What 'Hillbilly Elegy' Won't Tell You About Appalachia
As Donald Trump is fond of pointing out, he won 306 Electoral College votes, claiming states as different from each other as Wisconsin is from Texas, Idaho from Florida. But one red region of the map has become a living symbol of his victories since the contentious 2016 presidential primary season. When you see headlines that begin "In the heart of Trump Country . . . " chances are, you're reading a story about Appalachia written by a writer who doesn't live there. When you see a headline like "No Sympathy for the Hillbilly" on a New York magazine column, you get a glimpse of the mainstream media attitudes that help shape the narrative that Appalachia is, at best, a good place to be from.
The Trump Country narrative — to put it very reductively, one of poor uneducated racists with no ambition lashing out in anger against coastal elites with their gourmet lunch meats — is, as Elizabeth Catte wrote for Salon last fall, "a bad-faith sleight of hand that displaces the reality that the average Trump voter is a college-educated white individual of some means, not a 'hillbilly.'"
"It's an incredibly durable genre that doesn’t change much and hasn’t changed much," Catte told me last week. "It’s still going to the same places talking to the same kinds of people. It’s time to consider why that is and why that’s occurring."
Catte's new book "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia" (Belt Publishing, out Tuesday) is an attempt to push back against destructive myths about the region, its people, and its future.
I spoke with Catte by phone last week about media portrayals of Appalachia, the pitfalls of economic development initiatives like Silicon Holler, how the left could win the region back, and, of course, J.D. Vance. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
As a historian, I assume the amount of attention that’s been put on Appalachia during the 2016 election and its aftermath has been frustrating, since much of it is in the form of diagnosing “what’s wrong with Appalachia” when knowledge of the region’s history is not as robust as it could be.
I think the first thing to understand about this fascination is we’re not talking about one or two problematic pieces. Appalachia, just like any other part of the country, gets a kind of artificial, perhaps skewed focus during election years and election cycles. So we should expect to see some weird ideas about every part of the country during those peak moments. But what I key into in my book is not just the genre and what it says, but the sheer ratio of it, and the fact that it started almost a year and a half ago and it’s still going strong. We still have reporters who are parachuting into small towns in Kentucky and Tennessee and West Virginia to extract these profiles of Trump supporters, and I think that if you are a person who is media savvy or media literate, or just reads a lot of news and keeps up with current events, you feel really fatigued and really saturated by these pieces and what they say.
And what they say is important, because what they’re saying is that Appalachia is a very monolithic region, that it had a unique kind of power to make and create the president of the United States, that it collectedly decided to use its power for bad; and that the people here share a type of conservative and reactionary politics, and we all got together and decided that we were really going to stick it to the coastal elites for ignoring our plight for the last eight years.
These are the reoccurring themes of these pieces: retribution, revenge, desperation, hopelessness, reactionary politics. They’re, in a lot of ways, narratives by omission. Because what you don’t see in these pieces is people of color, people with progressive politics, people who are plugged into environmental issues, people who are fighting the good fight that have different beliefs and attitudes and ideas about what Appalachia needs to do to move forward. All the people that the press are interested in talking to are people that want to move the country and the nation backwards.
What is it about Appalachia that serves the purpose of illustrating "this is who Trump voters are, and this is how they feel, and let's study them and understand them in order to . . ." what? The dot-dot-dot is rarely really filled in. Why is a county in West Virginia more likely to get portrayed as "Trump Country" than, say, Staten Island?
Appalachia has this history of serving as whatever the counterpoint is to our contemporary definitions of progress. For example, right after the Civil War, when progress was built into ideas about modernization and the development of industry, Appalachia emerged as this really backward place that could throw a wrench into the entire system by remaining backwards and primitive, even savage. And what that argument does is help industrialists bring people living in the mountains into this exploitative labor system. But there’s a precedent in the history of the region of people who are powerful — people who have the power to shape narratives and shape economic systems and politics — looking at Appalachia not as a place but as a problem to be solved. And I think that is an enduring element of Appalachian history that appeared with force during the 2016 election.
But this is an election and a phenomenon that needs to be laid at the feet of every white person in this country, regardless of their specific politics or specific voting preferences. Even if it’s through the engagement of asking and answering hard questions about other white people who voted [for Trump].
There is also a history of people who are comfortable, people who are middle-class, projecting their angst onto people of different colors, but also on people who look like them, because it’s a way to engage in escapism and say, “well, I wasn't the one that brought us to this point. It doesn’t have anything to do with me, it has to do with the people who live in this far-off place who are making very poor choices and have even a deficiency in their culture that has compelled them to act in the way that they act.”
And one of the hallmarks of the Trump Country backlash after Trump won the election, which continued after the inauguration when things really started moving, is a really ugly kind of schadenfreude. Watch them get what they deserve: ha ha, you voted for this, there goes your water protection, say goodbye to your health insurance. Not only were they going to project angst, but also helplessness and anger, without delving into the reasons why water protections in the region weren’t great to begin with.
So we have to talk about J.D. Vance, because of the role “Hillbilly Elegy” played in setting up and giving a kind of permission for these stories to flourish into a whole subgenre. He says he’s not running for office now. I was surprised — I thought that’s what his book was setting him up for.
I’m a little bit surprised, too.
It does feel like it’s become, for every Appalachian writer, activist, scholar that I’m aware of, a whole part-time second job to respond to Vance’s narrative. “Hillbilly Elegy” has been adopted by universities as a book-in-common, it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list. There was a point in time when I would meet people and they’d hear that I’m from Kentucky and they’d just be really excited to talk to me about it. That was the book about Kentucky — kind of — that they'd read, or heard of.
That is exactly my experience, too. And that’s how I got started formulating the ideas for this book. My partner and I had just moved to Texas because he was taking an academic job as an assistant professor. And I made so much small talk and had painful, awkward conversations with people I was just getting to know, people who didn’t know what my story was — ["Hillbilly Elegy"] is what they wanted to talk to me about. This is how they wanted to connect with me, in this really superficial way.
And it wasn’t like, “What do you think about this book?” It was sort of like making me answer for the ideas that are in the book about the culture in Appalachia, why the economic decline is persistent, and issues with addiction. There was this really accusatory way that people would talk to me about this book, like, “What do you have to say about this?” And it was really, really bizarre to me, because I was in places that had obviously, like anywhere else in the country, their share of social problems. Some are very similar to Appalachia. In Texas, the oil industry has an impact similar to the coal industry. And people were just like, “Tell me, why do you think people don’t behave?” That’s basically what they were asking me.
They really thought that they had learned a deep truth from this book, and that they could now deploy this truth out in the world to understand these really complex things that were happening around them that authentically are extremely disturbing. It’s understandable that people would want a navigator out of these complex conversations that we’re having.
I’m going to ask you to generalize a little bit here. One class of people who really bought into this book and his ideas seem to be educated, media savvy, serious people. It’s a memoir with cultural generalizations painted around personal anecdotes and shaped by his own specific family story. What was it about this narrative that made people drop their skepticism?
I think it speaks with a very rare sense of authority about a region that can be misunderstood, and that’s part of the attraction. There have been authors who have also assumed this yoke of being seen as interpreters of their culture. One that always springs to my mind is Ta-Nehisi Coates. And Ta-Nehisi Coates, to my mind, has been really reflective about what it felt like when white liberals seized on “Between the World and Me” and his other writing as sort of the blueprint for understanding African-American culture. Beyond the obvious differences between them, J.D. Vance has not, he seems thrilled to assume this role in public life and has not been reflective about it. He caps it off a bit with this humility thing that he does, but he’s really embraced the role of the explainer-in-chief of the Appalachian region, and the Rust Belt as well. He’s there, a talking head that will explain to you what the problems are. I don’t think J.D. Vance is clairvoyant. When he was setting this book in motion, there’s no way that he could predict that this political moment would develop in the way that it did specifically. But at the same time it’s a niche that’s presented itself to him that he’s enthusiastically assumed.
I think it is aligned with his eagerness to deploy certain conservative politics and certain conservative outlooks. It kills me that this is a book that liberals, in particular, and college-educated people think, “Well, he set his politics aside just to write from the heart.” They don’t understand, or perhaps they do and they dismiss it, but blaming poverty on poor people is a political opinion. These are people that would be mortified if they had to teach something out of Charles Murray’s bibliography, but they really love “Hillbilly Elegy” and what it says about the poor.
I wonder if there’s some permission being given to the upper-middle class here — from someone who, voting record aside, looks like them, travels in the same circles — to buy into a very conservative, simplistic narrative about poverty and bootstraps and discipline.
It doesn’t require anything of them, of the readers of the book. They don’t have to do anything, right? Because the problems are all in the individuals that he’s describing, they’re moral and cultural flaws. So if you’re reading this book, you’re not thinking, “what kind of work do I have to do on myself or within my community to help these problems?” You’re going to be relieved as hell when you feel, “I do not have to do anything. These people need to fix themselves.”
I think that’s a big part of the attraction to this book: this mercy that you can just read about problems and not feel obligated or guilty about [not] doing anything about them. You hear, especially from white liberals [the sentiment of], “Well, there’s only so much white guilt I can take.” So this is a book that makes them feel like they can be engaged with social problems without that sense of guilt that they are taught to carry out into the world and use as the basis for social action or social justice.
One of the more upbeat media narratives that’s been coming out from the region lately is around Silicon Holler and the push for coding bootcamps to teach out-of-work coal miners how to be qualified for digital economy jobs. This is a narrative that everyone loves, because everyone wins, right? There’s a political undercurrent to it, too, like maybe we can turn you into people we understand by giving you jobs that we understand.
The article you wrote for Belt magazine, where you describe some of the companies as “new-collar grifters,” shows a whole other side to that narrative. Can you talk a bit about how that industry is working right now in Appalachia? Is the willingness to throw money and exposure to these programs creating bigger problems?
In Appalachia, a lot of us are operating under the assumption that the coal industry is on life support right now. Someone is pulling the plug. The functional end of coal will happen within our lifetime.
The idea is this is a time when we can retake control of our economic fortune. And how do we do that? Because we have lingering environmental issues because of the coal industry, we have depopulation — we have lots of young people leaving — we don’t have a robust economic transition plan in place. So when people try to brainstorm economic boosterism to the region, they are really attaching to ideas about exactly what you just said — "modernity" is the key word. There’s lots of things going on like drone usage, and virtual reality technology, all that stuff is a specific form of Appalachian economic boosterism in which we are going to crash, like the Kool-Aid Man, out of the past like, “Boom! We’re here. We’re modern. This is Appalachia!”
And the problem is that workforce development is not a substitution for buying into this idea that there’s a common good for us, and that we’re all in this together. I think this is a case made really beautifully by Tressie McMillan Cottom in [her book] “Lower Ed” — over time we’ve [come to rely on] piecemeal training that puts the burden on the worker to always level up and bone up and get new skills and make themselves relevant in the workplace market. The reality is the workplace market is fickle, it’s hyperlocal and there’s really very little agency that some people have to navigate that system without assuming great risk. So coding camps are a high-risk — and can be low-reward — solution to economic diversification.
There are great coding companies and coding bootcamp operators in Appalachia, but there are also those like the ones that I wrote about that seem to be absorbing a lot of federal aid that’s coming into the region to do workforce development and not really giving people who enter the program anything of value in return.
That has a long history, not only with blue collar industries but also during moments like, for example, when the GI Bill first came into being and there was lots of money for education. People opened shoeshine training academies and things like that to siphon federal money away for programs that [are supposed to] serve poor and vulnerable people. We have to be super cautious about that. I want the Silicon Holler folks to win. I want them to win and I want them to do good in the world. But I know and I believe that they’re only a piece of the puzzle that we have to work on together. That includes raising the minimum wage for all workers regardless of what industry they’re in and separating health insurance from employment. Also maybe considering a basic income for people who are facing long-term unemployment who do have the potential to benefit from retraining. There are lots of ways I think we can compromise on economic development, but moving full steam ahead with this very optimistic spirit that everything that Silicon Valley does can be done here and it will save us is really flawed.
The flipside is that the unsexy economic development plan for a long time has been build more prisons. In your book you write: "after the mines close, the prisons open." The prison industry is a major player in Appalachia. Whenever there’s a politician being asked how to bring jobs to the area, one of the answers has been, “we're going to open a prison.” But that prison density has not transformed the economy. What is the disconnect there? And why don’t we talk about the prison reform activism that’s happening in Appalachia?
Central Appalachia is still one of the most concentrated areas for prison growth in the country. To me it’s a continuation of a logic that’s very common in our country: Economic development comes with certain acceptable risks, and it’s acceptable to harm certain people for the greater good. In Appalachia, the more recognizable story is through the coal industry — the idea that we have to unfortunately hurt the environment to be able to continue our way of life, and some people unfortunately will get very ill, and that’s just the way things go. The prison story has become that, too. It’s rooted in white supremacy, and in the idea that white people have to hurt African-Americans, or be complicit in the suffering of African-Americans, by doing the only work that is available to them and becoming part of the prison industrial complex. It’s really deeply disturbing.
People in Appalachia do incredible things through their activism in terms of prison. And I think everyone should know about this. Because a lot of what they do, they don’t have a lot of tools at their disposal, right? We’re talking about people who work in radio stations and who are very talented, don’t have a tremendous amount of money, and don’t have super powerful platforms. So they do it in the old-school ways that are really familiar to us: broadcasting radio signals into prison, fundraising in the community to actually go to people’s houses and pick them up and take them to visit their loved ones in prison, building power across borders in the region and borders within communities. It’s really profound when people learn about all the ways that activism takes shape, and all the connections between historic anti-capitalist activism in Appalachia and the very modern problem that we’re facing in our current moment.
“Anti-capitalist activism in Appalachia” is not a phrase you see in the “What’s the matter with Trump Country?” stories. And prison reform is anti-racism activism, which is also not something that you see attached to the regional identity of Appalachia.For real.
So what are some other myths about Appalachia that you find yourself pushing back against?
One thing that is really important to the book is this myth — and you’ll recognize it — that Appalachia is a region of takers and that we have, over time, come to be complacent on federal assistance, and that we absorb far much more in vital resources than we deserve. Because there’s always this question of who deserves what in these conversations that people like to have in the mainstream about Appalachia. That obscures the historic function of Appalachia, which has been for the past hundred years to provide energy for the rest of the country.
People today look at the region and they say, “Oh, coal is dead.” But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t had a cost that we’re still contending with. It doesn’t mean that it hasn’t shaped land ownership patterns in Appalachia beyond what people even within the region can comprehend. It’s affected wealth distribution in the region, health, environment, everything like that.
So when you say, “People in Appalachia, they just like suck up food stamps and things like that,” I get really defensive and angry about that. And it’s a hard position to have, because you do risk sounding like, if you’re a progressive person speaking back about this, one of those crazy war-on-coal people the media like to use. “Coal keeps the lights on!” It’s a really hard position to articulate and I have much respect for people like [journalist and former coal miner] Nick Mullins who work specifically on changing the media narrative about the coal industry.
But Appalachia gives and Appalachia takes, and this is the way that the country is supposed to function, in terms of its common good. We give energy, land, labor, and take things back in the form of federal assistance and things of that nature. It’s not anymore predatory than, for example, Californians getting federal assistance to convert their businesses into solar energy, for example. This is just the way that the country has been built to function: We have an economic purpose and it’s fair to demand certain benefits back in exchange for our labor, which is the kind of labor that is particularly dangerous and hazardous and has reshaped our world completely.
So the myth I really, really hate — and this is a failing among liberals and conservatives — is that Appalachia is a drain on the country's resources. Because even after the functional end of coal, there are plans in place to harness fracked gas and other forms of petrochemical energy within the region.
Can the Left win back Appalachia? What do you think they would have to do in order to do that?
It’s probably the question that I spend the most time in my personal life thinking about. A friend of mine told me that Appalachia feels like one of the few places in America where people organically understand the difference between a leftist and a liberal, without you jumping in and making those connections for them. They understand that there are Democrats, and that there is a separate category of people on the left, and that often their agendas and priorities don’t align.
I hate to sound like somebody who’s stuck in the past but I think there are lessons that we can take in Appalachia from the success of Bernie Sanders in the [2016 Democratic] primary. Primarily, for me, that’s thinking about ways that health insurance connects people across broad spectrums. That tells me that there’s potential to work towards health care reform as a common good. I think that there are other examples where people can come together regardless of their politics. A big one that’s particular to my part of the region is fighting natural gas pipelines. This is something where people find common ground — conservatives, liberals and leftists alike. It might not be sustainable, but that’s at least something that we have in common.
The word “neoliberal” is really complicated, but I think that lots of people in Appalachia do understand that there has been this gradual change in politics that demands that the market fix what’s wrong with various pockets of our country. And so long in Appalachia we’ve been told that we’re going to invest in businesses, we’re going to give businesses tax breaks, it’s going to revitalize the region. We’re going to get you some workforce training, we’re going to send you to community college, and that is going to help you out of the system. And I think that there’s great potential for a type of politician or a type of politics to come into Appalachia that will reject that, and try to focus on labor protections, and things of that nature, to give people a boost.
It would be more realistic, for me, if I was a politician, to come into a community and say, “I want to challenge the hell out of right-to-work laws” than me saying “I’m going to send your kids to community college so things will be better for them than they are for you.” That’s really the difference in left and liberal-leaning politics in Appalachia. People with neoliberal politics ask us to adopt certain solutions so things can be better for our kids, it seems, and leftist politics has the hope that we can make things better here and now instead. I think [the leftist message] would resonate to more people than outside audiences might imagine in Appalachia.
What aren’t people getting wrong about Appalachia? Do you see anything in the wider, national conversation that is right on the money?
One of the things that I don’t talk a lot about in my book is the opioid crisis, which is obviously a big part of the narrative of Appalachia and also the Rust Belt. The reason I don’t spend too much time talking about it is because my book is about debunking misconceptions, and there’s not a lot of misconceptions about how tremendously world-shattering the opioid crisis is here. I have individual quibbles with the way that narrative is shaped, but the reality is that the opioid crisis is tremendously awful in Appalachia, and I think that overall, the narrative is true to life, shall we say. Of course part of the coverage that you have to examine is why it is that white opioid addiction, or white addiction, is being presented in different ways than for example African-American addictions, but that’s beyond the scope of the information that I set out to talk about in the book. But I can confirm that the way that the media generally has covered the opioid crisis in Appalachia has been very strong.
Are there any lessons to be learned from how those stories have been told and how that treatment can be applied to other topics that concern the region?
One thing that happens when people are covering the opioid crisis in Appalachia or elsewhere is that national and local media partners have to work more closely together. Because [national media] want access to sources and subjects and people to talk to, and you have to have a certain sense of trust when you’re talking about people who are very vulnerable. That’s just my perception as someone who doesn’t work too deeply in the media. My understanding is there have been more of those national and local partnerships for opioid crisis coverage than, say, in political coverage.
I also think that some of the national narratives — again, shaped by voices in local media — reflect a narrative about Appalachia that is authentically true: Pharmaceutical companies have used Appalachia as a laboratory, essentially, to experiment, and a lot of important people in this chain of command, like the DEA or local physicians, have really looked the other way. That is a narrative that has a lot resonance in Appalachia — not just about opioids, but about coal and anything having to do with the environment, too.