Morality in a box

In rural Georgia, an unlikely rebel against Trumpism

By Stephanie McCrummen, December 22 at 6:00 AM


BEULAH, Ga. — As he pulled into the parking lot of Beulahland Baptist Church on Election Day last month, nearly everything about Cody Johnson suggested he would vote a certain way.

He was White. He was 33. He was an electrician with no college degree. He had a beard and a used pickup with 151,000 miles, and he was angry at what the country was becoming. Most of all, he was from northwest Georgia, a swath of rural America where people who looked like him had voted in large majorities to send Donald Trump to the White House and Marjorie Taylor Greene to Congress, many of them swept up in the emotional appeal at the heart of the Trump movement, which Greene now deployed in her own rallies.

“They hate you,” she would say, casting politicians as elitists, conspirators, communists, pedophiles and enemies of America — by which she always meant a certain kind of America, one that created the kind of person Johnson was expected to be.

Now he took a last inhale on his vape, walked into the polling place and voted against all of that. He voted against Greene, whom he called “an embarrassment.” He voted against the Trump-backed U.S. Senate candidate, Herschel Walker, because he didn’t want “some stupid s— to happen.” He voted against every single Republican on the ballot for the same reason he supported Joe Biden in 2020, which had been the first time he voted in his life.

“I don’t want extremists in office,” he said, walking back to his truck. “And I have some small glimmer of hope that maybe things aren’t as screwed up as I think they are.”

All across the country, a similar uprising was underway as an unexpected tide of people showed up for midterm elections, turning what was supposed to be a rout for the Republican Party into a repudiation of Trumpism. In Arizona, voters rejected candidates who embraced white nationalist ideas and conspiracy theories about election fraud. In Pennsylvania, they rejected a candidate who said America is a Christian nation. Similar results had rolled in from New Mexico, Nevada, Virginia and other states including Georgia, where Walker would lose in a runoff earlier this month. Even in the deep-red 14th Congressional District, Greene saw her winning margin from 2020 slip by 10 percentage points, and one reason was Cody Johnson.

* * *

How Johnson became an unlikely part of an emerging voter revolt against Trumpism is not so much the story of some political strategy, or even the policies of the national Democratic Party, which has long been accused of ignoring places such as northwest Georgia.

Rather, it is the story of a thousand life experiences that add up to a certain kind of American character, one that can arise from the very landscape where the Trump movement took root.

For Johnson, the process was one of slow accumulation, and to explain this, he took a drive one day, tracing a childhood across the 14th District, an area that stretches from the Appalachian foothills to the outermost edges of Atlanta’s sprawl, encompassing farms and factories and one small town after another including the one where Johnson’s first memories were formed.

He drove past the prim shops of downtown Jasper, past the gas station where his mother had worked, and the marble quarry where his father had worked for 20 years. He stopped in front of a weedy lot where his house used to be. He remembered two things.

One was his parents’ fighting, which left him with an urge for escape. The other had to do with his father, who, Johnson remembered, had him carry heavy marble blocks from one corner of the yard to another, back and forth for hours.

“I was always in trouble,” Johnson said, explaining that this was such a constant state of being that it became the bedrock of an identity. “I was the troublemaker. I guess I just always remember kind of not going with the group, no matter what.”

He continued driving down a narrow, pine-shaded road until he stopped at a cluster of low brick buildings that was a housing project where he lived after his parents divorced, and where his neighbors were White and Black and poor. He remembered two more things.

The first was the image of his mother putting away groceries in the kitchen as he tried out a racial slur he’d picked up on the playground. He remembered the box of macaroni and cheese she had in her hand at that moment, and the feeling of the box slapping his face, and the sound of her yelling, “You’re not better than anybody,” and the shame he felt as he cleaned the noodles off the floor, thinking of his best friend, who was Black, and his friend’s father, who was always helping his mother out.

The second was his elementary school principal, a woman Johnson’s wife, Aliya, now refers to as “one of those blessed souls,” who noticed that he got in trouble all the time, and instead of punishing him, gave him the first book he ever read, “The Hobbit.”

“I remember there were all these themes about fighting the Dark Lord,” Johnson said, recalling how engrossed he became in stories of characters and their moral dilemmas, which had the effect of making him think about his own.

He was driving north now through brown and yellow fields, past two gun shops, four churches and a sunken barn with a cluster of flags — the American, the Confederate, the Trump — and soon he reached the outskirts of a town called Fairmount.

He turned onto a switchback, winding higher and higher along the mountain road until it narrowed and became dirt. He stopped in front of a long, overgrown driveway leading farther up the mountainside to a shack barely visible through the trees.

He remembered having to haul plastic jugs of water to the house, which had no running water. He remembered watching rocket launches on an old television with a rabbit ear antenna. He remembered wanting to be outside all the time, away from his father, reading about someplace else.

“See that tree right there?” he said, pointing into the woods at an oddly formed, L-shaped trunk where he’d sit for hours reading his fantasy books, and looking out over the blue mountain ridges.

“Everything on the outside seemed bigger and more complex than I could imagine,” he said, and soon he was winding down the other side of the mountain, accelerating onto a two-lane headed south, leaving behind a kind of place and a kind of life he might have had.

* * *

It was the sort of town that dots the northern part of the 14th District toward the Tennessee line, a barely surviving place where Trump ran up 80 percent of the vote in 2020.

Fairmount had streets named for deceased factory owners, a shuttered college and the town’s last practicing doctor. There used to be carpet mills, but now there was a plant that makes powdered chlorine, and another that made bricks. An IGA grocery anchored one end of town, an American Legion post the other, and in between were three gas stations, one diner, and an intersection where locals reliably shot out the one traffic light the county kept trying to install.

“People here do not like change,” said Connie Underwood, the clerk at the Citgo, explaining life in Fairmount one day. “Like if I moved the beef jerky, they’d get mad.”

She looked out the window at the 18-wheelers growling by. Another thing about Fairmount, she said. People never escaped their nicknames. She herself would forever be known as Tractor for an incident in a farm field a decade ago. Quaalude, Zipperhead, DoNo, Whitey, Big’un, Outlaw — all were grown men still answering for their youth.

“Whatcha need?” she said now to a regular, though she could anticipate the answer.

A pack of 24/7s, a Red Bull and a Fantasy 5. A pack of Pyramids, a Yoo-hoo and a Mega Millions. “Listen,” said a woman rushing in, breathless. “I want you to call him and see if I can get some gas,” she said as the clerk texted the owner about a credit. “Please. Tell him please.”

At the diner across the street, two men were talking about a huge cattle farm on the market, which led to a discussion of their changing world, which led one of them to say, “Sometimes I think they want this whole town to die.”

At another table, a 17-year-old was scrolling on his phone, saying, “I want to go to L.A. All the famous and all the important people live out there.”

At another, a man was saying to his friend, “Did you get to hurtin’ or what?”

“Yeah, I got to lay on that thing,” said the friend, referring to an MRI machine.

“I had to go for my liver. I get paranoid. Lady said, ‘You’re going to be okay.’ I said, ‘I am not.’ I said, ‘Back this thing out.’ They backed me out of there.”

At the Marathon gas station, a clerk named Sheila Balde was trying to think of the biggest thing to ever happen in Fairmount, something involving the whole town.

“Probably the Lomax murder was one,” she said, referring to an incident in 1978, in which an intruder one morning asked to use the phone of a couple named John and Ethel Lomax, then shot and killed the husband, and shot and injured his wife. “Will never forget it, either. Everybody was terrified. I was terrified.”

She tried to think of what else. She stared out the window.

“I guess the next thing was Trump,” she finally said.

She remembered how it felt when he first came on the scene — the pickups flying Trump flags, the freshly energized conversations over morning coffee.

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“It was like people woke up around here,” she said. “Bunch of people would go to the rallies and come back and talk. It just felt like he was for all of us. With Trump, it was like we could breathe.”

She thought about how it felt in Fairmount now.

“Can’t afford groceries, can’t afford gas, heating fuel is ridiculous — us poor people are dying. We’re stifled, smothered, sinking quick,” she said, turning to a regular. “What else for you, son?”

* * *

Johnson was speeding away from all that now, past billboards for disability lawyers and worn-out yards heaped with old appliances, and soon, he arrived in a speck of a place called Rydal, where he lived with his father as a young teenager, during a time he could now see as pivotal to who he would become. He stopped at a plywood-patched house by some railroad tracks.

When trains came, it felt like an earthquake. He felt his father becoming more stressed, so he’d take long walks and think about how he was going to survive this place. He’d walk to a creek nearby. He’d walk to no place in particular. Sometimes he’d walk a mile to a church because the breakfast was good, and finally agreed to be baptized because the preacher promised to bring his grandmother to the ceremony.

He loved his grandmother, who died not long after that. She was the one person who always seemed happy to see him. She’d hook up her oxygen tank and pick him up in her Gran Torino when it was not broken down, and they’d go to yard sales, which she called “loafering,” and she’d tell him how smart he was, and how proud of him she was, which made him want to make her proud. When he found out there were no pallbearers planned for her funeral, he organized five people to help bear her coffin to the grave, a discount plot overlooking a Pizza Hut, her name, Christine Rickman, on a small metal plaque pushed into the grass. He remembered thinking, “That’s what you get when you’re poor,” not in a bitter way, but in the way of realizing that the world would not necessarily bestow honor on the worthy. He remembered that, after she was buried, things seemed to break down further at home, as if the moral center of the family was gone.

“See that hellish thing?” he said now, pointing to an overgrown mound in the yard of the house.

Underneath was a pile of asphalt chunks left over from paving projects, he said, explaining how his father would have him haul pieces of rock to make borders around every tree, until the tension between them got so bad that he left.

“I was like, ‘Well, it’s on me now,’” Johnson said.

He was 15. He spent weeks on this floor or that couch in the homes of friends. He spent as much time as he could in the library, where one day he came upon a pocket-size book whose broken binding, dog-eared pages and rows of checkout stamps made him think it must be as important as any Bible, and so he began reading the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher of self-reliance.

“I remember he said something about the great men of history are no greater than you,” he said.

He remembered reading “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” and “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” and deciding he only needed himself to figure life out. “I realized all my choices were mine, and no one else’s,” he said.

He continued driving, past turnoffs where he had extended family who were versions of what he could have been. He had a relative who was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. He had a few who’d spent time in jail and prison. He had others who died young of heart attacks, respiratory issues, obesity, suicide and desperation he wanted to escape.

He kept going, past a subdivision where he lived for a while with the family of his best friend, whose grandfather was a vegan for moral reasons, a healthy and vigorous walker in his 70s who loved talking about Emerson, and he remembers thinking, “There is a different way to be.”

He passed near the house of another friend, one who died by suicide, and remembered how he learned afterward all the ways that his friend had tried to be a good person — for instance, by buying groceries for people without telling anyone — and he came to think this was another way to be, too.

He graduated from high school. He told the librarian he wanted to keep the Emerson essays, and she did not resist. He enlisted in the Army and got posted to South Korea, where he remembers how it felt telling fellow soldiers about his life for the first time, and looking out his window at the vast city of Daegu, thinking, “I could be on the side of the mountain right now, and I’m glad to be where I am.”

He returned home to northwest Georgia and started a life in which he tried to live according to his own moral compass. He got married. He had a daughter. He tried to help his mom out with money when he could. He became a union electrician and mentored apprentices. He avoided church, which he came to see as a death cult. He avoided politics, too, because he did not want to take part in a system that had only two parties, both of which he saw as geared toward helping the powerful instead of regular people like him and everyone he grew up around, from Jasper to Fairmount to Rydal. “There’s so much that could be done to help people,” he said. But after Trump was elected, and then Greene, politics became almost impossible to ignore.

“You couldn’t turn around without seeing some sticker, some post promoting violence and hate,” he said. It was the red hats, the flags, the conspiracy theories, the bullying, the racism. It was the sheer totality of how the Trump movement seemed to overtake peoples’ minds, he said.

“To me, anything that starts to dominate everything about you — when you can only interact with an ideal instead of have a conversation — I’m skeptical.”

But what was most insulting to him of all was the assumption that he would go along with all of it because of how he looked and where he lived. He started to feel like a spy. He had neighbors who made him aware of a bar near his house that was supposedly a gathering place for people in the white nationalist movement. He got a Facebook invitation to join some militia group, which he blocked. He had White co-workers who flagrantly used the n-word and made racist comments to him, and he came to enjoy their shock when he told them to cut it out.

“It was disgusting that people might think I was okay with that,” he said. “I decided I wasn’t going to just let it slide. Because if you let it slide, you become complicit, and complicity turns into guilt, and guilt turns into shame, and shame turns into fear, and I don’t want to live in fear.”

He came to see the Trump movement rising all around him as built upon exactly that kind of fear, and when 2020 came around, he remembers his wife telling him that all his philosophizing meant nothing if he did not take action. He remembers how it felt to vote for the first time.

“There was this well-dressed fellow,” he recalled. “He was pleasant, and as we were leaving, he said, ‘We’ve got to keep them demon Democrats from stealing the election.’ He thought he knew how I was going to vote because of my skin color. I said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘Nah. And just so you know, I just canceled you out. So, suck on that.’”

* * *

And that was who Cody Johnson had become by the time he rolled up to Beulahland Baptist Church on the day of the midterm elections: an Emerson-reading troublemaker who was not going to let things slide, and instead was going to cast a ballot for only the second time in his life.

He had been sick for days before the election, and after he voted, he went home, took Nyquil, and drowsed in and out of sleep as his wife read him the results every few minutes. By the time he was heading to work the next morning, the emerging trend was becoming clear.

He had been part of a minor uprising against Trumpism all across the country — a revolt of contrarians and others who defied expectations of pundits, polls, and even the Democratic Party itself.

Sometimes he and his wife discussed how the Trump movement had ever taken root in this place they loved, and sometimes hated, and nonetheless had chosen to make their home.

“The hardest part is the juxtaposition of knowing these are good, kind, loving, caring people here,” Johnson’s wife would say. “It’s like they put their morality in a box.”

To Johnson, though, it was less about other people and more about the kind of person he wanted to be. And so when it was time to vote again — this time in Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff for the U.S. Senate — he got into his pickup truck and headed to Beulahland Baptist Church one more time.

He walked across the parking lot, past other pickup trucks and cars with Trump stickers, and through the door. And then a 33-year-old White man from northwest Georgia voted for the third time in his life.

He voted against the Trump-backed candidate, and as he saw it, he voted against all the politics of Trumpism that had been expected to work on somebody like him — white nationalism, grievance, bitterness, bullying and, perhaps most of all, fear of a changing world.

“I have relatives who retreated rather than adapted,” he said, thinking of the life he left behind. “I think of it as, I left the mountain to come into the world, to go out into the world. It’s something I’m kind of proud of.”

Stephanie McCrummen is a staff reporter who travels the country writing long-form stories about people and situations that help illuminate the national conversation.

Photograph of Cody Johnson leaving Beulahland Baptist Church in Beulah, Ga., where he voted in the state’s Dec. 6 runoff election for U.S. Senate, by Michael S. Williamson (The Washington Post).

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