My book taking on Trump Country narratives, J.D. Vance, and the amnesia surrounding Appalachia’s progressive side is now available to pre-order through the wonderful folks at Belt. Place your order before November and you’ll automatically receive a signed copy. Details here, including contact for advance copies, media requests, and larger distribution orders.
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.”
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.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported Friday that the Tennessee Historical Commission rejected an application made on behalf of the Memphis City Council to relocate a statute of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to a new site more appropriate to the interpretation of Civil War history, with expressed interest from Shiloh Historical Park cited. The statue currently sits in the Health Sciences Park in the city’s growing medical district. The Memphis City Council has argued that the historic statue – gifted to the city in 1905 – is incongruent with the area’s modern overlay of professional offices and the function of the park as a recreational spot for medical students and downtown residents.
The application is part of a review process set forth by the 2013 Tennessee Heritage Protection Act (revised 2016), which is why it sticks to uncontroversial facts to argue for the relocation of a controversial statue. The THPA prohibits the removal, renaming, relocation, and alteration of memorials, statues, and buildings dedicated to military heritage, including what lawmakers call “the War Between the States.” While the law cites a broad cross-section of historical resources, it’s important to acknowledge that lawmakers created the THPA to “protect,” above all, the public display of markers related to Confederate heritage and, indeed, this very statue. The THPA establishes an exemption process governed by the Tennessee Historical Commission, and the application by the Memphis City Council was its first test. While the Memphis City Council was unsuccessful, it is the Tennessee Historical Commission that failed.
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.
Peggy: If we don’t learn from the past, what’s the point of even having one?
Vance Gilbert: That’s going in the brochure!
“What is public history?”
Although we exist in different interdisciplinary fields and seek varied vocational attainment, perhaps the one thing that truly unites us as public historians is that we’ve all had to flub our way through precisely that question.
It’s a topic that I devote a lot of space to in my undergraduate public history classroom, because grappling with this question is often the start of an intellectual process that ends with a new appreciation for power and the production of history. And because this process is so important, I start it off with a long look at a fictional museum of prostitution from the cult television show King of the Hill.
Yes, I’ll explain.