy, about which townsfolk still talk bitterly. Something of the old intransigence survives, along with resentment of bullying elites. Drive from Double Springs to Haleyville, the county’s biggest town, and you pass a barn proudly proclaiming “The Free State of Winston”. “We’re still independent-minded people,” says Mayor Robinson. That spirit soon erupted again.
The people want relief
Reuben Kolb was rich, but, like Mr Trump’s, his disgruntled supporters didn’t mind. He commanded a Confederate artillery unit during the war, briefly managed an opera house and then, as a farmer in southern Alabama, developed an unusually hardy watermelon seed, which he called Kolb’s Gem. The seeds were distributed in self-promoting packets that bore his name and moustachioed features. Kolb became the figurehead of another great surge of anti-elitism.
In the decades after the civil war, the yeoman farmers of Alabamian hill counties like Winston, and in the Wiregrass, believed they were being exploited. And they were. Land values plummeted even as property taxes rose. Needing cash, many began growing cotton, the price of which promptly collapsed. Some were ruined by the interest charged by supply merchants or—after they sold up and were forced into tenant farming—by rapacious landlords. In “Poor But Proud”, Wayne Flynt, a historian, charts the trajectory of David Manasco, a farmer in Winston County. In 1860 he owned land and property worth $1,400, no mean sum. By 1880 he was a sharecropper, the lowest form of tenancy.
As well as the hardship, there was a loss of honour. The soil may have been thin, but at least it had been theirs, and there was the hope of acquiring more of it. They had sunk from the freedom of the frontier to dependency. “We in Alabama have had more of that than most of the rest of the nation,” says Mr Bridges of that downward mobility. It hasn’t abated. These days many of the modest homes scattered amid Winston County’s deep forests and unexpected lakes are for sale. In what is still among the poorest parts of one of America’s poorest states, shops, warehouses and even some of those superabundant churches are shuttered. Junkyards abound. Around Double Springs, says Mr Robinson, the biggest employers are sawmills and mobile-home manufacturers; he hopes more tourists will come. The skyscrapers of Birmingham seem remote, just as the industrial prosperity of the vaunted post-war “New South” did to Kolb’s followers.
“The people want relief,” he exclaimed, “and God knows they have a right to demand it.” His campaigns were part of a broader farmers’ movement that in the agricultural depression of the 1890s was channelled into the Populist Party. In 1892 Kolb ran for governor as a Jeffersonian Democrat—ditching the Democratic label altogether was too risky—but then, and again in 1894, his platforms were Populist. He advocated graduated taxes, better public schools, banking and currency reform and fairer railroad prices. In a coalition that took in Alabama’s new industrial workers, he vowed to keep convict labourers out of mines, where they were used to break strikes. He attributed the farmers’ grievances, even those caused by ineluctable market forces, to machinating cliques, rather as Mr Trump claimed globalisation could be reversed by squeezing bosses.
Children from Kolb-supporting families sported corn-cob necklaces. But the contest was brutal. The so-called Bourbons—oligarchic Democrats who represented tax-averse industrial barons, known as “Big Mules”, and the planters—slung as much mud at Kolb as the pre-internet age could muster. As William Rogers recounts in “The One-Gallused Rebellion”, he was accused of padding his expenses during his time as commissioner of agriculture, and of diddling a counterpart in a cotton sale. The slurs backfired, as they often do: Kolb, noted a contemporary, “is indebted to his enemies for his prominence.” In the end they resorted to fraud—real fraud: violence, bribery, ballot-stuffing, inflated returns. Officially defeated, Kolb claimed victory and took a symbolic oath of office. But a rumoured insurrection did not materialise. “He was swindled,” says Mr Flynt.
Look at the results, and it is obvious where the fraud was perpetrated. Kolb swept the Wiregrass and the highland counties. He lost because of lopsided Bourbon wins in the Black Belt—where thousands of African-Americans, not yet disenfranchised, supposedly voted against their own interests, which Kolb pledged to protect. Tactical it may have been, but his support for black rights, including the vote, was progressive for its time. True, many whites were sceptical. (Racial attitudes in the hills are still not perfect, says Mr Dodd, despite—or because of—the paucity of black people.) Yet the most striking aspect of this populist upsurge is that racism was not a motive for it but a barrier against its success. White supremacy, and the need to defend it, were invoked by the wealthy to thwart a movement that, as Martin Luther King later said, was “uniting the negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power.”
Big Jim Folsom puts his enormous feet up
The same goes for another tub-thumper who took on the Big Mules—and, in 1946, won. Jim Folsom grew up in south-east Alabama and as a teenager worked in a cotton gin during harvest seasons. Later he was a merchant mariner, a barker at a theatre in New York and a work-relief director under the New Deal. He moved north to Cullman, now a lively town distinguished by a pretty covered bridge and an eccentric monastic grotto, from where he sold insurance, a helpfully itinerant profession for an aspiring politician. His first wife served as a social worker in neighbouring Winston County. He was six feet eight inches tall. Mr Dodd recalls that when Folsom stayed with his family in Double Springs, his mother put a chair at the end of the bed to accommodate his gargantuan frame.
Covering up dirty tracks
In some ways, the situation of what had once been Alabama’s robust yeomanry was even more parlous in 1946 than in Kolb’s era. After his barely suppressed insurgency the Bourbons passed a new constitution, again ramming it through with fraud in the Black Belt. Its black voters allegedly backed a plan that disenfranchised almost all of them through poll taxes, literacy tests and other ruses. Quite intentionally, the same measures stripped the vote from large numbers of poor whites as well. Meanwhile debt made tenancy inescapable for many formerly landowning families, driving them down its Dantean rungs and towards destitution. The boll weevil, another implacable force, swarmed up from Mexico and ravaged cotton crops as destructively as any army. Then came the Depression.
Folsom’s policies resonated, and still do. He pledged to spend more on schools and pensions and to end, at last, the unfair competition of convict labour. He was not a fan of “dumping American money overseas”. He wanted to do away with voting restrictions. Perhaps above all, though, he said he would improve the state’s infrastructure, in particular by paving farm-to-market roads. In an area still bypassed by interstates, as it was by the old federal road, that basic shortage persists. Mayor Robinson says his biggest challenge is securing grants for local upgrades. “Hopefully [Mr Trump] will come and do something with the infrastructure,” he says, referring to one of the president’s main themes.
The ongoing need points up two consistent features of life and politics in the hill country. The first is its isolation, cultural as well as geographical, which endures despite the patina of sameness conferred by fast-food chains and motels. The other is a conflicted attitude to government among its warily hospitable residents. They still think it’s a racket, and, as ever, take pride in self-sufficiency. Here, says Ronald Jackson, whose family has lived in Winston County since before the civil war, “you don’t depend on the government, you take care of your own.” At the same time, unblinkingly and understandably, they want a bigger chunk of its largesse.
“I don’t answer to no professional politicians,” Folsom said in 1944. “I answer only to the people.” He had never held office before, and like Mr Trump’s his shoestring campaign was staffed by inexperienced relatives and friends. Hardly any newspapers endorsed him; as George Sims notes in “The Little Man’s Big Friend”, he was written off as a lightweight showman. Demotic, entertaining, tirelessly peripatetic, the show worked. Rather like Mr Trump’s baseball cap, the army boots he wore on the stump marked him as a regular guy. He toured with the Strawberry Pickers, a hillbilly band, plus a corn-husk mop and suds bucket (for contributions), with which he promised to clean up Montgomery, the state capital, just as Mr Trump said he would “drain the swamp”.
The Huntsville Times called his victory in 1946, secured in much the same counties that had backed Kolb, “a blind, unreasoning revolt.” From the start, scandal threatened to capsize his governorship. As well as “Big Jim” he was known as “Kissin’ Jim” for his habit of kissing long lines of girls at his rallies. He alienated the “lying newspapers” as thoroughly as has Mr Trump (Kolb didn’t care for them either).
Nevertheless, after an obligatory hiatus, Folsom strolled to re-election in 1954. His popularity was straightforward: the legislature stymied his constitutional changes, but his road-building programme got through. “They always promise the world,” Mr Jackson says of politicians, but Folsom “did what he said he’d do.” This is another ingrained characteristic. For all the hyperbole of elections, expectations are modest in hard-bitten places like Double Springs and—helpfully for Mr Trump—the bar for political honour is low. Mr Jackson voted for him because “he might halfway manage the government without bankrupting it or giving it away.”
Folsom’s second term was marred by scandals over cronyism, slush funds and his boozing, for which “gone fishing” was the preferred euphemism. But, in the end, his relatively liberal stance on race was also turned against him. There were parts of Alabama, he complained, “where a negro doesn’t stand a Chinaman’s chance of getting fair and impartial justice.” He tried to boost the pitiful number of registered black voters. He compared efforts to nullify the Supreme Court’s desegregation orders to “a hound dog baying at the moon and claiming it’s got the moon treed”. When politicians stirred up racial resentment, he said, “You know damn well they are trying to cover up dirty tracks.”
In the election of 1962 he faced George Wallace—whose exhortation of “law and order” anticipated Mr Trump’s, and who may be closer to most Americans’ notion of an Alabama demagogue. Wallace had denounced Folsom as “soft on the nigger question”; Folsom trimmed, but lost anyway. Still, if Mr Trump’s campaign echoed Wallace’s, it also recapitulated Folsom’s. The electoral maps hint as much: the old pattern held up, as not just Winston County but other strongholds of the yeomanry embraced him. (These days, of course, the electors in the Black Belt are mostly black, and overwhelmingly vote Democratic like their Bourbon predecessors.)
It isn’t only Alabama. The political histories of Georgia and North Carolina, through which the federal road also ran, can be charted on similar maps, with the same ancient cultural divisions between uplands and lowlands, and between regions where slaves were numerous and where there were few. The roots of these entrenched habits of mind and voting show that, as Mr Bridges, the archivist, puts it, Alabamians won over to populism were “not simply emotional victims of demagogues”. Often they have had a clearer grasp of interests and injustices than that presumption allows. Above all, says Mr Dodd, the historian of Winston County, the descendants of Alabama’s yeoman farmers are, like their forebears, “tired of people looking down on them”.