Periodically I’ve looked around the Web for thoughtful articles about West Virginia and Appalachia. From experience I’ve learned to expect some insights along with the usual stereotypes. This batch is no different. Perhaps it’s the times, the people they’ve talked to, or maybe it’s just a reflection of the pre-conceived attitudes of the writers, but the supposed fatalism of the region runs through most of the what is written.
"A Year in the Ohio River Valley (Hard Times in Trump Country)"
by Stacy Kranitz and Alice Speri in The Intercept.
Instead of attempting a broad sweep, the writer and photographer went to Mason County, West Virginia for repeated discussions and pictures with resident Jamie Stewart. A sample:
Stewart is not your MAGA hat-wearing Trump voter. She put no signs in her yard. Her family, she says, are “union members” and “diehard Democrats.” She prefers the “Today” show to Fox News — “They do a lot of nice things for people and stuff. I like to see the good in the world not the bad.”
She thinks the border wall is stupid and marijuana should be legalized.
Stewart voted for Obama in 2008 and thinks he “wasn’t a horrible president.” She didn’t like Obamacare, but she loved Obama’s relationship with first lady Michelle. “They love each other and you don’t see that much.” She doesn’t remember whether she voted in 2012.
Stewart said she had no illusions, when she voted for Trump, that things would get better. “Trump came in, promised West Virginia bigger and better things,” she said. “Something so bad, you can’t make great overnight.”
It’s an interesting piece and because we learn a lot about Stewart, the approach gets us beyond the stereotype.
"Don’t Tell Coal Country, ‘That’s What You Get For Voting For Trump’ "
by Nick Mullins in Huffington Post.
Mullins blogs at The Thoughtful Coal Miner and the title summarizes his short article. A sample:
This is all obvious to us “ignorant hillbillies.” It is also obvious to us that we are frequently characterized as simple-minded white trash in the national media and by faux hillbilly authors like J.D. Vance. And we know why this happens: because this kind of caricature makes it seem to be our fault. Like we were too dumb to leave when the coal industry crashed. Like we are the ones too stupid to understand the environmental costs. Like we were the ones who foolishly believed Trump would bail us out.
The comments section on this one is interesting as is his website where he later responds to his critics.
"The 100-year capitalist experiment that keeps Appalachia poor, sick, and stuck on coal"
by Gwynn Guilford.
This long and well-documented essay in Quartz comes with a clear point-of-view (as the title suggests) of how Appalachia got to be this way. To that end, it uses West Virginia’s history to illustrate how the extraction industries have ripped-off the state and the region:
We typically think of “wealth redistribution” as shorthand for taxing corporations and the wealthy to give money to the poor. Central Appalachia’s extractive institutions allowed exactly the reverse—for the region’s natural wealth to be redistributed to shareholders in faraway metropolises, and in a sense, to America’s emerging middle-class consumers who benefited from artificially cheap energy, at the expense of ordinary Appalachians.
Additionally, Guilford uses the lives of specific Appalachians to illustrate her points. Her conclusion points to a bigger picture:
Americans, like central Appalachians, are told that problems of health and poverty stem from the moral failings of individuals, not of society. Meanwhile, their country’s institutions are embracing the same ideology that laid waste to the coalfields—that profit equals prosperity, regardless of its true costs.
In my estimations, the best of these articles is by Ashley Feinberg in the Huffington Post. Feinberg's article is about the media and how they’ve done a lousy job explaining Trump’s voters. What Feinberg did was to assemble 36 media articles from 2017 that purport to explain “Trump Country”:
This was the year the political media couldn’t stop reminding us of the forgotten Americans. All year long, outlets parachuted reporters into “Trump Country” to observe his voters in their habitat — “Cletus safari” is the derisive term of art — and the reporters returned with tenderly crafted soft-focus portrait after tenderly crafted soft-focus portrait of people aching to say the n-word.
Trump supporters are mad, reporters told us. Maybe you’ve heard? They’re mad at the establishment, they’re mad at Democrats, and most of all, they’re mad that they’ve been left behind. (And of course a lot of them are mad at black people, and many even say as much, but we try not to talk about that part.)
Here's her inciteful conclusion:
These stories were a sort of pornography. They existed less as a way of explaining the country to their audience than as a way for media outlets to gratify themselves, or perhaps to atone for the perceived sin of overlooking Trump supporters the year before. Some profiles offered insight; many more did not. But together, in their sheer bulk, they illuminated a larger story: the longstanding media habit of indexing the American political narrative to the sanctified yearnings of a narrow slice of white voter. Reagan Democrats, independent voters, the “undecided,” soft Republicans — no matter how small their number, no matter how wide the electoral margin, these groups always become the axis on which the story of every election turns.
In 2017, the story was deemed to be the rural Trump diehard and his or her unflagging support for the president. Below are 36 such Trump supporter profiles published in the past year, 36 being the number I was able to read without melting my brain.
Each of her 36 summaries explains what we learned in that article and all are variations on the same point:
What we learned: Trump supporters support Trump.
My hunch is that some of the articles made additional points beyond her simple summary but her larger point is well taken.