There is no neutral there: Appalachia as a mythic “Trump Country”

Of the 2016 presidential election, New York Times international affairs correspondent Roger Cohen wrote, “The race is tightening once again because Trump’s perceived character — a strong leader with a simple message, never flinching from a fight, cutting through political correctness with a bracing bluntness — resonates in places like Appalachia where courage, country, and cussedness are core values.”

Cohen’s dispatch is one of many now forming a distinct genre of election writing — the “Trump Country” piece, which seeks to illuminate the values of Trump supporters using Appalachia — and most often West Virginia — as a template with little variation in content or approach. “To understand Donald Trump’s success,” their composite argument flows, “you must understand Appalachia.”

My concern is less about unpacking these articles individually — although I confess I’m not exactly sure what “cussedness” is or why it is ascribed as one of my core values — but rather pulling back and examining what the sheer volume of these pieces might tell us. We need to examine why journalists from elite and prestige publications are invested in presenting Appalachians — and particularly West Virginians — as representative of all Trump supporters, to the extent that they write, as John Saward does in Vanity Fair, “I am in West Virginia to understand Donald Trump.” Why aren’t pockets of Trump supporters in Oklahoma, Idaho, Florida, New York, and New Jersey the subject of similar profiles? To be sure, I’m certain that there isn’t a red state in America that hasn’t been described as “Trump Country” by at least one journalist, but the compulsion to hold up Appalachia as representative is unique.

Online, reaction to this genre tends to focus on whether the profile invokes sympathy or disdain for Appalachians. The assumption is that nuanced portraits of Appalachian Trump voters — represented by Larissa MacFarquhar’s “In the Heart of Trump Country” for the New Yorker — are preferable to those that rely on tired regional stereotypes like the oxy-addled hillbilly to explain Trump’s popularity. I’m here to tell you that these two positions are not mutually exclusive. In other words, flawed studies of Appalachians that aim to illuminate the interiority of an “other” white America are a thing, serve a purpose, and have a history.

An image by Alec Soth for Larissa MacFarquhar’s “In the Heart of Trump Country.” I’ve cropped the top half of the image to include the caption.

Historically, cultural elites — writers, academics, politicians, journalists, and so on — have used flawed representations of Appalachia to do two things: 1) To enhance the cultural difference between progressive white individuals and those thought to be “yesterday’s people;” 2) To absolve cultural elites from the responsibility of thinking critically about race and racism. Often, writers combine these two positions. Poor mountain whites, thus appropriately situated at the bottom of the white racial hierarchy, allow writers to make tidier arguments — both positive and negative — about class.

Yesterday’s People and Cultural Difference

Since the Civil War, if not before, Appalachia has served as a counter-point to contemporary definitions of social progress. In the period between the Civil War and the Second World War, this outlook facilitated a range of social and economic experiments within the region: outside entrepreneurs pushed the limits of private industry in the name of modernization, folklorists sought and collected its “primitive” arts, home-missionaries brought religion to the “unchurched,” and benevolent organizations used the region’s characteristic poverty to justify their existence. It mattered little whether the characteristics ascribed to Appalachia were desirable or deplorable as long as they were different. This culture of difference persisted into the modern era. Postwar developments in behavioral science and sociology, honed from the study of Black urban Americans, linked poverty to cultural factors perceived to be inherent in certain — read “inferior” — minority groups. Johnson’s anti-poverty crusades favored strategies of individual uplift and self-help over sustained structural change and in the process of their failure generated a vast, visual archive of white rural poverty that would stigmatize the region for years to come. Ronald Eller, a prolific Appalachian historian, wrote that “We know Appalachia exists because we need it to define what we are not. It is the “other America” because the very idea of Appalachia convinces us of the righteousness of our own lives.”

An image of an Eastern Kentucky family taken in 1964 by John Dominis, commissioned by Life magazine to illustrate Johnson administration’s “War On Poverty” campaign.

One needs to look no further than the National Review to realize this impulse is alive and well. Writer Kevin D. Williamson’s hit piece on Owsley, Kentucky is a grim to the point of laughable portrait of a small town consumed by black market Pepsi and “soul-crushing” dependency on Big Government. Positioned next to Williamson, it’s tempting to see recent work like the memoir Hillbilly Elegy by his sometime colleague J.D. Vance, embarrassingly cited by the New Yorker as the white person’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, as progressive or nuanced. It’s not. Appalachian historian Bob Hutton argues in Jacobin that Vance’s monograph is aimed at “middle- and upper-class readership more than happy to learn that white American poverty has nothing to do with them or with any structural problems in American economy and society and everything to do with poor folks’ inherent vices.” I would agree, and consider the proliferation of “Trump Country” pieces to be a continuation of this trend. A lot of cultural elites love to build up the poor mountain white to “complicate” (read: derail) discussions of white privilege, only to tear him back down using the same pattern and style of moralizing typically reserved for Black Americans. Speaking of race…

White Trash?

For a genre of work that aims to deconstruct the political mindset of a particular kind of white voter there is surprisingly little discussion of race or whiteness-at-large among these pieces. In the “Trump Country” genre, the reader rarely hears non-white voices and is left to assume that these silences are artifact of a racially homogeneous white “mountain” society. They are not — rather, they are the product of the conscious choices of authors to exclude their perspectives. This allows writers to take advantage of another flawed assumption about Appalachia: that race relations in Appalachia are fundamentally different than in other parts of the United States due to Appalachians perceived isolation from racial and ethnic minorities.

More than that, both in- and outsiders have historically endowed Appalachians with a peculiar kind of racial innocence that they believe allows white Appalachians to hold repressive views about non-white individuals while remaining immune to violent racial hysteria. In other words, Appalachians can be racists but are rarely used to discuss the consequences of racism and particularly the consequences of structural racism. I mean, once you’re done “othering” a group of people — presenting them as isolated, culturally backwards, and dying out — it’s not a leap to imagine a kind of victim-less racism that hurts only Appalachians by solidifying their reputations as “yesterday’s people” and hastening their economic and social demise. This is always a dangerous position to indulge and romanticize, but especially so during an election year. For a good example of how this distancing works, check out this Slate interview with J.D. Vance, during which he explains that “probably 50–60 percent of Donald Trump supporters don’t have attitudes that are actively racist but also don’t have attitudes that completely conform with modern notions of equality.” What does this even mean? But although confusing, here we get closer to the truth behind these pieces: in these dark times, we need folks to point the finger at for their repressive views, but their views can’t be all that repressive because we need to be able to use our cultural difference to save and redeem them, or at least some of them. Abracadabra, here come Appalachians to save the day.

An image from Harlan Kentucky taken in 2015 by Bruce Gilden/Magnum, commissioned by Vicemagazine for the 2015 photo issue.

Other voices that complicate rather than exemplify what and who Appalachia is supposed to be are also absent in the “Trump Country” genre: men who aren’t miners, voters under 60, and newcomers — more than half of whom are from minority groups. It’s rarer still to find mention of anyone — white or non-white — with radical politics or explicitly anti-racist views, despite the region having a long association with individuals from both groups. Environmentalists are silenced. Urban Appalachians are silenced. The history of Appalachians as objects of study is also silenced. Reading these pieces, I can’t help but think of the murder of Hugh O’Connor in 1967 that became the subject of Elizabeth Barret’s brilliant documentary film Stranger with a Camera. There is clearly a lot more to say here about how photojournalists and journalists collude to keep visual as well as cultural stereotypes alive.

Cultural elites have long used the plight and character of Appalachians to illustrate the darkest failures of American progress. This strategy shores up the righteousness of “good” white Americans while at the same time absolving them of the responsibility to think critically about race and racism. In an election cycle marked by a growing acceptance of white nationalism and misogyny, this is unacceptable.

Final thoughts:

  1. Non-white Appalachians exist, even in predominately white counties. If you think that white Appalachians have the ability to remain immune to racial hysteria or that their repressive attitudes hurt only themselves, Fitzhugh Brundage’s work on lynching might be illuminating.
  2. Appalachia is home to 25 million people spread across 13 states. Many people living within Appalachia do not self-define as Appalachian. On the flip-side, there are folks who self-define as Appalachian who no longer live in the region. In other words, there is really no such thing one, true Appalachia.
  3. Black market Pepsi is delicious.
  4. If you asked me to recommend a book about Appalachia that everyone should read, I’d tell you to check out Alessandro Portelli’s They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History.
  5. Photographer and writer Chris Arnade’s work on addiction in Central Appalachia is very good. Most of the above pieces reference addiction but none grasp the enormity of the problem. Chris McGreal’s coverage of West Virginia’s groundbreaking lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry is also a must read.
  6. Appalachian organizations and non-profits, feel free to hire me. I’m trying to get home and stay home.
  7. For an alternative visual tour of Appalachia, the photographic collaborative organized by Roger May — Looking at Appalachia— is always on point. I am particularly fond of Megan King’s photographs of Hispanic Appalachia.
  8. I have a co-authored paper coming out soon in The Routledge Anthology of Queer History that discusses all things gay in mountains and debunks some stereotypes there as well. Stay tuned.