Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Walk around the sprawling campsites at the Bristol Motor Speedway here in the green hills of Tennessee, and you know you’re deep in Trump country.
Cars buzz around this half-mile track, practicing for the night NASCAR races here. National Rifle Association signs are omnipresent, as the track hosts the only race in NASCAR’s top circuit with NRA branding. A pop-up city of RVs sprawls outside the speedway, with many displaying spreads of barbecue and booze. And Confederate flags flap in the wind from the encampments.
This year there’s finally a president who intuitively understands this NASCAR culture, even if the New York billionaire is hardly of it. So for the most part, if you mention Trump, faces light up with some mixture of joy and aggrievement.
“Trump is the only one standing up and saying what we think, and it’s getting him in trouble,” said Jerry McVay, 59, after examining a display of gold-plated firearms for sale bearing Trump’s motto: Make America Great Again. “The ones that didn’t vote for him are acting like little brats.”
Donald Trump’s seven months in Washington have netted little in the way of meaningful legislative accomplishments or even enforceable executive edicts. Yet many in this crowd said they feel more permission to be outspoken on issues once viewed as sensitive, like race. And in interviews with more than 50 fans here, nearly all have seen divisions in their lives growing wider, with sharper lines between those who support Trump and those who don’t.
The president’s unapologetic style most recently caused controversy after he insisted that there was blame on both sides for the violence at a rally of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Va. A peaceful protester was killed there when a car plowed into a crowd, and a man who had earlier been photographed at the white supremacist protest has been charged with second-degree murder. It’s become the darkest chapter of Trump’s short presidency.
In Boston during the weekend, tens of thousands of people marched against bigotry and hate, a counterprotest that completely eclipsed the roughly 50 who heeded the call of the Boston Free Speech Coalition, an organization that civil rights activists claim is linked to hate groups. After a Twitter post in which Trump referred to “many anti-police agitators” in Boston, the president offered supportive words for the anti-hate protesters. “I want to applaud the many protesters in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate,” he tweeted. “Our country will soon come together as one!”
But here at the speedway, demonstrations like the one in Boston were viewed as anti-Trump statements from a part of the country that doesn’t support the president. This is the deep well of strength Trump has tapped: people who don’t consider themselves extremists but find fault with what they see as liberals who won’t embrace the president.
The notion of the “politically correct” was mocked by many in the crowd. Some took turns riding a blow-up bull at one campsite that race-goers named “Jenner” after Caitlyn Jenner, the most prominent transgender woman in the country. One man explained that he doesn’t talk politics with his wife because she’s “uninformed.”
“The white people are starting to stand up,” said Miller “Bud” Fulton, 56, who sat out near his camper sipping beer one evening last week with his son. “You’ve got a movement going on.”
Fulton, who drove to the racetrack from Ohio, wanted to be clear about one thing: “I’m not a Klan member. I’m not a racist.”
He was already looking to the 2018 midterm elections, in which he believed voters would elect candidates to Congress who would be more supportive of Trump’s agenda. He predicted more demonstrations like the ones in Charlottesville.
To underline his point, Fulton gestured to the campground dotted with Confederate banners and said: “Look at all the flags flying.”
ONE CAMPER FLYING A Confederate flag was owned by Paul and Cathy Peary, a couple from Addison, Pa., who drove out for the races and met up with a boisterous group of friends.
The flag is brand new. Paul Peary, 52, bought it after the Charlottesville demonstrations to support keeping Confederate monuments in place.
“With what’s going on with the statues, that is a part of American history that is being snuffed out,” said Paul Peary, echoing an argument made by Trump.
Though NASCAR tried to discourage flying the Confederate flag in 2015, fans rebelled, and this week T-shirts with the flag were for sale along with the banner by the racetrack.
The Pearys also flew a flag with Trump’s name on it — a display that hardly stood out on the campgrounds. They said nobody asked them about it.
But in the world beyond Bristol’s NASCAR gathering, the Pearys’ display had caused outcry — and opened one more microdivision in a country where social groups are increasingly splitting along political lines.
Cathy Peary, 55, posted a photo of the flags on a Facebook group called “RV Pajama Party” — it’s mostly filled with recreational vehicle enthusiasts posting funny photos of themselves.
The picture drew immediate ire from the group, as more than 200 comments poured in, many of them negative. The group’s organizer asked Cathy Peary to delete the picture.
“It’s called freedom of speech. If these people don’t want to support our president of the United States, forget it,” she added. “It’s just amazing. It’s just totally amazing.”
She decided then and there to withdraw from the group of more than 10,000 members, even though she was one of the earliest members.
THE DIVISIONS AREN’T JUST among those who like Trump and those who don’t. Or those who see the Confederate flag as a symbol of heritage and those who see it as a symbol of hate. Even those who agree that Trump was the right choice for America have spent the past seven months disagreeing about him.
Angie Powell, 53, said she’s largely glad that the “P.C. culture” is being chipped away and that people are more willing to speak their minds without fear of offending various groups. But she’s noticed a downside.
“It feels like once the politically incorrect thing started dropping, the crazies were off their leash,” Powell added. “They just felt like they can do anything.”
One example is gay rights: She said she liked seeing progress made in that area. “They were making such headway,” she said. “I feel like they are getting pushed back a little bit, and that bothers me.”
She voted for Trump, but the world hasn’t quite changed the way she expected. For one thing, her husband promised he’d stop yelling at the television after the campaign ended. Instead, it’s gotten worse, and she’s floored by it.
“I thought the anger would end,” she said.
She turned to her husband, Roger Powell, 56, who was standing with her.
“Do you not feel like conversations now are so much more divided?” she asked him. “We even have trouble talking sometimes on issues.”
Roger acknowledged the tension and his tendency to get hyped up watching Fox News or listening to talk radio.
“She just tells me . . .” he said, trailing off. “She just walks away.”
The most recent flashpoint came last week.
“I freaked out about the stuff that went on in Charlottesville,” Roger Powell said. “I’m not against the people that have problems with the Confederacy. That’s fine. But tearing down these statues . . .”
THERE WAS UNIVERSAL condemnation among those interviewed by the Globe for the white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching at Charlottesville, even as Trump supporters were willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt for appearing to draw a moral equivalency between hate groups and peaceful protesters.
“It’s sad and frustrating to see what happened, and you feel sort of somewhat responsible to speak on it,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., the NASCAR legend, during a news conference in Bristol last week. The driver has denounced the Confederate flag in the past, writing in his book that “the rebel flag represents closed-minded, racist views that have no place in today’s society.”
But asked about Charlottesville, Earnhardt avoided specifically criticizing anyone. “It’s really frustrating because we ought to be better than that,” he said. “We ought to be smarter than that, than to be trying to tear each other apart.”
During the 2016 campaign, NASCAR CEO Brian France cemented a tie between the sport and Trump, the then-controversial Republican front-runner. France appeared at a Trump rally in February 2016, held in Valdosta, Ga., just before Super Tuesday, when 11 states voted in the Republican primaries and caucuses.
“He wins with his family,” France said, according to media accounts. “Any of his children, you’d be proud to have them as part of your family. That’s how I judge a winner, how somebody manages their family and raises their family.”
France declined to comment for this story. But NASCAR officialdom has offered generalized remarks about Charlottesville, appearing to conflate the violence there with the terror attack in Barcelona on Thursday that killed 14 and injured 80 people. “We are saddened by recent tragic events around the world and feel strongly there is no place for bigotry, racism, hatred, or violence in our society,” said Brent Dewar, the president of NASCAR, in a statement to the Globe.
IT WAS RARE to find a Democrat in this crowd, so Mike and LaDonna Frecker were among the minority. The couple sat out by a camper and talked about how Trump’s rise has affected them, too.
“More hate,” said LaDonna Frecker. “We have some friends that used to be friends, but because of all this we aren’t.”
One friendship ripped apart in November 2015, when then-candidate Trump mocked a disabled reporter at a rally. A story about it was posted on Facebook, triggering a fight between Mike Frecker and his wife’s cousin, named Jimmy, who supported Trump and has a disabled daughter.
“I said, ‘Of all people it should bother you,’ ” Frecker said.
He recalled the online conversation, noting that he’d said: “You of all people. What if somebody made a comment about your daughter?”
The cousin “got real belligerent,” Frecker recalled.
Then, as he was thinking about the frayed relationship, Frecker paused. He closed his eyes. He punched the air a few times. He wiped his eye.
He’s seen cousin Jimmy a few times in the past two years. Sometimes they say “hey.” But they don’t hang out with him at the baseball games Jimmy coaches any more. Or at birthday parties.
That’s it. They don’t talk any more.
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