In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney won the state with 62 percent of the vote to Obama’s 35 percent. Donald Trump won the vote in West Virginia with 69 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 23 percent in the 2016 election. Before picking apart the minutiae of West Virginia and giving personal anecdotes and observations, I’ll start with my provisional opinion of the Trump phenomenon. At its core, Trump’s campaign from the beginning generated the kind of sycophantic idolatry of the group known as Palinistas: the devoted fraction of the Republican Party base for Sarah Palin. It’s like they’re zealots for the Führerprinzip but can rarely locate an individual leader to shower with their bottomless well of trust and sincere admiration. Trump largely inherited the Palinistas and made them his own.
In addition, before he ran for president, Trump was the most prominent spokesman for the racist claim that Obama was not an American citizen. Immediately after launching his presidential campaign, what set him apart from the rest of the Republican field were his immediate and explicit appeals to racism and xenophobia. The long list of white supremacist groups and subdivisions therein found a champion in his campaign that legitimized their long trumpeted, core messages. Overlap in the orbits of the most extreme wings of the Republican Party with all segments of the white nationalist and fascist milieus (best personified in David Duke, who mixes in all of these nominally separate circles) led to a seamless integration of militant white supremacy into a high profile national political campaign.
That Trump was an outsider who had never held office and bloviated endlessly about his refusal to act like a “real” politician let him tap into the much broader anti-establishment sentiment that has been fermenting since the 2008 crisis. This led more people to consider him a viable candidate, particularly compared to the response of the general electorate to Sarah Palin in the 2008 election cycle. I think this is the bloc and context which gave birth to and sustained Trump from the beginning of his campaign straight to his victory last week.
But sycophants and fascists and a general anti-establishment mood don’t explain his convincing electoral victories, even among populations he disparaged and promised to harm if he won. As time went on his campaign consistently promoted the image of Trump as a kind of swashbuckling Abraham Lincoln with the acting talent of Ronald Reagan, to be loved and feared, the great emancipator who doesn’t take any shit. But there was never really a push to define particular, concrete and realistic policies. I think the electorate largely projected what they wanted to believe when casting their vote because of this gaping hole in his campaign. For his core constituency, this was the anti-immigrant and overtly racist rhetoric along with his promises to lock up Hillary Clinton and punish the media; for others, it was the call to renegotiate or tear up trade deals that are linked to the postindustrial turn across the country (and the new career opportunities of collecting government checks for disability or unemployment, using opiates or working at Wal-Mart), or the seductive promise to gut taxes, or the promise to resume the offensive in the culture wars, or a “Killing is my Business, and Business is Good” foreign policy, or any of the other individual issues representing the buckshot of campaign promises that resonated to different degrees in different groups and regions around the country.
In West Virginia, voters saw the only issue that matters to them in national politics: the promise to protect and then revive the American coal industry.
West Virginia is unique in a variety of ways. It leads the country in nearly every metric of catastrophe on every conceivable issue. Economically it is at or near the very bottom in terms of growth and development and it leads the country in the ratio of part-time to full-time jobs. Its education apparatus consistently ranks at or near the bottom and has fewer college-or university-educated residents per capita than just about every other state. It has the highest percentage of residents receiving Supplemental Social Security benefits (about 1 in 4). More people die than are born here, more people move out of state than move into it, it ranks among the highest in infant mortality and has the largest proportion of tobacco users in the country. It’s one of if not the oldest state (average age for a resident is between 40 and 42 years old). Crime rates and especially violent crime rates are rising dramatically faster than in the rest of the country. In addition to Social Security, all forms of welfare programs (food stamps, unemployment, etc.) are overrepresented among West Virginians to an absurd degree. African-Americans make up the largest minority group in the state at approximately 3 percent of the total population, while no other racial category (including biracial and multiracial) makes up more than 1 percent of the population. Wal-Mart is the largest private employer, similar to many other states that have seen their traditional industries shrivel up through mechanization (meatpacking, steel, coal), stagnate (auto, refining, defense) or offshore (everything else). It’s a state under a dramatically permanent siege by the evolution and trajectory of contemporary capitalism.
Trump’s huge margin of victory in West Virginia masks the more important dynamics in local politics here. Since the 2000s, the state has progressively grown to be solidly within the Republican camp in presidential elections. In 2008, McCain won West Virginia with 55 percent of the vote to Obama’s 42 percent. Republican margins have increased exponentially since then on the sole basis of the real and perceived effect of climate change legislation and environmental regulations on the coal industry. However, West Virginians elected a Democrat, a coal operator named Jim Justice, to be the next governor at the same time that they voted for Trump. Justice’s campaign included a pledge to repeal the recently passed right-to-work law and restore the recently removed state prevailing-wage law—it looks like these will take the form of a referendum. Bill Cole, the Republican candidate for governor, was extremely close to Scott Walker and was instrumental in passing both right-to-work and repealing the state prevailing wage. Cole even brought Walker to West Virginia to campaign for him, touting Walker’s record as a blueprint and promising to bring Wisconsin-style business-friendly “reforms” to West Virginia (both men were forced to use the back door to enter their own campaign event in the state Capitol because of union protestors out front). Both the United Mine Workers of America and the West Virginia AFL-CIO enthusiastically endorsed Jim Justice for governor and campaigned heavily on his behalf.
As the Democratic Party has increasingly emphasized climate change as a core issue, it has further alienated itself from coal country. All of the talk about a green economy, twenty-first century energy and massive job expansion in a kind of Green Keynesianism has proven to be ideological bluster with no basis in fact. This sense of being suckered by Washington is absolutely pervasive here. Highway welcome signs at the state borders could add a helpful note:
Welcome to West Virginia, and also
Coal—Don’t Fuck Me On This.
On a personal level, the most striking thing to me about this election cycle was that at work the day after the election was over, the subject didn’t come up once. It wasn’t until the following day that it came up briefly in the break room, and even then it was solely about everyone’s particular fears for the consequences of a Trump presidency and anger at Clinton for having the audacity to run in the first place. This combination of apathy and frustration has been far more common in casual conversations on the subject than any overt support for either candidate or party. During the long campaign season, the overwhelming majority of campaign signs here were reflective of local races (sheriff, county offices, state delegate and senator, governor) rather than the presidential election. Visible markers of Trump support have been notably absent in the area of eastern West Virginia, which is one of the most prosperous parts of the state and has high concentrations of traditional factory, warehouse and trucking jobs due to its proximity to the Mid-Atlantic transportation network and West Virginia’s low-wage status in the region. The volume of Trump campaign signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts struck me as far lower than what is being portrayed in the media.
When it comes to West Virginia, and I suspect the Rust Belt states as well, what translated into votes wasn’t the conversion of huge swathes of white workers into Trump’s own Palinistas, or the activation of a collective David Duke lurking in their subconscious, but the lack of a precise platform and peculiar populist spirit of his campaign, which allowed him to sway voters by only providing vague, unsubstantiated, circumstantial promises rather than an articulated programme. The region that seems to exemplify “Trump country” to me is across the Potomac River from West Virginia in the three western counties of Maryland that are considered part of Appalachia (Allegheny, Washington and Garrett). The town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, in particular represents a Trump town. It’s a Mayberry without even a single stoplight, the archetypal American small town with nothing but small business storefronts and modest (but well-kept) homes on its main street. Despite having a population of just 700, the town has been in the epicenter of Klan and fascist activity in the region for many years. Trump signs, banners, stickers and billboards of all kinds and sizes line both sides of the town, on every car, truck, home, business and virtually any other space. Agriculture is the most important local industry with a large number of small businesses, civil war memorial parks and prisons in the area providing employment.
A picture emerges from all of this. Trump’s core constituents are the small shopkeepers, farmers, segments of the rural professional strata, law enforcement and those cast out by or born unnecessary to capital. It’s extremely interesting that in the American cities that represent the twenty-first-century economy of high-tech manufacturing and an ever more educated and skilled workforce (described very well in John Garvey’s recent article “Notes On A Future Politics—Part 1”), which are flaunted to the rest of the world as symbols of American capital’s dynamism—Seattle, Portland, New York, San Francisco, etc.—all erupted in mass street demonstrations against the 2016 presidential election results, including burning Trump in effigy.
Things are simpler here. A spent shotgun shell or $10 stamp bag of heroin could have won similar numbers against Hillary Clinton in this election in West Virginia for the same reason that Donald Trump did: they also have no prior record of harming the coal industry and if anything, due to the spiraling suicide and addiction rates here, either inanimate object would have been more representative in their victory than was that of Donald Trump.