Donald Trump’s election may have shocked the nation, but it was no surprise in Georgia. After the votes were counted, the AJC dispatched eight journalists from the capital to the coast to the agricultural south to the mountainous north. Their mission: to meet the people who created the Trump groundswell. This is the second in a series of their reports.
The first thing you need to know, he’s an American — a good one, too, by most any measure.
He was born and raised in Wilcox County, where the sweep of the land is exceeded only by its fertility. The house where boy became man still stands.
He married a farmer’s daughter. On her wedding day, she became a farmer’s wife. In time, the house they had built on a piney tract 150 miles south of Atlanta echoed with the yelps of children.
He signed up for military duty and was a faithful soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve.
And, on Nov. 8, he did what he’s done every four years. In the quiet confines of a tiny booth, he voted to make America great again.
Rex Bullock — native Georgian, husband, father, farmer and veteran — cast his presidential ballot for Donald Trump. He only hopes that vote hasn’t come too late to right a country he thinks is headed in the wrong direction.
“It was time,” he said, “for the adults to take over.”
Bullock, 68, is but one voter in a county — in a state, for that matter — that overwhelmingly voted for the GOP nominee for president. According to poll results, almost 71 percent of Wilcox voters cast ballots for Trump. In real numbers, that’s 2,096 Trump votes compared to 852 for Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. It’s safe to say the typical Trump voter from Wilcox resembled Bullock — white, married, older, with a record of voting conservative.
But that’s only a snapshot, measured by numbers that are easy to collect. What those demographics fail to show is the essence of the man who stood in that booth.
He is a passionate patriot. He can tell you how many veterans are buried in the cemetery of his church, Union Baptist (81, from the Revolution through Vietnam). When he talks about the six years he spent in the Army Reserve, Bullock sounds vaguely apologetic: Other boys got sent off to Vietnam, but not he. When the 48th Infantry Brigade shipped off to Iraq from Central Georgia, Bullock made sure to follow its every move; some of those soldiers, he knew, called Wilcox home.
He is the picture of self-reliance. In 1969, he’d managed to save enough money to buy a new tractor. That John Deere 4020 served him well. A few years ago, Bullock gave it a hard and decided the machine was just about worn out. Rather than ditch it, Bullock rebuilt that old tractor and gave it a shiny new coat of green and yellow. It shares space in a shed with machines that are larger, but no more loved.
He is an optimist. That’s a prerequisite for those who plant, then pray. He’s known fat years and skinny years. Once, he planted 600 acres of watermelons. He still smiles at the memory of all those tractor-trailers, each brimming with a green mountain of melons. In 2016, he planted peanuts. “I paid back the bank,” he said.
He is, in short, one of the people with whom a billionaire New York businessman made a connection.
Bullock is convinced Trump can turn around the economic decline he has witnessed and make Wilcox a place where a man can build a business, pass it along to his children and watch his family thrive.
‘I pray for wisdom’
Bullock’s grandfather came to South Georgia early in the last century from Buford. He was drawn to the cheap land, the rich land. He left that to his son, Joe Bullock. Now, it belongs to that man’s son, Rex. He has about 1,000 acres. The tracts dot Wilcox County like patches on a quilt.
“That’s mine.” Bullock waved a right hand at a site flat and bare under a mid-morning sun. His ‘05 Chevy Tahoe cast a faint shadow as it passed. It’s the family loaner vehicle, the go-to machine when the kids’ cars are acting up or when his wife, Beth, needs work done on her SUV. It is white, usually coated with dust, and travels the blacktops and dirt roads of Wilcox like an animal that knows its terrain.
He has been here all his life, and is old enough to recall the truly hard days of farming. He especially remembers a childhood day spent behind a mule, breaking the dirt. “It’s been work all my life.”
The Tahoe slowed and turned into a driveway where a white farmhouse held center stage on a tract dotted with buildings. He nodded at the structure, where a front porch surely once hosted a row of rocking chairs. Bullock gave it a quick smile. “This is the old home place.” These days, it’s primarily used for storage.
Memories are stored here, too. It’s where he keeps two big cookers to roast Boston butt and half-chickens, where he and others have wielded welding rods and wrenches on machinery used to harvest cotton and peanuts. It is, in a very basic way, the essence of the man.
It has the clutter of decades. There are the two Chevy pickups, both half-tons, and that ’63 GMC one-ton; he gave that to his son. There is daddy’s tractor, a Massey-Harris produced sometime in the 1950s. There’s also, inexplicably, a yellow door that came off a Chevy truck, probably from the late 60s. It’s leaning against a wall.
Bullock, perhaps unnecessarily: “I don’t like to get rid of things.”
He got involved politically in 2002, when Republican Sonny Perdue mounted a campaign for governor. His wife, a teacher at the time, wasn’t happy with the incumbent, Roy Barnes; nor were most of the state’s other educators who felt betrayed with the Democratic governor’s proposed teaching reforms. Bullock hosted a fund-raiser meal at the old home place.
It was timely. Bullock sensed that something was slipping away. The advantages he’d enjoyed as a child and younger man weren’t available to his kids, or their kids, he thought. The country was increasingly burdened with too many regulations, too many number-crunchers who’d never knelt to peer at a cotton boll.
Perdue won the first of what would be two gubernatorial elections. Bullock had a taste of the political life. He believes it was the right thing to do. Too much is at stake not to be politically active.
“The Lord has smiled on us,” he said. “I pray for wisdom. I pray for knowledge. I am thankful.”
The Tahoe rolled out, picked up speed. A hawk hovered on a thermal in the Georgia sky. “Of course,” he said, “it hasn’t always been easy.”
Sometimes, talking like this, Bullock can get emotional. Perhaps he’s been around long enough to recognize that he didn’t get where he is alone — that he needed a good wife (he has one), good friends (he has them) and the love of the good Lord (he has it) to find himself in good health, driving along an empty two-lane road on a December morning.
He passed a field where great rolls of cotton rested. Each was wrapped in yellow plastic to keep the stuff dry until trucks arrived to take it to a nearby gin. Sitting on the brown-dirt fields, they resembled spools of thread.
His son, Matthew Bullock, lives in Marietta and works for Home Depot. His daughter, Rebecca Henson, works for the Cobb County Health Department and lives in Kennesaw. Bullock knows every bump and turn of the trip to metro Atlanta and back to see his kids. He misses them.
“I don’t think they’ll ever come back. I don’t know.”
His children have blessed Rex and Beth with four grandchildren; those youngsters are the reason why he hasn’t filled in the small swimming pool behind the house. A fifth is on the way, too. Small wonder that he smiles a lot.
Selfies and truckers
Enter Pitts from US 280 north and you’ll see it — a 30-foot banner as blue as the spring sky. On it is an immense image of Trump, along with his famed slogan, Make America Great Again. It’s been there since early 2016.
In February, Bullock contacted Wayne McGuinty, chairman of the Wilcox GOP, and shared his plan for a big banner. McGuinty thought that was a great idea, and came up with a high-resolution photo of Trump. Bullock hired an area printing firm to put that image on a tarp-style banner.
Where to put it? A guy who owns a site near the main crossroads in Pitts told Bullock he was welcome to post it there. The owner of Pitts’ sole gin loaned him two cotton wagons to display the banner.
Bullock backed the banner with plastic tarps to protect his $700 investment from getting torn on the trailers’ meshed sides. He placed weights on the ends to keep the wind from blowing it away. With little fanfare, he made his political views known.
Not long afterward, he got a call. Kids were at the banner — taking selfies! Is there any higher endorsement among youngsters?
But he wasn’t through. On an afternoon just before Labor Day, Bullock and a friend drove along an access road parallel to I-75 until they reached an open tract just north of Cordele. There sat a 53-foot trailer, the sort you usually see attached to a big truck rolling along the interstate. A fellow farmer had left it there for him.
The two men got busy. They unrolled a 40-foot banner. On it were the likenesses of the GOP presidential nominee and his running mate, Mike Pence. As they moved along the trailer, using straps to attach the banner to the wheeled box, the images of both men emerged.
This did not go unnoticed. A tractor-trailer thundered by, its horn blasting. Behind it came another rig, its horn just as loud. As the banner unfolded, so did a chorus of honks.
Bullock wondered: Can groups as disparate as selfie-taking kids and horn-honking truckers be wrong? The banners, Bullock thinks, gave an image to peoples’ frustrations. They were a tangible reminder that all was not right.
Bullock also realized something that legions of poll-takers failed to grasp: His guy had a chance.
‘Not much here’
The Tahoe rolled into Pitts, population 320, give or take. Bullock slowed the SUV, pointing at a row of tired brick buildings — windows dark, doors locked. “There was a Gulf station. There was a drug store.” He looked across the road. “Over there was a train depot.”
Just up the street was a tiny structure, battered by decades. At one time, it was a bank. “There once were more banks in Wilcox County than anywhere else in the state.” Now, there are four.
Census figures underscore Wilcox’s slow decline. Since 1920, when the census takers counted more than 15,500 residents in Wilcox, the population has slowly shrunk. In 2010, an estimated 9,250 people called the county home. Five years later, that number had dwindled to 8,857.
One who left: Matthew Bullock, who now works in logistics for Home Depot. He farmed with his dad, said the younger Bullock, but felt the call to do something else.
His father, said Matthew Bullock, embraces the three F’s: faith, family and farming. He remembers the elder Bullock taking time from working the fields to coach Little League: Matthew was a catcher; his team, the Rochelle Pirates, pretty good. Other times, when he was too young to farm, his mom took him to the fields so he and his sister could spend a little time with dad.
“My dad is a good man,” the younger Bullock said. “He’s very passionate about what he believes.”
Bullock believes Trump’s call for tariffs on China and other major trading partners could invigorate the American economy. It would be nice, he thinks, to see lights burning again in those shuttered storefronts in Pitts, Abbeville and Rochelle. And that’s just towns in Wilcox County; hundreds more dot the state.
“There’s not much here” for youngsters wanting to make their way in the world, he said.
He takes issue with folks who depict Trump’s slogan as a veiled appeal to white racists. America, he thinks, has not been great for at least the last eight years.
The people who support Trump are weary of the Democrats and what he considers their onerous programs. Bullock said. “We have too many regulations. There are too many people telling you how to do it.”
What about Trump’s publicized comments about women, the taped conversations that caught the candidate in what he called “locker room talk?”
Bullock shrugged. “He hasn’t said anything that almost any other man hasn’t said,” Bullock said. “And, if you get down to it, a lot of women, too.”
Bullock looks askance at reports that Russian computer hacking influenced the presidential election in Trump’s favor. Nothing, he said, has been proven.
Bullock supported Trump from the get-go, though he would have preferred Mike Huckabee to be president. A former Arkansas governor, and a minister, Huckabee gave up his presidential campaign nearly a year ago. “He didn’t have a chance,” Bullock said.
Bullock saw in Trump what others failed to discern until much later, said McGuinty, the GOP chair. No matter how good Huckabee looked to them, he wasn’t electable. Early on, Bullock declared for Trump “and caught some flak for it,” he said.
Bullock watched as others joined him on the rapidly expanding Trump band wagon. He believes others had the same realization as he: It was time to let someone other than a career politician inhabit the Oval Office. Why not a businessman?
Sure, Trump’s dad staked the son a lot of money to get started in business, Bullock said, but looked at all he’s built, and the jobs he’s created.
And this: “He’s not politically correct, and neither am I.”
When Trump came to speak at Valdosta State University, Bullock and his wife made sure they went. When they reached campus, they had to hunt for a parking spot. They entered a venue that was packed, standing room only, 7,500 people or more.
Trump delivered, too.
“We are going to win at every single level,” Trump said at that February rally. “We are going to win with health, with education, at the borders, with our military. We’re going to win, win, win, win.”
Everyone was enthralled. He spoke without notes, without a Teleprompter. This went on for 45 minutes. Bullock couldn’t help being a bit star-struck then as well as now, nearly a year later.
“I got to shake his hand.”
He also slipped a reminder of Georgia in the candidate’s hand — a bag of edibles, Georgia peanuts.
The Tahoe passed his I-75 banner, which will remain in place until after Inauguration Day. A mile or so farther on, he approached a Trump billboard — erected and paid for, he said, by someone like him.
He sped by that big Trump sign and smiled. Maybe it’s not too late.
Other articles in the “Making of a Trump voter” series:
- Part I: The African-American woman
- Part III: The intown Atlanta millennial
- Part IV: The working-class suburbanite
- Part V: The Latina immigrant
- Part VI: The millionaire businessman
- Part VII: The evangelical pastors