Why you should care
Because a rising persecution complex is about much more than one man.
The crowd hollers, whistles, waves miniature Mississippi state flags, the last in the union to include a Confederate battle emblem. It’s all for the 47-year-old attorney who channels their frustration against elitism and the perceived establishment, cultural sands that shift like the mulch beneath their standing ovation.
It is by far the most exuberant reaction to a Senate candidate at the Neshoba County Fair, aka Republican Woodstock. And on this humid day, it is the riotous center of America’s White Christian male aggrievement politics. Their hero, Chris McDaniel, is mounting a campaign that looks less like a candidacy than a crusade. A fight for the soul of the country, sure, but also revenge for an election four years ago he and his supporters thought they had won. He isn’t just taking on the Democrats, but also his fellow Republicans, and even Donald Trump, who’s backing his GOP rival. Surrounded on all sides, McDaniel speaks of decision points and fallen glory, of standing up despite stacked odds and, inevitably, of martyrdom.
Lest you think it’s confined to Mississippi, understand this is the same persecution complex that fuels White nationalists from Portland, Oregon, to Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s four straight years of rising hate crimes in America’s biggest cities, the largest spike coming in San Jose, California, a region that’s also home to a simmering Silicon Valley backlash against the #MeToo movement. It’s fellow U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart railing against torn-down Confederate monuments in Virginia, and Fox News host Laura Ingraham decrying a loss of national identity fed by demographic changes “foisted upon” the American people as if non-White citizens were interlopers.
They’re losing — running third in a three-person race, according to the polls. But with McDaniel’s war on liberalism and what he sees as a tepid conservatism, winning isn’t entirely the point. “Now is our time of choosing. Will you be fighters or cowards?” McDaniel asks the crowd. “Many years from now, let them speak of us, of these brave few who stood one last time.”
Militaristic fervor, veneration of the past, forceful fear of an impending future: They are all traits of the politics of modern populism, one that in Mississippi mixes Christian faith with a nostalgic White manifest destiny.
Let’s step back to the two conversion moments in McDaniel’s life. The first was in 1980, when a teenage McDaniel watched a presidential hopeful named Ronald Reagan at the same Neshoba County stage — next to McDaniel’s father, in fact — give a controversial embrace of “states’ rights.” The speech was attacked as a coded appeal to racism, and it was the genesis of the younger McDaniel’s embrace of outsiderism.
The second took place far from any cameras, on the side of a lonesome two-lane Mississippi highway in July 1998, after his father, Carlos, was in a devastating car accident with a tractor-trailer while driving in front of Chris. “I was with him when he died,” McDaniel says, the sound of grinding metal and gruesome groans seared into his mind forever.
Up until that point, McDaniel, 28 years old and only days from his wedding, had lived a life in his father’s image. The younger Reaganite grew up in “The Free State of Jones,” so called because the Mississippi county opposed the Confederacy during the Civil War. He was a 3-point marksman point guard who played basketball at Jones County Junior College, where his father was a well-liked health instructor for more than three decades. He attended William Carey University and the University of Mississippi School of Law, clerked with a U.S. District Court judge and was on his way to becoming a partner at a law firm in his hometown of Laurel, where he still lives today with his wife and three kids. But the accident that summer night shook him, taking away the most important influence of his life. “I was mad at God. I was mad at myself,” the lifelong Southern Baptist says.
As Reagan’s speech had confirmed his political belief, the accident solidified a spiritual second chapter — one in which he resolved to live fearlessly. “I had to come out of that. And when I did, I felt liberated,” he says. He became a conservative radio talk show host in Hattiesburg in 2004, a platform that propelled him in 2007 to a state Senate seat, from which he led bills to curb illegal immigration and allow student-led school prayers. His sway was evident when then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant asked the freshman senator to stop a troublesome redistricting bill in its tracks — and McDaniel succeeded. He was named the 2010 Citizen of the Year by the Laurel Leader-Call and a “Rising Star” in the Republican Party by The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson.
Our philosophy has been watered-down now, to the point where we are now a party of pastels.
Then he had the audacity to challenge seven-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. While before he was seen as “an articulate spokesman for conservatism,” the establishment turned on McDaniel, says Ryan S. Walters, who wrote a book about the election titled Remember Mississippi. “All of a sudden, he was [portrayed as] a radical, a fanatic, a bomb-thrower,” says Walters, who is now a policy writer for the McDaniel campaign.
In person, McDaniel comes across as reasonable, passionate, doggedly insistent and likable. But his own words condemn him: A married man who talks of unflappable Christian principles, he joked on-air about wanting to learn only enough Spanish to ask for the bathroom and hit on women he called “mamacitas.” In 2014, BuzzFeed surfaced old recordings from McDaniel’s talk show, in which he also decried a “homosexual agenda,” said a female candidate for Alabama governor was using her “breasts” to run for office and proclaimed that “our culture” would be lost if immigration continued.
Despite those revelations, McDaniel managed to beat Cochran by half a percentage point in the first round of primary voting. And here is the beginning of his electoral aggrievement: Since neither candidate reached the 50 percent mark, Mississippi law requires a runoff — and Cochran prevailed, thanks in part to his courting crossover Democrats. McDaniel’s backers unsuccessfully challenged the result in court, accusing Team Cochran of voter fraud, as Democratic primary voters were not allowed to turn around and vote in the GOP runoff. His followers often bring up unsolicited the “stolen” election, rhetoric of a rigged system now commonplace on all sides of the political spectrum.
McDaniel says he learned “where the traps are” from that race. Fueling him now is a super PAC that didn’t exist last time around, also called Remember Mississippi, which had raised nearly $1.5 million as of June. Again he’s facing the establishment in Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, chosen by the governor to replace Cochran earlier this year after the ailing incumbent retired. The new twist is a credible Democrat in the race: former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, who would be the state’s first African-American senator. All three will face off on Nov. 6 in a “jungle primary,” with another nationally dissected runoff likely three weeks later. Both Espy and Hyde-Smith declined to comment for this story, with Hyde-Smith declaring she would rather “stay on the high road.”
Trump, who rode a McDaniel-style attitude to the White House, endorsed Hyde-Smith with an August tweet. “I don’t think Trump is against the insurgency candidates. I think [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell forces him to play the political game. We’re trying to make it possible one day so that he never has to play games with those people again,” McDaniel says. While political gurus believe Hyde-Smith is the much safer bet to beat Espy, the excitement around McDaniel could prove powerful when antiestablishment candidates on all sides of the political spectrum are thriving. An NBC News poll released last week found the trio tightly bunched: Espy at 25 percent, Hyde-Smith at 24 percent and McDaniel at 19 percent.
McDaniel’s campaign stances mimic libertarian-leaning Republicans like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, often centered on cutting government spending. He generally opposes tariffs but defends a brewing trade war with China and others as Trump using “an ace in the hole” to force a long-term change with short-term tactics. Outside of a small-government philosophy, his focus is mostly cultural. He makes it a point to support the current Mississippi state flag, which his base sees as honoring Southern heritage and which others call racist for its use of the Confederate battle emblem. In August, he started a Twitter debate over whether Gen. Robert E. Lee was misunderstood, arguing incorrectly that Lee was against both secession and slavery — a whitewashing of Civil War history common among Confederate romanticizers.
The truth... pic.twitter.com/AZuM5EibdE— Sen. Chris McDaniel (@senatormcdaniel) August 16, 2018
His most consistent trait is playing the underdog even as the GOP controls most statehouses and every branch of federal government. “That’s my point: Republicans control those seats. Conservatives do not,” he argues. “We have a numerical advantage from a Republican standpoint, but our philosophy has been watered-down now, to the point where we are now a party of pastels.”
And then there’s his faith. Although Christianity remains the dominant force in religion and politics — 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, while 91 percent of Congress does — many evangelical conservatives feel as if they have lost the war for America’s soul. Pastors warn of a culture becoming increasingly accepting of abortion rights and gay rights. Three-quarters of White evangelicals feel like things have gotten worse since 1950, according to Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) surveys, while a similar number feel that America will be worse off if projections hold and White people become a minority this century.
“There is real evidence White evangelicals are losing,” says Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI, shifting them from “values” voters to “nostalgia” voters. “They are really animated by trying to turn the clock back to a time where their values on things were more widely shared in the country.”
He’s far from the only one, but McDaniel has made an art form out of taking that feeling of spiritual persecution and converting it into a political force, sprinkling his county fair speech with biblical allusions. In the battle for spiritual and political piety, the actual result matters less than the decision to fight. After all, even Jesus Christ experienced his greatest victory in death. “Will this be a day of a funeral or a day of resurrection?” McDaniel asks, building toward a roiling conclusion: “Never, ever, ever, forget the great state of Mississippi.”