I come from the land of Trump.
Eastern Kentucky is a region that many in this country – and in the media – have white-washed into a place where everyone is voting for the demagogue. Not many of the analyses I’ve seen have been able to truly get at the core of why so many ballots from my home region will go for Trump.
I’m from Viper, an expansive community split into four distinct sub-communities in the southern end of Perry County, Kentucky. My family has lived on the Left Fork of Maces Creek in Viper for five generations. They’ve been in Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia for 10.
Being who I am – a queer, liberal woman who has vehemently supported Hillary Clinton from the get-go – you’d think I’d be angry at Trump voters, or that I’d be confused by their choice of leader, or that I’d join in all the ridicule that’s being thrown at them. But the thing is, I understand them. I know exactly why they’re voting for Trump.
Let me explain.
Perry County is in the heart of the eastern Kentucky coalfields, and even though the industry there is in collapse, it remains one of the top three coal-producing counties in the state. But coal is not the top employer in the county and hasn’t been for some time. The top three employing sectors are health care, education and government. That’s important to remember because the narrative around coal, and the political and social capital and power surrounding it dominates life in the region.
“Coal mining in Eastern Kentucky is not just a job. … Coal miners are proud people – not ignorant people, not less-than people.”
While great wealth is generated from the coal industry in Perry County, great hardship and poverty is created in the wake of its extraction. The county – as has been the case for decades – sits at or near the bottom of nearly every single statistical measure of quality of life, including health, income, educational attainment and life expectancy. We, as well as nearly every other county in Eastern Kentucky, face some very real and urgent challenges, paramount of which is what we’ll do when the coal is gone.
And that leads me to my point:. Coal mining in Eastern Kentucky is not just a job. It’s not just what someone does. Coal mining in Eastern Kentucky is who a person is. It is a way of life and an important foundational element of the culture. It has made brotherhoods out of men, put food on tables, sent kids to college, provided livelihoods for people who oftentimes went underground straight out of high school. Coal mining is honest work, hard work, tangible work that happens with your hands. It is thankless and grueling and raw. It is incredibly dangerous – in the short and the long term. It’s helped build America, over and over again, through economic transition after economic transition, and it’s powered the nation through it all. Coal miners are proud people – not ignorant people, not less-than people. Proud.
And right now, coal miners and their families and the communities in which they live are facing an unprecedented economic shift for which they weren’t prepared. In fact, they were systematically and strategically made to be unprepared for it, and now, with their backs being forced against the wall, my people are scared.
I’m scared, too.
I’m scared of the extremist, racist, sexist and homophobic rhetoric coming from the Trump campaign that has fanned flames of hate. I’m afraid it is quickly building to a crescendo of violent, armed rebellion. I’m scared for my communities. I fear they will be left further and further behind if Trump is elected. I’m afraid that our schools will never be able to catch up, and that our children’s hopes and dreams and futures will be squandered because a Trump presidency will leave no room for them in its education plan. I’m terrified that my people will continue to die at an alarming pace from diseases thrust upon them by the very coal industry to which they’ve been told to cling. A Trump presidency will not only prevent access to their hard-earned benefits, it will continue to cut what has been made available to them.
I’m scared for all the Appalachian women and girls I know ― strong, proud, resilient, intelligent women. I’m afraid their potential will be cut off at the knees under a Trump presidency. I’m afraid their lives and their safety and their increasing confidence to end the silence of violence will be threatened with impunity and without fear of retribution. I’m afraid their access to reproductive health care ― birth control and regular cancer screenings ― will become a thing of the not-too-distant past. I’m scared that the lost generation of people who’ve succumbed to drug addiction will continue to grow because Trump cannot bring coal back ― no one can ― and he has no plan to help us rebuild our communities when the last ton is shipped away. We need opportunities for people who have hit the bottom, and Trump cannot provide them.
I am scared of a Trump victory, because if I’ve learned anything from growing up in the shadow of coal mining, it’s that rich men who talk a lot about themselves mine our wealth and take it elsewhere when they’re done.
“If I’ve learned anything from growing up in the shadow of coal mining, it’s that rich men who talk a lot about themselves mine our wealth and take it elsewhere when they’re done.”
I feel completely threatened by a Trump presidency, in almost every way. I fear we Appalachians will lose ourselves and our communities, and I also fear that my civil liberties will slowly be eroded – that gay marriage and women’s rights will be rolled back and that the economy will tank, which will leave me and my community even further behind than we already are. Perhaps what I fear most is that the national dialogue and cultural climate will shift in a way that puts me and my family at risk, where open discrimination of the LGBT community and of women and of any person with any difference than those whose leader controls the power is not only welcomed, but encouraged.
But the thing is, this doesn’t make me different than Trump supporters; it makes me exactly the same as Trump supporters.
While our very real fears may manifest themselves in different ways, and while those fears may look and sound dissimilar, they are really the same fears: The fears of being left behind, left out, and being turned against.
I’m an Eastern Kentuckian ― born and bred. I’m an Appalachian woman, with the power and strength and resilience of many Appalachian women and men hand-stamped on my DNA. And that means I don’t turn my back on my neighbors. I don’t leave them behind or leave them out or turn against them ― not when they need a bite to eat, or a place to sleep, and definitely not because of who they’ll vote for in an election year.
There is much that separates me from my Eastern Kentucky neighbors. We don’t agree on a lot of social issues, we don’t agree many times on coal, and sometimes, we don’t agree on what will lift our region out of economic despair and into a more stable future. But one thing I’m certain of is a constant common thread running through me and those Eastern Kentuckians with whom I disagree is that we love our place and we help our neighbors.
We know who we are, and we are not what this election has turned us into. We grew up in hollers, close and tight with our extended families, where daylight perished around 5 p.m. even in the summer, and where we can hear the dogs barking from the opposite hillside and the four-wheelers revving down on the road, and where Granny is always cooking enough food to feed an army. We care about our neighbors and help those with less than what we’ve got, even though we don’t have a lot ourselves.
We need to find a porch swing to sit in, where we can talk about what ails us and then work out ways to cure those ills, together, united against politicians that don’t really understand what it means to crave a fresh garden tomato sliced and salted on a plate in the middle of a meal of garden food, or long for sunshine that ends at 5 p.m. in the middle of July, and the sound of distant dogs barking their protective refrains.
I know why you’re voting for Trump, friends. We’re all afraid, I assure you. My fears are amplified by the threat of Trump winning, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to be against you. I know we are more similar than we are different. I know we can find common ground. I know we can overcome our fear, and start sorting out how we work to rebuild our place, together.
* This post appeared in the Huffington Post on November 2, 2016.