A couple of weeks ago a video emerged of Donald Trump boasting that he grabbed women "by the pussy". The same day, I decided to visit a gun show in Natchez, Mississippi.
I drove there from New Orleans where, in a no-frills diner serving the city’s best poboys (crisp-shelled, fluffy-guts baguettes overflowing with spicily-battered shrimp), I'd got talking to a local about the election. It's not the only conversation in town - there's always sports - but Trumptalk is ubiquitous (and, in fact, NFL ratings have cratered, with pundits blaming a boring season which can't compete with the political fireworks). Only hotel lobbies pretend the country isn't being torn in two. Their TVs are all tuned to the football, so receptionists aren't berated by sane patrons offended by Fox, or Trumpers frothing at the election-rigging going on at every other network.
|I didn't take any pictures of the poboy shack. Here's Nicholas Cage's tomb instead
The poboy customer, a black filmmaker, told me Trump represented the last gasp of an entitled white demographic. To its horror, he said, it is about to become part of just another minority in the US. He seemed relaxed about Trump's chances.
Three hours north they weren't relaxed at all.
Natchez is a pretty little town on the southern bank of the Mississippi. In the 19th century, it was the site of the second largest slave market in America. In the 1960s, it was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. Racists belonging to an offshoot of the KKK, called the Silver Dollar Group (every member carried a coin minted with the year of his birth), murdered at least eight black men in the area during that time (but got away scot-free). So fervent was their fear of equality, the good bhurgers of Natchez endorsed an order to assassinate Martin Luther King, who took it sufficiently seriously that he refused to stop in the town whenever he had to pass through it.
Today, there is a small museum dedicated to African American history in Natchez, but there are also signs that its ugly past is not completely buried. Some of those signs are literal, like the one for tourists outside a chic antique store which was once a segregated concert hall. It attempts to put a positive spin on Jim Crow, stating that, “although black and white audiences were separated, they could both enjoy the same music”.
And four years ago, letters of the cinema sign advertising Men in Black 3 in 3D, The Avengers and Dark Shadows were rearranged to read, “Niger 3D, Dark, Black Men”.
But on my visit, the signs drawing attention were for the GUN SHOW, held at the drab Civic Center in the middle of town, where pick-up trucks the size of small moons filled the parking lot. Photography was strictly forbidden and, when I paid my $7, a sheriff asked me if I had any concealed weapons and to turn them in.
|Hand stamp/shopping note
Inside, plump folk manned their stalls and plump browsers ambled. The only difference between the gun show and a bric-a-brac sale was the guns. Pistols, hunting rifles, shotguns, semi-automatics. All available to anyone thanks to the controversial gun show loophole, which means that under federal law sellers are not required to perform background checks on buyers.
|Hooray, kids under six go free!
I stopped at Greg's stall. Greg bore an uncanny resemblance to James Woods (who happens to also hold pretty extreme views on the election) and was the only person I saw who was literally wild-eyed. Pacing the area in the middle of his rectangle of stalls like, well, James Woods, he was also one of the only stall-holders who wasn't selling lethal weapons, although they might get you killed. Whereas other non-gun sellers flogged night vision goggles or outrageous knives, Greg sold humorous slogan T-shirts.
'ISIS lives SPLATTER'
'Winning hearts and minds ...One in the heart, Two in the mind'
'Infidels for Trump'
Greg was very proud of his slogans. "I made them all up myself,” he said. “Isn't this one great?" Sniggering, he held up a T-shirt:
'Is it cos I is BLACK?...'
He turned it round.
'Don't be 'haterz'...'
I didn't tell him that all of them would have made me feel like I was wearing John McClane's sandwich board from Die Hard With A Vengeance. Apart from, perhaps, 'If you heard the bang, you weren't the target!'
Why Trump, I asked Greg. "He's a businessman. We need America to be run more like a business." Is a businessman whose businesses have gone bankrupt on several occasions the right businessman? "In the US, it's sensible to declare bankruptcy at a certain point,” he said. ”It's good business."
"Look," he allowed, "he's not the ideal candidate." You'd have preferred just about any other billionaire? "Sure." But after a few minutes of talking to Greg, it became clear that he wasn't attracted to Trump just for his business acumen. "In the UK, you've got real problems," Greg informed me. "With Muslims flooding in." He grabbed another T-shirt. "How about this one? So true right?"
'Black GUNS Matter'.
Greg's fears of a deadly African American uprising seemed unfounded, at least in the hall. There were only five black people there, and the two who were stall-holders sold pepper spray. A pair of excessively cheerful young men, it was tempting to read their rictus grins and perspiration as signs of terror. After all, we all knew they were one sudden move away from getting drilled into oblivion by the vigilant browsers.
Bob, a gentle-eyed gun store owner who said he wasn’t voting, convinced me of the fetishist appeal of his wares. He pointed out a chunky silver magnum .357. And how light death could be, in the form of a diminutive lady gun with a pink rubber grip.
Why did people want to carry concealed weapons? "Who do you want to be standing next to if someone bursts in here with a pistol?" he said. "The guy holding a gun for everyone to see, or me carrying a concealed weapon? Who's the bonehead going to shoot at first?" The guy with the gun he can see? "Right."
So do lots of people carry? "Let me put it this way. Everyone in here will be carrying a concealed weapon." Didn't we have to check them in? "Sure."
Has he ever fired at anyone? "I used to be a bounty hunter. A couple of times back then." He didn't elaborate. Or believe me when I said that Britain felt pretty safe even though the police mostly carried sticks.
"Sure there are boneheads here," he said. "That's why if someone takes out a gun for me to look at in my store, I take it right outta their hands. They go, 'It's not loaded!' I open it up. What's in there?" A bullet? "Uh-huh. Always one in the chamber. Always."
A man in a duck-hunter vest sat under a row of hunting prints clipped to a length of twine. On the table in front of him lay a drawing of a chocolate box homestead in small-town USA, with an American flag fluttering in the background and a large mailbox front and centre. "So, what you're gonna do is, you buy one of my artworks," he said, "and I send one of these prints to a fallen soldier's family free of charge, with their name written on the mailbox." That's lovely, I said. "I've had so much support. They're so grateful."
By the exit was a small table manned by a pair of reedy, bespectacled identical twins called Patrick and Paul. They were selling Trump memorabilia, including the must-have of the 2016 election cycle, the Make America Great Again cap.
"Oh, those have been a real pain to get hold of," said Patrick.
"Sure," said Paul. "We placed orders with the campaign and it took - oh boy, one batch took over six months to arrive."
"Totally disorganised," said Patrick. If the twins had considered the worrying implications of a Trump administration which could not, in its larval stage, send out some hats, they didn't appear to care.
|Wearing the totemic headgear I felt transformed, virile
Civil War buffs, the twins recommended a few must-see battlegrounds in the area. I said I could hazard a guess which side they were on. They looked at me suspiciously. "Confederate," said Patrick. Or Paul. "Our grandpappy fought."
Feeling guilty for fuelling the Trumponomy, I nonetheless bought a cap and a 'Trump that Bitch' bumper sticker. As they struggled with the arithmetic, I noticed a small placard hidden amongst the merchandise. It said something in German in gothic script, and I looked away quickly in case they caught me staring.
As I left I realised my Make America Great Again cap was Made in China. Outside, a man in a hurry sat on a bollard loading his new pistol.
|TFW when you can't wait to get home before opening a toy