Analysis Media

What the Media Misses When It Sees Appalachia as Just ‘Trump Country’

Dr. Jessica Wilkerson

It's fashionable to note that Appalachia voted overwhelmingly for Trump—and to predict political karma since he's proposed massive funding cuts that will affect the region. But people in Appalachia have a long history of community organizing bolstered by federal monies and their own capacity to offer solutions to their problems.

After the release of President Trump’s budget blueprint, media coverage of Appalachia and its reliance on federal aid has surged.

For example, reporters at the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other mainstream publications have argued that the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) has been a regional “lifeline,” funneling millions into job training programs and infrastructure development. Trump’s budget proposes its elimination. Following a trend set during the presidential campaign, many reporters never fail to locate a Trump supporter whose social services are now in jeopardy. This signals to the reader that people in Appalachia acted against their own interests when 90 percent of the region’s counties voted for Trump.

Such articles reinforce an argument that has been making the rounds of the punditry: Appalachia is a “taker region” that offers little in return. 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. According to Kevin Baker, writing in the New Republic, “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.” From the environmental ravages of the coal industry to the potential social costs of a Trump administration, Trump Country has allowed “itself to be reduced,” according to Baker.

Bestselling Hillbilly Elegy author and media favorite J.D. Vance has made a name for himself as a conservative who understands what ails Appalachia. But like his liberal counterparts, he places blame on voters chasing delusions. During the presidential election, he chided his Appalachian and Rust Belt friends and neighbors for supporting Trump. He characterized Trump as “cultural heroin”—a metaphor that simultaneously references and downplays the opioid crisis playing out in Appalachia: “He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it.” But his ideology is right in line with Trump’s slim budget: “There is no government that can fix these problems for us,” he writes in his memoir.

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To historians of Appalachia such as Elizabeth Catte, this type of commentary joins a long tradition of shaming white Appalachia while ignoring “the failures of technology, the free market and our social responsibilities to one another.” These writers revel in the thought of Trump supporters losing, regardless of the fact that such loss will hardly be contained to one region or to one group of voters.

Consequently, these writers and their readers play into political arguments that simplify Appalachia as a region that absorbs large amounts of government aid but gives back little, making it easier to condemn the people who live there. And by celebrating the pain to come under Trumpism, they fail to envision a political strategy that builds a coalition between grassroots groups and decision-makers committed to improving the lives of working people.

Such portrayals of Appalachia also disregard a long history of corporate wrongdoing that drained wealth, wrecked the environment, and rarely invested in mountain communities. As scholars in the group Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force showed in the 1980 study Who Owns Appalachia?, private corporations amassed large quantities of land and mineral rights in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because they held it for many decades, they tended to pay miniscule amounts in taxes but held an outsized role in regional politics. The task force confirmed the power imbalance that had been central to working people’s lives for decades.

In the face of corporate power and abuse, working-class and poor people argued that they were entitled—by their labor and citizenship—to social supports. Rooted in anti-poverty movements of the 1960s and ’70s, local and regional activists have long drawn support from government agencies and applied it using local networks. They saw government aid as a way to make their communities more democratic. The fruits of their labor can be seen in institutions that have served the region for decades, but are rarely considered in the caricatures that label Appalachia as only Trump Country and nothing more.

Take, for example, the Higher Ground Theater in Harlan County, Kentucky, where writer Robert Gipe has led a participatory community arts program for the past decade. The critically acclaimed project builds on the documentary and cultural arts programs that were in part funded by the “War on Poverty” in the 1960s. Higher Ground creates plays based on oral history interviews, and the interracial cast and crew are drawn from the surrounding community. Together they find innovative ways to address a host of issues, from economic and environmental crises to the opioid epidemic, racial segregation, and gender violence. It has proven crucial to community and economic development in Harlan County, providing jobs to local young people, hosting conferences and festivals, creating a sense of social connection, and providing a much-needed space to develop ideas. Higher Ground relies on funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) and AmeriCorps VISTA, both targeted for elimination under the Trump budget.

Other institutions, like AppalReD Legal Aid, have transformed the legal and political culture in the region. Funded in part by the federal Legal Services Corporation (also on Trump’s chopping block), AppalReD has provided affordable legal services to poor and working-class people in the Kentucky coalfields since the early 1970s. Founding director John Rosenberg moved to Kentucky after serving as a lawyer in the Justice Department, where he worked on voting rights cases in Mississippi. Rosenberg’s earliest cases responded to and built on the working people’s movements already under way, including the black lung movement of disabled miners and miners’ widows and the anti-strip mining movement. Since then, AppalReD has trained several generations of legal professionals and improved people’s lives immeasurably in Appalachia, fighting the broad form deed (a tool used by coal companies to access the minerals beneath land they did not own), making food stamps accessible to hungry families, and fighting for disability rights. Without affordable legal services, many people simply would have had no options for legal recourse, a hallmark in a democratic society.

This became especially apparent last year, when the Social Security Administration discovered that a disability lawyer had been running a kickback scheme for more than a decade. Without affordable legal services, his 1,500 clients from impoverished communities in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia would have had nowhere to turn when the Social Security Administration stopped payments to them.

Though it’s commonplace for journalists to parachute in and write about the opioid epidemic in Appalachia, few tell the story of regional community health clinics that have been on the frontlines of this public-health crisis. The community health movement has provided preventive care to address the deep social inequalities that plague the region. Working with the Appalachian Student Health Coalition from Vanderbilt University, these health-care providers trained locals, recruited medical providers, and eventually opened clinics across the region.

By the late 1990s, community health workers sounded the alarm about the growing opioid epidemic, a direct outgrowth of high rates of workplace injury and declining access to quality health care, compounded by deindustrialization and state divestment. Community health professionals, including Dr. Art Van Zee at the St. Charles Health Clinic, were among the first to note the pharmaceutical industry’s heavy promotion of opioid prescriptions in the early 2000s, and they have since worked to develop effective treatment plans, although they often do so on a shoestring budget. Their work will become even more difficult if National Health Service Corps and other government-supported health programs lose funding, as called for in Trump’s budget.

The media owes the region and its readers respectful and rigorous coverage that cuts through simplistic formulations of Appalachia. Ignoring or erasing stories of community organizing and coalition-building makes it easier to paint Appalachia’s residents as perpetual victims of economic decline or hypocrites who receive government aid without reciprocity.

Neither narrative does justice to the creative and intellectual labor of cultural and civic institutions in the region, whose workers are best suited to offer solutions to the problems they currently face. If the Trump budget succeeds, they will face a new mountain of crises. And they should be able to face those challenges without judgment.

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