The City vs. County Political Divide in Rockbridge

Nov 7, 2016

In Rockbridge County, as in many others in Virginia, there is a divide between those who live in the county and those who live in the city.  Those differences are laid bare during election season, with Trump signs dominating the county and Clinton signs prevailing in the city of Lexington. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler talks to voters about the stark political divide expressed by the signs and how it’s widened during what could be called the ugliest Presidential election in history.

[sound of driving down a country road]

Driving around Rockbridge County, VA, you’re going to see a lot of farms, grazing horses, monster trucks and a whole lot of Trump signs.

JESSIE KNADLER: Trump sign on the left, Trump sign on the right. And there’s a big one telling me to “Make American great again.” Trump country.

And in the town of Lexington?  It’s home to two universities full of cultured professors, one vegan restaurant and a lot more Hillary signs.

The city/country divide is nothing new. It plays out in counties from Maine to Montana. Polls consistently show Clinton beating Trump in more urban areas while Trump leads Clinton in rural areas. Seven thousand people live in Lexington compared to 22,000 in the county. Trump is expected to win around here.

But there’s a level of ugliness in 2016 that most voters haven’t seen in their lifetime.  The stories that have dominated this election -- “bitherism,” immigration, sexism, lying, chants of “Lock Her Up”— are so loaded and offensive to so many voters that the signs have deepened a divide that really can’t get much deeper. The rancor has made talking politics with those on “the other side” particularly challenging.

JAY CLARK: There’s been a coarsening of political discourse. It has gotten worse.

That’s Jay Clark. He’s a retired history professor. His wife teaches at Virginia Military Institute.

CLARK:   Particularly in the county, I’ve made it a habit not to talk politics. Increasingly, I’m finding political conversation not terribly useful, to put it politely.  We talk past each other. I believe in science. I believe in empirical knowledge. And it’s tough to deal with the irrational.  For example, how do you argue with someone who doesn’t believe in climate change?

PAM GRINDER: It’s the most divisive it’s been in my entire life.

Pam Grinder is another blue outlier in red Rockbridge. She moved to the County from northern Virginia five years ago.

GRINDER: When I first moved here, my neighbors, they said, are you a Democrat? I said, yeah, how can you tell? She said, you look like a Democrat and you talk like a Democrat. We never mentioned politics at all. I felt a little proud it was that obvious, but concerned. So am I the only [Democrat] here? And everybody shook their head, yes. And I thought, why did we leave Arlington, VA, which is all blue, to come here where I’m the county Democrat?

Her main beef with Trump is the hostility he inspires.

GRINDER: I think that people have had views against gays and minorities but they were talking about these things around the kitchen table. Now it’s fine to advertise your prejudice to anybody in the world.

For many Democrats and non Trump supporting Republicans, a Trump sign can seem like a kind of short hand for that prejudice.

GRINDER: I have many reasons not to support Trump but number one is the hatred and bigotry he has shown and encouraged in his supporters.

Grinder no longer bothers to talk politics in open company, not even with her closest county friend who leans red.

GRINDER: I think we’re good enough friends that we don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings. I’d never convince her, she’d never convince me and we value our friendship more than an impossible conversation. It’s the elephant or the donkey in the room.

Charles Kostelini is a Republican who also lives in Rockbridge County. He’s a local businessman, married father of two. At first, he resisted advertising his support for Trump because of the candidate’s inflammatory style, but later decided the problems facing the country were too great to keep silent.

KOSTELNI: There are a lot of issues pulling at the fabric of our country….the immigration issue where we’re bringing people in that are known threats to our country. The Muslim concerns with regard to their wanting to….take over large parts of the world…

He paused here because it’s a sensitive issue to talk about. He emphasized that he is not anti-Muslim, that he believes there are many great Muslims and Muslim Americans.  But he takes the long, long view. His in-laws are Greek immigrants. Stories about Muslim occupation during the Ottoman Empire are a reminder of what can and does happen throughout history.

KOSTELNI: Speaking to them, you realize these issues may not seem so important today, they may not look that way, but you could wake up tomorrow and realize something has gone way too far. The ability to address it then is difficult or impossible. 

He says he hopes that Americans can help those that need help regardless of religion. That said, a vote for Trump is to err on the side of caution. Kostelini’s line in the sand, so to speak, was to put up some Trump signs in his yard.

KOSTELNI: My feeling was that the more signs we could get out there, the more comfortable people would feel about putting signs in their yard. People would realize there’s a lot more support for the movement to take back our country.

He ended up giving some signs to other Trump supporters in the County whose own signs had been stolen or vandalized. I asked him if he’s experienced any sort of blowback from left leaning colleagues and neighbors when they realized he’s voting for Trump.

KOSTELNI: Absolutely. People are very funny, very sensitive. They think you’re going to be sensitive too so they don’t always know how to take you. People avoid the conservation.

Even though he’s voting for one of the most controversial candidates in history, sign or no sign, Kostelni says he actually misses the days when people could talk openly about their differences.

KOSTELNI: No party or ideology has a monopoly on THE right answer. The right answer comes from people coming from different walks of life, coming together and arguing and “making sausage,” as they say. That is suffering and why we are in such a critical place. We’ve got to learn how to do that again.

It’s far too late for this Election. But by 2020—who knows?