About this time a year ago, I sat down with five middle-aged and older white guys who voted to make Donald Trump president of the United States. I wanted to better understand what motivated them to cast their lot with this wildly unconventional candidate. Two things impressed me about this group, drawn from those who wrote articulate letters to the editor for Trump: None took a cheap shot at Hillary Clinton during a ricocheting 90-minute interview and most offered surprisingly nuanced views on illegal immigrants.
Since that rollicking Q&A, others have similarly sought to understand this long-overlooked segment of society, generally credited with catapulting Trump to power. For instance, a Gallup study of 125,000 adults found that many older whites were less motivated by good-paying jobs than a sinking feeling of displacement in society, one accented by fast-changing demographics. Some key research at Baylor University details this profile of older, white Americans.
As Baylor sociology researcher Paul Froese told me of one of the university’s nationwide surveys, “With white men, there is this kind of expectation that if you work hard and you’re a good guy, things should come your way. And when we have a change in the economy, a change in the culture, where the same advantages are no longer granted to white men, that’s seen as a terrible, upsetting and unexpected consequence.”
Yet when a transformative political force clinches power in a robust democracy, it often energizes long-complacent opposition, just as with the rise of the tea party a few months after Barack Obama took office in 2009. So meet one more old white guy who actually defies survey profiles: 75-year-old Gale McCray, known in appreciative liberal circles and among astonished motorists far and near as “The Old Man with a Sign.” I first saw him Dec. 2 at hectic Valley Mills Drive and Waco Drive holding — what else? — a sign.
This sign reportedly got him thumbs up from some motorists, lengthy fingers up from others. It read: “Trump: That Boy Don’t Act Right.”
A retired mail carrier living in Fort Worth, McCray is part of a more racially and ethnically mixed vanguard that wants Trump and his minions out of power and sees the 2018 elections as a chance to begin reversing matters. Like a lot of Trump supporters, McCray’s decision to get involved in politics hinges partially on immigration, specifically Trump’s ban of Muslim refugees. Except McCray wasn’t cheering.
“It was pretty early,” he told me of his bristling political impulses after Trump’s unexpected election. “I was in shock like a lot of people. When he put the ban on people coming in from those five or six countries, well, I’m watching the news of DFW airport and there are these people, grandmothers, coming from Iraq or one of those countries to see their grandsons and they’re being hassled and held there five or six hours. I saw a man who sold everything in Iraq and had gone through all the vetting and he had a wife and three children, and I saw the fear on that man’s face, thinking, ‘I may have to go back.’ And it made me think about my grandparents and how I would feel if they were being hassled.”
He then shook his head at me and made a reference to the president: “This guy doesn’t have a clue as to the ramifications his actions have on people.”
McCray’s resolve was sealed by elected lawmakers who turned a deaf ear to what he saw as an attack on American values of inclusiveness and decency: “I contacted Kay Granger, my congresswoman, and that wasn’t satisfying to me. I couldn’t get to her, she wouldn’t talk to me on the phone from Washington. She doesn’t care what I think. I could tell that. I made a few calls like that.
“And then I got to thinking — well, part of me is a ham. It just came to me. I don’t mind standing on a street corner (to protest). And the slogan (of the sign) was one I heard growing up in Oklahoma. It just fit. It had an element of humor and a big element of truth. I see people laughing at it all the time the first time they see it. I’ve seen people break out laughing when they see it.”
So with a plain but oversized sign, McCray has devoted much of his recent retirement to traveling about the country to protest on street corners, sometimes while visiting friends or family. Judging from his free-wheeling, scattershot recollections, his most memorable trip was to Washington, D.C., where some political activists tried to get him to participate in a protest where he was sure to be arrested. Others, realizing he was a novice, quickly talked him out of anything that might get him tossed in jail.
His colorful journey has been enlivened by Facebook quips that the sign “talks” to him of relevant matters of civil disobedience, such as when it advised him to “photo-bomb” sign-carrying disciples of right-wing, gay-hating Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas: “The Sign immediately said, ‘I want my picture with them.’ I started to say I wouldn’t, but I remembered what happened the last time I said no, when she came back with, ‘Look, without me you’d be sitting in your recliner watching those dang crime shows and endless reruns of Law and Order.’” And to McCray’s amusement, police removed him and his sign from the entrance of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma, even as fans sought to get photos taken with him: “Hell, if Woody Guthrie was alive, he wouldn’t sing a single song at a festival that bears his name if he knew what happened to The Sign.”
He says he enjoyed his visits to Waco where, on a return trip two weeks after his first protest here, he found himself a celebrity among Democrats — and one coming from a demographic that often favors Trump. He’s also learned more about civil disobedience, including that what police tolerate in one protest isn’t what they’ll tolerate next time.
As he noted on his Facebook page (shortly after I interviewed him), during his second protest a Waco police officer told McCray that “it was illegal for me to stand there. I disagreed because of my previous experience (at the same site). He put me in an arm-hold and took me off the median. It didn’t hurt or anything. I tend to push the police because I’ve had more than one make up a law about what I do and where I can stand.”
In the current toxic climate stressing political affiliations of FBI agents and such, I suppose one could question the politics of the police officer. However, McCray dismisses the idea and says nothing but good of Waco police. And given his tendency to give as good as he gets and the possibility the wind could well have blown him and his sign off that very thin concrete median strip at busy Valley Mills and Waco Drive and into oncoming traffic, police probably made the right call second time around. He was permitted to continue his protest in the nearby parking lot.
Considering some of his spirited run-ins with Trump supporters, McCray’s experiences confirm that we live in polarizing times where consensus and dialogue are almost gone, supplanted by name-calling and cheap shots from both sides. McCray acknowledges he sees little hope in trying to understand the other side’s support of someone like Trump or impress his thoughts on theirs: “I’ll be honest, I don’t spend time with them. I tried to communicate with them (early on) and I finally decided I’m old, I just don’t have time for this.
“I’m not here to convert anyone,” he told me. “I’m just out here to say, ‘We’re here and we’re not going away.’ ”