Russell Lee, via Wikimedia Commons
Trump’s ascendancy to become the American president in 2016 was followed by a flurry of reporting from major news outlets who travelled to “Trump country” to get the inside scoop on the people who had apparently catapulted him to power. Trump country, we learned, was the Appalachian coalfields and rustbelt steel towns - it was here that Trump’s message of “Make America Great Again” resounded with the supposedly forgotten and somehow newly rediscovered “white working class” voter. The desire to understand the hearts and minds of this apparently overlooked demographic also motivated erstwhile campus administrators and book club directors across the country to assign J.D. Vance’s noxious Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis to students and readers. To explain the Trump presidency, we would have to figure out what made the hillbillies tick.
In the forging of an explanation, a condescending and contradictory image emerged, drawing on centuries-old stereotypes. Trump country was isolated, ignorant, violent, lazy, racist, and drug addicted - full of people too stupid to vote in their own material interests and too shiftless to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. In a word, the hillbillies were “backward,” locked in the past they apparently longed to return to. Yet, simultaneously, they were hard-working, simple, religious, and patriotic - the “heartbeat of America,” to quote a Chevy commercial. The hillbillies were the essence of the American “greatness” that Trump sought to recover, the past somehow preserved in the present. However, as historian Ron Eller has said in reference to the stereotyping of Appalachians,
“Stereotypes persist because they are useful, not because they are accurate. They have political power and always mask some self-interest.”
In this case, the hillbillies of Trump country could serve both of two important political functions for those in power: (1) They could be the scapegoats for the failure of the Democratic Party in its decade’s long embrace of neoliberalism and complicity (to put it kindly) in the destruction of working class power and security. And, (2) they could also serve as the imaginary repository for every reality of American life that contradicts the meritocratic delusion central to the ruling ideology of American elites - the demons in the manichean drama of colorblind liberal progress.
Reality, of course, has a way of insinuating itself into even the most pleasant of fantasies. Almost on cue, the teachers of West Virginia stepped forward in late February to destroy this convenient narrative with a successful nine-day wildcat strike, earning themselves a 5% pay raise. According to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), West Virginia teachers forwarded five demands in their struggle:
- A natural gas severance tax that creates a self-sustaining source of revenue for PEIA [Public Employees Insurance Agency] and public employee pay.
- No regressive taxes, which ultimately affect working-class families more than the wealthy elite.
- A permanent tabling to any and all legislation pertaining to co-tenancy and joint development, which allow large natural gas industries to engulf local landowners.
- A pay raise of 5% per year over the next half decade.
- A permanent tabling to any and all legislation pertaining to charter schools, voucher systems, and any attempts to privatize public schools.
Not only did teachers reject a deal with West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, defying union leadership, more spectacularly, they connected their own struggle to the history of militant unionism in West Virginia by wearing red t-shirts and bandanas. They then drew the links to environmental and land tenancy concerns relating to natural gas fracking and to nationwide resistance to the neoliberal privatization of public education through their own praxis. Spurred by this success, teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma have seen a surge in activism and are reportedly considering their own strikes. Is this the same Trump country “white working class” who was the darling of the mainstream reporting in the run up to and immediate aftermath of the Trump election?
As David Gilbert has pointed out, in contrast to the analyses of some leftists, it’s undeniable that racism and white supremacy played a large role in Trump’s election. He won the majority of white voters at every income bracket, winning 58% of white voters making less than $30,000 per year. And it is likewise clear that misogyny and the performance of toxic masculinity played a significant role in Trump’s public appeal. In truth, there is no part of white America that is unaffected by white supremacy and racial ideology. In the case of white workers, this often means choosing white racial consciousness over class consciousness, identifying with white elites rather than fellow workers. But, if white racial consciousness is an ideology that has emerged and transformed through time, then it is neither a permanent nor a static feature of our social reality. It is instead an obstacle that workers themselves can and must overcome in the course of their struggle. White workers are not merely a passive screen upon which reporters may project images of their own making. Rather, they are part of a class, an active political agent that must fashion itself even as it acts in the world.
Indeed, the journalistic obsession with the “white working class” erases the reality that the working class, both internationally and within the United States, is not white. The national media have used a kind of metonymic substitution in which white Appalachian males working in heavy industries have been made to stand in for the working class as a whole, even as they have likewise been made to stand in for the Appalachian region as a whole. But, as historian Elizabeth Catte has pointed out, all of this is a mirage:
“The working class of Appalachia is the working class of any region. It’s people who work in retail and hospitality. People who work in healthcare and are underpaid for that. People who are teachers and educators, who, again, are very underpaid. The working class are the people just like in California, who are trapped in what we call the gig economy. People who are trapped in unstable work contracts, temp labor, people who work at the Dollar General store. People who give you your flu shot. These are the people in Appalachia who make the region tick. Also, the emerging face of the working class is more likely to be a woman or a person of color.”
The West Virginia teachers’ strike has made clear that the working class of Appalachia can still be a potent force for social change, inspiring and generalizing struggle. And, as Catte suggests, it is not only or uniquely a “white working class.”
Trump maintains a remarkably high level of approval in the Appalachian states. But there is no Trump country. Wherever there is exploitation and oppression, there is struggle and those on the bottom can and must win.
David Gilbert, Looking at the U.S. White Working Class Historically (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2017), 9-10. Though it is also worth pointing out that massive numbers of working class whites (and working class people of all races) did not vote at all and that their absence from the voting booth should be seen as itself a political act, rather than as mere apathy. ↩
Despite his blatant sexism and history of sexual violence against women, it is important to recall that Trump received the majority of votes of white women voters. At the same time, black women remain the most reliably Democratic voting bloc in the nation. It is an open and important question about how to explain this fact and strategize to change it. However the case may be, it seems clear that, for many white women, Trump’s sexism and misogyny was not sufficient to undermine their support. ↩