On Sunday afternoon, in a tent packed with fans of a television show that last aired on prime time 32 years ago, a fictional grease monkey donned a gray tailcoat and accepted an honorary promotion to Major General in the Confederate Army. The crowd of roared approval as Ben Jones, the real-life TV actor turned Congressman turned entrepreneur, accepted a plaque from a group called the Virginia Flaggers, applauding him “For meritorious service rendered in the defense of Southern heritage.”
During the six years from 1979 to 1985 that the “Dukes of Hazzard” ran on television, Jones played Cooter Davenport, the resourceful sidekick mechanic who kept the Duke boys’ beloved muscle car The General Lee tuned up and always a couple of miles per hour faster than the hapless sheriff of a made-up Georgia county. Fourteen years after he left Congress after two terms, Jones, a native southerner who turns 76 this month, has parlayed his fame as a good-natured good ‘ol boy on TV into an indefatigable supporter of southern heritage and the battle flag of Dixie that has become one of the most divisive symbols in the real-life modern culture war.
And this explains how Jones came to organize “Cooter’s Last Stand.” Nominally it was a two-day fan fest and promotional event for his new restaurant and shop in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but in no small measure it also served as a kind of political rally for the neo-confederacy movement that has grown in direct proportion to the number of Civil War monuments that have been yanked down in town squares throughout the South.
As the crowd hooted with delight—"That’s a good-looking Cooter right there!" someone shouted—Jones launched into a stump speech that dialed into the indignation of a largely white crowd, more than a few of whom wore Make America Great Again hats and a staggering variety of Confederate flag insignia.
"These people—these political radicals—are asking us to turn our backs on our ancestors. That’s not going to happen!" vowed the former Georgia Democrat, who quit his party after it turned into what he calls an "urban liberal party." Like many other rural white men, Jones voted for Donald Trump. This spring, Jones moved his franchise to Page County, which went for Trump by 73 percent in November. It was friendlier territory, he says, than the snobbish Rappahannock County, on the other side of the mountains, where the restaurant had been located and where he and his wife, Alma Viator, a former publicist for Broadway’s Shubert family, still have a home.
Over the two-day event—a Southern gothic extravaganza that was part county fair, part bluegrass music festival, featuring pro-wrestling matches and muddy monster truck rides, not to mention dozens of replicas of the famous 1969 Dodge Charger they called the General Lee—it was difficult to identify a clear dividing line between a benignly apolitical television show and a political ideology premised on the split between rural and the urban elite. Though no politicians were invited to the event (not even Corey Stewart who ran an unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination for Virginia governor on an explicitly neo-Confederate platform), it was not an accident that one of the most popular booths among the crowd of some 30,000 people was the one belonging to the Virginia Flaggers, the controversial group that had given Jones his battlefield promotion.
“Every time they take one down, we put one up,” boasted Susan Hathaway, founder of the organization whose mission is to redecorate the Old Dominion with various battle flags of Dixie—most notably the "Southern Cross.”
Even the weekend’s entertainment came with a thick barbecue sauce of red-meat partisanship.
The pro wrestling match on Sunday featured a lumbering, baby-faced villain who wore a Hillary Clinton shirt and "trash talked" about clean air protections, sanctuary cities for immigrants and, most heinous of all, his hatred of the Confederate flag.
"All those stupid flags gotta come down!" taunted the 37-year-old wrestler, whose real name is Daniel Richards, a real-estate agent in Richmond. The crowd booed as he pranced around in briefs emblazoned with "Progressive Liberal" across his rear end.
"We want Trump! We want Trump! We Want Trump!" the crowd chanted. With that, the Progressive Liberal pulled out a Confederate flag in one hand, faked spitting on it, and stuffed it in a trash bag. The climax of the match was the arrival of his opponent, Beau James, who, unlike his namesake, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, vanquished his enemy and restored the flag to prominence.
Not so long ago, this Trump territory was not so long ago—like other rural areas across America—home to Yellow Dog Democrats who, no matter how socially conservative or culturally different they were from their city-slicker party elders, wouldn’t have considered shedding their Democratic identity. But that has all changed as the party’s leadership has consistently ignored the concerns of rural “Bubbas,” says Democratic political strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders.
Saunders, who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of southwest Virginia, built a career around promoting Democratic candidates in his state, including Mark Warner and former Senator Jim Webb. He has known Jones, whom he calls Cooter, for years. Saunders got so sick of his party’s "arrogant" neglect that, after supporting Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic primary he voted for Trump, just like his friend Jones. "It took my great party a while to tarnish its brand in rural America, and it’s going to take a while to shine it up again," says Saunders, who didn’t attend the event at Cooter’s.
But unlike Saunders, who says he’ll always be a Democrat, Jones became an independent after he felt the Democrats had become "unbearably politically correct" and turned into an "urban liberal party." In spite of thinking the Republican nominee was a "loose cannon," and despite having voted twice for Barack Obama, Jones couldn’t countenance a vote for Clinton, who represents all the errors of his former party. ("90 percent of our customers feel the same way," Jones says. "They were Democrats.")
"[Trump] has a screw loose really and he doesn’t understand the requirements of the office," Jones said. But Jones is more offended and upset by the media, which he feels has "given up on objectivity and balance" in its coverage of Trump. "He may be impeached or put in a padded cell some place. We all know that. But he’s still being treated unfairly."
Jones’ beef with the forces of political correctness is personal. After Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist murdered nine black people at a week night Bible study, Jones rallied to the defense of the Confederate flag which he felt was being unfairly maligned as a symbol of racism. Within days of the massacre, Warner Brothers, which owns the rights to all “Dukes of Hazzard” merchandise, announced it would no longer manufacture toy General Lee cars with the Confederate flags on the roofs. About the same time, Viacom, owner of TV Land network, dropped “The Dukes of Hazzard” from its lineups on the grounds that its Confederate displays were insensitive at such a painful moment.
Jones, who grew up poor in Portsmouth, Va., is proud of his record as a civil rights activist in the 1960s. As a student on and off at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he said he participated in lunch counter sit-ins and other demonstrations to advance equality for blacks in the South and was "even shot at" by the Ku Klux Klan, whose members he calls "vile, horrible people." But the move to eradicate Confederate iconography is "Orwellian," he says.
But the corporate clampdown only seems to have produced a backlash among Hazzard fans —and a financial bonanza for the Joneses, who appear to have made an untold small fortune off the Cooter brand. They charged $40 per adult for a two-day admission to Cooter’s Last Stand and they regularly charge guests at their Nashville and Gatlinburg, Tennessee stores for photos taken in the General Lee or in Cooter’s Tow Truck. DVD and download sales for “The Dukes of Hazzard” have soared since the Warner Brothers decision. On a recent morning, on Amazon’s list of the top DVD sales this morning, season box sets of “The Dukes of Hazzard” dominated the top five slots.
“It’s a wacky, crazy thing,” says Jones of the show’s enduring popularity.
Viator bought up the remaining 20,000 licensed toy cars after Warner Bros. stopped making them. She estimates they sold about 400 of the cars over the weekend for $100 each inside their merchandise store. And she predicts the remainder will be "gone by Christmas."
For some, though, a toy car can be a vehicle to distribute a more sinister message.
Julian Maxwell Hayter, a 42-year-old African-American historian at the University of Richmond, was a big “Dukes of Hazzard” fan as a child growing up in Iowa. Watching the Duke boys outfox Boss Hogg and his toady sheriff was a Friday night ritual for him. The Confederate flag atop the General Lee and the car horn’s Dixie tune never struck a nerve with him and today, on a personal level, he isn’t offended by flag wavers whose ancestors fought and died in the Civil War. But Jones’ profit-motive puts him in a different category, he says.
"At best he’s capitalizing off the mythology of white Southern heritage; at worst he’s capitalizing off hatred," says Hayter. "They’re not always mutually exclusive."
It was a silly sitcom about a couple of paroled moonshiners that one critic predicted wouldn’t last past the first commercial break. Nearly four decades later the line for autographs from surviving members of the original cast, all of whom were in attendance, stretched for hours, hundreds of people willing to fork over $20—or even the $30 that John Schneider ("Bo Duke") charged—for the privilege of a photo with an actor and signature on a ball cap, or even a full-size car door of a replica General Lee.
Certainly there were plenty in the crowd who had no interest in debating the cultural rift manifested by Trump’s victory in November, but it was hard not to find people for whom the event was much more than a nostalgia kick.
One of those was Russell Pipkin, 37, who lives just south of the Mason-Dixon line in Mount Airy, Maryland, between Washington and Gettysburg. Pipkin, a warehouse manager, traces his roots to North Carolina and wears his Confederate heritage on his vest, his belt buckle, his earrings and a ring on his finger. On his right arm he has tattooed the Southern Cross battle flag with the words Crazy Rebel.
"It has nothing to do with race," he said, wearing—on top of all his accessories—a battle flag t-shirt as he waited for a mounted cavalry re-enactment to get underway. "It’s more, for me, about just the way our country is headed…Anything that’s Southern is viewed as hatred. That’s not right."
After the cavalry charge—the men in gray won this time—and after the last wrestling match and the bluegrass bands ended, the mood shifted back toward a less politically fraught vibe.
In the finale of “Cooter’s Last Stand,” the other six surviving members of the cast—most notably the three stars Catherine Bach (Daisy), John Schneider and Tom Wopat (Bo and Luke), along with Don Pedro Colley (Sheriff Little), who walked with the aid of canes —joined Jones on stage for the sham battle of the shindig: a rowdy but teary rendition of the show’s opening tune that Waylon Jennings made famous with his baritone twang. Schneider and Wopat, who now acts on Broadway, picked their guitars and tried to do justice to the original: "Just the good ol’ boys, wouldn’t change if they could…making their way the only way they know how; that’s just a little bit more than the law will allow."
"God bless y’all!" Jones shouted over the band between verses. "And God bless the United States!"