At the Ebenezer Grill, the regulars sidle up to the counter for plates of smothered hot dogs and bowls of steaming vegetable soup.
But ask about politics and it’s the customers who start steaming.
“We need to get rid of everybody, wipe the slate clean and start over,” said Wendy McDaniel, a 48-year-old medical technician. “Our country’s becoming a joke.”
She has plenty of company.
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(Trump) says things that a lot of people are thinking but they don’t want to say.
Loyd Ardrey, who owns the Ebenezer Grill in Rock Hill
A Winthrop University Poll last month found six out of 10 South Carolina voters frustrated with the federal government, while more than a third described themselves as angry.
Among supporters of Donald Trump, almost half – 47 percent – are angry. That includes Loyd Ardrey, who owns the grill with the big hot dog sign on top and the U.S. flag out front.
“(Trump) says things that a lot of people are thinking, but they don’t want to say,” Ardrey said.
Across the Carolinas and around the country, anger is the undercurrent of this year’s presidential election, sweeping candidates who reflect it to the top of the polls just weeks before South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primaries.
Republicans will vote Feb. 20; Democrats a week later. North Carolinians will vote March 15.
In the Democratic race, the maverick campaign of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont socialist, also has benefited from frustration with the status quo. Polls show him leading Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and closing in in Iowa, though he trails by wide margins in both Carolinas.
But anger is more pronounced among conservatives.
Last month a CBS tracking poll found Republicans Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – the candidates who surveys show have the highest numbers of angry supporters – together attracting 61 percent of South Carolina’s likely Republican voters.
I am very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.
Trump, leading polls across the country, regularly reflects the anger of the voters supporting him. “Iran humiliated the United States with the capture of our 10 sailors,” he tweeted last week. “Horrible pictures & images. We are weak.”
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, in her nationally televised response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union, warned Republicans last week not to give in to anger.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation.” She later said her remarks were aimed in part at Trump.
Asked about the governor’s remarks at Thursday’s GOP debate, Trump didn’t back down.
“I am very angry because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger,” Trump said. “Our country is being run by incompetent people.”
For many conservatives, anger at Washington is compounded by another feeling: betrayal by the Republicans they helped elect.
Conservatives blame the Republican-controlled Congress for not doing more to curtail federal spending, deal with immigration, stanch the flow of refugees and defund the president’s signature health care program.
“That’s why you see these so-called outsiders with such high poll numbers,” said Joe Dugan, founder of the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition. “They’re not listening to the people, and the people are really angry about it. I have never seen such pent-up anger in my entire life.”
This weekend Dugan is hosting a tea party convention in Myrtle Beach that’s expected to draw 1,500 participants and a half-dozen GOP presidential candidates.
They’re angry at President Obama, they’re angry at the Republican establishment. They’re looking for the angriest (candidate).
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican
Over his hot dog at the Ebenezer Grill, Gary Covington explains his own lack of patience with Washington Republicans.
“I thought they would reel in Obama a little bit and they’re not,” said Covington, who is retired. “If you’re going to be a coward about something, at least be up-front about it.”
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican elected in 2010 with tea party support, understands the feeling. He blames congressional leaders who, he said, have marginalized the most conservative members.
“From the perspective of the Republican voting base … the group they sent to Washington in 2010, 2012 and 2014 was able to do half of what they wanted,” he said. “We’ve failed on the other half.… We’ve over-promised and under-delivered.”
Though filing in South Carolina doesn’t open until March, Mulvaney isn’t expected to face a serious challenge. This month he watched Trump’s Rock Hill rally from the floor of Winthrop Coliseum. He heard the response that Trump got from more than 6,000 supporters.
“It was that inflamed rhetoric that got the loudest applause,” said Mulvaney, who backs U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. As he watched, Mulvaney said people are looking for a candidate as angry as they are.
“They’re angry at President Obama, they’re angry at the Republican establishment,” he said. “They’re looking for the angriest (candidate).”
‘Deport Nikki Haley’
Political scientist Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop Poll, said anger is fed by a growing frustration.
“There’s no doubt that anger is what’s pushing the narrative of this election,” he said, “anger that these voters are no longer influential in what happens in America.”
Doug Huffstetler, a retiree eating lunch at Rock Hill’s Varsity restaurant, plans to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton. He called the anger on the other side misplaced. Trump, he said, appeals to voters’ “insecurities and base instincts.”
Haley’s address, and her appeal to avoid anger, itself prompted an angry response. Commentator Ann Coulter tweeted that “Trump should deport Nikki Haley,” the daughter of Sikh immigrants.
Conservative pioneer Richard Viguerie expressed his sentiments in a blog. The headline: “Nikki Haley to Conservative Grassroots: Sit Down and Shut Up.”
The anti-establishment mood stretches across the state line.
Last week Greg Brannon, a Cary physician challenging GOP U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, told supporters in a fundraising letter that he’s counting on Trump and other anti-establishment candidates driving people to the polls.
“On March 15 every Donald Trump, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson supporter will also head to the polls to cast their votes,” he wrote. “Polls show these voters make up more than 60 percent of the GOP electorate in North Carolina.… All I need to do is compete.”
In 2014 Brannon got 27 percent of the vote in a crowded Senate primary won by Thom Tillis, who went on to be elected that fall.
Burr strategist Paul Shumaker said the campaign’s not worried. He said surveys consistently show that while voters might be angry at Washington, they like their own representative.
“Richard Burr has a very long history of building and promoting the Republican Party across North Carolina,” he said. “That is history that Republicans know and respect.”
Frustration across state line
This month an out-of-town reporter showed up at Don Reid’s weekly breakfast at Charlotte’s Skyland Family Restaurant, a popular gathering for conservatives.
Reid, a former city council member, supports Trump. Others in the Republican crowd back Cruz.
“Would I or this crowd be happy with Cruz? Yep, I think so,” Reid told NPR’s Rachel Martin. “Would we be happy with Jeb Bush? Nope.
“For the first time in my life, if it’s Jeb Bush or Hillary I don’t vote. I’m not supporting establishment Republicans anymore. I’m supporting almost a destruction of the current Republican Party. ... Let them run on principle and either win or lose.”
Republicans, he told the Observer, “are scared of their shadow – they have not done anything they said they were going to do.”
Back across the state line, Paula Daly would agree.
A volunteer leader for Trump in York County, she’s frustrated with everybody in Washington and doesn’t like where she sees America heading. “My daughter,” she insists, “will not be dressed head-to-toe in Muslim garb.”
“We’re just tired of it,” Daly said. “I’d expect this of Democrats, to be honest with you. … The Republicans are becoming the same way.
“I’m not surprised at anything any more. You just get angry.”