You are on page 1of 13

Appalachia in the Age of Trump:

Ronald D Eller
Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus
University of Kentucky

I am always amazed by our inability to learn from history. Despite half a century of

scholarship on Appalachia, we still rely on the same old stereotypes and policies that motivated

previous behavior toward the region. Despite a history that runs deep in the American

mainstream, we tend to isolate the region only to rediscover this enigmatic place during periods

of national crisis and change. This is one of those times/

Not since the 1960s has Appalachia drawn so much attention from the national media as

in the last few months. When the majority of mountain voters last year turned out for Donald

Trump, Appalachia was rediscovered as an icon of our current political climate, Shortly after the

election, the New York Times labeled central Appalachia "Trump Country", a place according to

The New Yorker magazine dominated by "ignorant, racist (whites), appalled by the idea of a

female President or a black President, suspicious and frightened of immigrants and Muslims,

with a threatened job or no job at all, addicted to OxyContin." Since then a gaggle of reporters

has descended on the region to describe this unfortunate place and to cast Appalachia again as a

metaphor for the "other America." On one weekend alone last June, major segments about

Appalachia appeared on CNN, NBC, HBO, and National Geographic channels.

Pundits on both the left and the right have used Appalachia as a Rosetta Stone to explain

the Trump phenomenon, despite the fact that Trump was elected primarily by sub-urban voters,

not rural voters nationally, and none of the central Appalachian states played a major role in

determining the outcome of the election. In fact, exit polls indicate that Trump support

1
throughout the country included every white demographic including age, class, gender, and

education, leading journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates to call Trump "The First White President."

Some frustrated liberal commentators have been especially quick to resurrect tired

stereotypes to explain why voters in West Virginia, East Kentucky and other areas of the coal

fields abandoned their long ties to the Democrats and voted Republican in apparent opposition

to their own material self-interests. Falling back on images of racism, religion, guns, ignorance,

and anti-intellectualism a few initial responses to Trump's victory reinforced the myth of

Appalachia as a backward "taker" region whose residents simply deserved what they would get

from the new Trump administration. "These voters made their choice," wrote Frank Rich in New

York Magazine, "and now they must live with -- and deserve to suffer under - the havoc Trump

wreaks." Writing in the New Republic, Kevin Baker concurred, "The people of Trump Country,

like so much of white America, long for a past that never was, and a future that cannot be. A

past cleansed of conflict, where a big, paternalistic company gave them nice things if they

worked hard." Trump country, concluded Baker, has allowed "itself to be reduced" to its current

deplorable condition.

Such open condescension toward Appalachia was expressed recently when the liberal

website The Daily Kos opened a conversation on whether liberals should care about rural

America. As reported by the Roanoke Times, a number of respondents rejected any special

government assistance to poor rural areas that had voted for Trump. As one commenter put it,

I am not in a generous mood to help such folks. . . . It's about pouring billions of
blue state dollars into red areas as a reward for red voters voting for a liar, a bigot,
a buffoon, and an ignoramus all rolled into one. . . . If they were just
conservative, I'd have no problem spending money on them. But they aren't just
conservative. They are ignorant and racist and proud to be both. That's the
problem I have. We have lots of other things to spend money on. Spending

2
money on the deplorables as a reward for being deplorable isn't high on my
priority list.

Conservative pundits on the other hand, have seen Trump's election as a victory for

libertarian values and evidence of the failure of welfare state programs. Liberal policies, they

argue, have created "white ghettoes" of dependency where economic despair contributes to a

culture of resignation, drug addiction and anti-social behavior. For many conservatives the

current guidebook for the Trump revolution in Appalachia is the bestselling volume by Ohio's

J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy. More about Vance later, but suffice it to say that Vance's book

promotes most of the same stereotypes of mountain people found in American literature since

before the turn of the twentieth century. He holds out little hope for hillbilly culture and finds

that the only path out of poverty is individual initiative and hard work.

The resurgence of old stereotypes about Appalachia, of course, like many of our current

reality television programs, is superficial, and it ignores the real sources of persistent poverty

and human suffering in the mountains. The problems that plague central Appalachia are well

known: the decline of coal mining jobs due largely to changing markets; the absence of

employment alternatives; the rise of opiate addiction; higher rates of depression, heart disease,

and cancer; growing dependence upon Medicaid and SSI; and insufficient tax revenues for

education and other local services. Such challenges continue to set Appalachia apart as one of

the most distressed places in America more than five decades after Lyndon Johnson declared his

War on Poverty. Ironically, despite the fact that two out of three voters in central Appalachia

cast their ballots for Trump last November, the President's proposed federal budget eliminates

funding for many support programs in the region including the Appalachian Regional

Commission, and his administration has already reduced several Obama era protections for the

environment and miner safety and suspended funding for scientific research on the effects of

3
surface mining on community health. As one regional editor put it, "It is safe to say that the

President has no plans for making Appalachia great again."

In spite of the revival of public interest in Appalachia, the national response to economic

and social conditions in the mountains has changed little for over a century. Defined as "other"

in the late nineteenth century -- the antithesis of modern, progressive America -- Appalachia has

been discovered and rediscovered so many times that the word itself has become synonymous

with backwardness. As an exception to the perceived American experience, the idea of

Appalachia has been used by both the left and the right as a proxy for political debate about the

nation's future, as well as a scapegoat for avoiding discussion of real issues such as systemic

racism and economic inequality. Thus Appalachia became the home of "our contemporary

ancestors" at the turn of the twentieth century when white America felt threatened by African

American equality and immigration, and it became an "island of underdevelopment" for a Cold

War generation convinced of the righteousness of the American capitalist system.

Indeed, as I argued in my 2008 book Uneven Ground, this tendency to view Appalachia

as part of some "other America" limited our ability to recognize persistent economic and political

inequalities within the region and, by extension, within the American system itself.

Consequently, designers of the War on Poverty in the 1960s fell back upon cultural deficiency

theories and free market strategies in order to bring Appalachia into the emerging consumer

mainstream without addressing the region's long status as an internal resource colony.

Ignoring structural inequalities such as absentee land ownership, single industry

dependence. inadequate taxation, undemocratic governance and racism, most anti-poverty

agencies worked to increase services and change individual behavior among the poor rather than

4
struggle for community reorganization and economic equity. Economic development agencies

such as the ARC opted for expanding infrastructure, access to markets, and job creation through

investment by outside industries. Although local residents and poverty warriors frequently

resisted undemocratic decision making and advocated alternative development strategies,

traditional mountain elites maintained control of the anti-poverty programs, and resources for

development tended to flow toward middle-class growth centers rather than into poorer rural

communities. While the expansion of government transfer payments in the final decades of the

century improved the quality of life for the poorest residents, reducing poverty throughout the

entire region by half, and while the new ARC highways facilitated access to jobs and cheap

consumer goods, income, land distribution, and political power remained strikingly unequal.

After the War on Poverty Appalachia disappeared from the public stage, largely due to

rising national prosperity and expanding coal markets. During the Reagan years, the budget for

the ARC was reduced drastically (actually Reagan tried to abolish the agency) and responsibility

for other anti-poverty initiatives was shifted to the states. As the nation began its transition to a

post-industrial economy and entered the digital age, demand for electricity burgeoned, spurring

another boom in the coal fields and resulting in the disastrous mining practice of Mountain Top

Removal. Unable to compete with this cheaper, more environmentally destructive extractive

process, underground mines continued their long decline in Appalachia, and most of the small

manufacturing plants recruited with government incentives a decade earlier abandoned the

region for cheaper labor off shore. Although a few miners, engineers, and managers benefitted

from the new coal boom, unemployment and out-migration increased once again, especially

among young people. Drug dependency grew sharply.

5
During the 1990s the Clinton administration attempted to refocus attention on the

problems of the region. After signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity

Reconciliation Act effectively eliminating "welfare as we know it," the Democratic President

returned to job training and private sector free market strategies to assist the poor. Clinton flew

into eastern Kentucky to raise public support for his New Markets initiative which would use

government funds to spur private investment in distressed areas. Although Clinton's larger New

Markets initiative failed to gain support in a Republican Congress, a pilot rural "empowerment

zone" project pumped $40 million into three southeastern Kentucky counties. As was the case

with previous market oriented efforts, most of the federal investment in the Appalachian EZ

went to infrastructure, "downtown improvement", job training and loans to industry. Just like

previous initiatives, the EZ program resulted in the attraction of some low-wage, predominantly

absentee companies but very little long term sustainable development. The empowerment zone

idea remerged in the Obama administration and provided the framework for Hilary Clinton's

strategy to help displaced Appalachian coal miners in her ill-fated 2016 campaign. (Neither

Clinton nor Obama demonstrated much interest overall in rural America.)

Appalachia's experience with neo-liberal development strategies over the past five

decades is mixed. On the one hand these government investments designed to spur private sector

corporate development in distressed places have generated some temporary growth and limited

employment opportunities, On the other hand, these strategies have produced what many

economists call "growth without development," relieving short term distress but failing to

address long term structural inequalities within the political and economic system that perpetuate

instability and poverty. After half a century of efforts to stimulate Appalachian development by

rewarding private investment in the mountains and dramatically increasing the social safety net,

6
we have eliminated the most egregious human suffering, but we have failed to provide economic

security, hope, and health for many in the region. The ground is still uneven in Appalachia.

Consequently current initiatives, as limited as they are, again promise opportunity for a

few and encourage short term recovery in select communities but neglect systemic change. The

SOAR initiative in Appalachian Kentucky, for example, has helped to spur some private

investment in Pikeville and to encourage a variety of proposals from increasing broadband

access to the development of casinos, greenhouses, wild life centers, and solar energy farms.

The ARC has set aside more than $75 million to help the region transition away from a coal

dominated economy through investments in worker training, technical assistance for

entrepreneurs, university research and health education. A bi-partisan task force lead by four

Senators from Appalachia recently issued a report calling for federal incentives to improve

education, entrepreneurial support, and workforce development in the region. The newly elected

Democrat (now turned Republican) Governor of West Virginia, coal and real estate magnate Jim

Justice, has proposed a $15 per ton federal subsidy for Appalachian coal to revive the faltering

industry, and even Libertarian Senator Rand Paul has proposed an act creating Economic

Freedom Zones in places such as Appalachia where industry would get relief from heavy "taxes,

regulations, and burdensome work requirements."

Rampant, unregulated free-market capitalism ravaged the land and people of the

mountains at the turn of the twentieth century creating an internal economic colony that provided

natural resources for the modernization of the rest of country but left the working class residents

of Appalachia dependent and poor. Efforts to reduce regional poverty over the last five decades,

including those of the present, have relied primarily upon the same market expanding strategies

that fueled these inequalities in the first place. They provide a semblance of growth and

7
opportunities for a few, especially those well connected to outside sources of capital, but they do

not fundamentally alter the economic, political and institutional structures that have plagued the

region for more than a century.

The failure of these libertarian and neo-liberal strategies to bring hope and equality to

mountain communities fuels much of the antipathy toward government to be found within the

region today. The long "Friends of Coal" campaign financed heavily by the coal industry helped

to reinforce years of accusations by mountain elites that the problems of the region were not the

result of exploitation or local greed and corruption but the arrogance of "outsiders," especially

educated bureaucrats from the federal government. Encouraged by conservative media and

religious leaders who stirred racial and nationalist resentments and by the rowdy blustering

against the establishment by candidate Donald Trump, white working class voters in the

mountains threw their support to Trump out of emotion spurred by desperation and resentment.

Far from merely voting against their own interests, these voters may have been sending a

message to both the Democrat and Republican leadership that the policies of the past have failed

in Appalachia just as they have failed to stop the growing gap between the wealthy one percent

and the rest of us nationally. And they may have been sending one additional message: that they

are tired of the arrogance and condescension with which conservative and liberal elites have

treated their rural working class culture as well.

These economic and emotional motivations do not excuse the racism expressed by many

white working class voters in Appalachia toward the Obama administration, nor do they fully

explain their willingness to vote for a nationalist and white supremacist candidate, but they do

shed light upon the depth of despair and the lack of hope that pervades the region. Racism is

systemic in white America, and it cuts across class and geographic boundaries, but it is often

8
difficult for working-class whites in Appalachia to recognize the benefits of "white privilege"

because of their marginalized place in the American economic and social system. Facing

persistent unemployment, powerlessness, and a bleak future and openly demeaned by elites as

"hillbillies," working class whites in Appalachia easily succumbed to baser emotions of anger,

resentment and racism.

Unfortunately many in the national media missed the frustration and despair behind the

2016 vote in the mountains. Instead, they revived the same old stereotypes and simple cultural

explanations of regional behavior that had motivated the designers of the War on Poverty. In the

1960s most elites considered poverty to be an aberration in the American experience, the product

of some deficiency among the poor themselves, i.e. a culture of poverty. The most popular

application of Oscar Lewis's culture of poverty theory for Appalachia was Jack Weller's personal

reflection Yesterday's People, published by the University Press of Kentucky in 1965. In our

current era of reality programming, of anecdotal evidence and of simplistic solutions, J.D.

Vance's memoir of growing up poor in a working-class world provided a similar timely retelling

of the Appalachian myth and a convenient explanation for the Trump rebellion as well.

Brilliantly marketed in a manner even Donald Trump could appreciate and pointedly

titled Hillbilly Elegy, the book quickly became a national best seller. USA Today declared the

memoir to be "one of the big break out hits of the 2016 election cycle," describing it as "the story

of Vance's hardscrabble childhood in Appalachia and later success at Yale Law School and

Silicon Valley." The book made it to number one in June of this year after Vance was profiled on

NBC's Sunday Night With Megan Kelly. Vance has been a frequent guest on cable talk shows

and news programs and was introduced by one CNN anchor as "the man who wrote the book on

9
Appalachia." Hillbilly Elegy has been adopted as required reading for freshmen this year at more

than a dozen major colleges and universities.

Of course Vance's memoir is not about Appalachia. Critics in the region have pointed

out that he is three generations removed from Appalachia and grew up in a multi-racial small

town community in Rust Belt central Ohio. His passionate narrative describes a difficult

childhood raised by a drug-addicted mother, a series of occasional fathers, and a hardnosed,

violent but caring grandmother. Vance both romanticizes and criticizes his grandmother's home

community in eastern Kentucky, which he visited occasionally as a small child, but his is

primarily a rags to riches story. Raised in an environment of insecurity and neglect, his

childhood mirrors that of far too many other children living in poor black, native American,

Hispanic and working class white communities across the country. Despite these similarities,

Vance identifies the deviant behavior of his close knit family as part of his "hillbilly" heritage,

which he associates with a Scotch-Irish ancestry and his grandparent's roots in Appalachia. With

little knowledge of the history of the region, its diversity or complexity, he utilizes popular

stereotypes to assure his reader that poverty in America has less to do with government programs

or systemic inequalities than with behaviors derived from a deficient culture which can be

overcome through self-discipline and hard work. His is a political restatement of the Horatio

Alger myth, an old theme in both America and Appalachia.

But whether Hillbilly Elegy is a book that describes Appalachia is not the point. By

focusing his story on a group of "working class whites with ties to Appalachia," Vance hopes to

demonstrate to his reader "how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views

through a racial prism." For Vance, culture not racism or economic inequality shapes the world

of the poor, and there is no policy, he says, and "no government that can fix these problems for

10
us." Appalachian scholars, however, have long observed that a "racial prism" was at the heart of

the creation of the idea of Appalachia at the turn of the twentieth century, and the region's

supposed "whiteness" has always been a factor in the way outside elites have related to the place.

As such, Appalachia has commonly been the exception to the rule that whiteness equals

prosperity, and if mountain whites failed to participate in that prosperity it was because of their

own weakness, their peculiar culture. This tendency to racialize Appalachia not only reinforces

cultural strategies for fighting poverty in the mountains, but it obscures economic and political

realities that have long plagued the region.

This may be the central issue of the Trump era in Appalachia: whether we will continue

to blame the people of the region for their own condition or whether we will acknowledge the

need for substantive structural reform nationally and within Appalachia. Elite commentators

who championed the popularity of Hillbilly Elegy missed the opportunity to reveal the

underlying systemic failures that drove working class whites in Appalachia and elsewhere to

vote for Donald Trump. Racism, economic inequality, elitism, greed, and a self-serving political

oligarchy fueled deep sentiments of distrust and resentment. If Appalachian residents are angry

with their condition, we should take their complaints seriously.

Like Vance, I was raised by a working class white Appalachian family, although my

parents migrated to Ohio and back to West Virginia more than a decade before Vance's

grandparents left Breathitt County, Kentucky. While I did not experience the trauma of Vance's

childhood, we were part of the "hillbilly" community of working class whites and my playmates

and neighbors were the children of European immigrants and African-American migrants from

the deep South. My father, born in a coal camp, was a barber with a sixth grade education. I

was the first in my family to attend college, but unlike Vance, my intellectual journey led me to

11
ask different questions about my heritage. Why was I the first in my family to attend college?

Why did my father and grandfather before him need to leave their home communities in the

mountains to find work? Why did so many of my relatives suffer from black lung, diabetes and

other illnesses? And why were my people looked down upon by other Americans with such

disdain? I turned to history rather than culture for the answers.

I spent almost five decades teaching and writing about Appalachia and working with

political leaders and grassroots organizations in order to better connect public policy with the

lessons of the region's past. While Vance sets forth very few solutions to the problems of

poverty, I found in the history of Appalachia recurring patterns of injustice and inequality.

Above all I learned that Appalachia's problems were neither unique nor a product of some

strange and peculiar culture but were in fact deeply interconnected with the political and

economic life of the nation as a whole. The lessons of Appalachia's past speak to fundamental

inequalities within American society today which must be acknowledged if we are to build a

different future. To repeat the same policies and received assumptions will only produce the

same unequal outcomes.

Appalachia's troubled past, for example, suggests the need for deep and fundamental

policy change in at least five areas: 1.) Land Reform including the reduction of absentee land

ownership and the promotion of alternative land use, 2.) Political Reform and the renewal of

ethics in public life 3.) Reform of Primary Institutions, especially health care and education,

4.) Economic Reforms that broaden participation and ownership by encouraging local and

regional markets, and 5.) Values Reform that re-emphasizes collective responsibility, diversity,

and respect for each other and for the natural world. These are exactly the reforms that need to

occur nationally. Such revolutionary change may appear to be overwhelming, but examples of

12
these changes already exist within the region and across the globe. What is needed is the

political will and leadership to think collectively and to step beyond personal interest in pursuit

of the public good. Past policies toward Appalachia and many current initiatives, either blame

the victims or foster market solutions that grow the wealth of the few over that of the many.

Real and lasting change in Appalachia will require a more drastic transformation of our

assumptions about the region and about our American system as well.

The response of working class whites in the 2016 election should challenge the rest of us

to think more critically about how we define America and how we uphold the values that we

profess for the good society. In the era of Donald Trump the ground is still uneven in

Appalachia, and in the rest of the nation the American promise is still unfulfilled for millions of

working class people. We live in uncertain times, but that very uncertainty may provide a

moment of opportunity for change. Confronting the challenges facing Appalachia will force us to

reconsider our core values and institutions as Americans. In that regard we are all Appalachians.

13