Ashlie D. Stevens

Trump's ongoing refusal to concede was the giant turkey in the room at bizarre annual pardon

Days before Thanksgiving 2018, two turkeys — Peas and Carrots — were vying for the presidential pardon, an oddball tradition formalized by George H.W. Bush in 1989. Leading up to the event, the White House had set up online and social media polls to determine the fowls' fates.

When the votes were finally tallied, President Donald Trump revealed that Peas had won in "a fair and open election."

"Unfortunately, Carrots refused to concede and demanded a recount, and we're still fighting with Carrots," Trump said at the time. "And I will tell you, we've come to a conclusion — Carrots, I'm sorry to tell you, the results did not change. Too bad for Carrots!"

Too bad for Carrots, indeed.

During this year's turkey pardon, held Tuesday in The White House Rose Garden, Trump didn't mention his own refusal to officially concede the 2020 presidential election, nor did he reference the numerous, baseless allegations of voter fraud he and his oddball legal team lobbed into courts across the country (despite the fact, as Salon's Roger Sollenberger has reported, no state election officials have reported evidence of such fraud).

The president did, however, open the event by talking about the stock market, and even managed to squeeze in a racist reference to the "China virus" between pardoning one of the "two magnificent gobblers" in attendance.

"Thank you very much, please," Trump said as he stepped in front of the microphone. "I just want to congratulate everybody. The Dow Jones Industrial Average just broke, for the first time in history, 30,000. That's good, that's great for jobs and good for everything."

The president had already held a surprise, one-minute press conference earlier in the day, The Hill reported.

"His appearance on Tuesday may have been an attempt to grab credit for the historic rise on the Dow, and to siphon some attention away from Biden, who was scheduled to speak at 1 p.m. about his Cabinet picks," The Hill's Brett Samuels wrote.

It's also worth pointing out that the Dow surpassed 30,000 shortly after several of Biden's Cabinet picks were announced, along with updates on the development of several effective COVID-19 vaccines.

The turkey pardoning was a short event as well, lasting less than ten minutes, much of which Trump spent talking about the novel coronavirus.

"During this Thanksgiving we extend our eternal gratitude to the doctors, nurses, healthcare workers and scientists who have waged the battle against the China virus," Trump said. "We give thanks for the vaccines and therapies that will soon end the pandemic. It's just such a tremendous feeling knowing they are coming, and they are coming likely next week or shortly thereafter."

The president then proceeded to officially pardon Corn — whose compatriot was named Cob — a 42-pound turkey who will retire to Virginia Tech's "Gobblers Rest," at the university's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

As Trump turned to walk back into the White House, a reporter called after him, asking what most Americans are probably thinking as the president's days in office draw to a close: "Will you be issuing a pardon for yourself?"

As winter approaches, America's racist produce distribution system makes food insecurity worse

In late July, a group of Kentucky gardeners and farmers marched through downtown Louisville, pushing wheelbarrows and demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old unarmed Black woman who was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Officers in March.

They started at a local farmer's market and moved 1-1/2 miles westward, towards Jefferson Square Park — now called Injustice Square, after serving as the nightly gathering place for protesters — where they had planted Breonna's Roots, an edible garden that was bursting with summer produce like ruby red tomatoes and peppers, deep purple eggplants and bunches of kale, dill, rosemary and parsley.

According to volunteer Jody Dahmer, the vegetables were harvested and transported a few miles further west to be distributed in Russell, one of Louisville's historically Black neighborhoods that is also one of the city's most barren food deserts. There are only two accessible major supermarkets to serve nearly 60,000 residents (and there's a longstanding rumor among food access advocates in the community that the nearest Kroger will eventually close permanently, after it shuttered sporadically amid protests, leaving only one option).

But now, the weather is snapping cold. Temperatures dip into the low 30s overnight, and soon, Injustice Square will be blanketed with morning frost, so the garden volunteers are having to pivot.

"With frost dates approaching, we are focusing on cole crops," Dahmer said, referring to a designation of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts that grow better in cooler temperatures. "But [we] also have garlic and onions planted between."

This isn't a unique conversation — all across the country, community garden leaders are having to adapt their plots for the winter or, in some cases, simply latch the garden gates behind them until early spring. But in food insecure neighborhoods, those decisions can have a community-wide impact on produce access, a sad reality that is particularly evident during the colder months.

"It becomes a real scarcity over winter," said Cordia Pugh, the founder of Hermitage Community Gardens in Chicago. "A real scarcity as we race through the winter, waiting for spring to come when we can get back in the gardens to get fresh produce."

Pugh spoke with Salon earlier this year about her community gardens, which are located in Englewood, where, according to municipal data, nearly 95% of the neighborhood's residents are non-Hispanic Black, and nearly 80% of that population lives with low or volatile access to fresh produce.

"This is not hobby gardening, this is food security for us," Pugh said at the time. "This is food insurance in the epicenter of a food desert. If we did not grow this fresh produce, we would not have fresh produce accessible to us. There is no accessible big box store in this community — or if we bought it through those venues, it would be from vendors that would quadruple the price."

Typically, Pugh works with garden volunteers over the spring and summer to preserve fresh produce for the colder months, but the pandemic lockdowns and social distancing recommendations drastically impacted that initiative. There is very little produce stockpiled, as a result, and Pugh said that she's currently in the midst of attempting to get fresh produce boxes to her garden members.

"I'm speaking out of my own desperation this year, because I'm really scrambling now to get the resources in place for fresh produce food distribution over the course of November through April of next year," Pugh said. "Especially because some of our members don't have access — financially or otherwise — to those big box stores."

And even if they can get to the store, Pugh said, there's no guarantee that the quality of the produce available will be the same as in stores in more affluent or mixed-race areas.

This is a well-documented phenomenon. In 2010, The Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based food access nonprofit, and the Oakland-based PolicyLink published "The Grocery Gap," a comprehensive paper that detailed how, in hundreds of lower-income communities of color, access to healthier foods like high-quality produce, high-fiber bread and low-fat milk was compromised.

In Louisville, Shauntrice Martin has taken the last several months to examine these disparities, focusing specifically on the city's food deserts, like Russell. Martin is the founder and director of #FeedTheWest, a community food justice initiative that advocates for a Black-owned, fresh food source for residents.

She published her findings under the title, "The Bok Choy Project," wherein she compared five Krogers across five different zip codes, assessing four characteristics: the number of organic produce options available, the presence of police officers, the Black population of said zip code, and the availability of bok choy.

According to Martin, she chose bok choy as a stand-in for "premium produce" because it was an item that she only saw on shelves once she moved out of West Louisville to Maryland when she was in her 20s. Now that she's back, she definitely sees discrepancies in selection and quality between the supermarkets in the zip code with 11% Black population — 11 organic produce options — compared to the one with 92%, which had only three organic options.

"When you walk into that store, there is an 'organic section,'" Martin said. "But it usually only has pears and apples. The rest of it is conventional produce. It's wilted, some of it is rotten or expired on the shelf."

These are the options that are available, Martin and Pugh said, for food insecure communities, which statistically tend to be lower-income communities of color. And while community gardens like Hermitage Community Gardens and Breonna's Roots serve as a stopgap in warmer months, they aren't a replacement for equitable food access and distribution systems.

In Toronto, the food access nonprofit FoodShare spends a lot of time thinking about what food security actually means and what food sovereignty would look like in Northern climates that experience winter. According to Natalie Boustead, the organization's community gardens leader, a lot of our current eating habits are reliant on expensive greenhouse production and imported items to maintain a level of consistency in our diets throughout the year.

"Which, if we were actually eating locally, seasonally [and] within a framework of true self-reliance here in Northern climates, would not be possible," Boustead said. "If we were to shift our cultural expectations around eating seasonally to involve only eating dried fruits, and fermented, salted and sugared foods from summer harvest . . . we may have a shot at actual food sovereignty and self-sufficiency."

Not to mention, she said, there would need to be a complete overhaul of North America's racist food distribution system.

"Until all of that begins to shift, there are very few deeply meaningful ways that those experiencing food insecurity in an urban setting can do to lessen their systematically entrenched relationship to an unfair food system, especially in winter months," she said.

How this Pennsylvania Republican's bizarre tweet launched a furor

On Tuesday afternoon, Pennsylvania politician Dean Browning — a white, heterosexual, self-described "proud pro-life & pro-2A Christian conservative" — tweeted, "I'm a black gay guy and I can personally say that Obama did nothing for me, my life only changed a little bit and it was for the worse."

The tweet continued: "Everything is so much better under Trump though. I feel respected — which I never do when democrats are involved."

Browning, who is a former commissioner in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, sent this tweet in response to one of his earlier posts, in which he said, "What Trump built in 4 years, Biden will destroy in 4 months."

Twitter users leapt on Browning's bizarre response, many speculating that it was obvious that he had forgotten to log into his "sock puppet" account. A sock puppet account is an online identity used for purposes of deception by concealing its owner's real identity. In this case, it seemed Browning had exposed an account on which he masquerades as a gay Black Trump supporter.

Or had he?

If this situation already seems bizarre to you, just buckle up. Things are about to get much weirder.

After several hours had passed, Browning posted an explanation by way of an additional tweet.

"Regarding the tweet that is going viral from my account — I was quoting a message that I received earlier this week from a follower," he wrote. "Sorry if context was not clear. Trump received record minority votes & record LGBTQ votes. Many people won't say it vocally, but do in private."

But then, in a now-deleted tweet, the Washington Post's Philip Bump found a contender for Browning's sock puppet account. "You know who replies to Dean Browning a lot? 'Dan Purdy,' a gay black Trump supporter who joined Twitter in October," wrote Bump.

But then, in a now-deleted tweet, the Washington Post's Philip Bump found a contender for Browning's sock puppet account. "You know who replies to Dean Browning a lot? 'Dan Purdy,' a gay black Trump supporter who joined Twitter in October," wrote Bump.

When Salon reached out to Browning, he responded via email that his failure to make it clear that his viral tweet was a follower's quote was "an oversight on [his] part" and that "there will be a video up shortly that will clear things up."

Sure enough, just after 5pm, the Dan Purdy account posted a video — the first to be posted from the account — that featured a middle-aged Black man claiming, "I sent that message to Dean, Dean accidentally posted it somehow, that's the end of the story. No, he's not a sock puppet. No, I'm not a bot."

At this point, the entire saga had gone bananas on social media, and a horde of Twitter sleuths began dissecting the video. Some theorized that Purdy was merely an actor hired by Browning to help cover his gaffe. "Fiverr will get you any Dan Purdy you want," one tweeted in response, referring to online platform, in which anyone can quickly hire freelance talent.

Then there was a break in the case.

Some internet sleuths noticed the avatar used on the Dan Purdy account was identical to one used as a profile picture on the Facebook account of a Philadelphia man named Byl Holte — and that the man tagged in photos as Holte bore a shocking resemblance to the man who appeared in Purdy's Twitter video (purported to be Purdy).

A dive into Holte's background reveals several interesting things: He's written several articles on Medium, where he identifies himself as an "Anti-feminist TV Critic" and complains about anti-racism and feminism in the film industry; he is listed on LinkedIn as a "boutique landscape designer" in Pennsylvania; And, in the weirdest twist yet, he is music legend Patti LaBelle's adopted son.

LaBelle adopted the two children of her sister, Jackie Holte, after her death in 1989. They are named Stayce and William, or "Byl." Byl Holte's Facebook account features public photos of him with LaBelle at family gatherings.

The Dan Purdy account has since been deactivated, and Browning's last tweet reads: "I see I'm trending with Patti LaBelle tonight. I guess we've not gone only viral — but over the rainbow."

Regardless, some questions still remain unanswered: What is the relationship between Holte and Browning? Is the "Dan Purdy" account actually Holte's? Was Browning ignorant of the racist and sexist comments on the fake Dan Purdy account — and if not, why choose to quote that specific follower? And, most importantly, what does Patti LaBelle think about all this?

Here are 6 historic and progressive wins in 2020 that people are missing

While the unprecedented (and seemingly never-ending) presidential election took up much of the spotlight last week — as did the welcome news that Kamala Harris will be first woman and woman of color as Vice President — history was made in a lot of smaller state and local races, too.

From politicians of color reaching new heights in the legislature, to big shifts in local government leadership, here are some of the wins that should be on your radar.

A record number of Native American women were elected to Congress

Three Native American women have been elected to the House of Representatives: Democrat Deb Halaand, a Laguna Pueblo member representing New Mexico, Democrat Sharice Davids, a Ho-Chunk Nation member representing Kansas, and Republican Yvette Herrell, who is Cherokee and will represent New Mexico.

Halaand and Davids, the Guardian reports, both retained their seats after becoming the first Native American women elected to Congress in 2018. Additionally, the Center for American Women and Politics reports that 18 indigenous women ran for congressional seats this year, which is also a record in a single year.

Cori Bush becomes the first Black congresswoman in Missouri

Bush, a registered nurse and Black Lives Matter activist, will become the first Black congresswoman in the state's first congressional district, which includes Ferguson, where, as the New Yorker reports, she led protests against the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

All four members of the "Squad" were comfortably re-elected

Shortly after the 2018 midterm election, Representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — all Democratic, first-term congresswomen of color— gained nationwide attention and promptly dubbed themselves "The Squad."

The four freshmen congresswomen have vocally supported progressive proposals like raising the minimum wage, advocating for the Green New Deal and calls to impeach Trump — who had previously attacked the women, who are all obviously American citizens, in a series of 2019 tweets, telling them they should "go back" to their countries of origin.

According to the Associated Press, Pressley defeated Roy Owens in Massachusetts, Omar defeated Lacy Johnson in Minnesota, Ocasio-Cortez defeated John Cummings in New York, Tlaib defeated David Dudenhoefer in Michigan

LGBTQ+ politicians had several monumental victories

Sarah McBride, a former spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, will become the nation's first person who publicly identifies as transgender to serve as a state senator after winnng last week's election in Deleware; this makes her the highest-tanking trans official in U.S. history.

In Vermont, Taylor Small — the 26-year-old director of the health and wellness program at Pride Center of Vermont — was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives, where she will be the first openly transgender member of the state's Legislature.

Ritchie Torres, a New York City Council member, won his U.S. House race to represent the South Bronx, becoming the first Afro-Latino Congress member who identifies as gay, reports CNN.

Meanwhile in Kansas, former schoolteacher Stephanie Byers — who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation — beat out her Republican challenger, Cyndi Howerton, for the District 86 Kansas House of Representatives seat. This makes her the state's first openly transgender lawmaker.

Kim Jackson became Georgia's first openly LGBTQ state senator; Torrey Harris and Eddie Mannis became the first LGBTQ legislators elected in Tennessee and Shevrin Jones and Michele Rayner-Goolsby became the first in Florida.

Francesca Hong becomes the first Asian American to serve in Wisconsin's State LegislatureAccording to Madison 365, Francesca Hong, a restaurateur and activist, won Wisconsin's 76th Assembly District, which will make her the first Asian American to serve in the state's Legislature.

"Hong, a second-generation Wisconsinite, mother, community organizer, and service industry worker, easily defeated Republican candidate and real estate intern Patrick Hull, 88 percent to 12 percent," David Dahmer wrote for the publication.

Local government leadership is changing, too

According to WUSA9, a local television station in Washington, D.C., a majority of the city's Council will be women for the first time in more than 20 years, and a majority of members will be Black for the first time since 2013.

The cities of Asheville, N.C. and El Monte, Calif., both elected their first all-women city councils.

How to fix our country's empathy problem

Bruce Goldstein, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based organization Farmworkers Justice, said that after the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic in March, he saw many people become worried about their access to food for the first time. Not necessarily because of cost, but because the farmworkers who grow, harvest and manufacture it — the majority of whom are undocumented immigrants — may have been forced to stop working.

"They became aware, or more aware than in the past, of who exactly is producing food for them," Goldstein said.

But then states across the country quickly began classifying those farmworkers as "essential employees," people who — even if they didn't have legal protections against deportation or access to healthcare in the country — were needed to keep food on American tables.

The pandemic spotlighted exactly how integral the labor of undocumented and migrant workers is to our country's food system. However, as election results continue to trickle in, it's clear that many Americans still voted for Trump, whose platform has consistently included vocal anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric.

A large part of that is due to America's eroding sense of empathy, which only seems to have further disintegrated over the last four years.

Dr. Sarah Konrath is an associate professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University and director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research. She studies the decline of empathy and rise of narcissistic behavior, and published a study in 2011 about North American college students' self-reported scores on a widely used empathy scale.

"In that paper, we tracked those scores from 1979, when the scale was first developed, to 2009, which was the latest year," Konrath said. "We found out that the college students in the late 1970s and early '80s scored higher in empathy than college students over time, especially in the post-2000 period."

Empathy can be defined in several ways, but many researchers agree that it can be summarized as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. According to Konrath, who is in the middle of producing an update to the study, there are a number of potential contributing factors, including shifts in family, community and government structures. One of the most perceptible is the relative isolation in which many Americans now live.

Dr. Jamil Zaki, a Stanford neuroscientist and author of "The War for Kindness: Building empathy in a fractured world," said that people empathize most easily "when they can see others' suffering with their own eyes, or when their actions are visible to others."

"But the modern world has stripped them away," Zaki told the Washington Post in 2019. "Humans increasingly live in cities and live alone. We see more people than ever but know fewer of them. Rituals that used to bring us into regular contact, ranging from bowling leagues to grocery shopping, have been replaced by more solitary pursuits, often carried out online. The result is our interactions with each other are often thinned out, anonymous and tribal — barren soil for empathy."

In the age of Instacart orders and Whole Foods check-outs lined with Amazon Prime lockers, it's easy to see how many Americans have become increasingly disconnected from the reality of who harvests their food, and that kind of anonymity could certainly breed the idea that whomever is doing that work isn't a member of your community, but a faceless stranger. Add in potential differences in racial background and immigration status, and — as Zaki asserts, our interactions have grown increasingly tribal — that only accentuates a certain sense of "otherness."

It also contributes to ignorance about some of the main issues that impact migrant and undocumented farmworkers.

"Many employers in this country benefit from the vulnerability that undocumented immigrants have, which causes them to be reluctant to ask for better wages and working conditions," Goldstein said. "They're often ineligible for basic services and benefits, like federally funded legal aid programs, so if they are ripped off by their employer, they often can't afford a lawyer and are not eligible for free legal services. Employers can also pay a poverty-level wage, but the workers can't get public benefits like food stamps."

So how do we as a country bridge the empathy gap between many American consumers and the (to them) invisible masses who put food on their tables? Thankfully, empathy is a cultivatable skill.

But Mel Schwartz, a therapist and author of "The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live, and Love," says creating a more empathetic country will require a seismic shift in how we think about otherness.

"Our worldviews, the way we see reality, particularly in our country, is so overly individualistic and self-interested," Schwartz said. "It's oriented toward greed — and not just financial greed. It's narcissism, it's 'all about me,' social media, how many 'likes' you have. When we live in a culture that is too focused on individualism, we lose the capacity to think about and feel the realities of others."

To change that would require individuals to start valuing caring for other people and tending to their communities above the individual self. In his book, Schwartz posits that quantum physics has "actually told us that all reality is actually inseparable."

"It's all as one," he said. "Everything is connected to everything else. And my point is that, from that vantage point, if everything's connected to everything else, then we should be caring for each other, because in my caring for you, I recognize that you're not separate from me. We need to introduce this new paradigm of oneness."

While that concept may sound spiritual or intangible, the pandemic and the subsequent disruptions of the food supply chain in the states — from COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants largely staffed by immigrant workers, to agricultural counties across the U.S. facing higher rates of infection — drive the point of oneness or connectedness home. The issues impacting a farmworker thousands of miles away can determine what's on your plate tomorrow night.

For some, that may still be too abstract a reason to care deeply about the working conditions with which vulnerable farmworkers are faced, and that makes sense. Researchers have found that trying to imagine how someone feels is often not enough to elicit true empathy — you need to actually ask them.

"For me, the core of empathy is curiosity," Jodi Halpern, a psychiatrist and bioethics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times. "It's what is another person's life actually like in its particulars?" Exchanging stories with other people, especially people whose realities look very different from your own, is a way to vicariously "try on" someone else's life.

Organizations that work with undocumented individuals and workers know this, and many are poised to pair personal storytelling with political messaging as a way to better serve their organizations' missions.

Greisa Martinez, the executive director of the immigrant youth-led network United We Dream which advocated for DACA, says that the organization's "secret sauce" is in members having the capacity to share their own stories.

"There are people out there that know what it's like to have your electricity cut off, they're likely the same people out there that know exactly what it feels like to not have access to food," Martinez said. "So there's this feeling of moving people from isolation into community."

Once they've found community with people like them, they feel more empowered to share their personal experiences on a wider stage.

"We found one another and we shared our stories, we shared our pain, we celebrated the things about our culture that made us resilient," Martinez said. "We then said, 'Why don't we do something together?' and we went after the DREAM Act in 2010, and failed, but because we found community we didn't let go. We came up with a strategy to win DACA and eventually persuaded the most powerful man in the world to use his executive power to grant protection for us and for our people."

Since then, United We Dream has launched a community-driven research initiative leading on topics of importance to the immigrant community. These publications help tell the story of the communities they represent in their own words — and hope that it's enough to spark some people to action, which is an important key to systemic change.

"It isn't enough to just feel what other people are feeling," said therapist and writer Dr. Mary Lamia, "Empathy can show up in a lot of different ways, it's what you do with it that matters."

So, actively seek out the stories of farmworkers to listen to and read. If you live in or nearby an agricultural community, see what worker-led organizations exist close to you and get involved. Spend time elevating the voices of farmworkers sharing their concerns.

For advocates like Bruce Goldstein from Farmworkers Justice, they're hoping to capitalize on how the pandemic highlighted the conditions of farmworkers because their stories were told more frequently in these ways.

"We think that there's a greater awareness of the difficulties that farmworkers are experiencing, and the need to take action," Goldstein said. "So, I'm hopeful the empathy quotient went up. Then over the next couple of years, farmworker advocates can take advantage of that and motivate people to take action that results in the change in policy and in business practices."

Mitch McConnell beats Amy McGrath to win seventh Senate term for Kentucky

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., won his bid for re-election, reports the Associated Press. He defeated Democratic challenger Amy McGrath in the closely-watched Senate race.

Shortly after 8 p.m., McConnell was ahead of McGrath 61% to 35% statewide.

McConnell, who first took office in 1985, was unanimously elected as Senate majority leader by Republicans following the 2014 elections. Before that, he served as Senate minority leader from 2007 to 2015.

If the Senate flips to Democratic control, an outcome that is being predicted by polling websites like FiveThirtyEight, the 78-year-old McConnell has already vowed to serve as minority leader, Politico reported in June.

McConnell's obstructionist tactics have long been criticized by Democrats, with his enthusiastic shepherding of the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in September prompting outcries of hypocrisy.

In 2016, McConnell refused to hold confirmation proceedings for Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, saying in a Washington Post opinion piece at the time that "given that we are in the midst of the presidential election process, we believe that the American people should seize the opportunity to weigh in on whom they trust to nominate the next person for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court."

While other red states like Georgia, Texas and Arizona have been slotted into the purple column this year, due in part to college-educated suburban voters swinging to Democratic candidates, reliable and recent Kentucky polls showed McConnell with a handy lead over McGrath in the home stretch of this election season, even as they predicted Trump's lead in Kentucky, while still secure, might shrink. The AP called Kentucky, with its eight electoral votes, for Trump earlier this evening.

Despite national Democratic enthusiasm for McGrath's campaign, which helped bring in millions of dollars in campaign contributions, hers would be an uphill fight from the start. In 2014, McConnell, who embraces his reputation as "the Darth Vader of Capitol Hill," defeated Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes by 16 percentage points; two years later, Trump won Kentucky by a nearly 30-point margin. McGrath's previous run in Kentucky ended in a loss; in 2018, she challenged incumbent Republican Andy Barr for Kentucky's sixth Congressional district seat, but the blue wave that flipped the House to Democratic control failed to carry her home.

McGrath's campaign also hit some noticeable snags early on. The former Marine fighter pilot publicly wavered on whether she would have voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and in July 2019 she publicly said McConnell had prevented Trump from accomplishing much of his agenda during his first two years in office.

"If you think about why Kentuckians voted for Trump, they wanted to drain the swamp, and Trump said that he was going to do that," McGrath said during the announcement of her candidacy on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Trump promised to bring back jobs. He promised to lower drug prices for so many Kentuckians. And that is very important."

This led to questions from the left over whether McGrath had decided to run as a pro-Trump Democrat. Republicans, as the Louisville Courier Journal reported, mocked McGrath's TV appearance as pandering. As a result, her progressive views struck critics on the left as anemic, especially when compared to those of State Rep. Charles Booker, her challenger in the Democratic primary who was the youngest Black state lawmaker elected in Kentucky in nearly a century.

McGrath later established stronger anti-Trump messaging. In February she said that she would have voted to impeach and convict Trump, and she was an early supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

McGrath also managed a strong fundraising campaign. She raised $88 million, spent $73.3 million, and reported $14.7 million in cash on hand as of Oct. 14, campaign finance filings show, while McConnell raised $55 million, spent $43.9 million, and reported $11.8 million in cash on hand.

But in the end McGrath's impressive fundraising wasn't enough to beat McConnell.

From 'Hillbilly Elegy' to 'Fried Green Tomatoes,' Hollywood has a rural perception problem

As soon as Donald Trump was elected to the presidency in 2016, it seemed that all eyes turned to rural America for answers. I was working at a public radio station in Louisville, Kentucky on election night — a typically blue dot in a state that has a complex voting history, voting for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as Reagan, both Bushes and Trump — when the results began to roll in. As it became clear that Trump was pulling ahead, my phone began to light up with texts from friends and other journalists who lived in larger cities, most asking the same question: "How could this happen?"

Almost immediately, media members, policymakers, and academics set about trying to contextualize the beliefs of portions of the country that had seemed to fade below notice or were dismissed as "flyover country." America at large sought to understand "rural America," a term that quickly became shorthand for the white, non-college-educated voters that aided in Trump's victory.

A growing handful of thoughtful, regionally focused media outlets — "The Bitter Southerner," "Scalawag," "Southerly" — emerged to tell true, nuanced stories of the communities they represented, but stereotypes and oversimplifications persisted.

The Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham, who has resided in a northwest Minnesota farming community since 2016, said that the "near-singular focus on Donald Trump has yielded a body of discourse that views rural Americans primarily through a white, conservative Republican lens."

"This is somewhat understandable as a matter of raw numbers — its residents do tend to be whiter and more conservative than people living in more densely populated areas," Ingraham said. "But that focus also has perpetuated a number of myths, blurring out much of the messiness and complexity of rural life."

The tendency to paint rural communities with a broad brush isn't just restricted to the political sphere. From "Hee Haw" to "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," pop culture has borrowed from, celebrated, and in some ways, immortalized stereotypes and depictions that have come to represent rurality. But now, in an election year where eyes are again locked on the same states that helped determine 2016, there's a distinct need for cultural representations that don't oversimplify those same communities, or portray them as a social and cultural monolith.

Will that happen? Well, in the last month there have been two big pieces of news related to this topic: the trailer for the film adaptation of J.D. Vance's memoir "Hillbilly Elegy" was released, and then it was announced that Reba McEntire was slated to star in a "Fried Green Tomatoes" television series, which will be directed by Norman Lear.

I've been disappointed by "Hillbilly Elegy" since I read Vance's book in 2016. The memoir about his family became a bestseller in large part because it not-so-subtly promised readers, who were perplexed and enraged by Trump's ascendency, the background needed to understand what the "white, working-class Trump voter" was thinking.

As Salon's Erin Keane wrote in her 2019 piece "Amy Adams probably will win her Oscar for 'Hillbilly Elegy' and that's a damn shame," Vance's framing of the story tells people who don't know much about Eastern Kentucky or Appalachia what they think they already know.

"That the addiction and abuse and poverty that shaped his family are part of a stubbornly ingrained cultural lineage passed down through generations, and that's what keeps the people of Appalachia (a very large geographical area, mind you) poor and under-educated, even lawless and violent," Keane wrote. "And what's more, largely content to stay that way despite their anger, though exceptional individuals can overcome these innate cultural deficits. His overarching themes point to an attitude adjustment as the solution: poor people wouldn't have to stay poor, with all the social problems that can accompany poverty, if they could decide they didn't want to act like poor people anymore."

Forget nuance. "Hillbilly Elegy" frames the hardships faced by many in Appalachia — opioid addiction, lack of access to professional and educational resources, poverty — as the consequences of individual shortcomings and an overwhelming lack of gumption, rather than the result of systemic ills and oppression that have emerged from predatory pharmaceutical companies, a gaping digital divide and a long history of extractive economies that decimate communities' resources.

"Narratives like this sell not only because a 140-minute redemption arc can be written around them but also because they absolve their creators and viewers of any complicity in systemic issues," Keane said.

Even with a stellar cast — led by Amy Adams and Glenn Close, directed by Ron Howard — it's unlikely that "Hillbilly Elegy" will challenge that formula once it hits Netflix on Nov. 24. I'd love to be proven wrong, though.

"Fried Green Tomatoes," however, has an opportunity to insert additional nuance into a story that was flattened for the big screen in 1991.

Based on Fannie Flagg's 1987 novel "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," the film adaptation is set in two distinct time periods. Jessica Tandy plays Ninny Threadgoode, a vibrant octogenarian, who entertains Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), a depressed housewife, with her tales of Depression-era Whistlestop, Alabama.

The main characters in her story are Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson), her free-spirited sister-in-law, and Ruth Jamison (Mary-Louise Parker), who was Idgie's closest friend and eventual...well, the film kind of skirts around this part.

In the book, Idgie and Ruth's relationship is never explicitly sexual, but definitely is more grounded as a straightforward love story; at one point in the novel, Flagg writes, "When Idgie had grinned at her and tried to hand her that jar of honey, all these feelings that [Ruth] had been trying to hold back came flooding through her, and it was in that second in time that she knew she loved Idgie with all her heart."

This wasn't just BFF love, but the movie was certainly billed that way, perhaps, as Buzzfeed's Kate Aurthur suggests, in order to piggy-back off the success of "Thelma and Louise."

Aurthur also states in her essay, "Why 'Fried Green Tomatoes' Is A Lesbian Classic — Yes, Lesbian!," that Masterson once told her that, compared to the book, the movie was "redacted."

"We were talking at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, when she played the mom of a queer teenage son in an indie movie called 'As You Are,'" Aurthur wrote. "When I brought up 'Fried Green Tomatoes' as a mainstream movie with a lesbian love story, she said some things had been cut that would have made the relationship more obvious. 'It wasn't a love scene, but there were, like — clearly a love relationship type of a fight, of jealousy,' she said. 'There was some more sensual kind of stuff in there. We were clearly playing that.'"

As I wrote in 2019, LGBTQ visibility and celebration in country music has come a long way since Chely Wright had received death threats and an industry-wide cold shoulder after coming out in 2010. Often, country music veers into a "trucks and beer" monolith that feels like it's solely made for white, straight consumption — an extension of those simplified stories told by and about rural communities.

Over the last decade, artists like Brandi Carlile, Lil Nas X, Kacey Musgraves, and Ty Herndon have stepped forward to complicate that narrative with songs that challenge the idea that rural communities are somehow devoid of queer love stories. The "Fried Green Tomatoes" reboot has the opportunity to do the same.

Will it? McEntire has long been a vocal propoent for LGBTQ rights, but there aren't many details available yet about the series. According to Variety, the hour-long drama project is "described as a modernization of the novel and movie that explores the lives of descendants from the original work. When present-day Idgie Threadgoode (McEntire) returns to Whistle Stop after a decade away, she must wrestle with a changed town, estranged daughter, faltering cafe and life-changing secret."

And while one hour-long special isn't going to undo decades of oversimplifying rural life, pop culture representation is important. It's a powerful lens through which viewers can both recognize themselves and come to better know people who exist outside their immediate orbit. People with lives and desires that, granted, can't be wholly encapsulated in a single film — but that doesn't mean the industry shouldn't strive for more careful, considered depictions.

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