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Sid Salter: Don Trump’s Neshoba Visit Will Face Instant Social Media Scrutiny

From heated races to choose county supervisors or local justices of the peace to the White House, the Neshoba County Fair remains Mississippi’s premier political stump. That fact will be again underscored this week with the scheduled appearance of the son of newly-minted Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump at Neshoba on Tuesday.

The Neshoba County Fair as the traditional epicenter of retail politics in Mississippi famously brought Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan to the fairgrounds in a speech that still ranks as the institution’s largest single event in 1980. Other presidential candidates – Democrat presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988 and presidential candidates Jack Kemp and John Glenn also campaign at Neshoba.

Donald (Don) Trump Jr. will not be the first son of a presidential candidate to make an appearance at Neshoba, either. Neil Bush, the son of President George H.W. Bush and the brother of President George W. Bush, also campaigned for his father at Neshoba in 1988 in a surrogate role.

For decades, I’ve been an interested observer of political speeches at Neshoba and despite not always agreeing with content offered by the speakers. My memories gravitate toward the great old stump speakers I heard under the Founder’s Square Pavilion as a kid. Some were outright racists or segregationists. Some were progressives or liberals (but mostly only by Mississippi standards). Others were self-serving charlatans.

Many, thank goodness, actually had a sincere desire to serve their fellow man and deserved a shot at public service. Shake them all up in a sack over a half-century and the entertainment factor was high even when the sensible public policy quotient was pretty low.

My memory serves up the state’s Hall of Fame stump speakers – names like Ross Barnett, Jimmy Swan, Roy Black, John Arthur Eaves Sr., J.P. Coleman, Bill Waller Sr. and others who taught me to love the theatrics of politics. For my money, the most infamous was longshot candidate Robert “Blowtorch” Mason, a welder who asked voters to elect him governor so he could move his wife into a fancy home with indoor plumbing and electricity.

S. Gale Denley, my departed friend and fellow scribe, loved Jim Buck Ross and his fair speech gimmicks – usually an armadillo trap or some such – and like me enjoyed the speakers from both parties who could really “shuck the corn.”

Donald Trump is scheduled to speak at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, July 26, on the grandstand stage at Neshoba. But the speech itself may not really matter. Social media has changed political engagement – even in traditional political venues like Neshoba – to the point that a stump speech isn’t required.

The optics will be that Trump came to the place some in the media have dubbed “Republican Woodstock” and rubbed elbows with rural Mississippians at a campground fair – a campground fair that has received national political attention before.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan told fairgoers: “I believe in state’s rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.”

Reagan’s “state’s rights” line drew withering fire from Democrats and the national media who drew instant parallels between those remarks and the 1964 Ku Klux Klan murders of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia.

Interestingly, it took years to find a recording of Reagan’s full 1980 speech and that from a private citizen. Yet today, the social media impact of Don Trump’s visit will be instant, viral, and commentary will ensue before Trump shakes Neshoba’s red clay from his shoes.

Social media has forever changed political engagement in a way that stump speeches filtered hours or days later through the traditional news media cannot touch – even at outposts as remote and provincial as Neshoba. Trump, as Reagan did after that 1980 speech, is favored to carry Mississippi and the South. The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI formally closed the “Mississippi Burning” case earlier this year.

Presidential politics have been relatively quiet at Neshoba since the Dukakis speech in 1988. While the visit of Don Trump is unlikely to impact the outcome of the race, it does reinforce the reputation of the Neshoba County Fair as center stage in the Mississippi political arena.

Sid Salter--studio headshot

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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