Does Trump Country Really Even Exist?
For many bewildered Americans, the search to understand Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency has led to hangovers, sleepless nights, wild allegations, and a newfound interest in FBI subpoenas. Fired by an exhausting news cycle and the sensational, blockbuster claims of releases like the Steele Dossier and Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, the debate rages on over what exactly happened, and which group of voters swung the election for Trump.
The quest for answers has led the media and other onlookers to cast a lazy eye to Appalachia, which seemed like an obvious place for journalists to find the elusive, essential "Trump country" they were looking for. Reporters descended on the area, staking out roadside diners, VFW halls, and church pancake breakfasts, searching for new insights on the lives of angry, white, working-class voters. These revelations often took the tone of wry condescension, as in this article in Vanity Fair: “You have never heard people speak so fondly, so intimately about hot dogs. Not, like, the nuances of them, but their very existence, the you would talk about a grandmother or an old Labrador.”
Venture capitalist J.D. Vance’s bestselling 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy was also often cited to explain the Appalachian mentality, and business boomed for geographically relevant pundits and informal “hillbilly whisperers.”
Historian Elizabeth Catte has a new book out called What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia that aims to dispute this latest wave of Appalachia blaming. She uses various lenses (racial, economic, historical) to examine how both conservative and liberal views on the region tend to confirm and compound stereotypes of Appalachia and its residents. Her assertions are both sensible and radical. It seems we are getting a lot wrong.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To change our assumptions about Appalachia, your book delves into both public and personal history. What was your inspiration to write this book the way that you did?
I spent a lot of the early election season angrily shouting about coverage of Appalachia that was appearing frequently in Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, really prestigious publications. And to me, it seemed to be a narrative produced to test for this hypothesis that economic anxiety is driving support for Donald Trump. And Appalachia became almost like a laboratory to test that hypothesis. I think the reporters concluded that there was something going on in the region that could explain this political moment that we had arrived at, which was that poverty had given way to a specific culture in the region, and that was what was setting off this political swing that we were experiencing.
And, of course, Hillbilly Elegy went a long way in confirming this hypothesis as well. So, I was thinking about this phenomenon for a couple of months. I wanted to bring history into the mix because that was something is really missing from these pieces—how Appalachia got to be the way that it is. Many of the articles were culture-based, even focusing on [supposed] genetic decline [among Appalachian people]. I wanted to bring history in to show that there is quite a coherent pattern to the economic decline that we were seeing in the region.
A lot of narratives about Appalachia feel to me like they are narratives of omission too—either people in the region we are not talking about or [using] Appalachia so that we don't have to talk about people outside of the region. Any kind of economic hardship or scarcity that you find in Appalachia, lots of people throughout the country experience. [For instance] African Americans are predisposed to poverty circumstances. But when talking about economic anxiety in communities of color, obviously they weren't supporting Donald Trump so it became an uninteresting thread for [the media] to pick up.
Right, national news stories often promote the economic anxiety narrative, but it’s always assumed to be a kind of economic anxiety that is somehow exclusive to white Americans.
Appalachia is the region [to highlight] when people don't want to talk about other demographics or other regions. Appalachia is sort of the problem that people produce to get out of talking about other social issues.
In Vance’s TED talk he says “social capital” is what allowed him to prosper, and he wants to somehow bring more social capital to Appalachia to help others succeed. What do you think about this idea?
[Laughs] That sounds very familiar. I don't have the knowledge to comment on it thoroughly, but social capital is a phenomenon that gets used in Silicon Valley circles. The idea is that we don't have to do social insurance programs or buy into a common good, we can just help people network better. This idea is almost social Darwinism: the “best” will rise to the top and we can help them make that transition more fully by connecting them to a wider range of resources.
In your book you dispute a historical theory asserting that Appalachia is akin to a conquered colony inside the United States. But in the view you just described from Silicon Valley, it's almost like, I don't know, the way one country would colonize another.
There's lots of connecting threads here. The reason I don't like to describe Appalachia as sort of a colony is because the majority of the population of Appalachia are going to be white individuals and so there is a sense of unease in describing their experience as the experience of the colonized. But I am really comfortable saying that there is a logic of colonialism in Appalachia. People have used the region to increase their own wealth, and do not care too deeply about what happens to people within the region.
I appreciate how you show the misperceptions of Appalachia are held by both conservatives and liberals. Why do you think some liberals develop these inaccurate perceptions of Appalachia?
That's a really interesting question. And one I think about a lot. I think the idea that poverty is a situation and a circumstance that occurs through individual failings is a casual narrative that runs through a lot of social problems we have in the United States. And once you start thinking about Appalachia, it forces you to examine other hard truths. Such as, who has profited off the exploitation of people, how does the history of dispossession run through this country, things like that. There is a sense of escapism that people [tend toward] when they engage with those problems. They don't want to see that they are complicit. They don't want to see that, you know, they look the other way when people are suffering. And oftentimes they just don't want to do anything about it.
A lot of the public's current perception of Appalachia comes via national news about the opioid epidemic, which appears to be an example of how the region is being used as a stand-in for problems with white America in general. Assuming we both agree that the overuse of opioids is a serious issue, how much of this is a consequence of unregulated capitalism?
For me, 100 percent. Reporting about the opioid crisis presents a crisis of despair, [in which] people have gotten into addiction because their economic circumstances are declining, and there may be a little bit of truth to that. I'm not an expert on this. But if you look at the history of Appalachia [there] is again this thread that Appalachia is sort of a laboratory for powerful people who want to test out different kinds of power. Of course, the coal industry is the big example, but also the idea that the pharmaceutical industry can come into the region and do experiments with deregulation ... they can see how their product fits within the region, what doctors are prescribing, and how much, and to what demographic.
I ask this somewhat sarcastically, but is anyone getting anything right about Appalachia? And if so, what are they getting right?
There's a new book that came out in the last two months called Ramp Hollow, by an environmental academic called Steven Stoll. It's tremendous. It's a complete history of land dispossession in Appalachia that makes wonderful connections between Appalachia and the rest of the United States, and globally as well. There are lots of cool projects in the region that are getting Appalachia right. We have a strong tradition of community media, places like Appalshop, which is a big community media force in Kentucky. There's a new photographic collaborative [project] called Queer Appalachia that just produced a tremendously important volume of photography and related art about a side of Appalachia that many people don't get to see. So if you want to see who is getting Appalachia right, look to community media here.
You often mention in your book that Appalachia is not that much different from the rest of America. Can you envision a way in which Appalachia could improve itself separately from how the rest of America would do so?
I really can't. I think what Appalachia needs .. .when I say the word 'redistribution,' what most people think of is rich and powerful people kind of doing trickle down to poor people and spreading wealth. But in Appalachia, and in many places across the country, it’s the reverse, where poor people and vulnerable people have given their wealth (usually in the form of their labor) to powerful people, and have gotten nothing in return for it. So that is what we need to do to correct Appalachia, which is also what we need to correct wealth inequality in America. We need to reverse engineer wealth distribution and make it work for people, not corporations.