It’s Complicated: A Liberal, Appalachian, Southerner’s View on Why Trump Won
Posted on November 27, 2016
I am an early riser. It isn’t surprising, then, that on Election Night, despite Wolf Blitzer’s attention-disordered, apoplectic news coverage of Trump’s impending election, I was calm, even haughty as I tromped off to bed before 10 p.m.
“What’s going on with you?” My husband asked. We are political allies, a hive mind really, and he couldn’t fathom my apparent calm. He was simultaneously watching TV, checking his computer, texting and mentally calculating electoral college permutations. He may have had an abacus nearby.
“There isn’t anything I can do about it. I have practice in the morning. I’m gong to bed” I said, and I did.
What I didn’t articulate was my admittedly smug belief that when the results from the urban centers in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan came in, the election would swing back Clinton’s way. No reason to sleep through Wednesday morning Masters swim practice. No reason to get my blood up. This was all just algebra.
Sometime around 3 a.m. I rolled over and looked at my iPhone, alight with notifications.
“Trump Elected 45th President of the United States.”
“Dear America, No You Can’t.”
I did not go back to sleep. I did not go to practice either. Instead, I began a rapid slide into some sickening psychological slurry of fear, anxiety and dread. A migraine gathered behind my right eye where it picked up speed and force.
At first I was too horrified to think clearly about what had happened, let alone why it happened. I retreated to some inner womb to “feel my feelings,” which were very big. I also had to get up and go to work, which was terribly inconvenient and nearly impossible given the pain in my head.
My anxiety did not abate for days. Contrary to the smug assertions of some, what I was experiencing was not just sour grapes. It wasn’t even the pangs of a disappointed feminist. No, my implosion was about bigotry—the kind that a Southerner, particularly an Appalachian Southerner, smells like a hound after a raccoon. I kept replaying the awful campaign rhetoric in my mind and imagined the world slipping backward to a time of transparent, blatant hate, where racists don’t have the good sense to be ashamed of themselves.
I wasn’t wrong. Bigoted vandalism and acts of hate erupted almost immediately after the election. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported over 700 incidents of hate since the election, most within the first three days. Vandals declared “Make America White Again” and “Trump nation. Whites only”. The KKK began organizing a national march on Raleigh to celebrate what it claims is a victory for white nationalism. Ugliness of the worst kind bubbled up like a festering wound just beneath our cultural surface.
For many Americans, especially non-white Americans, the open hatred displayed in the wake of the election confirmed what they already knew, that there exists an American subculture of open and bold racism that has been waiting in the wings for its post Jim Crow opportunity to reassert itself. Feeling cornered and shocked and reacting to the hatred, Clinton supporters began calling their neighbors, cousins and lifelong friends “racists, bigots, xenophobes and misogynists.” Smart people who do not typically ignore complexity attributed the Trump victory to a simple root cause. It was racism, they said, plain as the nose on your face.
I do not think it is that straightforward. To be clear, racism motivated a subsection of Trump voters. White nationalists, euphemistically called the “alt right,” openly rallied around him and heralded him as a leader sympathetic with their cause. Twitter exploded with racist pro-Trump tweets and David Duke actually became moderately relevant.
That said, it is overly simplistic and reductionist to think this election was only about racism. As Jon Stewart said, the same nation that elected Barack Obama elected Donald Trump (in fact many of the exact same voters elected the two men). The electorate did not suddenly become universally racist. Instead, what happened was vastly more complicated. Flannery O’Connor said that the South was Christ-haunted. The American electorate is similarly haunted—though our specter is not just Christ, but also class, culture and economics. Trump won not just because of racism, but also because of a hardscrabble, rural American culture of economic stagnation, religious zeal and paralyzing addiction.
Let me explain.
I grew up in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, a small town of about 6,000 people just off the I-64 corridor. When I was a kid there were good jobs in Mount Sterling that supported families of high school graduates in a comfortable, middle class lifestyles—with health insurance, a decent hourly wage and a pension plan. People worked for thirty years at Hobart, KitchenAid, Jockey and Whirlpool. Raising tobacco was also still a viable way to make a living and many families lived on tobacco farms that had been in their family for generations. This isn’t just true of my hometown, it is true of small towns across the South, Appalachia and the Rust Belt.
Since the 1980s good jobs have vanished as manufacturing centers closed (and moved out of the country) and tobacco farms folded because of the long term decline of tobacco use in the U.S. The loss of middle class jobs has been a steady march, effecting family after family. As recently as this year, two additional manufacturing shops, Pentair and Lexington Medal Systems, announced closings that will result in a net loss of over 500 jobs in my hometown. If you do the math, that is 8% of the population that just lost a good local job. Even as the larger U.S. economy has recovered from the Great Recession, across this region jobs have not come back. The nation’s largest 124 large economies accounted for 57 percent the estimated 2 million net jobs gained in 2014. Only 150,000 jobs came from small economies.
People are traveling farther from home—some more than an hour each way—to find higher paying jobs. Others work low paying service sector jobs close to home. Those jobs are often not full time and do not provide benefits. Some young, rural parents cannot afford to both work and pay for childcare and so they end up jobless, on some form of government assistance, ashamed of their reliance on the government but given no better alternative.
As economic opportunities decline addiction increases. In many ways, the plight of the white Appalachian drug addict is no different than the stereotypical urban “crackhead”. Hard up and miserable, good people turn to substance abuse. A friend who worked part time at a local pharmacy describes single mothers picking up their suboxone, an opiate agonist used to reduce opiate withdrawals, using their Medicaid card. For those who are still using drugs, there is a black market in stolen or diverted opiate pain medications such as oxycodone and fentanyl. When that becomes too expensive users switch to the cheaper street drug, heroin. High and depressed, drug abusers stop showing up for their crappy jobs. Worse, more than 1,000 Kentuckians a year die annually from opiate overdoses. On one August night, twelve people overdosed on heroin in Mount Sterling.
Culturally this part of the county couldn’t have less in common with Clinton-supporting urban centers. Local entertainment is dependent on the high school, both its sports teams and an excellent musical theater program. There is no Starbucks, no mall, no funky bookstore with Chai tea and ironic tee-shirts. Churches are a dominant social force, even if the parishioners don’t actually attend regularly. In some ways, being “Baptist” or “evangelical” is similar to being Cherokee or Navaho. It is as much a tribe as it is a religion. Evangelicals are anti-abortion and suspicious of gay rights. They don’t know many gay couples and don’t want their tax dollars going to fund abortions. Clinton’s calls for female reproductive rights, support of gay marriage and focus on urban intellectuals rang hollow; and worse, it seemed irrelevant to their situation.
Somehow, the political left missed the lessons of its own intellectual heritage. FDR, Johnson and Bill Clinton all knew a fundamental truth about rural American voters— it is about jobs, about the ability to feel like one has pulled him or herself by their bootstraps. These voters respond first and foremost to their wallets. They will support a progressive candidate if they believe that candidate also supports them.
To be sure, it is not that rural voters don’t care about human rights and equality; they do. But they believe the right to earn a decent living, the ability to support your family and go to the doctor when you get sick is just as important, if not more important, than liberal calls for a focus on diversity, inclusion and civil rights. They are tired of hearing about the plight of urban drug addicts and homelessness. They are seeing the exact same problems in their small towns but they don’t hear urban liberals talking about it. If the left is going to be able to execute on our strongly held beliefs about a diverse America, we are not going to be able to ignore the real problems of rural voters.
Of course, this still begs the question: Why didn’t Trump’s offensive rhetoric and hateful language disqualify him? Isn’t a vote for Trump really a vote for white supremacy? I think to understand this dynamic you have to really understand how much rural white voters are hurting. They considered a vote for Clinton to be a statement that the status quo is okay, that the lack of opportunity for them and their children is acceptable. They did not vote for Trump because of his apparent bigotry but in spite of it. And this, I think, is a lesson that we on the left are going to have to hear and respond to if we hope to move the country toward the type of inclusive, opportunity rich nation we desire.
I am just as scared as the next person about the uptick in racist behavior and the normalizing of bigotry and white supremacy. I am worried about turning back the clock on civil rights in America. I am scared for the safety to brown and black kids, gays, lesbians and transgenders. I believe in equal rights for everyone and that providing these rights is actually the economically smartest choice. We want the best and the brightest members of our society to succeed regardless of their race, creed, religion or sexual orientation. We are all better when we support each other. But in making that a reality, we on the left cannot forget the real struggles of the rural white voter. We must really mean it when we say we want equal opportunity for all.