Photos courtesy of Business Insider and nationalreporter.net
By Vanessa Moss
Max Fraser, a Ph.D. candidate in American History at Yale University, reflected on the social history of the Appalachian Mountains and its influence on the 2016 political season in his talk, “Hillbilly Revanche: Trump and Sanders in Southern Appalachia” on September 22 in DuPont Library.
Fraser opened by referencing Robert Altman’s movie Nashville, a film about music and mass politics in a consumer age similar to today. Fraser used the character Opal, a news reporter from BBC, as an example of how liberal reporters and news casters portray the white poor of rural Appalachia; as hillbillies. Opal’s exaggerated liberal personality in the film was meant mostly to be comical, but she remains emblematic of how culturally distant most authors of articles and studies are to their subjects, the natives of Southern Appalachia. This cultural disconnect is a result of what Fraser describes as a “genealogy of elite condescension” that influences reporters today as much as it did in 1975, when Nashville was released.
A current-day reporter for The New York Times, Declan Walsh, embodied this stereotype in his article about Donald Trump supporters in West Virginia. Walsh’s piece states that there are “few places in America that offer such a simple electoral calculus as the rolling, tree-studded hills of West Virginia.” Fraser deeply disagreed with that sentiment. West Virginia does indeed greatly support Donald Trump, but in no way is the reason for that electoral calculus “simple.”
Fraser explained how that voting trend is not related solely to economics, as many suggest, but is also rooted in a “profound, decades-in-the-making sense of political and cultural alienation.” When middle-class outsiders discuss the white American poor, the image that comes to mind is nearly always the “hillbillies” of rural Appalachia, and the “hillbillies” that they envision are nearly identical to what elitists from 116 years ago (when the term “hillbilly” was coined) envisioned: uncouth, uneducated, and at least mildly belligerent folk of the mountains.
Fraser expounded on the similarities between Altman’s Opal and The New York Times’ Walsh: “the answers they seek out are always simple, even elemental ones. For Opal, explaining America is no more complicated than an easy, hackneyed metaphor for decay.” The answer Walsh looks for is even easier to find. His calculus is “simple,” because he needed to look no further than the “hillbilly” stereotype that has been established in our society for over a century. “Poverty, plus a penchant for antisocial and self-destructive behavior, plus a quick temper and an even quicker trigger-finger… The calculus Walsh arrives at is indeed a simple one.”
Donald Trump’s polled success this season in rural Appalachia is due in part to the concentrated presence of his targeted voting demographic, but has been affected by much outside of general opinions on Trump’s policies.
First, Fraser addresses Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton. In the eyes of a native Appalachian, Clinton perfectly exemplifies the “culturally distant political aristocracy,” according to Fraser. One of Clinton’s recently advertised mistakes that supported this belief was when she was caught on tape calling Trump supporters “a basket of deplorables” at a high-class fundraising event. She went on to call them “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.” Fraser follows her statement by stressing how the dismissal of Trump supporters as angry racists causes a disregard for any legitimate reasons Southern Appalachians may support him.
One of those reasons is Trump’s stance on the wars in the Middle East. The free market has allowed the U.S.’s military to be mostly composed of poor, working class young men and women, and because of this, the collective Appalachian South is wrought with the physical and emotional aftermaths of war. Jeb Bush failed miserably in Appalachia because he surrounded himself with members of brother’s administration who, as Fraser says, “had been the architects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Whereas Trump, who is openly isolationist in the context of those two wars, had overwhelming success in those areas.
Bernie Sanders’ success is a “twin phenomenon” to Trump’s in rural Appalachia; his popularity only rose the further down the economic pyramid he went. Fraser argues that the success of these two candidates is rooted in their shared anti-establishment sentiment, which appeals to poor working people of Southern Appalachia who yearn for social and economic justice.
Max Fraser closed by stating that the cultural disconnect between liberals and the working people of Appalachia will only deepen if the American left continues to have nothing relevant to say to the Appalachian South, and if they continue to essentialize the people of the area as “hillbillies”: “The problem is that in our collective handling of Trump and his people, we have overlooked the not-so-explicitly rightist tendencies at work in this particular political moment.”