Surprised by Trump's Popularity in Appalachia? Don't Be.
For those of us who study Appalachia's politics, Trumps popularity comes as no surprise.
Appalachia has long existed outside the economic norms of the United States, and often, it exists outside the norms of American politics, too. The result is that it is sometimes difficult for those who are not from the region, or who haven’t studied it carefully, to understand the region’s politics.
Because a full 95% of the counties in Appalachia swung toward Trump in the election, many were shocked when the President’s first budget proposal sought to slash government agencies and programs thought to be vital to the region. The Roanoke Times declared: “Trump backhands Appalachia.” USA Today argued that “Trump budget beats down Appalachia.” In my own back yard, the Asheville Citizen-Times was less aggressive: “Trump’s proposed budget has Appalachia worried.”
I understand why people question the seemingly unwavering support of Trump’s candidacy (and now, his presidency), by folks in Appalachia. Plenty of ink has been spilled since November by various writers and journalists attempting to explain the phenomenon. For some, it boils down to a single issue: coal. For others, it is about elitism. Perhaps the most common argument is that supporting Trump is a sort of hail-Mary pass aimed at economic survival or improvement.
There’s truth in all of these arguments, but there are also other forces at play. Many of those who continue to question the logic of Appalachia so heartily supporting Trump live outside the region and lack the historical or cultural context to understand the complex processes that drive Appalachian politics.
In many ways, those who point to elitism as the root of Appalachia’s disdain for Democratic political candidates at the national level are right. In short, Hillary Clinton simply didn’t belong not so much because she’s an outsider (so is Trump) but because she vocally opposed what many in Appalachia view to be the region’s lifeblood. Clinton went so far as to say: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” when asked at a debate about the future of fossil fuels. Her answer, and the snark with which she delivered it, played well with her more urban supporters, but it fell flat in Appalachia. Rejecting coal, for many, meant rejecting Appalachian culture. Coal and outsider elitism are bound up as part of the same whole and it is impossible to consider one without considering the other. Combine Clinton’s flippant remarks about coal miners with Trump’s donning of a miner’s hardhat at a campaign rally in West Virginia, and it isn’t difficult to see why many in Appalachia put their chips on Trump’s number.
Those who voted for Trump generally do not care what those outside the region think of their political leanings, and they aren’t reading USA Today. They are, however, posting pictures of train-loads of coal on their Facebook walls, attributing the mining of those tons of coal directly to Trump, and they are sharing social media memes that criticize mainstream media outlets. The consumption and regurgitation of only those talking points that confirm their previously-held beliefs is not a practice unique to Appalachia. It happens all over the US. With Trump, however, many in Appalachia are motivated and perhaps even predisposed to support him by deeply embedded forces. To properly understand the Trump phenomenon in Appalachia, one must understand the region’s political and economic power structures.
Perhaps more important than any other factor is the reality that Trump came to Appalachia and said, essentially, “I know that you exist and I’m going to help you.” He walked onto a stage in Charleston, West Virginia, in May of 2016, donned a miner’s hardhat, and told the coal miners in attendance that they should get ready to start mining more coal. Politics are often deeply personal in the hills of Appalachia, and the region has so long been ignored by most Americans that it is truly meaningful when a national political candidate not only visits the region but vows his support for their cause. They view every short ton of coal extracted from their region as further proof that Trump cares about them. Never mind that Trump’s proposals are considered by outsiders to be disastrous for the region, or that coal has never been the sort of blessing for the region that coal boosters would have us believe. In Trump, many Appalachian people found an ally who they believed would fight for them.
For many, fighting for them does not mean the same thing as it means to the rest of America. Most people in Appalachia view the notion that those outside the region know what’s best for them as yet another exercise in elitism. In fact, I myself hold this same view. It is offensive and insulting for many of us when those who know nothing about our region’s culture or heritage, apart from perhaps what they’ve seen on reality TV or the in film Deliverance come to our mountains and try to tell us dumb hillbillies what we need. In Trump, Appalachian people found someone who listened to them and what they said they need – namely more coal mining – and pledged his support. While I disagree with the notion that more coal is what Appalachia needs to thrive economically, I cannot fault my neighbors for embracing a leader who took the time to acknowledge and value their own solutions to their problems. Instead, I am heartbroken that so many of my neighbors have yet again been led astray by a political leader preying on their vulnerability for personal and political gain.
For Appalachian people so accustomed to rough and dirty politics, their allegiance to Trump meant that they would support him come what may. They don’t care about his alleged collusion with Russia, nor do they care that he is crude, crass, or short on intellect. Many are encouraged, not disheartened, by actions like the pardoning of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He’s their guy, he says he looks after “his” people, and demonstrates it by doing things like pardoning Arpaio. In Appalachia, that still means something.
For those of us who study politics and power in Appalachia, Trump’s popularity here is no surprise. In Appalachia, there’s a long history of people supporting morally bankrupt and blatantly corrupt leaders. In fact, I would argue, based on my own scholarly work, that central Appalachia is the most politically corrupt place in the United States. Behaviors some of us view with distaste – vote buying, self-enrichment, and egomaniacal self-advancing policies – are just business as usual in Appalachia.
Consider that Appalachia is the region that still overwhelmingly supports villains like Don Blankenship. For those unfamiliar with the name, Blankenship was once the CEO of Massey Energy. He was convicted in 2015 of conspiring to violate federal law by ignoring safety violations at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine. As a result of Massey’s actions, the court determined, 29 miners died in an explosion that could have been prevented.
In 2009, as many as 100,000 people turned out for a pro-coal rally on Labor Day sponsored by Blankenship and Massey. The rally featured conservative heroes Ted Nugent and Sean Hannity, among others. Clad in an American flag shirt, Blankenship declared that “America’s working families are under attack.” Taxation and regulation, he argued, were the primary enemies of coal miners.
Of course, taxation and regulation are in fact the enemy of the coal barons, but Blankenship was able to successfully tie his own self-interest to that of rank and file coal miners. Despite what many view as behavior antagonistic to the best interest of workers and of the communities in which Massey operated, Blankenship made a rather compelling case that when Massey Energy was successful, so, too, was Appalachia. A rising financial tide for Blankenship’s boat, in short, would be a rising tide for the region, too. So it is with Trump, it seems. Many blue-collar workers in Appalachia have connected their own futures to the success they hope to see Trump achieve.
While many of us view this false correlation as ridiculous at face value, the folks in Appalachia who flocked to Blankenship’s 2009 rally did not view it that way. Blankenship himself boasted that he spent one million dollars to put on the event, and for many in attendance, it was an indication of Blankenship’s deep commitment to his workers and to the region. When one considers Blankenship’s efforts in comparison to Democrats like Clinton and President Obama who were pretty blatant about their disdain for the coal industry, it becomes pretty obvious who many in the region believe they should be supporting.
Mother Jones writer Tim Murphy writes that Blankenship “transformed West Virginia physically and politically.” This is certainly true. He pumped millions of dollars into the coffers of Republican candidates for office. However, he was most certainly not the first coal baron to spend millions to buy political power in the coalfields. In fact, the region’s history is full of corrupt by charismatic politicians who won the hearts and minds of the people even though their interests were largely selfish in nature.
It isn’t just in industry that personalities like Blankenship find success and support. At a local level, politics in central Appalachia are often driven by oversized characters who thrive via a unique flavor of populism. Over and again, people in the region elect local political leaders who are blatantly corrupt and self-serving. What these corrupt local leaders usually share in common is a commitment to local people and an antagonistic approach to outsiders.
Knott County, Kentucky is a prime example of the way corruption is confronted differently in many parts of Appalachia than it is in most of the rest of the US. In 2006, Randy Thompson was appointed as Knott County Judge Executive, and was elected for a full term later that same year. Thompson, a prominent local business and media leader who owned a popular local radio station, was appointed to replace Donnie Newsome who resigned after being convicted of vote-buying. Newsome, it’s worth noting, had run the county from prison for ten months before resigning.
Before Thompson could even complete his first full term in office, he, too, was convicted of vote-buying. In 2008, Thompson was found guilty of designing a scheme through which he was guaranteed political support and votes in exchange for paving private driveways with county materials and equipment. Thompson appealed.
In the meantime, having served his sentence, Newsome had his civil rights restored by the Governor of Kentucky and decided to try once again to become Judge Executive. In 2010, Newsome, previously convicted of vote-buying, briefly ran against Thompson, convicted of the same crime but still awaiting appeal. Newsome was defeated in the primary, but Thompson was reelected by the very voters the court determined he had cheated just a few years before. Thompson continued to serve as Judge Executive until he was forced by a judge to resign his office while serving his prison sentence. It is such a complicated web of corruption and elections that one almost needs a diagram to understand it.
There exists an extensive and often heartbreaking historical context to explain why Appalachia is different from the rest of the US both politically and economically. Much of the explanation traces back to a history of resource extraction and the takeover of the region by coal companies who bought local politicians and ruled with iron fists. To most outsiders who are unfamiliar with this historical context, Appalachia’s brand of politics is baffling. However, when one considers that felons convicted of vote-buying can be reelected despite their crimes, and that Blankenship, a villain of cartoonish proportions, can attract 100,000 people to a Labor Day rally, it becomes easier to understand why Trump, who has no real operable solutions to the problems faced by most in Appalachia, was able to win in so many of the region’s poorest counties.
The single worst mistake outsiders can make when attempting to interpret the actions of voters in Appalachia is to assume that they are simply too dumb to know any better. This is not the case. It is also not accurate to say that everyone in Appalachia supports Trump or Blankenship or corrupt local officials. It is worth noting that while a majority of voters in 95% of all counties in Appalachia voted for President Trump, that is not the same thing as 95% of Appalachia supporting him. Appalachia has a long history of resistance. However, the region has been so thoroughly defeated in so many ways over the course of multiple generations that those who resist often end up either giving up or moving away. Sometimes, they are defeated over and over until they just stop trying even if they can’t afford to leave.
Appalachia is America’s most neglected region. Despite efforts by the Appalachian Regional Commission and multitudes of federal elected officials, it is still a region in crisis. In many counties, the poverty rate tops thirty percent. In some, it tops forty percent. Those who spend any time in the region realize quickly that the people are in dire need of hope.
In Donald Trump, many in Appalachia found that hope. Because their region has functioned so far askew of American political norms for so long, they are able to overlook Trump’s very evident flaws. After all, generations of corrupt Appalachian politicians have helped their constituents while simultaneously enriching themselves and maintaining power in dubious or illegal ways.
I would argue that many in Appalachia voted for Donald Trump in 2016 for the same reason that they voted for Randy Thompson in 2010. In both cases, they were supporting their guy. When Trump he said, over and over, that he was the only one who could fix the mess, he was echoing generations of Appalachian politicians. It is no wonder so many in Appalachia voted for him.
Until the Democratic Party first acknowledges that Appalachia does indeed exist and then offers the region some sort of tangible hope, those in the hills and hollers of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky will continue to vote for the candidate who puts on a hard hat and says “I recognize that you exist, and I’m going to help you.”