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 Vice magazine 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.

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

      1. Well Done, well done indeed! Appalachia and its people are the “Forgotten in America.” The Democratic party should be ashamed of the lies it told and the benefits it took away. Keep up the good work.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. Terrific piece. To add to the list of how so many writers get it so wrong: they completely ignore the progressive labor and social movements of the 1960s and 70s Mountain South. As working-class whites elsewhere in the country flocked to the Republican Party, many white Appalachians maintained ties to the Democratic Party. Not to mention that many coal counties were deeply Democratic until quite recently. So the assumption that these are the most conservative, reddest places ever is also historically inaccurate. I was just reading the UMWA journal today for research, and noticed a piece by UMWA president and eastern KY native Arnold Miller in 1972, calling for Nixon and Republicans to stop cutting social welfare programs. Many local east Kentuckians joined him in that call, joining marches, labor protests, and welfare rights organizations. I look forward to reading more from you, Elizabeth!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Absolutely, the region does have a rich history of progressive labor and social movements that I’d love to see more authors grapple with, particularly those like Vance who aim to illuminate something not unlike an ambiguous “Appalachian condition.” Thanks much for reading!


  2. This is a terrific and valuable corrective. But I do want to push back at least a little about the merits of MacFarquhar’s New Yorker piece. It is true that the framing of the piece falls into the othering trap (and the headline seals it — but of course, authors almost never get to write headlines). But the heart of the piece was in allowing several different voices of West Virginia speak for themselves (including non-white), and in that process, their thoughtful dignity spoke to a common humanity that belied the otherness-framing. You just had to be willing to listen to their voices rather than the author’s.

    (I’m an academic raised in the Mountain West who’s been transplanted to teach in rural southeastern Kentucky. I love mountains. I do not drink Pepsi.)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m happy to hear your thoughts about MacFarquhar’s essay. I cite it as one of the better contributions to a flawed genre, yet I still don’t agree that it’s remarkable (and the photographs are very problematic). But that’s just me.


  3. The Uses and Abuses of Whiteness Theory

    Socialism 2016, July 01, 2016

    With Eric Kerl

    Whiteness theory has become part of the standard left discourse on race in the United States. But, is the framework of whiteness useful for anti-racists? And how should Marxists engage in this still developing field of race theory?

    Suggested Readings: “Race, class, and ‘whiteness theory’” by Sharon Smith, in International Socialist Review #47 “Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness” by Matt Wray (Duke University Press) “Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People” by John Hartigan (Duke University Press) History of White People by Neil Painter


    Meant to be paired with:

    Race and Class in Southern Appalachia

    Socialism 2015, July 02, 2015

    With Eric Kerl

    For generations, southern Appalachia has remained among the poorest places in the United States. Now mostly white, Appalachians are still ridiculed as “hillbillies” and worse. Yet, a rich tradition of interracial class struggle and socialism is an inextricable part of Appalachian history. This talk will examine the development of capitalism and racist ideology in the Appalachian region along with the response from Black Appalachians and the mountain “hillbillies” often considered less than “white


    Liked by 3 people

  4. Good analysis of a complicated history. I write about Italians in WV, especially women. My article “Embroidery as Inscription” at https://arcadia.academia.edu/JoanSaverino from edited book Embroidered Stories” tells one woman’s migration story and artistic revival. Italians were largest migrant population to settle in WV recruited there by coal companies and were active in unionization activities (having come from southern italy where their political sensibilities had been awakened already. I tweet @FolkloristPhila.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. One thing I have noted in this genre is that there is often a mention, if not an outright modelling, of some notion of “Scots-Irish” decent, and the cultural baggage associated with that. I think it has a double edge, in that it might explain historical forces of marginalization, but ends up carrying forward a notion of ethno-cultural determinism that blithely ignores evidence that Appalachia is not a monolithic thing,

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yup – the ‘Scots-Irish’ thing appears in a lot of different ways: usually, it’s color to Appalachia with some innate characteristics like resentment, clannishness, propensity for violence, tolerance of poverty or vice. More broadly, it’s meant to suggest that Appalachians are natural suckers for demagogic politicians (like Andrew Jackson, for example). As an aside, I really love when cultural elites describe Appalachia as the ‘Southern Highlands’ because it usually means they’re about to make some argument like, “Appalachia doesn’t have a monopoly on [bad thing], but I’m about to tell you why [bad thing] really resonates there because four hundred years ago some white Irish and Scottish people settled there.” As another aside, I lived briefly in Scotland and I found folks to be equally weary of the same stereotypes.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. As a native West Virginian, I watched as the political forces in the state slowly broke my heart. I once was in the forefront of the effort to stop strip mining (later called “Mountain Top Removal”) and well remember when Jay Rockefeller, who had his head handed to him by Arch Moore in 1972, came down from the mountain (aka West Virginia Wesleyan) and was now for it because “reclamation techniques had advanced so much.” Also, I saw generations of the state’s best and brightest leave for greener pastures, leaving behind a sorry bunch to run the state. West Virginia always was about exploitation. I used to tell people they didn’t have to go to Africa to see the Third World, just come to West Virginia where, for example,50 percent of Wyoming County was owned by out of state holding companies. When a coal-cleaning plant pollutes Kanawha County’s water supply and the governor says “it has nothing to do with coal” then you can see the problem. Sure, there are people doing good things in West Virginia and always have been but it will take Mother Nature 10,000 years to fix what has been done to southern West Virginia.
    Wake up, folks, and smell the coffee….

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Elizabeth, this is a really nice piece that really strikes at the laziness of the American mind. I’m not sure that it necessarily also points to the laziness of the human mind, but definitely the American one. We are often so quick to shove people into boxes based on easily identifiable shared traits and we completely forget about the nuance involved in the varying opinions, desires and character of the people who make up neighborhoods, let alone states, let alone regions. Anyways, thanks again for the article, really well done.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. “…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.”

    I found this very compelling and true. In fact, I’d say that racial tension is much more overt in the mountains because communities aren’t particularly homogenized, and because there’s very little in the way of infrastructure to strengthen positive relations or identify and combat racism. I grew up in the NC mountains where there’s a lot of seasonal workers to handle crops like Christmas tree harvesting etc. and when people regularly tear down ESL class sign up sheets or kids keep bullying another teenager for dating outside their race, the idea of ‘racial innocence’ becomes ludicrous.

    Keep us posted about your paper in the anthology! When is it available for purchase? After moving to the northeast this year I am constantly amazed at the differences in how people are able to live their regular old lgbtq lives up here in comparison. Back home there was a letter to the editor in the newspaper about two girls kissing in front of a store and how ‘indecent’ that was. The other day just walking to and from work I saw three gay couples holding hands and another dropping their kid off at school and it makes me so happy to see. It also makes me more aware of how living in the mountains shaped my internalized expectations of what acceptable social behavior is for out lgbtq people. Always more to learn.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I would love to see an author articulate a number of how many non-white Appalachians must be present in a community for their experiences, voices, and perspectives to matter. This is a question that Black Appalachians have been asking forever, though, so instead of going off the deep end I’ll link some work from Crystal Good and Frank X Walker – two Black artists who work a lot on issues of identity – and let them speak for themselves. crystalgood.net / http://www.frankxwalker.com/

    I think my LGBTQ work will be out in early 2017, but I don’t think most folks will want to pay or should pay the price of the volume. I’ll probably do a standing offer to send out copies by e-mail once the anthology is released. I really appreciate you asking about it.🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Really well done. As a transplanted Northerner who still many years later self-identifies as Appalachian, I found the Vance piece to be occasionally spot-on and more often sweepingly irritating. Thanks for a different perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree. I think the problem with Vance’s work is that, you know, it is presented as a memoir that just happens to contain some hard truths for poor rural white folk (non-white people do not seem to exist in that world). Fair enough, but Vance has also accepted an enormous number of invitations from press outlets to speak for and about Appalachia in a way that goes beyond generating publicity for his book and these interview intersect strongly with this genre. The tone is, “We’ve seen so much written about Appalachians and poor rural whites this election cycle, let’s ask the expert” and Vance truly seems to enjoy this role. In the meantime, there’s an entire cannon of Appalachian history, cultural writing, and policy analysis out there waiting to be discovered by anyone with more than a passing interest in getting to know the region.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I really enjoyed this piece. Very well written and researched, and what I love the most is it’s objectivity. I’ve never visited Appalachia. I’m from SE DC, an often mythologized and crudely depicted place, so I understand the frustration. When I read Kevin D. Williamson’s piece, I thought, “I’ve never been there but I’m sure that he’s sensationalizing the “Appalachian experience” for some kind of gain.” It’s annoying to see and I’m glad that you set the record straight. Bravo!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. It’s funny that you mention DC – we often speculate that one of the reasons writers are visiting West Virginia so much during this election is because it’s not only a day trip away from DC (and there’s a direct Amtrak service). It’s a bizarre feeling to see your home exposed in such a way, and I’m sorry that you’ve experienced that with your community.


  12. Thanks for sharing this with us. I live in WV and captures what frustrates many of us regarding articles published about Appalachia. As a gay man and the Chair of Fairness WV Institute, I am really excited to read your paper on queer history in our neck of the woods. Thanks!!!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for your good work with the Fairness Institute!

      Do you know Colin Johnson’s work? He has an academic book called Just Queer Folks that a great chapter about how New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps opened up queer possibilities for rural or mountain folks during the Depression, and the CCC was all over West Virginia. It is one of my favorite LGBT topics to learn and write about.


  13. Elizabeth,
    Thank you for writing this! My family is from Appalachia, and I have just recently started diving into Appalachian studies as a college-level historian. You brought up some fantastic points, and the article also made me aware of some traps I fall into when talking about Appalachia. I’ll be keeping an eye out for future works from you.
    Thanks again!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. place and there are poor communities with run down buildings but there are places like that all over America. Honestly some of the people that live here are very wealthy or rich. This Vance guy is full of himself in my opinion and it’s very sad that someone has to stoop so low to get attention for an article or book. Maybe I should start writing about Appalachia since I live here and let everyone know the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great essay and appreciate the open-minded, critical perspective and references. Will be sharing with folks in anti-oppression discussions as not only does the article provoke critical thinking, your background reinforces the importance of breaking down stereotypes. Thanks for giving me hope.


  16. Born in Huntington WV and spent most of my childhood in DC with a mom who couldn’t wait to get out of WV. I’ve been in the Florida keys for over thirty years and just went to visit relatives in Huntington for the first time in so long. It was so wonderful to be there! So thank you for reminding me of it again. And for the record most of the Trump supporters I know personally are white, middle to upper middle class, fairly well educated (sort of) and have probably never even been to Appalachia except possibly to ski in the winter…


  17. Very well done, Elizabeth.

    Essentially, what asshats like Roger Cohen think, say or write is of no consequence.
    The primary problem lies in the fact that no matter who is elected president we “Appalachians” will remain forgotten and unimportant to this government. It should be no surprise to anyone that whatever candidate pops up and gives our area even the tiniest ray of hope will be embraced. Democrat or Republican, none of them do anything for this region.
    We are America’s whipping post. Our broad diversity goes intentionally ignored. Most of these Yankee know-it-alls don’t even realize that Pittsburg, PA is the biggest city in the Appalachian region.

    But hey, we can take it. We’re a tough, resilient sort. After all, we’re still here and growing in spite of those who would paint us as some sort of dysfunctional race of neanderthals.


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