Blind Spots of Liberal Righteousness

Popular diagnoses of Hillary Clinton’s loss focus on one fatal flaw: rural and working-class whites voted for Donald Trump. Many who lost out from “globalization, professionalization and the emergence of a new just-in-time, winner-take-all economy” cast their ballots for Trump, the story goes, and if Clinton had kept their loyalty in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, she would have won the electoral college as well as the popular vote. Journalists proclaimed “the revenge of the white working class” and the “revenge of the rural voter” as part of a new politics of resentment (Cramer 2016).

But blaming Trump’s victory on rural and working-class white people reveals more about liberal politics than it does about those voting blocs. The majority of Trump’s voters were actually college-educated, middle- and upper-class whites. Sensational media coverage of so-called Trump Country leading up to and following the election obscured this fact, contributing to the sense of shock and disbelief expressed by many liberals. While anthropologists have rightly argued that Trump’s campaign was the spectacular enactment of a “theater state,” we have missed the point that coverage of Trump’s supporters was also a spectacle—one that entertained liberals by constructing an impossibly idiotic, illiberal rural electorate. Here I extend Kira Hall, Donna Goldstein, and Matthew Ingram’s (2016) cogent argument that the incessant focus on Trump’s supposed duping of poor voters missed the crucial fact that Trump’s candidacy was also entertaining for those who opposed him. We need, following Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram (2016, 72), to explore “why we are all vulnerable” not just to Trump’s campaign, but to the tropes used to critique it.

This problematic politics of representation around white working people is something I struggle against in my own research in Wyoming. Building on my experiences growing up and working there, I use ethnography to disrupt academic and popular stereotypes of coal miners as a hypermasculine and backwards Other (Rolston 2014). I saw those stereotypes permeate media coverage of Trump Country, as exemplified by poor Appalachian coal towns.1 These predicable exposés, as Elizabeth Catte insightfully explains, reproduce a longer representational history of elite journalists and academics crafting a mythic Appalachia “to enhance the cultural difference between progressive white individuals and those thought to be ‘yesterday’s people.’”2

To be fair, Trump himself made coal an issue in the campaign, promising to end Obama’s War on Coal. Liberal pundits interpreted this as yet another symptom of his delusion, given that he could not reverse the true culprit of cheap, plentiful natural gas. Yet I suspect there was something greater at work in Trump’s vociferous support for coal than a grab for votes in West Virginia, Kentucky, or Pennsylvania. Trump’s support for coal shored up his anti-establishment persona, since carbon-intensive coal is hopelessly unhip, even among the fossil fuels. Rescuing coal from its almost inevitable decline seemed an impossible feat—perhaps almost as unthinkable as a Trump victory itself. Even more significantly, by supporting coal, Trump aligned himself with the discursive power of miners as an icon of white, working-class masculinity whose labor is considered to have “made America great.” This strategy certainly intended to show that a billionaire businessman could defend regular folks. But I would pose that, in addition to garnering the votes of besieged blue-collar workers, this strategy also appealed to the middle classes, who copiously consume the cultural mythology surrounding miners as emblematic of their own cultural and economic anxiety (Ehrenreich 1990).

Thus, the imagery of miners during the election was powerful for two different audiences for two very different reasons. For liberals, the portrayal of miners in the Trump Country articles reinforced their own sense of rightness by Othering Appalachia and emphasizing differences between liberal voters and the so-called basket of deplorables. For conservatives, Trump’s rhetoric of saving coal reinforced his anti-establishment masculine swagger, even as the proliferation of Trump Country articles revealed the demeaning righteousness of the liberals who devoured them.

The reductively gritty portrayals of one slice of Trump Country came at the expense of better understanding the majority of Trump’s actual supporters: the middle class who lives and works in close proximity to Trump’s detractors. The effect was to blind us from actually understanding and engaging political difference. The “stark divides” referenced in the introduction to this series may not be between the progressives who read the Trump Country articles and the rural, working people portrayed in them, but between these readers and their conservative, middle-class neighbors.

What we need, I suggest, are fewer portrayals of Trump supporters as “the ignorant, backward, benighted castoffs of progress” and more scholarship that “leaves caricature behind and wades fearlessly into complexity,” recognizing miners and Trump supporters as “real people, worthy of a good argument rather than reduced to a facile parody, heroic or demonic” (Darling 2009, 32). Anthropology is well-suited to do this work, if we can address two issues.

The first is the persistent challenge of representing “political others . . . whose actions may strike us as repugnant or reactionary rather than politically progressive” (Welker 2009, 169). Our methods invite empathy with our subjects. But when that empathy leads to criticism of the progressive party line—as it does in my work, for example, by exploring rather than simply criticizing a group of miners’ decision not to unionize—anthropologists are the first to dismiss it as being biased from too much intimacy. We need to write and think about political others with empathy at the same time as we critique larger structures of power, lest we reproduce the out-of-touch polarization we lament in public debate.

The second is the lingering devaluation of anthropology done in the United States. Despite decades of self-critique and calls to decolonize the field by turning our gaze inward, I still hear comments that domestic fieldsites are better as second, post-tenure projects. I rarely see job postings listing the United States as a desired geographic specialty. Such disciplinary gatekeeping weakens our collective ability to understand and grapple with political difference in our midst.

Notes

1. Exemplary articles include the following ones from CNN, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, and the Guardian.

2. Catte quotes the Appalachian historian Ronald Eller to this effect: “We know Appalachia exists because we need it to define what we are not. It is the ‘other America’ because the very idea of Appalachia convinces us of the righteousness of our own lives.”

References

Cramer, Katherine J. 2016. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Darling, Eliza Jane. 2009. “O Sister! Sarah Palin and the Parlous Politics of Poor White Trash.” Dialectical Anthropology 33, no. 1: 15–27.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. 1990. Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. New York: Harper Collins.

Hall, Kira, Donna Meryl Goldstein, and Matthew Bruce Ingram. 2016. “The Hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6, no. 2: 71–100.

Rolston, Jessica Smith. 2014. Mining Coal and Undermining Gender: Rhythms of Work and Family in the American West. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Welker, Marina A. 2009. “‘Corporate security begins in the community’: Mining, the Corporate Social Responsibility Industry, and Environmental Advocacy in Indonesia.” Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 1: 142–179.