When your childhood hero turns into a Trumpist

By the time our plane touched down in Atlanta last month, it had been three years since my family had been back in the Deep South to visit relatives and friends. Two years of pandemic restrictions kept us from making our annual summer visit, one that was particularly important for our two children, who were being raised outside the US and missed many family occasions.

We were excited, but also a little anxious. On our last trip, in 2019, I found myself arguing at dinner with a relative after he commented that mass shootings in America were simply “the price of living in a free society”. Others in the restaurant couldn’t help noticing that I lost my cool — including my children, who were mortified to see their father causing a minor scene. Was more yelling in our future? A few relatives had taken what we felt were rather extreme positions on Covid-19, so our shields were up.

It was hard not to think about the ruptured state of American politics as we made our way along a two-lane back road to one family gathering. Along a stretch lined by pastureland, we spotted a barn plastered with a giant Trump-Pence campaign banner that had been altered for the post-January 6 insurrection era. Mike Pence’s name had been painted over, presumably by a Trump loyalist who believed the election was stolen and the former vice-president a coward or worse.

A little farther down the road, we began to see signs promoting the US Senate campaign of Republican Herschel Walker, a Donald Trump ally and a man who also happened to have been one of my sports heroes when I was growing up in Georgia. Seeing Walker’s name took me back to New Year’s Day 1981, when I sat on a patch of shag carpet in front of a large, wood-encased console TV set and watched him deliver the national college championship for the Georgia Bulldogs, my favourite American football team growing up.

College football is a second religion in the Bible Belt south and, in those days, Walker was a secular saint in Georgia. Not only did he win the championship in his first year, but we would learn later that Walker had also played most of the game with a dislocated shoulder that had to be snapped back into its socket. I wonder how many football-loving Georgians will consider Walker’s remarkable sports achievements as qualification for the Senate when they vote in November.

I admired Walker when I was young, but the idea of him serving in the upper chamber of Congress fills me with dread. His candidacy was championed by Trump, who sees him as a credible challenger to the Democratic incumbent, Raphael Warnock. Both men are black. Walker played on a professional team owned by Trump in the 1980s, appeared on his show The Celebrity Apprentice and was appointed to serve on his administration’s fitness council. No surprise, then, that Walker has echoed the former president’s lies that the 2020 election was rigged.

Since joining the race, several of Walker’s claims, including that he served in law enforcement and graduated at the top of his college class, have been exposed as false, and he has been accused by his former wife of holding a gun to her head. (He has said he cannot remember the incident due to dissociative-identity disorder.) Having Walker in the Senate, where he could amplify whatever conspiracy theories Trump is touting, strikes me as an especially bad idea when the country is in such a volatile state.

This year marked the moment I have lived outside the south longer than I lived in it. There is still much that I love about my birthplace, but I quit using nuanced explanations and soft reasoning to defend it a long time ago. What persists, however, is a belief that the region is on a slow path towards progress, a belief inspired by the great Georgia native Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote that the moral arc of the universe “bends toward justice”. 

Lately it has been hard to see much evidence of this, at least from afar. But then I recall that it was a pair of Georgia Republicans — the state governor, Brian Kemp, and the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger — who resisted pressure from Trump to invalidate the 2020 election results there. Their courage, along with that of a few Republicans, offers hope that, at a time when there is talk of a new civil war, there could be a way for a divided country to find common ground.

In a small way, we achieved this on our family visit. Even in my football-loving family, Walker’s candidacy didn’t come up. It turns out that after three years apart, we were all far too happy to see each other to fight about politics.

Christopher Grimes is the FT’s Los Angeles bureau chief

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