Last month, I wrote an essay about the media’s overuse of Appalachia – and particularly West Virginia – as a mythic Trump Country during the election cycle. I used the word ‘mythic’ not to deny the existence of Appalachian Trump supporters, but to instead underscore that writers and photographers from prestige outlets relied on mythic qualities of Appalachia and its working class to give their pieces traction and to shore up an emerging narrative about economic anxiety and the white working class. This strategy, I concluded, was historically consistent with the broad “othering” of Appalachia as a place that represents the failures of American progress and helped explain why writers preferred to profile Appalachian Trump supporters as opposed to Trump supporters in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Washington, or other geographies that might complicate that narrative.
McDowell County, West Virginia, received the most press attention and I’d like to quickly revisit my original essay now that we know how McDowell County voted. But first, let’s recap the highlights of “McDowell County as Trump Country.”
- From the Huffington Post: “This county gives a glimpse of the America that voted Trump into office.” This piece is a gritty, black and white photo essay that attempts to unravel “what made the area such a stronghold for Trump.”
- From the Guardian: “Why the poorest county in West Virginia has faith in Donald Trump.” Here we have a videologue that explains why “Donald Trump was more popular in McDowell County than anywhere else in America.”
- From CNN: “The ‘forgotten tribe’ in West Virginia; why America’s white working class feels left behind.” This segment was commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation as part of an “extensive survey of white working class voters.”
- From Circa: “This is what victory looks like in the most pro-Trump county in America.” This is a quick piece, largely consisting of images, that uses McDowell County to illustrate a segment of the electorate “whose economic anxieties the media and pollsters appear to have underestimated.”
- From CBS: “The view of voters in West Virginia coal country.” Here we have Ted Koppel’s take on the election and why “McDowell County was, unambiguously, Trump country.”
- From the National Post: “Donald Trump’s pledge to revive mines resonates in down-and-out coal country.” This piece offers a short video segment that explains why “there are few better places to understand how Donald Trump could become U.S. president than McDowell County.”
Looking at this list of pieces, and the arguments each makes about McDowell County, you might be surprised to learn that the county yielded just 4,614 votes for Donald Trump (and 1,429 for Hillary Clinton). Yes, out of 17,508 registered voters in McDowell County, only 26.35% voted for Trump (8.16% for Clinton). What is true is that 74% of ballots cast in the election went in favor of Trump, but McDowell County also had the lowest voter turn out in the state of West Virginia at 36.24%.
For the sake of comparison, I looked at election results in a randomly selected county in Wyoming. Johnson County, Wyoming, experienced an almost 100% voter turnout, with 3,477 ballots favoring Trump for a total of 4,485 ballots cast. This means that 78% of all registered voters cast their vote for Trump. I even, quite accidentally deep in a google fugue state, looked at the election results for McDowell County, North Carolina, and found them to be more indicative of the “Trump Country” phenomenon than McDowell County, West Virginia.
Again, the purpose of unpacking these results and how they stack up to the larger cultural trend of looking at Appalachia to understand Donald Trump isn’t to deny that people in Appalachia support Donald Trump and that they do so of their own free will, however we might choose to interpret their choices. Over at the blog for the Labor and Working Class History Association, historian Daniel Sidorick argues that “the media got what it wanted” by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about West Virginian Trump supporters. That’s not what I want to do at all, although please take a look at his short essay for additional information about primary results. Instead, what I want to do is simply offer up McDowell County as a strong example of how a narrative can snowball by hitting the right mix of unqualified cultural forecasting and consumer demand.
The example of McDowell County – the Trump Country that wasn’t – demonstrates that it is vitally important for national news outlets to pull back on coverage that’s generated in isolation from regional media and other regional experts. Anne Trubek, the director of Belt Publishing – an organization supporting independent writers that focus on the Rust Belt – also makes the case for this in a recent post-election essay. She argues “too many national stories about the Rust Belt fail to reference or link to important reporting that has already been done by local and regional outlets,” and this is certainly true of Appalachia as well.
I’ll repeat what I argued in my original essay, and that is coverage and analysis of Appalachia must include the perspectives of urban Appalachians, non-white Appalachians and individuals from other minority groups, Appalachian in- and out- migrants, environmentalists, and millennials. It must go beyond gritty and sad pictures. It must be more of “us” and less of “them,” and it must be more than an elegy.