OXFORD, N.C. — During one of their usual morning gatherings at the Bojangles' restaurant in this rural town near the Virginia border, a group of retirees from a local Baptist church shook their heads at the failure of Washington to repeal Obamacare, lower the national debt, build a wall along the southern border, kick people off welfare or get anything else accomplished.
But the focus of their blame is not President Trump — it's Republicans in Congress whom they view as standing in the way. And they applaud the president's recent attempts to work with Democrats on issues such as the debt ceiling and immigration.
“I am proud to say I am proud of Trump,” said Mildred Oakes, 76, a former registered Democrat who is no longer affiliated with a party.
“Make that two of us,” said another church member.
“Make it three,” said Norman Boyd, 79, a retired machinist who is registered as a Democrat — but hasn’t voted for one for president since Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
“I think he’s an idiot, but I voted for him,” another church member chimed in about Trump as others laughed.
A woman sitting across from him countered with, “As opposed to what was in there before?”
These churchgoers are at the heart of the dilemma nagging Republican leaders as they struggle to forge a path between the Grand Old Party and the Party of Trump. These voters don’t consider themselves Republicans. They are first and foremost supporters of the president.
They are quick to explain away the compromises the former real estate developer and reality-TV star has made and the inconsistencies in many of his positions. They describe Washington as a swamp and speak of Democratic and Republican congressional leaders with the same levels of frustration and disappointment — while describing Trump as if he were a longtime neighbor. They have high hopes for his presidency, but they also fear he might be held back by his party. And they don’t expect their devotion to the president to waver, even a tiny bit, anytime soon.
“He’s elected as our president. We need to give him our respect,” Oakes said. “I’ll vote for him four years from now because I think it will take longer for him to clean up the mess that was left by Obama.”
Granville County has long been a Democratic stronghold, but it was one of six rural counties in North Carolina that flipped, voting twice for Barack Obama but voting for Trump last year. Local Democrats blame the flip on low turnout, especially among African Americans, who make up a third of the county's population. But local Republicans say it reflects how many in the county feel left behind by Democrats and are looking for a change.
Statewide in North Carolina, nearly 39 percent of voters are registered as Democrats. But that includes voters who haven't voted for a Democrat in a general election in decades but keep the designation out of a sense of family tradition or because they want to vote in local races that are usually decided in the Democratic primary. The number of unaffiliated voters has steadily grown and, as of this month, is now slightly higher than the number of registered Republicans. One Democratic strategist said that when it comes down to how voters actually vote, North Carolina is pretty evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. In November's general election, Trump won the state.
In Granville County, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by less than 700 votes, while voters there narrowly put their support behind a Democrat for governor, Roy Cooper, and a Democratic congressman, G.K. Butterfield, along with a Republican senator, Richard Burr.
In interviews last week with nearly three dozen county residents who voted for Trump, nearly all said they vote for the person, not the party. With that emphasis — even if they would never dream of actually voting for a Democrat for president, especially Hillary Clinton — it’s little surprise that many feel more loyalty to Trump than the Republican Party.
Many of the church members gathered at Bojangles’ last week pointed to the president’s Christian faith, saying he brought the Bible and prayer back into the White House. Even though Trump rarely attends church, he frequently talked about religion on the campaign trail, promising that with him in the White House, Christians would again feel free to openly say “Merry Christmas.”
“President Trump has talked more about Christian values than any of the last two or three presidents that we’ve had,” said Wayne Overton, 79, who is retired from the Postal Service and now raises cows on a farm a few miles outside of town and tours the country in a motor home. “And I admire him for picking the vice president that he picked. If something happened, our country would be in good hands.”
While Overton and others said that Trump is far from perfect, they said that he represents them far better than Obama — and that he isn’t afraid to say the unpopular thing. Too often, they said, Republican and Democratic leaders provide the politically correct response instead of the fair one. That’s why they were encouraged to hear Trump speak out against liberal protesters who have been involved in violent clashes across the country and to hear him defend the country’s history, protecting the America that they know.
“It used to be in the [county hospital] waiting room you would see white and black, but mostly black. You go into the waiting room now, you see Latinos. They’re the ones having the babies,” said Oakes, a grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of one who is retired from an agency that provided in-home health care. “So, you know, whites will be the minority very soon.”
When asked if that worries her, Oakes replied, “Well, I believe in Christian values.”
When asked what she meant by that, Oakes gestured to Curtis Nelson, an African American employee at Bojangles’ who is a pastor at a local church, voted for Trump and often stops by to chat with the breakfast club.
“Curtis knows I love Curtis as much as anybody — but I believe in Christian values,” she said, adding that she has a friend who legally immigrated from Mexico and that she is supportive of a Latino church that started in the county.
The church members soon wrapped up their morning gathering and were replaced by the lunch crowd, including Roy Strickland, who grabbed a booth in the corner as he waited for a friend.
Strickland, a Navy veteran, moved to the county in 1973 and worked as a truck mechanic and then as an industrial pipe fitter until he was laid off in 2009. He said he went on disability for his diabetes, arthritis and other health issues, and when he tried to look for work, no one wanted to hire him. He’s now 69 and lives eight miles outside town in what he calls “the middle of nowhere.”
He has long depended on government checks to survive. After working for more than four decades, he said, he gets angry when he sees people getting welfare who haven't yet contributed, and he hopes that Trump will crack down — a common sentiment here.
Strickland is a registered Democrat on paper but otherwise is a longtime Republican. He said he gets frustrated with “mainstream Republicans” in Congress such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who “has an agenda of his own and is trying to undermine what Trump is trying to do.” He was glad to see the president agree with Democrats to raise the government borrowing limit and avoid a government shutdown.
“Something had to be done,” Strickland said. “I don’t think that the deal he cut with them to do that was putting him in their corner. It was just business. Regardless of whatever else he is, he’s a businessman.”
He’s also been heartened to see the president stand up to liberal protesters and the anti-fascist movement more commonly known as “antifa.” Strickland said that he has never seen the country so racially divided, and he blames Obama for “causing trouble” and widening “the gap between the races” by getting involved when black teenagers were shot by white police officers, which Strickland views as rare occurrences that the media blows out of proportion.
When Strickland was growing up in Durham, he said, he would often walk four miles from his home outside town to the movie theater, passing through black neighborhoods and chatting with those he passed. He often wore a jean jacket with a Confederate flag on the back.
“I never had any trouble. I would meet a black man walking down the street, or a woman, and I’d speak to them, they’d speak to me. . . . Somebody sitting on a porch, we’d wave to each other. There was never a problem with it,” he said. “Look at it now. If a white man walks through sections of Durham, he gonna get killed.”
Strickland said the Confederate flag is part of his history.
"It's part of everybody's history, just like these statues that they keep tearing down," he said. "They're history. They're nothing that's hurting anybody."
Later in the day, as the sun set in a grand display of pink and lavender, Debbie Spencer loaded groceries into her car at the Walmart across from the Bojangles’. The 65-year-old keeps a baton and three knives hidden in her car so that she can fight off anyone who might try to attack her — but she mostly feels safe here in Granville County, home to winding country roads, tobacco fields, meadows of yellow wildflowers and quiet little towns. She will go to the nearby city of Henderson only during daylight, and she never ventures to Durham, which is about 30 miles south.
Both of Spencer’s parents were Democrats, although she said that they would not recognize the Democratic Party today. She has been a registered Republican all her adult life, although she doesn’t recognize the party that many Republicans in Washington claim to represent — and she doesn’t understand why Republican leaders are fighting Trump. She jokingly suggested that the country might benefit from all of Washington being wiped out during one of Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago.
“The Republicans in both the House and the Senate are thwarting the president’s — no, the people’s — agenda,” said Spencer, who is retired after working for nearly three decades manufacturing roof shingles. “They get up there, and they get a taste of power, and they get a taste of money, and they forget us.”