Over at the New Republic, Sarah Jones has a blistering take on J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the social analysis of Appalachia’s “forgotten” white working class masquerading as a regional memoir and current favored text for understanding the inner lives of economically precarious white voters. Her piece works better than most because it attends not only to the central themes and lessons of Elegy, but also to the media oversaturation of Vance as a white working class whisperer and his eagerness to embrace the role of political analyst during and after the election.
From local papers to the national press, from Fox News to NPR, from the lecterns of state schools and business schools, Vance has served up “straight talk” about the white working class that both conservatives and liberals are eager to consume. For conservatives, Vance’s rags-to-riches story – from his broken childhood in rural Ohio and Kentucky to the heights of Silicon Valley’s venture capital world – is confirmation that the American Dream they’re selling works: that through hard work and bootstrapping all is possible, handouts be damned. At the same time, liberals applaud Vance for demonstrating the dangers inherent in what he characterizes a veil of misunderstanding between coastal elites and rural whites. The problem, as Sarah Jones writes, is that the “media class fixated on the spectacle of white trash Appalachia, with Vance as its representative-and-exile” and stopped looking for any other voices or perspectives. If your goal is to rebuild coalitions of working class whites and win back their votes – and this is the angle that Jones covers – it might be time to consult a new expert, or perhaps just actual working class people. I’ll leave that angle to others, but keep reading, because I have a good recommended text.
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.
To some degree, what compels those who seek to untangle Cairo’s complicated past is the refusal to believe that a town – an entire town – is an artifact of racism.
In May 2011, the governor of Illinois called for the evacuation of Cairo, a sparsely populated and predominately African American town located at the confluence of the flooding Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Years of neglect left the town’s levees in poor repair, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers assessed an imminent breach. The Corp of Engineers made the decision to intervene and perform a controlled breach to divert flood waters several miles upstream in Missouri, instigating a federal lawsuit that placed the interests of productive heartland farmers against socially and economically devastated black families. Although the Supreme Court dismissed the suit, the controversy served as an uncomfortable reminder that past struggles, when detached from collective memory, can quickly resurface in new battles.