Last week, Bette Midler tweeted that the people of West Virginia are “poor, illiterate and strung out.” Donald Trump should send her a thank-you note.
Right-wing populists—who pretend to honor working-class voters while serving the interests of the richest Americans—hit electoral pay dirt every time an urban elitist denigrates rural, working people.
Midler’s caricature of West Virginia is not just snobby; it’s wrong. We’d like Midler (who later apologized for her tweet) to meet Brandon Dennison. Several years back, he launched the Coalfield Development Corporation to help prepare coal miners for jobs in the solar industry and other sectors. His efforts have put hundreds of miners back to work while helping diversify local economies.
We’d also like to introduce Midler to Stephanie Tyree, director of the West Virginia Community Development Hub. For more than a decade, the Hub has enabled small towns to revitalize their communities by supporting local leaders, cultivating entrepreneurs, and mobilizing investment. Many of these communities are building new, more diverse economies in the wake of devastation wrought by the rise and fall of the coal industry.
Anthony is fortunate to know these innovative folks—and many more like them—because he lives just across the border in southwestern Virginia, a region that also has been defamed as impoverished, ignorant, and drug-addicted. There’s no question that Appalachia and other rural regions have our share of problems, caused largely by decades of economic policies that have devastated manufacturing, family farms, and small, local retailers. But sneering disdain toward huge swaths of rural America paints leftists in a negative light and turns working people against whatever those snide leftists are promoting.
Classist scorn injures working people’s dignity. And it often betrays a profound ignorance about the lives and livelihoods of rural people. When the Daily Kos expresses sadistic glee that coal miners will lose their health insurance; when Taylor Swift’s music video punches down at toothless, bigoted hillbillies with misspelled signs; when a panel of CNN pundits ridicules the Southern accents and supposed ignorance of Trump supporters; when Bill Maher treats the mutilation and death of seven workers in a grain elevator as a joke; the incessant digs and potshots send a clear message from blue state 1 percenters to redneck America: You exist to us only as a laugh line.
Every time a coastal liberal dishes on the rubes, right-wing influencers use it as fodder to stoke working-class resentment toward Democrats. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” gaffe likely cost her the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania. Trump’s 2016 campaign produced a highly effective attack ad denouncing Clinton’s snipe and broadcast it widely in battleground states. At his final 2016 campaign rally in Michigan, Trump pronounced, “Today, the American working class is going to strike back. Finally.”
Trump seizes upon the resentment his supporters feel and projects it onto marginalized social groups and establishment politicians and media. Then, he presents himself as the savior. “The media can attack me,” he said at a 2017 Arizona rally, “but where I draw the line is when they attack you, which is what they do. When they attack the decency of our supporters.”
Trump’s working-class con act yielded him a fiercely loyal base. As one West Virginian Trump voter explained, “As the hit pieces [against Trump] kept coming, it seemed to many that Trump was being unfairly victimized by the media. Perhaps we sympathized with him because, as people from the hills who have also been rejected by the establishment, we know what it feels like.”
Trump’s fake empathy helped propel him to victory. Imagine what genuine respect and attentiveness could accomplish.
Democrats are facing a potential wipeout in the midterms and, even more frightening, the return of Trump by hook or by crook. Undemocratic structural flaws in the electoral system give Republicans an unfair advantage, and Democrats lack the power to rectify this anytime soon. Why add to our problems by antagonizing the 61 percent of Americans who don’t have $1,000 for an emergency and are dying deaths of despair in record numbers.
Instead of casting aspersions, we could be delivering messages of care and solidarity and policies that—like Brandon Dennison’s and Stephanie Tyree’s programs—materially improve working people’s lives. Instead of badmouthing the people of rural America, we could reserve our ire for corporations that treat their homes like resource colonies.
Trump and his enablers lurk offstage, ready to weaponize every ugly, condescending word liberals utter. Stop giving them ammo.