By Andrew Wainer
Editor’s Note: Braver Angels Media is proud to publish thoughtful essays, arguments, reporting, and reflection by folks in and around our community. We are honored to publish this excellent guest piece by migration researcher Andrew Wainer for its relevance and insight on themes of interest to all of our work in Braver Angels. -LNP
Florida has a long history as a refuge – from African slaves fleeing British America in the 17th century for the relative freedom of Spanish Florida, to the Seminole that assembled in the Panhandle in 1818 seeking sanctuary from Col. Andrew Jackson. Little Havana and Little Haiti owe their existence to Florida’s generous – and continuing – history of providing refuge.
Today Florida is seen as a tourist and retiree playground, but in spite of its balmy image, the Sunshine State’s history is shot-through with exile, expulsion, refuge, and homecoming. And as mutual rejection and demonization escalates in America, Florida now hosts another cohort recently exiled from power: Trump supporters.
Florida is one of only a handful of states Trump won in 2020 with a larger percentage of the two-party vote than in 2016. In 2020 a small but solid majority – 51% – of Sunshine State voters chose President Trump over Vice President Joe Biden.
And while the former president sought refuge at Mar-a-Lago on the Atlantic coast after losing the election, nowhere in the state offered him as much support – that continues steadfastly today – as the Panhandle’s Holmes County.
In 2016 Trump won 88% of the county vote. In 2020 Holmes County asked for more, giving him 89%. Half a year later, in political (and probably personal) terms, Holmes County (still) adores Donald Trump.
Bob Jones, a native West Virginian, veteran of the U.S. army reserve, and current Chairman of the Holmes County Republican Party, has lived in the panhandle for almost a half century. He said the passion of the 2020 Trump campaign was sui generis.
“We would have people coming off the street and ask for campaign materials [from the campaign office]…I just never had seen that, that level of enthusiasm before…That contributed to the turnout and the support that the president got,” he said.
He said that given the almost complete support that Trump received in the county, it included not only almost all Holmes County Republicans, but a strong share of independents and Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for him. Given that only 65% of the county’s 11,468 voters are Republicans, that’s probably correct.
With Trump in office, Holmes County residents felt like part of mainstream America and previously politically apathetic voters were thrilled to support him. Jones, 78, said local Republicans organized a 70 mile “Trump Parade” around the county in late October 2020 involving more than 150 vehicles. “People lined the country roads like they were attending a Memorial Day parade,” Jones said. “It’s just not normal.”
He said that residents’ enthusiasm stemmed from their view of Trump as someone who put the common man first. “I think people saw President Trump as someone who said what he believed and did what he said,” he said. “I think because Trump is a strong support of 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms and I think the people of Holmes County are very, very strong in that belief…People in Holmes County are proud to be Americans and President Trump showed that he was [proud] and thought that we should be and he wanted to make the country stronger.” They also liked his support for veterans and strict immigration laws, he said.
Like Trump supporters everywhere, Holmes County citizens not only loved what he supported and said, but how he said it. “People really like the fact that he really spoke to issues rather than platitudes and that he didn’t appear beholden to any special interest groups,” Jones said. “Even though he was quite vocal in his way of communicating, they appreciate the fact that he had a position on things and backed it up with what he did. And that’s – in most people’s mind – an unusual thing for politicians to do. [Politicians] are typically full of promises, full of platitudes and usually not productive on the results.”
In 2021, with their champion ejected from the White House, the mood is dark in Holmes County. There is little sense of moving on. Feelings remain hard. “As a general rule, people here do not feel the election went totally fairly,” Jones said. “I think there were way too many examples of irregularities that really bothered people.”
He said the local feeling is still – while peaceful – pessimistic and that, “People are not feeling good about what they perceive is going to happen.” Suffice to say, President Biden still isn’t popular here (he won 10% of the vote in 2020).
On January 6th, 2021 some Holmes County residents – including prominent citizens and business owners – joined thousands of others in Washington to protest what they believe was a fraudulent presidential election and result. Jones condemns the violence at the Capitol, but – like most Republicans – does not hold former President Trump responsible. “A few, very, very, very small minority of people attacked, bad actors if you want to call them that,” Jones said.
Jones said Democrats and a biased mainstream media continue to use the January 6th Capitol riots in Washington to make President Trump and his supporters look idiotic, as they often do as part of a sustained effort to delegitimize their political views. “They are trying to paint the President with a tar brush and everyone who supports him. They want to take retaliatory action against us because of what we believe.”
Half a year later, Jones sees little hope for reducing the divisiveness that plagued the Trump years, blaming it on the Democratic Party now in power in Washington. Essentially, he sees the Democrats as bad-faith actors bent on destroying their enemies – which includes almost everyone living in Holmes County. “I don’t think the Democrats want to bring people together frankly,” he said. “If they had, they wouldn’t have pulled this impeachment thing at the last minute, the last week of the president’s term. They wouldn’t have vocally tried to promote the invocation of the 25th amendment which is just absurd…They’ve been violently fighting the president for four years, and so to turn around now and say let’s all work together – they don’t want that.”
Jones, like many supports of President Trump, harbors particular vitriol for the mainstream media, blaming it for driving hatred of the former president. “People feel like the media is biased, it’s pretty obvious…So much of the press tries to act like they are objective and they are not,” he said. “Their hatred of the president is just unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime. I’ve never seen an American so hated by so many people for no reason at all…It’s a terrible situation.” Continuing bans of President Trump from social media maintain the view among his supporters of a conspiracy aimed at silencing him and his supporters.
Jones said that although Holmes County’s support for the former president is adamant, he emphasizes that it is peaceful and he doesn’t expect more violence. While he rails against how the Capitol riot has been used as a propaganda tool by Democrats, he said he firmly opposed the rioters’ violent actions that day.
At the same time, he expects no decrease in the state’s vigorous political combat. He sees the state trending toward Republicans. “Florida is going to continue to be a battleground because it’s a changing state, an evolving state,” he said.
On the national front, Jones has low expectations for political and national reconciliation. “Some people think the Democratic Party and its position is hypocritical, everything they do is hypocritical and I don’t see that changing.”
Born as Ronald Newkirk in 1949, Ronald Shaheed, 71, grew up in the strictly segregated Holmes County seat of Bonifay. Now living in North Carolina, Shaheed exiled himself from Holmes County when he could decades ago and has chosen not to return.
Shaheed attended African American schools until integration reached the Panhandle – then solidly part of Dixie – in 1965. “Segregation was just a fact of life,” Shaheed said. “Up until integrating the schools, [the Civil Rights Movement] wasn’t as real for us…We saw things in the rest of the county, but…as young people it only became a reality when we were thrust into this whole thing.”
Integrating into a white school at age 15 turned out to be a mixed-bag for Shaheed. On the positive side, he found encouragement and support from white teachers and school staff. “Some…saw what they thought was potential in me and tried to encourage me,” he said. “One of the teachers…tried to encourage me to consider being a lawyer and she wanted to help me get into Harvard.”
At 6’4” he also caught the eye of the white basketball coach and was recruited to the team as a starter and one of the first African American players in the local league. It was here where his experience with some of his white peers became traumatic.
American high school is a Darwinian experience for anyone, but when combined with racial bigotry, it was particularly toxic for Shaheed and his African American peers who pioneered integration in the Panhandle. “I remember our first away basketball game – my coach, he probably was a religious person, but I never saw him that way – but we had to kneel in prayer before we did warm-ups,” Shaheed said. “That kinda told me it was going to be a difficult time. I do remember this one guy running around the arena every time there was a time out with a huge Confederate flag.”
Shaheed said racial slurs from white students were “commonplace.” He learned to block it out, saying he “learned how to turn off the crowd.” Still, he hints at the deep lacerations of racial hostility inflicted on African American children at the dawn of integration. “The kind of treatment we got from the students – not all the students – it was enough to make it a traumatic experience for many of us,” he said. “A lot had to do with our tenacity to hold on and not let these incidents discourage us.” Shaheed also said his coach helped him cope with the hostility.
In spite of the encouragement of his teachers, at that point, Harvard existed in a different world – one beyond Shaheed’s horizons as an African American in the segregated Florida Panhandle. “No one in my family had ever gone to college. And so I couldn’t see it,” he said. “I think back on it and I think [my teacher and her husband] were considering sponsoring me to go to Harvard. But I couldn’t see that. I think my limited view of the world was cultivated by being in segregation and not knowing about all the different things that could be offered in the world. I didn’t come to that kind of thinking until I went away to college and began to do some self-study and reading…We didn’t even have a library that was available to us. Books were a rarity for us…It’s not one of those areas we were encouraged to use.”
But as a youth Shaheed was a voracious reader – initially of comic books and the newspaper – and he was able to advance academically. “Environmental circumstances have a lot to do with how one develops,” Shaheed said. “It doesn’t have everything to do with how you develop. I think segregation harmed me less than it harmed my peers…I think I got privileges that my peers didn’t get.”
“What you aspire to has a lot to do with what you do,” Shaheed said. “If you don’t aspire to something bigger and better, chances are you’ll miss those opportunities if they come. I think part of the tragedy of segregation for African Americans is that it presents an environmental problem for your thinking, for your aspirations.”
In 1967 he left Holmes County for junior college then went to Berea College in Kentucky to get his bachelor’s degree in sociology. He came back to Florida to the historically African American Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee where he received a master’s degree in education, guidance, and counseling.
At the same time, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Shaheed’s geographic world expanded, his spiritual and political world grew through the Black Power movement. Perhaps not coincidentally, he transitioned from the dominant white supremacist culture his youth in Holmes County to militant Black separatism when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1973. “I thought at that time that joining the Nation of Islam was the way to go for doing something for ourselves,” he said. “Of course it had the rhetoric that was very separatist and it was demonizing white people as the cause of all our problems. I didn’t fully buy the rhetoric, but the rhetoric was there.”
His reticence in fully accepting the Nation of Islam’s rigid worldview prompted Shaheed to keep searching.
In 1975 Warith Deen Mohammed – son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad – assumed leadership of the movement when his father died. Deen Mohammed promptly discarded its separatist ideology and aligned it with mainstream Sunni Islam, among other major reforms. Shaheed warmly embraced the shift. “I was one of the first one’s who said ‘Yeah!’ because my spirit had never really been converted to [the Nation of Islam’s] ideology.”
Eventually, the new movement led by Deen Mohammed was renamed the American Society of Muslims. Shaheed thrived within the new agenda that remained grounded in Islam, focused on African American community uplift, but also now dedicated to interracial and interreligious understanding.
He became an imam, hosted radio and TV shows on Islam, helped Deen Mohammed publish books, opened Muslim schools, became a Muslim chaplain in Florida prisons, and was Director of Multicultural Student Services at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
His immersion in Islam took him far from Bonifay. Often at the side of Deen Mohammed, he visited Mecca, Jerusalem, and Rome on spiritual pilgrimages and as part of delegations fostering interreligious dialogue.
Now settled near Charlotte, North Carolina, Shaheed hasn’t been back to Holmes County in a long time. He says that’s mostly for economic reasons. “If a young person was blessed to go to college, chances are that they didn’t come back because there would be no way to be employed,” he said. Holmes County remains largely rural and agricultural, so there are few opportunities for professionals with graduate degrees.
Shaheed doesn’t express bitterness about his youth in Holmes County. But he does hint at the pain that keeps him away even from high school reunions. “I haven’t done it,” he said. “I believe that I would be treated fairly and people would be happy to see me return to a class reunion, but I had some terrible experiences.”
Reconciliation is difficult when one or both sides are certain of the absolute righteous of their cause and the irredeemable vileness of the other side. This stance transmutes disagreement into war. This stance means that reducing political polarization in the United States is likely to be very, very slow.
Bob Jones’ assessment seems to support this. “I don’t think the opinions of the people of Holmes County are going to change,” he said. “I think they still support the president. I personally am appalled that we had civil disturbances throughout  and we’ve seen very little efforts on the behalf of Democrats to suppress them or condemn then.”
Not opposed to compromise in principle, Jones asserted that, “Republicans have always been people who always tend to compromise” and that the Democrats are bent on conquest rather than comity. “If you look back at legislative history, the [Republican] party were usually the compromisers, they tried to work together…I don’t believe that’s what the Democratic Party wants to do today.”
Like almost all Americans, he laments the country’s polarization, but blames it on Democrats. “This divisiveness, it’s been driven by them for four years. They stood by all year long while police were demonized and rioting and really never attempted to stop it – in fact in many cases gave tacit support to it.”
But in a crucial shift identifying a potential building block for civil, productive discourse, Jones said that in Holmes County itself, residents’ interactions – outside the realm of politics – are harmonious. “People get along pretty good together, we don’t have any…divisiveness,“ he said. “Holmes County folks are good folks.”
Ronald Shaheed wholeheartedly agrees. “[They] are good, decent people,” he said, adding that Holmes County residents are “salt of the earth type people and they want what everybody else wants.”
Now in peaceful self-imposed exile in North Carolina, Shaheed sees part of the problem of polarization arising from isolation. “It has a lot to do isolation and not having a choice about how you’re going to see the world.”
But echoing Jones assessment that on a day-to-day basis people tend to get along – including in his community in North Carolina that includes plenty of Trump supporters – Shaheed said that the country’s polarization is one-dimensional, but it’s a dimension that sadly seems to increasingly overshadow other parts of our lives.
“I do think it’s political more than anything,” Shaheed said. “I think when it comes to human beings living with each other, I haven’t seen the polarization there. I think people know that we have to live together.”
One action we can take is to widen the aperture of our lives. “I think the biggest problem…is that we have got to stop judging people on one aspect of [lives]. You may support Donald Trump, that doesn’t mean I can’t support you as a human being, as an American,” Shaheed said.
“We have to be fair, human beings are works in progress,” he added. “It’s going to take all of us reflecting on ourselves. That doesn’t mean that we still don’t have a problem for people that are different in this country.”
Even in the days following the January 6 insurrection Shaheed continued to hope for – but not expect – transformation. “I do understand that people grow and they change,” he said. “And we don’t always function so well as human beings, but we weren’t born that way. Since we weren’t born that way there’s always hope.”
Andrew Wainer is a researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. Feel free to reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @AndrewWainer