Unlike its faraway namesake, this Syria has no Muslims. It’s a pretty village with trout in its rivers and black bears in its hills, home to many who cheer one of Donald Trump’s most derided proposals: a ban on Muslims.
Laurie Richards, the cashier at the general store, thinks the way others do: She doesn’t like everything about Trump, but she thinks he is right to talk about temporarily barring Muslims from entering the United States. Islamist fanatics, responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, continue to commit murder from Brussels to San Bernardino, Calif. It only makes sense, she said.
“Do I think he will be perfect as president? No,” said Richards, 43. But his provocative ideas — such as his talk of a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border — show an “attitude,” she said. It tells her that Trump gets it, that he understands the big problem and is open to dramatic fixes.
Of all Trump’s ideas, the ban on Muslims is considered by his critics to be particularly off the rails. With 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, it aims to shut out nearly one in four people on the planet. It has been called racist, unconstitutional and unenforceable. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has said that it is “shameful” and “dangerous.”
Yet the idea turns out to have broader support than many of Trump’s critics expected. Nationally, 64 percent of Republican voters said in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that they approve of the ban — as did 45 percent of independents — while 26 percent of Democrats do.
In Syria, Va., a Republican-leaning town in a pivotal state, talk of the ban deplored by so many is exactly what is rallying people behind Trump. It is a case study of one of the key qualities of the Trump candidacy: His popularity has grown and held steady — not despite his extreme rhetoric, but because of it.
Just as confounding for Trump’s foes, perhaps, is the fact that many of his supporters don’t take the idea literally. They hear it as a rhetorical nod that he will change things. That complicates Clinton’s task as she attempts to draw a contrast with Trump.
Several people said that it made little sense to pay attention too closely to election-year proposals because candidates rarely deliver when they are in office, especially if Congress is needed to approve a new measure.
Richards, for instance, said she doesn’t think a ban will occur, just as she knows that Mexico probably won’t pay for the giant wall Trump talks about building on the southern border. But she said that no other candidate is telling her what she thinks: Just about anybody can set foot in the United States, and those days should end.
Trump is no angel, she said, as she rang up a customer’s $3 egg-salad sandwich in a crossroads store that stacks items including milk and rifle carriers. In fact, she said, Trump sometimes is “belligerent and crude,” and she doesn’t like his crass judgments about women’s bodies and looks.
“I could rate him, too — he is not the best-looking man!”
But until the day the government can give a “100 percent” guarantee that it can screen out Islamist terrorists, “there should be a ban,” she said. Security is her No. 1 issue — and a lot of people think the way she does.
Ask Trump voters about Clinton, or vice versa, and the charitable words voters use are “wacko” and “liar.” In a village of only 200 people, many said it is best to avoid talking about the November election.
“I don’t want to get in an argument. I just want to sell my plants,” said Molly Sanford, who was working on a crossword puzzle in front of the Hollerfolk Nursery. As she sat among the marigolds and begonias she talked, but not too loudly, about what a ridiculous idea a ban on Muslims is.
“Ban people of a certain religion in a country founded on the idea of freedom of religion?” Sanford said, shaking her head. “More puzzling than what he is saying is that he has so many followers.”
“Those of us who are for Hillary, or even who are Democrats, we have to have a secret handshake,” she said.
Ten miles down the road in Madison, Willie Lamar is a pharmacist and the mayor. “There are such extremes in this election,” he said, so it’s smart to steer talk in his drugstore to anything but politics. “People are keeping their opinions close to the vest. . . . I have some very good friends who believe differently than I do. I know I’m not going to change their mind. And they won’t change me.”
Lamar, an independent who said he hasn’t decided for whom to vote, said a Muslim ban, and other border-security ideas Trump is suggesting — including a 2,000-mile wall to keep out Mexicans — “are not really viable.” But people give him credit “for talking about issues that need to be addressed.”
“For people to take the wall literally or banning Muslims literally is as outrageous as Trump thinking he can do it. It’s a rhetorical comment . . . whether his methods are doable or make any sense is beside the point.”
Trump is right that border security is a critical issue, Lamar said. But he thinks that banning people based on religion is un-American.
Thousands drive through Syria on a single day in the fall, when the Blue Ridge Mountains burst into color and the village offers apple butter, bluegrass music and hayrides. But mostly it is a quieter place where, unlike the close-in suburbs of Washington, the federal government is not well liked.
Dairy farmers don’t want to be told by federal authorities to fence their cows lest they pollute nearby streams. And Jimmy Graves is not happy that he was told to buy a $6,000 mechanical lift for his pool to accommodate disabled guests.
“I had to put it in four years ago and haven’t used it once,” said the 79-year-old owner of the landmark Graves Mountain Lodge. He said his uncle was among the settlers of the village a century ago who picked the name “Syria” out of the Bible.
Washington hasn’t addressed two big needs: cellphone coverage and a road into the Shenandoah National Park that would bring more tourists.
Still, more than in most elections, people are watching who will go to the White House. It got their attention in December when Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Last week, after foreign leaders denounced Trump’s ban — including the new mayor of London, who is Muslim — the presumptive Republican nominee said there would be “exceptions” and “ideally” it would not be in place too long, “just until we figured things out.”
An hour’s drive from Syria, leaders in Northern Virginia’s growing American Muslim community say that the way Trump talks about Islam is bigoted and scary, whether he intends to follow through on a ban or not. Many in that part of the state applauded Clinton when she said, “It is not in keeping with our values, it’s not effective in protecting us and it plays into the hands of terrorists.”
But around this village of white clapboard Christian churches, many are supporting Trump and welcome his proposed ban, even though they said it will never pass Congress — and shouldn’t. More significantly, Graves said, people hear a new, clear voice saying the country needs to do more to “keep out people who are unsuitable.”
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.