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WHEN MY GRANDFATHER was a child, his stepfather would bring him along as he sold moonshine to poor working men in southwestern Virginia coal country. The men adored my grandfather, who was not yet even school age, for his talent mocking Democrats. He told me this story on a few occasions to explain, I think, the inevitability of his later affiliation with the Republican Party. He was a Republican in much the same way that I am a Democrat—voting a ticket with little enthusiasm every few years and sometimes not at all.

When I consider that story now, I find myself thinking less about my grandfather and more about the men who laughed at his jokes. What were their politics? Not all were the predecessors of today’s Republicans, as we might imagine them to be. In Appalachia, so-called “mountain Republicans” comprised an old vanguard of antisecessionists who thought of themselves as particularly enlightened—heirs, they imagined, to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. My grandfather belonged (or at least aspired to belong) to that tradition. His audience might have consisted of Democrats, who enjoyed hearing their abuses repeated in the mouth of a child. But it is more likely that they would describe themselves as without politics, just laughing at the powerful and self-important. For a long time, it did not occur to me there were other possibilities.

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