Understanding Donald Trump’s Rise In Appalachia

Growing up in small town in Appalachian Ohio, I have spent a large part of my adult life feeling like an outsider who managed to sneak into a club to which I could never belong. My family is working class — no, not the ‘my dad is a lawyer and my mom is an accountant’ brand of middle class — but working class: my father a firefighter, my mother a homemaker, and my maternal grandma lived in a mobile home. This was a rough-around-the-edges upbringing that lacked even the smallest hint of urbanity. The sense that I grew up in a foreign world first hit me when I moved to Columbus, Ohio and was amplified ten-fold when I settled in New York. The cultural and economic reality from which I came is not just vaguely unfamiliar, but, in my experience, entirely incomprehensible to those who have not shared my experience.

My background has always grounded me and left me with a certain chip on my shoulder and disdain for pretension. It has left me frequently walking away from situations thinking: “You really have no idea what the world is like for the people who grew up like me.”

As I have watched the tragic rise of Donald Trump over the last year, particularly in my native Appalachia, it has broken my heart but I have understood all too well the disease that has now manifested in the form of a symptom like Trump. A frustrated, forgotten, and isolated people — people who have worked harder and longer for less and less — has lashed out in a way that is profoundly harmful yet entirely predictable. After decades of being divided and exploited by some conservative politicians along racial, cultural, and religious lines, the reality of the resulting economic and social pain has become too burdensome to ignore. Proud people who have done the best they can with what they have consistently feel denigrated by an economy that no longer values broadly shared prosperity.

This beautifully written and insightful piece by Alec MacGillis in The Atlantic spoke to my own experience and the firm conviction I have that progressives need to make a vigorous case for more populist economic policies that will materially improve the lives of working class people. The truth is that today’s political elites, from both political parties, are increasingly far removed from the realities of ordinary people. At a time when decision makers are predominantly affluent, college educated, and embedded in economically homogenous social circles, it is our duty to remember that this very different world exists, to embrace and welcome its people, and to make clear that economically inclusive policies can alleviate what is only inflamed by divisiveness and demagoguery.

“His estrangement often reflects poorly on the echelon he’s joined, whose members, he says with understatement, could do a better job of “opening their hearts and minds to” newcomers. He is taken aback when law-school friends leave a mess at a chicken joint, and stays behind with another student from a low-income background, Jamil, to clean it up. “People,” he writes, “would say with a straight face that a surgeon mother and engineer father were middle-class.” To his astonishment, he is regarded as an exotic figure by his professors and classmates, simply by virtue of having come from a small town in the middle of the country, gone to a mediocre public high school, and been born to parents who didn’t attend college.
He adapts to his new world well enough to land at a Washington, D.C., law firm and later in a court clerkship, and is today prospering as a principal at an investment firm in San Francisco. But the outsider feeling lingers — hearing someone use a big word like confabulate in conversation makes his blood rise. “Sometimes I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn,” he admits. And questions nag at him: “Why has no else from my high school made it to the Ivy League? Why are people like me so poorly represented in America’s elite institutions?” He is acutely aware of how easily he could have been trapped, had it not been for the caring intervention he received at key moments from people like Mamaw and his sister.”