The phenomenon of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, we’ve been told for months in the media, has been fueled by the coal-fired alienation and anger of the nation’s working-class whites. Appalachia, more than any other region, has been targeted as ground zero. And J.D. Vance’s best-selling and heartfelt memoir,Hillbilly Elegy, has been held up by conservative and liberal reviewers alike as “aTough Love Analysis of the Poor Who Back Trump.”
Well, sorry, but just as there is no reason to deny the Republican stronghold in the region, outsider observers need to look beyond default stereotypes for some sort of tidy explanation for today’s electorate.
Don’t blame hillbillies for Trump.
For every “hillbilly elegy,” there is a hillbilly paean, or a “Higher Ground,” in the words of a Harlan County theatre troupe, which puts local voices on stage to grapple with the stories of addiction, abuse and jobs.
The media, on the other hand, and its hype over Trump, has missed the real humanitarian crises of power and powerlessness in Appalachia, and an unacknowledged assault by absentee coal companies and pharmaceutical companies on its residents, instead relying on breathless and uninformed proclamations on “hillbilly culture” that simply rehash the old stereotypes that have dogged the region for centuries.
And media hype it is: The American Conservative christened Trump “the tribune of poor white people.” Slightly more moderate, the Christian Science Monitor pointed out the “deeper rebellion” of Appalachian whites joining the insurgent Trump campaign, in search of a political vehicle for their “desperate sadness.” News outlets like CNN have showcased America’s “forgotten tribe,” suddenly left behind in the “war on coal,” and abandoned to the long black veil of racism, drug addiction, abuse, multi-generational poverty and gun-toting fatalism. In its glowing review of Hillbilly Elegy, The New Yorker asked: “Why is the hillbilly culture so defensive, insular, and frozen in time?”
Well, it ain’t. And for anyone who has done more than an hour’s worth of research, it hasn’t been for a century. In 1932, federal surveyors begged Washington policymakers to “revise old ideas” of Appalachia as a static region, and recognize its “rapid transformation” and upheaval from outside industries.
Instead of derision or finger-wagging accusation, it’s time our nation pays its debt to Appalachia, and places the diverse region in the forefront of regeneration and a new economy.
“Appalachia has given more than can be counted to the nation at large,” 9th-generation West Virginia-based radio commentator Bob Kincaid told me. “It’s time the nation gave back and with no strings attached and no talk of our own bootstraps, which, for all intents and purposes, we boiled and ate a couple of generations back.”
To claim Trump has uniquely galvanized a working-class white electorate by tapping into its bitter political alienation disregards two centuries of historical clashes—and a never-ending hillbilly trope of backwardness by the media since the British Crown warned about the “dangerous” backwater people in the Appalachian mountains before the American Revolution.
Far from a singular tribe in a single place, Appalachia is a vast region, stretching over 13 states. It’s our nation’s most conflicted region, a crossroads of cultures, with black and white cultures so entangled that a country song can be traced to a minstrel or blues origin. The region has been the frontlines of industrial shift and disenfranchisement and political conflict for centuries—and every wealthy and powerful politician has attempted to exploit it, from the “log cabin and a hard cider” slogan of wealthy presidential candidate William Henry Harrison in 1840, to President Ronald Reagan, who won West Virginia by a landslide in 1984 with the upbeat campaign slogan, “It’s Morning Again in America.”
Another Appalachia—-or several other Appalachias—is waiting to be discovered by the media or children of the diaspora, like Vance or myself, who appear every election to pass judgment on the region’s ills without any sense of the historical context of the region.
And these “other Appalachias” have been waiting a long time: Today’s election stories on Appalachia’s “war on coal” and entrenched poverty largely replay stereotypes of “Yesterday’s People,” the textbook manual of blame on some cultural deficiency of poor whites in the 1960s, still overlooking the boom-bust realities of absentee-owned extraction industries and their stranglehold over the development of the region.
Despair, hopelessness, fatalism—yeah, Appalachia and Greater Appalachia and rural America, in general, have amassed their share of these traits in abundance. And not by accident. When my Mom lived in a log cabin without water and electricity in southern Illinois, the mined-out and deforested region was described as a place of “utter hopelessness” in a report, Seven Stranded Coal Towns.
“Sitting here in the midst of the collapse, I’m trying to figure out how to get around the usual dreck that surrounds any discussion of Appalachia,” Kincaid said, from a family of coal miners and long-time activists against mountaintop removal mining. “It comes not only from the “outsiders,” but from inside, as well; not only from the pro-coal forces, but from our own forces (such as they are) opposing them. It’s as if we don’t know how to be anything but what we’ve been told we are. To see in John Fox, Jr.’s “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” a vision of a before-the-fall Appalachia, then to consider what came next and then to look at Google Earth and see the ossified remains of that area he described as “Edenic” and know it’s only going to get worse absent profound and brilliant change is to serve as witness to a funeral after an execution by drawing and quartering.”
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Kincaid, like so many other Appalachians, has been fighting back for decades.
For every Trump supporter blaming President Obama with the faux “war on coal” slogan, we need commentators and reviewers to point out that Vance’s native homeland in eastern Kentucky lost nearly 70% of their coal jobs to mechanization(mountaintop removal strip mines) in the three decades before President Obama came to power. That coal states and coal companies have been found guilty in court of violating basic clean water mine laws; that the rates of birth defects and cancer have skyrocketed in strip mining areas; and, that mine unions have collapsed over the past decade, shattering any fabric of tight communities.
That people are dying from cancer-related diseases from mountaintop removal in central Appalachia, thanks to a regulatory policy that turns a blind eye to an outlaw coal industry.
For every heartbreaking story of addiction, in Appalachia, we need commentators and reviewers to note that the makers of OxyContin (referred to as “hillbilly heroin”) pleaded guilty in 2007 to falsely marketing a drug that has ravaged the region.
For every “face of poverty“ in the media, like Sabrina Shrader in after her 2013 state legislature testimony on her own hunger, you have a emerging Sabrina Shrader that was inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and has now become a leader of Our Children Our Future Campaign, and a candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates.
For every non-union coal miner waiting for Trump to bring back a declining industry, a recent poll found that two-thirds of Appalachian voters believe elected officials should focus on attracting new industries into former coal towns. Republicans and Democrats alike have joined to pass the RECLAIM ACT to provide $1 billion in funds for economic diversification programs in coal country.
Courageous Appalachians living in the ruins of mountainntop removal have never given up their struggle for civil rights and health justice, still campaigning daily for the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act.
For every Mountain Dew-swigging mother, as the caricature is often trotted out in news program, legions of folks are reviving a local food economy; Hazard hosted the Big Ideas Fest for Appalachia: Visionary Thinking and Doing, examining high tech options, including NASA satellites. Retired eastern Kentucky coal miners like Carl Shoupe and Stanley Sturgill are fighting mountaintop removal operations and leading energy efficiency employment projects, while others pursue reforestation and hemp efforts, and new groups like Accelerating Appalachia are launching regenerative economic solutions in the region.
It’s an old story, actually, this hillbilly shuffle.
For every “Sut Lovingood,” the “darn fool” with his “brains unhooked” in the New York newspapers in the 1850s, there has been an Appalachian writer like Rebecca Harding, who published the first fiction of white working class and immigrant realities in The Atlantic Monthly in 1861, or today’s Affrilachian (African American Appalachia) poet laureate of Kentucky, Frank X. Walker, bestselling novelists like Ron Rash and Denise Giardina, or feminist and renowned author like bell hooks.
For every racist swinging that Confederate flag—and there are many—we need teachers to remind us that Black History Month emerged from West Virginian historian and coal miner Carter Woodson, and Appalachia produced the 19th Century’s defining black nationalist Martin Delany, as well as blues, jazz and rock icons like Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Bill Withers.
“You can’t understand America until you understand Appalachia,” Don West, a labor organizer told me, as we visited poor families near abandoned coal mines in McDowell County in the early1980s.
West had cofounded the Highlander Folk School in eastern Tennessee, which trained the shock troops of the Civil Rights Movement and inspired Rosa Parks, four months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Parks said her visit among hillbilly organizers was the first time she found white people she could trust.
I’m not sure who we can trust today, but I do know you can’t understand the rise of Donald Trump, by simply blaming the hillbilly.