“Violence and the vote“ are huge issues for modern America. But how does The Last Sheriff In Texas, this story of a sheriff’s election in Beeville, Texas, in 1952, provide a metaphor — an explanation — for Trump’s America?
In both instances, voters baffled expectations by putting a highly controversial figure into office, splitting their communities into angry factions, neither able to understand the other. Trump made no secret of his divisive intentions, but he was elected. Sheriff Vail Ennis, despite the fact that he killed seven men, was voted into office time after time.
That doesn’t explain why.
Not from the point of view of 2017. But it was easy to explain in post-war America. The country was safe. Beeville was safe, a clean, well maintained town, with good public schools. People didn’t lock their doors at night. The sheriff protected the town. Softies criticized him because he was harsh, but they had criticized George S. Patton during the war for the same reason.
Also, Vail Ennis’s time coincided with the peak of the classic movie western. The sheriff was an icon — the image of the Old West lawman. His 1947 shootout at Pettus, in which he was riddled with bullets but killed his assailants, was covered in Time Magazine. It drew letters of admiration support from all over the country. America wanted to hold on to the Old West images.
Read his campaign slogan: make America great again. It spoke to that same longing for trust and security that many felt had been lost in modern America. Essentially, it was a promise to restore the idealized Beeville.
You see Trump as the sheriff?
Symbolically. The role, not the man. Trump has the same harsh attitudes on law enforcement, national borders, guns, etc. But the main similarity is their effect on the oneness of the community, the violent split in the culture. In Beeville, the enmity was immediate, personal. There’s no metaphor more effective than someone glaring at you from across the room. After the Trump election, you could see the bile in the internet … cable news … talk shows … SNL. The 2016 election magnified — distorted — the difference between red and blue states, west and east. It called to mind the Turner thesis.
The Turner thesis?
In his “Frontier Thesis” published during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner suggested that the American character had been formed by the inland expansion. The west. The frontier. When the Trump rallies started drawing thousands across middle America, the Washington Post was as baffled as everybody else. It sent two reporters around the country “in search of America.” The tone suggested they were going into the Heart of Darkness.
In other words, who are the real Americans — the New England Yankees or the Westerners?
In other words.
But there were no Yankees in Beeville. What were the two sides?
Texas had gone urban in the 1950 census. Things were changing. The Yankees were the urban Texans. Johnny Barnhart, a Beeville boy just out of University of Texas Law, was the prototype.
Did you know Johnny Barnhart?
No. I knew who he was but I’d never met him. He called me after I came back to Texas in 2001. He wanted to talk about that 1952 election. He was still dwelling on it, trying to sort things out.
You found others who were participants in that election, friends and enemies of the sheriff.
Several were still around. Fifty years afterward, their memories were sharp, the insights impressive. One or two were poets.
You used them as italicized asides to frame the narrative. A literary device?
Oral histories. One editor said they were remindful of a Greek chorus. I didn’t think of that, but I like it.
If there’s a Greek chorus, where is the Greek tragedy? The defeat of the sheriff? The end of the Old West?
I think it was Johnny. To the end of his life (he died at ninety, a couple of years ago), he dwelled on that 1952 election. Johnny had grown up in Beeville, was the town’s favorite son, the most popular kid at the University of Texas. All he wanted was to come home and practice law in Beeville for the rest of his life. He knew he had done the right thing, but it had cost him all his childhood friendships. He stayed in town a few more years but then moved to Houston.
So if Sheriff Vail Ennis was a consummate icon of the Old West lawman, how was he ever defeated?
Johnny came up with a more powerful icon.
JAMES P. McCOLLOM is a Beeville son who left Texas after college and made a career in international banking, spending four decades in cities in the Northeast and Europe. The Continental Affair, his book about the 1984 collapse of the great Chicago bank, was called “the In Cold Blood and McGuffey’s Reader of modern money” by PW. After Y2K he returned to Texas to pursue several writing projects, including The Last Sheriff in Texas, and is now at work on a book about the mythology of ancient Spain.