Misrepresenting the White Working Class: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies and McDowell County

The Guardian‘s West Coast bureau chief paid a quick visit to McDowell County, West Virginia in October to film a video for the news organization’s website titled “Why the poorest county in West Virginia has faith in Trump.” The video’s description promised it would explain why “Donald Trump was more popular in McDowell County—the poorest county of West Virginia—then anywhere else in America during the Republican primaries.” The video dutifully showed what the Guardian’s readers would expect: poor working-class whites in an economically devastated county, left behind by the winds of change and the global economy. The Trump phenomenon growing in its native soil. The video in fact did a great job of showing how working people have been abandoned when they can no longer contribute to the profits of corporate America. What it totally failed to show was that McDowell people were open to, even preferred, a real alternative to Trump and Clinton.

Trump’s alleged popularity was based on the presidential primary results, in which the Republican candidate won a total of 785 votes. Yes, 785 voters were enough to paint McDowell County as the poster child of regressive right-wing populism. Nowhere in the video or the accompanying webpage were the actual primary numbers presented, nor was it mentioned that Bernie Sanders won 1,488 votes in the same primaries—almost twice as many as Trump! Nor that in 2008 a large majority voted for Obama in the general election.

Why are the Democratic party elites so determined to disavow the party’s largest core constituency since the New Deal? Apparently because their strategists have concluded that basing their electoral strategy on identity politics will win them a large and ever-growing share of the American electorate, while a class-based approach, though it would directly address the needs and concerns of all working people—working-class whites and especially minorities and immigrants—would be an anachronistic dead end. Their media allies reinforced their comforting illusions with videos like this one that omit any mention of downtrodden working people’s openness to leftist alternatives. That McDowell’s residents cast far more ballots for a self-described socialist than all other candidates in the primaries should not be all that surprising in a county that took part in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in American history. Many of the comments to the video, however, as expected, denounced the poor white Neanderthals there for their obvious misogynist and fascist sympathies: “Ignorant foolish people”; “These are Clinton’s ‘deplorables.'”; “Now WV men can grope and rape at will”; “The nativist, racist and outright fascist language of Il Trumpolini and his promise the [sic] Make Them Great Again – based on their skin tone, unfortunately appeals to far to [sic] many there.” Would they still have made these comments if the Guardian had let them know twice as many McDowell residents voted for Bernie as for Trump?

Trump’s victory came from many segments of America, including some who embrace his proto-fascist rantings. But for millions of Americans who have been suffering due to the policies of both parties over the last few decades, many of their votes were a direct result of his promises, regardless of how bogus they are, to attack trade deals that hurt the working class, bring back jobs, and protect Social Security, along with his middle finger allegedly aimed at the elites and their establishment politics. The Democratic leaders made his job easy for him by derailing Sanders’ bid for the nomination and doubling down on their anti-working-class neoliberal agenda, aided inexplicably and shamefully by most of the top leadership of the unions.

Well, the media got what it wanted. On November 8, McDowell County, in the absence of a left alternative, voted 75% to 23% for Trump. For anyone who wants to build a movement to resist a Trumpian future, providing a real alternative politics to the millions who are suffering in our economy will be absolutely essential.


  • Echo Fain November 16, 2016

    thank you for this. I’m from McDowell County (I live elsewhere these days) and the bad press that the state of WV has received in conjunction with this particular election cycle has been…heartbreaking. for me. they paint WVians as ignorant and do-less and as mindless followers of Trump. the moment McDowell showed up on the news, touted as a Trump-supporting county, I was horrified. I couldn’t imagine anything like that being possible. the population there, as reduced and poverty-stricken as it is, still boasts some of the most free-thinking people I’ve ever known in my liberal life. I couldn’t imagine why they wouldn’t vote for Bernie. to read a better glimpse of the voting demographics for the primaries makes me feel a little better about my home state–and my home county.

    • Patricia P. Tursi November 16, 2016

      Many hill people are some of the smartest people in the world and can tell you a lot about how to survive and nature and that is the most important

    • Dan Sidorick November 16, 2016

      Thanks for your comments. The people who create the media aren’t from places like McDowell (or working-class city neighborhoods like Kensington in Philadelphia either), and instead of blaming people from their class always find it easy to shift the blame onto hardworking people. You should feel proud to be from McDowell!

      • Echo Fain November 16, 2016

        oh, I am. very proud. :D

  • Patricia P. Tursi November 16, 2016

    Nationally trump 25.5% Clinton 25.6% 46% eligible voters didn’t vote and some who voted for Trump did so because they couldn’t stomach voting for a criminal. Not exactly a mandate or a message that we are rascist, etc.

  • Renee Bolden November 17, 2016

    What this article fails to mention is that in primary elections, those registered as Democrats MUST vote Democrat. McDowell County’s population is overwhelmingly registered Democrats. These Democrats voted for Sanders as they would rather a socialist run for president than Hilary Clinton.

    Now, would McDowell County have voted for Trump over Sanders? Absolutely. However, I would say there would have been more of a competition. How do I know this? I am a resident of McDowell County as I was born here and have lived here the majority of my life.

    McDowell County citizens are not ignorant and, with the exception of a few, we are not liberals. We are not ignorant. Some of the state’s and nation’s most intelligent and artistic people hail from McDowell County.

    McDowell County has been a picture of socialism for most of it’s existence. We were first under the rule of coal companies and had to use their scrip. We are now under the government and they have debilitated the majority of us to use their “scrip” (foodstamps — EBT cards).

    We are tired of the handouts that are used to keep us under the boot of government control. We want jobs and our freedoms as American citizens. By freedoms, I mean the freedoms needed to achieve the American Dream in McDowell County and not having to relocate and hope to achieve that dream elsewhere.

    The truth of the matter is, we have seen the results of 80+ years of Democratic control of our county and state. We want and demand better. It’s past time to try the flip side of the coin.

    This is yet another biased article against McDowell County and it’s citizens.

    • Dan Sidorick November 17, 2016

      Thanks for your comments. I share your disgust with what the American economy has done to much of
      our country. Two points:

      First, company scrip is not socialism – it’s the exact opposite, unfettered capitalism running business the way it wants. See for one take on what a socialist platform might look like.

      Second, we should beware of complete “freedom” for business to do what it wants without any regulation. Two of my great great uncles immigrated from Russia to McDowell (Switchback) in the early 1900s. Both died in explosions at the Lick Branch coal mine two weeks apart in 1908-1909. There were virtually no regulations—Pocahontas Coal Co had complete freedom to run the mines the way they wanted and achieve their American Dream for the rich owners. Be careful what you wish for.

    • Will Shetterly January 28, 2017

      So you’re saying people in McDowell don’t want what Sanders offered, a higher minimum wage, universal health care, and free public university, things that other countries already provide for their people?

      I think anyone who didn’t want to vote for Sanders would’ve stayed home.

  • Kimberly Ingala November 18, 2016

    Hi Daniel, I’m just curious where you pulled your statistics from because this article from has different numbers. It has Trump with 2,552 votes in the primary and Bernie with 1,622 votes. UPDATED: Nevermind! I see the link now. I guess is reporting wrong numbers?

  • Louis Martin
    Louis C Martin December 5, 2016

    Dan, thanks for this response. I’m afraid that many journalists will be using the percentage of residents who voted for Trump as a springboard to paint portraits of rural America that rest more on stereotype than empirical evidence–which would only widen the cultural gap.

    I also see in your comment that your great-great uncles died in the Lick Branch disaster. More than 500 miners died in McDowell County between 1902 and 1964, and this summer the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum created the Miners’ Memorial Exhibit, which discusses the history of the dangers of mining, and it includes a check tag board for family members to personalize a check tag in memory of a fallen miner.

    The museum is in neighboring Mingo County in Matewan:

    • Dan Sidorick December 5, 2016

      Thanks for sharing this information about the Mine Wars Museum. It is a great example of people coming together to create something so future generations can learn about the history of working-class people. The next time I’m in WV I’ll visit the museum to personalize check tags for my uncles. Thanks for providing the opportunity . . .

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