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bill-clinton-910173_1920It was the early 90’s, and despite the scorching summer heat, the challenging economic landscape and rather cramped living situation in which my parents, myself and mother’s parents were sharing a small two-bedroom apartment in Bedford, Texas, the whole family was excited that they would soon get to cast their ballot for Democrat Bill Clinton for the office of President. For the millions of residents of the Greater Appalachia region, this familiar scene may resonate profoundly with their own experiences and memories. Moreover, the popularity of Bill Clinton also extended outside of Appalachia, the South and the Far West; the former President’s talk of bringing jobs back to a “forgotten middle class”, confronting a rigged economic system and ensuring corporate accountability, along with his numerous other accomplishments in office made him one of the most popular presidents of the late  20th century.

Twenty-four years later, the same region that enthusiastically supported Democrat Bill Clinton is now overwhelmingly in favor of an impetuous and divisive Republican demagogue. Despite Donald Trump fundamentally changing the nature of the Republican Party, especially regarding economic issues, it is a shocking political shift that occurred in a relatively short time (for instance, in Arkansas the entire House and Senate delegation were Democrats with the exception of a single Republican Congressman until 2010).


Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s motto “Born Fighting”

As a committed Democrat who was forged within the challenges, hardships and intermittent joys of Greater Appalachia, I often wonder what went wrong that brought the region into the hands of the GOP, and what can be done right to bring this community back into the fold of the party that has consistently advocated for the rights of the poor and marginalized? What actions should be taken to unleash a revolution of economic justice and cultural reconciliation between strained communities and regions, while relegating the Republicans back to a second-rate party found only in the towers of Wall Street and exclusionary country clubs of the Coastal South.


Words, Wars, Rhetoric and Reactions

Putting aside his volatile personality and antagonistic view toward an inclusive country for a moment, the few economic proclamations made by Donald Trump haven’t sounded all too terrible at face value, especially compared to other prominent Republicans. His campaign has been a marked departure from the free-market fundamentalism and anti-tax zealotry of Scott Walker and the Koch Brothers, and he has frequently echoed the concerns faced by industrial workers, farmers and small-business owners. Trump opposed the TPP, a trade deal that would harm the environment and gut labor power, while expressing support for the innovation sector, both in his policies and personal friendships with entrepreneurs such as Peter Thiel.

Most shocking of all, in his attainment of the Republican nomination, Donald Trump has begun to mold the values of the GOP itself to support economic initiatives that would have been anathema just a few years before.

Yet mainstream Democrats, media organization and certain Republicans oppose him with a passion not seen in decades. This hostility frequently stemmed from his outlandish statements on immigration, though there was never such a unified and vigorous condemnation of the mass deportations and expansion of the prison-immigration-industrial complex over the last two administrations. The revulsion was further fueled by Trump’s statements concerning Muslims, yet there was scant denunciation of George Bush and Dick Cheney’s GOP re-nomination even after orchestrating numerous war crimes and atrocities against Muslims both across the globe and at home, many of which continue to this day. So what is it that makes Donald Trump so uniquely distasteful to the mainstream political and media establishment, yet so appealing to many ordinary citizens in the U.S. interior regions? The conflicting cultural and historical worldviews guiding the mainstream political/media institutions and Trump’s grassroots can offer answers.


Clashes of Cultural Histories and Economic Realities

Both sides of this social quagmire would benefit to understand the perspectives and histories of how one another were shaped. The modern Democratic party leadership for instance, is helmed by a diverse mix of gender and racial identities, but who mostly live and work amongst the larger economic upper-class. Ideologically descended from the original socially-conscious Puritan founders of Massachusetts, much of the establishment political, media and academic leadership hold to a belief that government is a source of good and that an organized and well-planned society will benefit everyone. This worldview was instrumental in creating the social welfare movements we benefit from today, as well assembling the framework for a robust global economic center, but was proved less effective in chaotic situations such as the Vietnam War, where “whiz kids” in the Pentagon tried to “win the war by spreadsheet”, looking at kill ratios and trend lines rather than understanding the grassroots personal motivations, struggles and unseen opportunities in the people and land where the conflict was occurring.

By contrast, the culture and worldview of Greater Appalachia was built upon the reaction to the pattern of the lower class “common man” being sold out by the higher-ups, of all backgrounds. From the time of the Siege of Derry in which the British Crown abandoned their own Scot-Irish troops until more than a hundred days later, to restrictive and penalty-heavy U.S. environmental laws that didn’t allow the flexibility needed for the survival of small farmers, ranchers and community businesses, a culture of heavy distrust of the establishment coupled with extreme self-reliance and focus on individual rights developed. This outlook was beneficial when adapting to the harsh inland environments and confronting bureaucratic overreach, but detrimental when approaching an interdependent global economy and can be self-defeating when it results in cultural aversion to the pursuit of higher education.

These two worldviews and experiences may seem diametrically opposed, and often do “get on each other’s nerves”, but are very much interdependent and are both crucial sources of the strength of the United States; throughout history, nations that found a way to reconcile these competing cultural forces have shown themselves to be the most influential on the world stage.


Pride, Prejudice and Irrationality

People of all backgrounds are more prideful and irrational than we’d like ourselves to believe. We often do unreasonable things or take unusual positions for no other reason than to spite those on the other “team”, without regard to the consequences . A recent example involves the question of Russia, as the more nationalistic and “flag-waving” community has lined up solidly behind Donald Trump, who has made overtures offering to negotiate with the Russian Federation, similar to Democrat John F. Kennedy’s outreach to the comparatively aggressive Soviet Union and Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with the theocratic government of Iran (a deal which is simultaneously very unpopular with Trump’s supporters). At the same time, much of the criticism of these overtures center around accusations of “appeasement”, a surprising reversal from when that same charge was leveled by conservatives against progressives who opposed George W. Bush’s 2003 war in Iraq. However, due to each candidate digging in with their own base in a firm red vs. blue mentality, this curious foreign policy drama is turning previous stereotypes about Republicans and Democrats on its head and confounding conventional political wisdom.

This hyperbolic, self-destructive back-and-forth has also dragged in the press and major media figures. Coastal and cosmopolitan pundits such as Andy Borowitz continuously mock and dismiss the concerns of Appalachia and the U.S. interior as “Hillbilly” worries, while Trump and his media allies target the establishment Left’s reverence of diversity by flirting with white nationalism. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the grassroots of both sides likely do not genuinely endorse either of these extreme positions; the majority of registered Democrats are also working class people and likely feel a small twinge of discomfort at their own pundits, as many of the jokes playing off Appalachian poverty and lack of education could be applied to themselves in certain circumstances. Likewise, I have met an actual white nationalist only once in my lifetime; a young man who crashed my uncle’s housewarming party in rural Maine before being escorted from the premises.


Finding Solutions

With Trump playing to people’s fears, distrust and stubbornness, the starting point for a solution to the divide begins with active empathy and willingness to compromise, at least in the short-term. Accepting that the lives, experiences and perspectives of others may differ from our own, while both remaining legitimate, is crucial for building a broader movement. Different communities do not need to agree on every issue or platform in order to work for a common goal; they merely need to accept a truce that they won’t target each other while working for a defined mutual objective. For instance, Appalachia could take a more active stance in recognizing that African-Americans have had unique challenges, distinct even from those of poor whites, while still being allowed to look critically at the different policy proposals put forward to remedy these challenges. This opens the door for poor whites and African-Americans to come together on issues indisputably of mutual interest such as police violence, education funding, etc.

Likewise, upper-class metropolitan progressives could extend their empathy to the idea that one’s views toward the necessity of owning firearms may legitimately differ if one lives in a remote area where the nearest police response could be more than an hour away. Challenges ranging from fending off potential criminals and vandals on a large ranch property to encountering dangerous wildlife are all realities for rural and exurban dwellers while being almost out-of-sight for those who live in urban areas. This could be the starting point for a compromise on the contentious firearm issue that deeply divides these communities. If both actors go to the table in good faith and with the intent to listen, it is more likely that consensus can be reached on proposals such as background checks, training classes and re-certifications for permits, and lost/stolen reporting requirements for firearms that will keep guns only in the hands of law-abiding citizens.


Organizing Together

The best candidates to spearhead the community organizing efforts in Greater Appalachia are individuals who were born and raised in the region, and share the perspectives and lived experiences of the neighbors who they will be organizing. However, seasoned community organizers from outside the region also carry invaluable experience and can be a great source of energy and ideas, provided they come in with a strong sense of desire to listen and willingness to understand the local communities. Newcomers should refrain from mocking unfamiliar cultural customs and beliefs, as many were formed as survival mechanisms following decades, if not centuries, of poverty and hardship. Approach from the perspective of working together to build a strong community from the ground up, drawing on examples of past Appalachian figures to allow communities to see institutions such as unions, town meetings and progressive platforms to be something they have made as “their own”, rather than outsider concepts sent in by social missionaries to “save them from themselves”.

Similarly, for those like myself who grew up in the region, we can point out instances to our neighbors and kin where our people have flourished from collective action and inclusivity, such as the hard-fought battlefield victories of King’s Mountain and the Pennsylvania Line, as well as the countless frontier survival techniques learned by our ancestors from Native Americans in generations past. At the same time, we can encourage cultural resilience and maintain the position that just because a far-off San Francisco or New York journalist may deride our community, it does not mean that all people and ideas from the cities and coasts aren’t worth getting to know. To the contrary, if our region is organized well enough, they might start taking some clues from folk like us!



As community trust and consciousness grows, institutions such as labor unions and local Democratic clubs will prosper once again, forming a strong bulwark within the Party against the corporate and Wall Street wing. The spirit of a people who were “born fighting” should not be disregarded or ignored by the establishment leadership of the Party, but should be called upon once again to push our civilization through new frontiers of progress, empathy and inclusivity on behalf of the nation in its entirety.


Together, we can all stump the Trump.