An Investigation into the Term “Trump Country”
An Investigation into the Term “Trump Country”
Names carry significant weight, both in communication and self-identification, the latter arguably a necessary part of communication itself. The creation of names, naming someone or something, creates and evokes a complex web of relations. Addressing a country, a people, or a person by a specific name engages with that web of relations, articulating power and positionally. Taiwan or the Republic of China? Pro-life or anti-choice? A formal greeting or a nickname? Western English-speaking society, especially the United States, dominates in the mass production of terms, or new names. It is not uncommon to hear a young German say they getwittert, or for l’Academie Francaise to attempt to combat the infiltration of the uniquely American term “fake news” into French, for example. Words possess a cultural and linguistic context that frequently defies translation. Answering to a name, or calling someone a name, reproduces that specific yet shifting context. Louis Althusser famously pinpointed that exchange as a hailing into—and a reproduction of—the “subjection to the ruling ideology or of the ‘practice’ of that ideology.”1 The terminology used to discuss a topic itself interpolates the names into a context of power, especially when the term becomes canonized through constant, reproductive use, entering into what Benedict Anderson terms “the memory of print.”2 When people put a term in print—reporters, academics, anyone with access to a Twitter account—the term enters into a collective, tangible memory.
Since Trump’s run for and subsequent win of the 2016 United States presidential election, the term “Trump country” began to proliferate through news outlets and common speech. “Trump country” developed a unique and powerful canonization in the post-election bafflement among certain members of the Democratic party, as many attempted to find a comforting reason for waking up not to a President Clinton but a President Trump. The use of a term operates in a specific context of ideological reproduction, even if the term suggests a narrow and safe stability. The term “Trump country” describes simultaneously “the South,” “Appalachia,” “the poor,” and “the uneducated”—all with an implied white preceding each of those descriptors—declaring that the poor, uneducated white person is the sole demographic, the sole problem, existing as a distinct independent country. Many self-described “Trump country” articles from papers and outlets of record—the New York Times, Associated Press (AP), the Guardian, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), to name a few—focused on Appalachia, notably Western Virginia and eastern Kentucky. For the purposes of this essay, Roger Cohen’s article for the New York Times and Larissa MacFarquhar’s for the New Yorker serve as enlightening examples into the varying degrees of pity and scorn placed upon the towns, while reproducing and adding to the mythical “Trump country.” The term functions as a political boundary-making of both here-and-not-here, relying on a “geography of blame,” a projectile which reproduces a sense of personal security in capitalism and the politics of white supremacy by silencing and mythologizing. 3The term necessitates the silence of a long history of labor movements and the integral role communities of color, especially Black communities, and the fact that capitalism has failed many in those communities. The silence carries over into a sense of exceptionality—what happens in “Trump country” could never occur in comfortable, metropolitan liberal homes. The term necessitates the silence of a much larger portrait of culpability in the results of the 2016 election and the—linguistic and otherwise—reproduction of power.
The term “Trump country” reproduces a specific yet amorphous concept of the white working-class or poor Appalachian, a linguistic delineation of the other solidified through continued use by wealthy white urban journalists. The term’s use often elides any differentiation between the poor and the working-class; to be working-class in “Trump country” is to be on the constant brink of poverty. Roger Cohen published the Op-Ed “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’: Views From Trump Country” in the New York Times two months before the presidential election. Cohen’s deployment of the term “Trump country” in the title pairs with a distant, at times pitying look at the white working-class people he interviews in an eastern Kentucky town. He states candidly at one point that “For anyone used to New York chatter, or for that matter London or Paris chatter, Kentucky is a through-the-looking-glass experience.”4 Cohen expresses a degree of culture shock, and assumes the audience for which he writes will experience one as well. He discloses with metropolitan airiness that what happens in Kentucky could never in London, Paris, or New York. Cohen paints a view of “Trump country” from the viewpoint of structural power: namely white, educated, urban, and wealthy.
Mike Belleme’s leading photograph for Cohen’s article shows an eclectic if not cluttered modest store, which the caption identifies as a boot store in downtown Paris, Kentucky. Paper lies strewn and taped everywhere, an older-looking register peaks out behind Cindy Hedges, the central figure of the photograph, who wears what is either a worn or inexpertly made shirt that reads “LOVE” with the “O” replaced by the state of Kentucky. The remainder of Belleme’s photography for the article shows a muted and empty eastern Kentucky; most of his photos show scenes such as forgotten mining carts or an otherwise seemingly deserted town. Elizabeth Catte in What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia examines the influential photographer Shelby Lee Adams and his work that makes a spectacle of white poverty in Appalachia. Her reflections remain true for Belleme’s photography as well. Catte states that Adams’ photography creates a “shared story . . . not about people, but about power. It reflects how credibility falls easily to those given the privilege of defining who or what Appalachian is . . . It is the power to grant yourself permission for continued exploitation of vulnerable subjects.”5 Belleme’s photography and Cohen’s article enter into a similar discourse of power and the reproduction thereof. Matched with Belleme’s photography, Cohen describes the town of Hazard as a “once bustling town with its guts wrenched out,” with “charred remains” and “young people with drugged eyes.”6 The two solidify a concept of “Trump country” under the guise of a deep and accurate profile. Cohen’s portrayals of small-town Kentucky lead to a declaration that it is no wonder “why millions of Americans support him,” drawing the explicit line between the desolate, monolithic existence of “Trump country” and the reason for Trump’s popularity.7 The exploitive photography and clear delineation of the other, interpolates a whole area as part of society through the canonization of a name: “Trump country.”
Another subject of pity via profiles is West Virginia. Larissa MacFarquhar’s October 2016 profile titled “In the Heart of Trump Country” for the New Yorker, on Logan, West Virginia, allows for a complexity of West Virginians that many narratives—such as Cohen’s— elide, yet ends with an ominous image of an overgrown, forgotten cemetery. MacFarquhar portrays West Virginia as a forgotten landscape overgrown with kudzu, which she condemns with a sympathetic albeit fetishitic gaze, inventorying the self-evident desolation of the so-called heart of Trump country. While MacFarquhar presents more nuance than Cohen, the MacFarquhar’s subjects are still pitied and lost. Missing from the article is the existing labor and strong leftist movements of West Virginia, or the fact that Bernie Sanders won the area during the 2016 primaries in every single county, ending with Sanders almost 40,000 votes ahead of Clinton’s total of 80,000.8 MacFarquhar describes one of her earlier interviewees, Rick Abraham, as “an emblematic Trump voter: a white Protestant man in the dying coal industry in southern West Virginia, which is one of the parts of the country most deeply and unshakably loyal to Trump, and most deeply and unshakably hostile to Clinton and President Obama.”9 MacFarquhar’s observation echoes a similar sentiment to Cohen’s that the poor and working class of Appalachia are indicative of the “millions of Americans support [Trump].”10 Both articles appear in liberal, urban, wealthy papers of record, both headlines declare a profile of “Trump country,” both articles present a spectacle of Appalachian decay. Cohen supposes eastern Kentucky, as part of Appalachia, monolithically white; MacFarquhar presents West Virginia as monolithically white with a few begrudging outside exceptions. Both create—through the repeated deployment of “Trump country” and through ignoring the silences the term performs—a model, paving itself into Anderson’s powerful memory of print.
For the historicist, the language to address the past is self-evident—part of a fixed, eternal image of the nation marching ever onward, an image called progress. Therefore, Cohen and MacFarquhar exist in a tradition of pinpointing and solidifying language to discuss major events, identifying and naming problems of the other causing issues for the whole. The concept of progress can then maintain a shaky solidity; rather than entreating any serious critical look at the Democratic party, at the wealthy, or at the widespread entrenchment of white supremacy, those in power coin a term for a convenient other, interpolating “Trump country” into a factual history. From a different vantage point however, the historical materialist recognizes that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious.”11 For Walter Benjamin in his “On the Concept of History,” the enemy was the ruling class, or, more broadly, the dominant ideological power structure. From a linguistic perspective, whoever benefits from the dominant ideology—as informed by but not limited to class—has a disproportionate ability to shape the terminology used to discuss history. Ann E. Kingsolver, when discussing Confederate flag debates in South Carolina in the late 1990s and early 2000s, notes a similar occurrence:
In response to the pro-flag campaign slogan claiming that the flag represented Heritage, Not Hate, another slogan (widely represented on signs that day) was, ‘Your heritage is my slavery.’ Lori Donath (2002) has demonstrated, from a linguistic perspective, the link between public discursive claims to ‘Southern’ history and heritage and ‘white’ identity.12
The silence Kingsolver identifies is the omission of who can claim a heritage or a history, a silence which linguistically reverberates through the term and context of “Trump country.” History then includes the silence that characterizes the South and Appalachia as the quasi-mythical poor or working-class white person, which in 2016 became “Trump country.”
The silence not only erases those who can today claim history in so-called “Trump country,” but also obscures the labor that produced conservative white populations on which the term fixates. “Trump country” centers the white conservative as the only line of history in the region, spinning tales of romanticized family farming and desolation—rather than looking at a long history of violent removals and the systemic denials of land stewardship of Indigenous and Black people. Vann R. Newkirk II terms “the Great Land Robbery” to focus on a more recent phenomenon, only a part of the “past” that characterizes much of the dynamics that exist today.13 Newkirk examines the mass eviction of Black people from land they owned and worked on after the Jim Crow era, such as sharecropper and activist Fannie Lou Hamer in 1963 due to her attempt to register to vote in Mississippi. Newkirk points to the mass evictions in part being in retaliation to the mobilization of Black communities to exercise their right to vote—evicting out of rural areas, which hold increased power in the Senate, and into urban areas. The term “Trump country” treats certain symptoms—the white conservative—as the complete picture of an entire region, rather than taking a look at the systems that created specific dynamics in a region with considerable geopolitical and sociocultural flux. The crux of articles such as Cohen’s and MacFarquhar’s is an examination of why the rural regions are so conservative, with an implied clause of and so different from us. “Us” of course refers to the liberal white urban and suburban population, whose own context is that of redlining and consolidation of property ownership to the point of oligarchy, to touch the surface. The term “Trump Country” makes a spectacle of the conservitive bigot it conjures. But when examined, that horrifying figure arises from the same machine of systemic racism as the pearl-clutching liberal elite. How do you think they got such pearls?
“Trump country” exists as a false binary for othering and self-exculpation, linguistically erasing many people on both sides of the power structure. The term “Appalachian” itself exists without clear boundaries, with similar geopolitical and sociocultural contextual issues as the “South.” Elizabeth Catte introduces a flexibility to the term “Appalachian,” stating that many of those she discusses self-identify as Appalachian. She locates these people, including herself and her family, in “shared experience[s] such as the struggle to arrest environmental destruction, to secure workers’ rights, to demand clean water, and to preserve folkways.”14 Instead of the false security of “Trump country”—the security of the assumed “Trump country” exceptionality inherent in the other—Catte offers flexibility. Catte recognizes that many who would identify as Appalachian voted for Trump in the same sense that Kingsolver does not negate the presence of the Confederate flag in shared South Carolinian history. However, both identify and resist the assumption in “Trump country,” which creates a linguistic rift by imagining an exclusively white, conservative monolith in Appalachian, Southern, or rural communities—an assumption that erases important and integral experiences. Catte describes a few of those silenced in the projected stability of who owns Appalachia, stating that “[t]here are more people in Appalachia who identify as African American than Scots-Irish . . . West Virginia has the highest concentration of transgender teens in the country,” and she goes on to name many movements, such as a robust prison abolition movement, in eastern Kentucky.15 Kingsolver includes the crucial anecdote that “Kathleen Blee, who has studied Ku Klux Klan participants across the U.S., reports (personal communication, 1996) that the largest KKK chapter is in the Santa Cruz mountains in California.”16 Catte and Kingsolver pose only a few of an infinite number of experiences elided in the deployment of “Trump country,” rendering visible the supposedly impossible. “Trump country” as a clear quantity does not exist; the region and shared experience termed serves more as a mirror to the urban elite than a through-the-looking-glass experience.
When the de facto hailing becomes the de jure terminology, the historicist turns the terminology into factual history. The silences of “Trump country” terminate any possibility for constructive adjustment, deny the existence of so many who, if mentioned at all, become additional in the eyes of the factual historicist, rather than integral. Eric R. Wolf in his Europe and the People without History warns that “turning names into things we create false models of reality.”17 He asserts the necessity of approaching terms and the concepts as a multiplicity of “interconnected processes.”18 Catte approaches the contexts of what many news outlets call “Trump country” with a recognition of the multiplicity, of the relativity of a process rather than a static group. Furthermore, by interacting with a wide variety of people who identify as Appalachian, and the benefit of herself identifying with the term and the Appalachian community, Catte uses a fluid sense of the term, built through self-identification and lived experience. The contextual implications of the increasingly de jure use of “Trump country” risks historicizing a power relationship as the name becomes a “thing.” As complex relationships receive a name, the name runs the risk of simplification, of a misleading guise of a static surety on which a similarly static judgment follows. Yet “things” in print reach another realm of canonization, as Benedict Anderson discusses in his Imagined Communities concerning the French Revolution: the power of entering the “accumulating memory of print.”19 Negotiated through “languages-of-power” as determined by print capitalism, print solidifies concepts and occurrences through repeated and printed terminology.20 The French Revolution was “shaped by millions of printed words into a ‘concept’ on the printed page, and, in due course, into a model. Why ‘it’ broke out, and what ‘it’ aimed for, why ‘it’ succeeded or failed . . . but of its ‘it-ness,’ as it were, no one ever after had much doubt.”21 Such self-evident “things” or “its” that enter into the accumulating memory of print risk becoming a circular quod erat demonstrandum—“Trump country” exists as an actual entity because the term exists, and vice versa. With the unquestioning faith in the existence of such a phenomenon, the progressivist notion of history asks why such people felt such way, not whether the phenomenon existed. Benjamin’s fear that even the dead will not be safe from the powerful carries implications for the present and future as well. When dominant narratives become historical fact, public society deems the experiences outside of those narratives non-existent. Charles M. Payne argued in “‘The Whole United States Is Southern!’: Brown v. Board and the Mystification of Race” that the Brown v. Board of Education ruling does not mark a turning point in civil rights, but rather a shift in the further mystification of race itself due to language. Language facilitated the “reduction of the systemic character of white supremacy to something called ‘segregation,’” a something which those in power could point at and eradicate without endangering themselves.22
However such concerns are not simply of the past, or of language. In the same sense that phrases such as “modern-day segregation” fail to understand that segregation never went away, the term “Trump country” misrepresents how power in society flows. As Marx observed, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”23 Once print memory reproduces the terminology, continued use reproduces the hailing into a specific understanding and power structure, and societal relationships and subjecthood follow suit. If one cannot see what language hides, one cannot resist.
The silence inherent in naming strengthens the surety of a “thing” and the subsequent social understanding founded on the validity of the “thing.” In naming a concept, the concept inherently becomes not something else. However, such ubiquity does not imply a vague hue of moral relativism, but rather even more reason for care and critique of terminology with regards to power structures and reproduction. “Trump country” silences the existence and labor of many, both those benefiting from the power structure and hurting. In order to avoid the dangerous static of “things” and focus on concepts as relational processes, naming and meaning-making, including the necessity of silence, cannot come top-down. Flexibility in terminology poses no small complication for print; yet the dedication to sharing lived-experience and conversation begins to allow the space for a more complex conscience to grow.
- Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, translated by G.M. Goshgarian (Verso, 2014), 236.
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 2006), 80.
- Paul Farmer qtd. in “Strategic Alterity and Silence in the Promotion of California’s Proposition 187 and of the Confederate Battle Flag in South Carolina,” Silence: the Currency of Power (Berghahn Books, 2006).
- Roger Cohen, “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’: Views From Trump Country,” The New York Times, September 9, 2016.
- Elizabeth Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt Publishing), 93.
- Cohen, “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’.”
- Cohen, “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’.”
- “West Virginia Presidential Primaries Results,” Politico.
- Larissa MacFarquhar, “In the Heart of Trump Country,” The New Yorker, October 3, 2016.
- Cohen, “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’.”
- Walter Benjamin “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 4, translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Belknap Press, 2006), 391.
- Kingsolver, “Strategic Alterity and Silence in the Promotion of California’s Proposition 187 and of the Confederate Battle Flag in South Carolina,” 82.
- Vann R. Newkirk II, “The Great Land Robbery,” The Atlantic, September 29, 2019.
- Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, 15).
- Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, 52.
- Kingsolver, Strategic Alterity and Silence in the Promotion of California’s Proposition 187 and of the Confederate Battle Flag in South Carolina,” 81.
- Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People without History (University of California Press, 2010), 6.
- Wolf, Europe and the People without History, 3.
- Anderson, Imagined Communities, 80.
- Anderson, Imagined Communities, 41.
- Anderson, Imagined Communities, 80-81.
- Charles Payne, “‘The Whole United States Is Southern!’: Brown v. Board and the Mystification of Race,” The Journal of American History 91, no. 1 (2004), 84.
- Karl Marx, “On the History of My Opinions,” The Marx-Engels Reader, edited and annotated by Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), 4.