Scapegoat Country

Scapegoat Country

Since the 2016 election, the American press has fixated on rural communities and created a dubious new genre: the Trump Country Safari.

A former Blackjewel coal miner demanding backpay blockades the train tracks leading to their old mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the rural town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, there is one movie theater, and it played American Sniper for two years. Locals hated Mexican immigrants and prayed for Trump on Sundays; their town manager was a virgin who thought Hillary Clinton wanted to steal his guns. With anecdotes like these, the German journalist Claas Relotius painted the scene of a regressive and even frightening place in a 2017 article for Der Spiegel. At a “Western evening,” the townsfolk dressed up in cowboy gear and danced to country music. After all, what else is there to do in a small, scary town deep inside a lonely forest?

Plenty, the residents of Fergus Falls responded. In a self-published Medium piece, locals Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn revealed that Relotius’s portrait of rural America bore little resemblance to reality. American Sniper had played for two months, when it first premiered in 2015. There was no “Western evening.” Fergus Falls is located on a prairie, not in a forest. A man identified as a coal-shoveling Trump voter had never worked in a coal mine or even the town’s coal-fired plant. And while Trump did capture most of the town’s votes in 2016, Relotius exaggerated the president’s margin of victory by eight points.

Der Spiegel retracted its Fergus Falls story and pressed charges against Relotius for fabricating it and other articles. His motivations aren’t difficult to understand. By the time he traveled to Minnesota, Relotius had won multiple awards; editors of Der Spiegel have said that he felt pressured to repeat his early successes. But hubris can’t completely explain the lies Relotius told. Fergus Falls, he claimed, inhabited a malevolent-sounding forest “that looked as if dragons lived in it,” as another Der Spiegel reporter put it. The implication is clear. Fergus Falls is off the map. Here be dragons. He was the brave explorer who had confronted them inside their lair.

Americans had just elected Trump, and shocked commentators were quick to lay the blame for this previously inconceivable outcome on rural voters and their provincial hatreds. Relotius assumed, perhaps, that nobody in Fergus Falls would ever read Der Spiegel, or find a German translator—let alone come up with a rebuttal.

Relotius is an extreme case. But even his fabrications were derivative. He did not create the tropes he used. He merely exaggerated them and projected them before new audiences.

In 2016, as Donald Trump transitioned from joke candidate to Republican frontrunner, the American press fixated, often, on rural communities like Fergus Falls. Most journalists didn’t seem interested in learning anything about the places they wrote about. Instead they churned out vacuous just-so stories. Trump supporters believed he would create jobs and save babies from bloodthirsty liberals, so they voted for him and then celebrated his victory. Imagine! Each week readers could open their newspapers and find an entry in the catalog of a dubious new genre: Trump Country Safari.

The subject of a Trump Country piece is usually white, disgruntled, and committed, still, to the jingoism the president embodies. The journalist rarely identifies the characteristics of that jingoism or shows much curiosity about the source of its appeal. This approach yokes rural America firmly to Trump in the public mind while sidestepping white nationalism. The stories are, as Ashley Feinberg of the Huffington Post wrote, a form of “pornography,” produced “less as a way of explaining the country to their audience than as a way for media outlets to gratify themselves, or perhaps to atone for the perceived sin of overlooking Trump supporters the year before.”

Trump is not the president of just rural America. He won office because his message took root in coastal cities and suburbs, too. But national reporters found few occasions to explore the ascendant conservatism of these places. Consider Collier County, Florida, and McDowell County, West Virginia, two counties that voted heavily for Trump. Despite the fact that Collier County’s voter turnout was more than twice that of McDowell County, only the latter drew national attention. The wealthier, more suburban residents of Collier County did not inspire the derision of liberals—nor did they command the attention of conservatives, who were eager to pin Trump’s success to the reactionary yearnings of the mythologized heartland worker.

This selective interest in a particular type of Trump voter—and the synonymization of white conservatives with rural geographies—reinforced perceptions many onlookers already possessed. Location alters a place’s material needs and shapes the struggles of its inhabitants, but rurality does not make a community simple. To many consumers of the mainstream press, however, rural communities seem to be benighted places where the light of liberalism could not reach.

I had only been working as a full-time journalist for two and a half months by the time Trump became president, but I had been angry at the national press, and its coverage of rural America, for a long time. I am from southwest Virginia. Three generations of my family live there and in neighboring east Tennessee. The Appalachia I read about in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Associated Press was an Appalachia I recognized, but only through a fractured mirror of distorted facets. I felt like I was watching the parable of the blind man and the elephant unfold in real time. My new peers had missed the elephant for his limbs. They had been distracted by the roughness of his skin and the strangeness of his trunk. The Trump moment provided the occasion for them all to try their hand at depicting this elephant, which had long been in the room but rarely noticed by the national press.

So I wrote about the elephant. I didn’t know what else to do. And I wasn’t alone. Fergus Falls debunked its own grimdark reputation. Journalist Sarah Smarsh rebuts similar stereotypes about the Midwest in her articles and in her recent memoir, Heartland. But writers who try to inject more nuance into national coverage of rural America can find themselves at odds with other members of their own industry. Markos Moulitsas, the liberal strategist and co-founder of Vox Media, reacted with glee to news that retired coal miners faced losing their pensions. “Don’t weep for these coal miners, now abandoned by their GOP patrons,” Moulitsas wrote. “They are getting exactly the government that they voted for. Democrats can no longer offer unrequited love and cover for them. And isn’t this what democracy is all about? They won the election! This is what they wanted!”

That kind of reaction puts rural Americans—and journalists—in a difficult position. We state the obvious. We point to the elephant. I say that, actually, voter turnout is very low in many counties in Appalachia. Perhaps it would be a better use of our time to ask ourselves why—for example, the decline of union membership, or a generalized feeling of disenfranchisement reinforced by poverty—rather than focusing all our attention on the people who did turn out to vote for Trump.

Many other correctives seem almost self-evident from the perspective of someone who’s actually lived in rural America, and yet for readers who have been fed a diet of fabulism, they take on the appearance of stunning exposé. Rural America is not necessarily white. Rural America is indigenous. It’s home to Affrilachian poets; to queer people and to immigrants, like the poultry plant workers ICE rounded up in Grainger County, Tennessee, in 2018. The Black Belt of Alabama is rural and poor and mostly non-white, and so is the Delta. All these people, all these places, are rural America. Coverage that focuses exclusively or at least principally on white, rural conservatives minimizes the real extent of the nation’s racism, as if racism subsides as population density increases. It erases people of color from regions they’ve inhabited—in direct defiance of violent white supremacy—for centuries. Simplistic journalism makes rural America a sin-eater: a tainted place that in the public imagination absorbs a nation’s fear of the other. Rural America thus becomes a scapegoat to soothe liberal consciences. Once whitewashed, the right wing can adopt it as the beating heart of the herrenvolk.

Rural communities don’t conform neatly to right-wing or even liberal imaginings, but those realities often don’t appear in outsider coverage. National outlets often not only overlook rural people; they may also miss rural organizing that occurs outside electoral politics. In 2017, I traveled to rural Coos County, New Hampshire, where local dairy farmers had joined forces with the Pessamit Nation of Quebec and Yale University students to protest a planned hydroelectric project in the area. The Pessamit feared that the project would damage their ancestral fishing grounds; New Hampshire farmers feared not only the loss of their country views but the environmental damage that could occur as a result of construction; the Yale students wanted to protest what they characterized as the university’s complicity in the project (Yale owned large forested tracts through which the Northern Pass project would run). It was an unusual alliance of interests—indigenous people, conservative farmers, and liberal students—coalescing around a Trump-voting county in the northern woods of New Hampshire. But it’s a story that national outlets largely missed—a casualty, perhaps, of a professional obsession with simpler political binaries.

Coos County isn’t such an outlier. Similar activist alliances have cropped up elsewhere in rural America. Though they aren’t proof that conservative communities are reliably shifting left, they complicate what many people think they know about rural places. Teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and in Oklahoma, where some rural school districts only have resources available for four days of class a week, again reshaped national perceptions of rural, Republican-dominated places. In southwest Virginia and West Virginia, locals continue to organize against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry fracked gas through the region and would cross the Appalachian Trail in at least one location. Some activists have taken to tree stands and monopods, living on top of what amounts to a very large stick in order to block construction on the pipeline. And in Harlan, Kentucky, after Blackjewel, a major coal operator, abruptly declared bankruptcy and left over a thousand miners without backpay, trans anarchists helped laid-off workers occupy a stretch of railroad. For weeks, they were united in service of the same goal: to block coal trains from getting out and to train national eyes on the injustice their community had endured.

The people who make up these coalitions certainly do not agree on the precise policy solutions to local troubles. Nor is there consensus on the sources of those problems. Pipeline fights and coalfield occupations don’t tell us that a Green New Deal, for example, will be an easy sell. But these tensions are a story on their own, and one that outsider perspectives tend to ignore in favor of blunter tales.

What sort of clarity do the Mountain Valley stylites provide? The epiphany they offer is a simple one. Rural Americans, for instance, want clean water like everyone else. They want communities fit not only for their children, but for grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It isn’t paradoxical for some rural communities to long also for the return of coal mining; communities aren’t hive minds. People want jobs, even if that means the resurgence of an environmentally and medically dangerous industry like coal mining, because the alternative is poverty. These observations, again, are nothing more than statements of the obvious if the starting point for reportage on rural America is a search for complexity and humanity rather than exoticism.

As a writer from Appalachia living in New York, I wonder, sometimes, what good I’ve accomplished from my own position in the national press. But as revenues decline and hedge funds bleed local and regional newspapers dry, it’s increasingly difficult to pursue journalism closer to home; these material forces have helped widen the distance between national outlets and rural communities. The proliferation of stories about “red America” suggests that to some in the industry, distance might not be a problem, but rather proof of their own superiority.

I don’t believe, really, that there is a “red America.” There’s a falsehood buried in the term. Rural voters may behave differently than voters in the suburbs or the cities, but they hardly occupy a separate country, and there is no such thing as a monolithically conservative region. “These are people who have lived in places where 7 out of 10 local races are uncontested by the Democratic Party, who have maybe felt unhappy with our choice of national candidates for myriad reasons,” said Smarsh in a 2018 interview with Longreads. “It’s about acknowledging that these places that we call ‘red’ contain millions and millions and millions of people who have never even voted before.” For similar reasons, I think “Trump country” is about as real as Neverland. It mostly exists for journalists who only go to isolated towns when it’s time for a national election. But I’ve used both terms to sell stories to editors and readers. Why perpetuate what I believe to be myth?

I often don’t have a choice. Reporters typically bear little responsibility for the priorities and prejudices of their editors, and editorial demand keeps the Trump Country Safari alive. It has sometimes only been possible to convince anyone—editors and readers with an anthropologist’s voyeuristic curiosity—that rural stories deserve coverage by hooking them to Trump, a topic that’s guaranteed to generate clicks driven by adoration or outrage. But this hook encourages shoddy work. An individual county’s overall vote for president tells us nothing—in isolation—about its political and economic history or its internal divisions. In the absence of context, fables are easy to generate and hard to kill.

At one extreme sits Claas Relotious, who published lies he thought people would believe. It’s possible, though, to tilt too far in the other direction, to focus exclusively on teachers’ strikes and environmental activism and paint rural America in soft and gentle colors. When rural whites do vote, they still tend to support conservative candidates, and economic inequality alone can’t explain this pattern. The trick is to interview their neighbors, too—the people of color and non-Christians who carve out lives among people whose political preferences actively endanger them. It’s difficult for some people to go home, when going home means being openly queer in a town full of conservative Christians, or sacrificing steady work for a more precarious economic future.

Rural Americans aren’t exceptional. Their needs and hopes may be influenced by the presence of resources like coal and natural gas, or by the physical difficulties imposed by dense forest, mountain terrain, and open prairie land. But physical distance from the centers of the media industry hardly severs communities from the polity of the nation. Whatever afflicts rural America afflicts the suburbs and the cities, too. Capitalism does not respect city lines. The distinguishing characteristics of rural problems simply reveal new flaws in the same broken system. When people die of overdoses in rural places, it’s not due to some cultural curse specific to the prairie or the hollow, but because they lack access to healthcare, and because corporations and pharmaceutical wholesalers have flooded their communities with pills. Rural people suffer from structural problems ranging from environmental decimation to rapidly greying demographics. While there are places where the consequences of these problems are more and less pronounced, there’s no way for anyone to completely escape them. If that reality isn’t visible in an article, then the author’s failed herself, her readers, and her subjects.

And that may well be an error that national reporters, so often located in one of about three major coastal cities, are more prone to make. I don’t believe this means that city-dwellers ought to exempt themselves from covering rural places and people. I am a labor reporter, and it’s my responsibility to cover teachers’ strikes in West Virginia even though I no longer live in easy driving distance to the state. But there are ways for the industry to support better and more incisive reporting on rural communities. Redirecting resources to local journalists, as initiatives like Report for America and ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network already do, would do much to rectify the gross flaws in the nation’s coverage of rural people.

The key to preventing more Relotiuses is to ensure that rural communities are empowered to tell their own stories. Told by those who know best, rural stories might not satisfy the stereotypes or partisan divisions that outsiders hope to see in them. Trump’s ruthless and reactionary rhetoric won’t be so easy to pin on rural America—nor will the people who live there make such easy scapegoats for everyone else.

Sarah Jones is a staff writer for New York Magazine, where she covers national politics and social inequality.

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