Monday, December 26, 2016

On Appalachia (Part II): Post-mortem on Election 2016, with reference to pre-election coverage

I'm looking back at some of the more interesting pieces on the Appalachian vote--pieces written before the election which might have given us a heads up on the outcome except that we saw the voices included in them too marginal.  I suppose we thought these were just Appalachian voices and didn't realize the extent to which they represented more than that--in particular, the extent to which they represented dis-gruntled white working class voters in other places, too, e.g., Michigan and Wisconsin.

Here's one by Roger Cohen, NY Times columnist, published a full two months before the election, "We Need 'Somebody Spectacular':  Views from Trump Country."  In one of the most expansive and thoughtful pieces I have read pre- or (now again) post-election, Cohen reports from two different regions of Kentucky, Paris in "horse country," and Hazard, in coal country.  These are regions with largely differing economic faces and fates, but Cohen finds a small business woman in the more middle-class Paris area (just half an hour from Lexington) who is struggling--and who plans to vote for Trump.  He gets his "something spectacular" quote from her, along with this:
This is the most fired-up I’ve ever been for a candidate. ... Sure, he’s kind of a loose cannon, but he tells it the way it is and, if elected, people will be there to calm him down a bit, tweak a word or two in his speeches. And I just don’t trust Hillary Clinton.
She says she voted for Obama but that we now need Trump to "clean up this mess Obama has left us."  Interesting in light of that quote is the fact that she and her husband have also struggled to keep healthcare.  (And for a full treatment of that paradox, a terrific post-election story about Kentuckians and Obamacare is here, by Sarah Kliff on Vox).

From more impoverished coal country, Hazard (in Perry County), Cohen quotes Paul Bush:
Trump’s going to get us killed, probably! But I’ll vote for him anyway over Hillary. If you vote for Hillary you vote for Obama, and he’s made it impossible to ship coal. This place is about dried up. A job at Wendy’s is the only thing left. We may have to move.
Note the "we may have to move," comment, regarding the lack of jobs.  And think about it in relation to rural folks' attachment to place.  In other words, to many rural residents, the thought of leaving their home town is a big deal.  Bush continues:
Yeah, another year without change and they’ll be shutting Hazard down.
Obama’s probably never known hardship. He and Hillary don’t get it. At least Trump don’t hold nothing back: If he don’t like something, he tells you about it.
Another fascinating quote is from Philip Clemons, who owns both a restaurant and a mining company in Hazard.  Clemons is quick to play the "race card," albeit in an unusual way--or perhaps one not so unusual for white folks in racially homogeneous areas, who are particularly likely to view themselves as colorblind and not to have been exposed to ideas such as structural racism and implicit bias:
I don’t dislike people because of their color. I liked Herman Cain a lot. I can tell you the only black person who’s ever been mean to me is Barack Obama.
Cohen also interviewed academics for his story, like Al Cross, a University of Kentucky Professor.  Cross explains Trump's appeal--beyond the issue of coal--in the Bluegrass State:
Trump’s appeal is nationalistic, the authoritarian shepherd of the flock. That’s why evangelical Christians are willing to vote for this twice-divorced man who brags about the size of his penis. There’s a strong belief here still in America as special and exceptional, and Obama is seen as having played that down.
Note the nostalgia associated with this idea of American exceptionalism.  Cohen quotes political scientist Norman Ornstein for a similar proposition:
“Somebody is taking everything you are used to and you had”—your steady middle-class existence, your values, your security. 
(Some new and salient analysis re the psychology of the Trump voter is here). As Cohen observes, "Now Kentuckians are clambering aboard the Trump train — and to heck with its destination."

This reminds me of an email I got after I appeared on OnPoint Radio in mid November to talk about the working class white vote.  One listener, an avocado farmer in California, emailed me with this:
The status quo won't cut it. My margins are thinning, some because of normal supply and demand in nature, others are the increasing demands of government through rules and regulations that may be all well and good, but who cares if you see your financial situation collapse.  I'm under no illusion as to what may or may not be accomplished under Trumps tenure, but I'm one of the "burn it down" voters.
Another interesting quote in the Cohen piece that goes more to the matter of identity politics--albeit not entirely distinct from economic distress--is this one from Jim Webb, the former U.S. Senator from Virginia and author of Born Fighting about the history of the Scots-Irish.  The Democratic Party, Webb says,
"has now built its constituency based on ethnic groups other than white working people.” The frustration of these people, whether they are in Kentucky, or Texas, or throughout the Midwest, is acute. They are looking for “someone who will articulate the truth of their disenfranchisement,” as Webb put it. Trump, for all his bullying petulance, has come closest to being that politician, which is why millions of Americans support him.
This October story from the Washington Post also spoke to Trump's overwhelming appeal in Appalachia, with the focus here on John Boehner's old district in the Cincinnati area.  Journalist James Hohmann quotes a man who cleans benzene pots at the AK Steel plant in Middletown, Ohio--in other words, a working class grunt:
I don’t understand how [Hillary Clinton's] doing anything in the polls. I see Hillary for prison, but there’s no Hillary for president signs anywhere. It’s just impossible for me to believe that they’re neck and neck.
Funny, I remember reading this and, from my perch in metropolitan California, thinking just the opposite: Who's going to vote for Trump?  Very few folks around me, at least based on the paucity of Trump Pence yard signs.  In any event, Hohmann's story discusses the politics of the region in relation to J.D. Vance's best selling Hillbilly Elegy (2016), which is discussed at the periphery of this post and more critically here in the Daily Yonder and here in the New Republic).

And here's a Sheryl Gay Stolberg piece that appeared in the New York Times several weeks after the election, "Trump's Promises Will be Hard to Keep, But Coal Country has Faith."  As the headline suggests, this piece queries--as have a number of stories since Trump's electoral success--whether he will be able to keep many of the campaign promises he made (at rallies during his victory tour in recent weeks, he has admitted he doesn't plan to "lock up Hillary"--that it was a theme that sounded better before the election. Stolberg's story, which is relatively heavy on religion, features Bo Copley, a 39-year-old mine maintenance planner who asked Hillary Clinton a question when she visited West Virginia in May, 2016:  How could she "come in here and tell us you're going to be our friend?," having dismissed coal's future. Copley says he
was “very uncomfortable” with Donald J. Trump then, he said. But over time, in a paradox of the Bible Belt, Mr. Copley, a deeply religious father of three, put his faith in a trash-talking, thrice-married Manhattan real estate mogul as a savior for coal country — and America. 
“God has used unjust people to do his will,” Mr. Copley said, explaining his vote.
An earlier pre-election post about Trump's popularity among rural voters was based on a U.S. News and World Report story headlined "Penthouse Populist." Finally, this by Alec MacGillis, post-election, is also very telling re: Ohio (though not necessarily the Appalachian part).

See also, as a post script, this from Greg Sargent of the Washington Post on Dec. 27, 2016, referencing this CNN piece re: the uptick in black lung disease and the Trump threat to Obamacare.

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