Submitted by Mandy Gunasekara
Forty years after Ronald Reagan launched his presidential bid at the Neshoba County Fair, the next generation of GOP leaders descend.
Over the past week in the rural woods of east Mississippi a Fair that has been central to the local community, southern agriculture and national politics roared back to life. For only the second time in its 132-year history – the other being World War II – it was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Using words to describe the Neshoba County Fair has proved a challenge for some of our nation’s greatest communicators. In his 1980 speech, then-candidate Ronald Reagan quipped “you all know without my saying it that Nancy and I have never seen anything like this because there isn’t anything like this place on Earth.”
This year the Fair hosted another rising Republican star, former Navy SEAL and Texas Congressman Dan Crenshaw described it as the “best version of America’s small town.” He went on to reiterate that to really understand the Fair, you just have to “see it for yourself.”
There are many characteristics that make the Neshoba County Fair unique. As a testament to its campground beginnings, the fair family experience has evolved from sleeping under one’s wagon to now sleeping in one of close to 600 individual cabins equipped with all the modern amenities. There is a Fair utility, cell tower, police force and a daily paper called “The Fair Times.”
One does not have to own a cabin to experience the Fair. It is open to all and once in, fair-goers can enjoy horse-racing, agriculture expos, carnival rides, fried everything, music, dancing, a beauty pageant, hermit crab races and the famous “all-night sing.” Upon entering the campgrounds, Wi-Fi and the digital world take a back seat to more traditional forms of communicating that revolve around catching up with old friends, porch siting and sweet tea.
What really makes the Neshoba Country Fair unique and the reason it has been sought out by presidential campaigns of all political stripes is a well-constructed, tin roofed pavilion located in the heart of “Founder’s Square.” It is under this pavilion where politics takes center stage and fair-goers take note of current, former and future politicians’ visions for America.
The problems of America that Reagan highlighted in 1980 are unfortunately prevalent today: rising inflation, a “new deal” agenda, skyrocketing gas prices, enemies not respecting us, massive government expansion, and a stagnant economy. A brief history lesson of the Carter years makes it clear why some are already referring to President Joe Biden as Jimmy Carter 2.0. Reagan quipped “I know, people have been telling me that Jimmy Carter has been doing his best. And that’s our problem.” The same could be said for Biden.
Perhaps even more problematic today is that over the past year and a half, professional activists and liberal politicians have used the pandemic as a means to whittle away personal liberties and reset the minds of Americans to look to unelected bureaucrats for permission on how to live our lives. In the process, they have massively expanded the reach and expense of the federal government.
The summary of problems is not why Reagan’s speech was so memorable. It was his message and recognition that he trusted the American people – not the government – to come up with the best solutions. In post-COVID America, it’s clear that the citizens of this country are once again hungry for leaders willing to do just that: trust them.
Rep. Crenshaw’s speech at the Fair conveyed both a message of trust as well as a call to action. In the face of adversity and pain, he called on Americans to show a heightened state of courage he refers to as “fortitude.”
From the reactions to Crenshaw’s speech at the Fair there is no doubt that Americans are looking for principled leaders that exhibit these qualities. They are also ready to launch another Reagan-style Revolution to take back Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024. For the deep-bench of Republicans looking to step up to the next leadership mantle, there is no better place to test the effectiveness of your message than the Neshoba County Fair.
Submitted by Mandy Gunasekara. She is co-producing a documentary about the Neshoba County Fair to be aired later this year. She previously served as the Chief of Staff at the US Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump. You can follow the progression of The Fair Documentary at thefair.ms.