MARCH 1, 2017
MY HOME IN SOUTHERN APPALACHIA has remained among the poorest places in the United States, despite many promises from Washington to fix it. We are still ridiculed as “hillbillies” and worse. So it should be no surprise to anyone that whenever a candidate pops up and gives our area even the tiniest ray of hope, that person is going to get a fair hearing from us. And when Donald Trump came to West Virginia and promised to bring back mining jobs and prosperity, folks here were ready to take a gamble on that kind of change.
I’m a lifelong Democrat, but this election brought on a huge shift in my political views. Most everyone around me are also Democrats by local custom, and also by a historic belief that government can still work as a force for good when it wants to. All the leaders in my county are registered Democrats. But almost all of us voted for the Republican Donald Trump because we don’t have much more to fear.
The Democratic Party has long prided itself for fighting for needs of the working men and women over the interests of the wealthy, but the message has gone flat. While so many progressives have been drunk with identity politics and trying to make every little educated interest group feel stroked and coddled, hardworking people struggling to put food on the table have lost faith in that old Democratic brand.
It’s offensive to tell a laid-off person who couldn’t go to college that their economic struggles aren’t as much of a concern as using the right pronoun. And it’s almost impossible to conceive how your white skin is a basis of privilege when you’re surrounded by addiction, crime, and poverty.
You really need to understand the place we come from. I am proud of it, but honesty is also important. McDowell County is sometimes called “the West Virginia of West Virginia.” We’re mountainous, isolated, and saddled with a litany of unconscionable hardships. Of all the states, West Virginia has the highest rates of diabetes, illegal drug deaths, heart disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure, and smoking. And you see these problems doubled and tripled in my hometown, where the coal booms of the 1940s that put us on the map are nothing but a distant memory.
I can cite many causes for coal’s demise, but President Obama made it clear that he was no fan of our leading industry. Excessive EPA regulations, along with the falling price of natural gas, have made it almost impossible for us to compete with other fuels. For the last six years, we have seen little but shutdowns and layoffs. But no matter, Obama still felt it important to rush strict EPA regulations to decrease the carbon emissions by 30 percent from coal-fueled power plants.
We paid the price for that decision. West Virginia’s coal mining employment has fallen over 27 percent in the last five years and our production has fallen from 158 million tons in 2008 to only 68 million in 2016. And now McDowell County has one of the lowest life expectancy for males in the entire Western hemisphere, partly due to its position near the top of counties with the most drug overdoses, obesity, and suicides.
We voted strongly for Obama over John McCain in 2008, but now we feel betrayed.
McDowell has since received attention during this election cycle as one of the counties with the largest percentage of Trump voters in the country. In the recent presidential election, 74 percent of the people who came out to vote in McDowell voted for Trump. A Republican winning by that kind of percentage in McDowell is staggering. How could a county where Bill Clinton won by 73 percent in 1996 change so fast? How did the message change so vastly since Obama carried 54 percent of the vote in the county in 2008? The staggering margin has prompted many people to refer to this area as “Trump country,” which is funny considering this is a billionaire who has never worked a blue collar job in his life. But his message was dead on-target.
Trump seemed like an outsider who could use his business experience to create jobs for the country. In his speeches, Trump asserted that we should run our country like a business. He suggested that we should appoint people who have proven track records of success in the private sector, so that they could use their experience to help the country as a whole. In places where jobs are a rare commodity, this seemed like a viable solution to economic problems plaguing rural areas. Politicians have failed us, and it can’t get much worse, so why not give a successful businessman a chance to run things differently?
It’s no secret that Obama’s vow to “bankrupt” coal power plants, along with Hillary’s remarks that she’d “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” struck fear in the hearts of those whose economy is dependent upon this industry. Of course coal isn’t the future, but it seems inefficient to take one’s only industry without anything to replace it. West Virginians heard Trump promising to put coal miners back to work; they heard Hillary promising to put coal miners out of business.
Democrats can’t say that West Virginia hasn’t given them a fair chance. We were a historic stronghold for the party until recently, when we finally had enough of failed promises to bring jobs and infrastructure. What is left is a distrust of using government to help us anymore. We already tried that.
I recognize an irony. Even with a deep resentment of government, nearly half of all income in McDowell Country is from federal assistance programs.
To many people here, Obama took our jobs and left us cheap cell phones.
Like the people here, so many Americans have long held a deep disdain for the way Washington works. Being a true outsider, Trump was immediately appealing to many here, despite his New York accent and his ostentatious wealth. Seeing the Washington establishment’s rejection of Trump drew voters in even more. Even though there were very few who took him seriously at first, it didn’t take long before they took notice of what was happening. Although there were calls for an establishment candidate, both parties made it clear that this would be a “change” election.
As Trump grew into a more viable threat, the media’s fondness for Trump ostensibly shifted. No one would expect the coverage to always be in favor of Trump, but our news sources should at least present the appearance of being impartial. Speaking bluntly, I feel that a lot of journalists sacrificed their integrity for a failed political campaign. I’ve always been aware of the conservative leaning of Fox News, or the leftwing MSNBC, but CNN was once what I considered to be a fair news source. After hearing the way debate questions were given to Hillary in advance, along with other collusion revealed in the emails from John Podesta, we were shown how the media can act as an integral part of a political campaign — just another of the many unsettling incidents during this election cycle.
As the hit pieces kept coming, it seemed to many that Trump was being unfairly victimized by the media. Perhaps we sympathized with him because, as people from the hills who have also been rejected by the establishment, we know what it feels like.
In the eyes of many Americans, both the Washington establishment and the media elite were fighting against a possible Trump presidency. For people who have felt ignored by both, Donald Trump was a hero fighting for their cause. For years, Democrats have been the voice for the working class of the United States, but while the most vocal Democrats were playing identity politics, Trump emerged as the voice of the working class.
It seems that many of the problems in the Democratic Party have been self-inflicted. While they were alienating a significant portion of the electorate with irrelevant stories about the elite and the privileged, the media was helping to energize the Trump campaign by treating him as a joke. The relentless attacks from the press caused many to perceive Trump as a victim of the establishment’s desire to keep outsiders away. Although Trump’s claims of media bias were inflated at times, well-respected journalists were becoming more immersed in influencing the outcome of the election. With the establishment and the press ostensibly working against him, Trump seemed to be a person who would break up the Champagne party in Washington and look out for us little people.
Just as we joined the wave of hope that swept him into office doesn’t mean we’re signing up for a cult of personality, or that we won’t hold him accountable. What Trump does for West Virginia in the next four years can make or break his presidency, not because our five electoral votes are so powerful, but because his surprising bond with us is symbolic of his appeal across the broad collection of forgotten people the media has taken to calling “the white working class.”
We now know that at least the establishment can’t ignore us anymore. President Trump — whether he agrees or not — is now speaking for that same establishment in Washington that can help us either through direct action or just by getting out of the way to let the free market work. We will be watching him.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy fix for the problems in Appalachia, but President Trump has to at least try and prove it to us that he remembered us. If he does not deliver on some of the biggest promises he made to the people in West Virginia — coal jobs, security, respect — they will certainly remember that at the polls in 2020.
West Virginians and most rural Americans just want a little opportunity, and that’s a rare commodity here, even if it’s what all citizens want in the end.