WARNING: This post does not “stick to sports”…if you are hoping for said sports to be stuck to, scroll to the next post. Thank you
“Matt, I don’t think you could talk for 10 minutes straight without at least once mentioning Kentucky.”
The comment above was made by my Law school friend Mark, and reflected what I am sure was the common view of me across the Duke campus. I arrived in Durham at the age of 21, living outside of Kentucky for the first extended time of my life and eager to challenge myself by experiencing something new. I made friends with my mostly older classmates, but it took me very little time to realize that I was completely different than virtually all of them. Not only was I one of the few Kentuckians (only two others were in the school, one of which was Tucker Max, and our common basketball connection kept us sane amidst all of the Blue Devil love), but I was also one of the very few people who came from a rural, non-coastal background. Duke and similar elite schools often brag about their tremendous diversity and by most normal measures. it was one of the Law School’s strongest characteristics. Duke was a leader in racial, gender, ethnic and religious diversity and its position at the time as one of the best Law Schools in the country for International students ensured that our classes were filled with viewpoints from across the land. But it was clear to me from the outset that my background, that of someone from Appalachia, who spent his time attending a small public high school in the mountains and a tiny college with a weird name in Lexington, was different. I embraced that difference and found myself talking about my home state non-stop. Most of the comments were about basketball (the 2003 team’s run that year was a source of much pride), but I also referenced Kentucky towns, events, politicians, stories, whatever could keep my connection to home. Like a lot of people who leave the Commonwealth, I found that I loved it more from afar than even when I was there and wanted to share all the positivity I felt about it to whoever would listen.
It was clear to me early on however that my classmates didn’t share the same affinity for my old Kentucky home. To them, Kentucky was known only vaguely as a place where they had a horse race, chicken, basketball, bourbon, and some may have driven through it one time and thought it was pretty. Few had been spent any time there and to the extent there were opinions to be had, they were mostly of a mocking nature. Their cluelessness about Kentucky as a whole was only exceeded by their cluelessness about Eastern Kentucky in particular and even though the start of those mountains was less than 4 hours away, it might as well have been another planet for most of my fellow students. Like at most elite law schools, the student body trended liberal and when conversation would switch to politics (as it always did, even then), their knowledge about Kentucky was even more limited and stereotypical. To them, Kentucky was just a “Red State” where people didn’t vote their economic interests because they didn’t understand that people (in their mind, like them) were trying to help them. The comments infuriated me, even as they came from people who shared my side of the political aisle. I often joke that I argue much more with people I agree with than those I don’t, and that mindset comes from the Duke years. I spent many hours defending Kentuckians against the elitist notion that they were too stupid to understand their votes and (even worse) that we were simply intolerant hillbillies who weren’t worth the time. My anger in those conversations would rise quickly and some of the maddest moments of my life have been in arguments with these Duke and DC liberals. Even if I agreed with them on policy, I could see that their disdain for the people I grew up with and loved made them wholly unappealing to me…and if that was true of me, it would be exponentially more true for those who might have different opinions than they.
I say all this as a backdrop to the feelings I had last night when I watched the “Donald Trump goes to Kentucky” sketch on Saturday Night Live. I must preface by saying, I am a huge fan of Saturday Night Live and think that they are the single most consistent source of really good comedy that exists on television. Unlike many haters who love to say “SNL just isn’t good anymore,” I think it actually is and this season has been one of its best. Whether its Alec Baldwin as an arrogant Trump, Kate McKinnon as a desperate Hillary or Melissa McCarthy as an angry Spicer, this season’s skits have been really good and the election of Trump seems to have given the show new life. With that said, last night’s cold open was an example of the elitist-thinking nonsense that not only so frustrated me at Duke, but has also made many in Kentucky give up on Progressive politicians nationwide. The skit is set in Boone County and has Trump visiting to try to get some of his momentum back after a few tough weeks. I encourage you to watch it below if you haven’t yet seen it.
At the core of this skit is one simple notion. SNL believes that Kentuckians are too stupid to realize that Donald Trump isn’t good for them. Person after person gets up, explains the difficulty they are dealing with, Trump suggests he will not help them, and then they say they support him anyway. For all four “Kentuckians” that are shown, the love of Trump is more important than whatever he says and they all sit down looking like naive rubes who just don’t know what is best for them. I am sure the writers were attempting to make a point (that I believe has some validity) that Trump has sold many of his voters a false set of goods, but in so doing they make the “Kentuckians” the butt of the joke, and like many in my law school class, they are to be mocked for not understanding how unintelligent and naive they are.
As I watched the skit, I was disappointed but in no way surprised. The SNL skit is a perfect embodiment of the elitist liberal sentiment that helped Trump get elected in November. The sentiment is what drove many long-time working class people in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania to switch sides and vote for Trump after years of voting for Democrats. Like the sentiment as a whole, the SNL skit is as patronizing as it is incorrect. First, it showcases at moment one how clueless it is about its subject by setting the rally in “Boone County, Kentucky” and acting as if it is in coal mining country. As anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Kentucky could tell you, Boone County is a Cincinnati suburb that has about as much similarity to the Eastern Kentucky coal mines as I do to Lebron James. Had the skit been set in Harlan, Pike or Perry County, it would have been no less offensive, but it would have at least been geographically correct. But to the writers of SNL, such differences are irrelevant because in their mind all of Kentucky is one homogenous, flyover area, and reference to one county is akin to any other. There is no knowledge that Western Kentucky has Midwestern farmland, Lexington and Central Kentucky are horse farm territory, Northern Kentucky leans suburban, Louisville is a major city and Eastern Kentucky is Appalachia. In making fun of Trump (with a joke that actually contains some truth, suggesting he believes there are only two jobs, Goldman Sachs and coal miner), SNL makes the exact same mistake they mock Trump for making. To them all of Kentucky is a coal mine, so each county is the exact same.
But if the selection of the county were the biggest problem, I wouldn’t be spending my Sunday writing this post. Instead the much more egregious error is the portrayal of the “Kentuckians” as naive rubes unable to resist Trump’s manipulation of them. That this construct is patronizing is obvious, but it is also objectively false. I am not a Trump supporter. I think he is almost certainly a fraud who has made promises he will not keep and whose policies will hurt those I care about (the working class of Kentucky) more than they will help. But I make the distinction between Trump and Trump supporters. Because to me, most Trump supporters aren’t naive at all…instead they are people who are happy to finally have someone, anyone tell them their lives and areas of the country are important. For the last 50 years, virtually every national politician has forgotten about places like rural Kentucky. What used to be a description of a huge part of the electorate, the “Blue Collar Democrat”, is now almost a relic from the past. The reasons why are numerous, but I think the vast majority come down to one word…respect.
I don’t know if Donald Trump truly respects people from Appalachia or working class Kentuckians. But I do know this…at least he voices their concerns and says they are important. Trump is the first politician since Bobby Kennedy to look at the people like those in Eastern Kentucky and acknowledge the truth. The world is leaving them behind and the Government has been complicit in letting it happen. While too many elitist liberals focus on mocking the things that are important to them, like their faith, social values and family life, Trump got up and said “we will bring your jobs back and help make American great again.” I think Trump is mostly full of it but at least he acknowledged the problem and the fact that their situations are in peril. Contrast that with Hillary Clinton, who told Kentuckians she was going to put every coal miner out of work, not realizing the devastating effect the decline of coal has had on communities throughout the mountains. Trump is almost certainly not going to be able to bring coal back to its heyday, but he did at least put forth the truth that these communities need help…a fact that had been lost with a President who in 8 years never bothered to visit the area once and a candidate who only did once in order to try and stop a Bernie Sanders surge.
What many in the liberal elite (and the writers of SNL) don’t realize is that for people in Kentucky loyalty to coal is not the point. As decades of bluegrass and country songs will tell you, the experience of life as a coal miner is a tough one and many wanted to find ways to do other things. But coal mining did help build communities and support families and create work that could help lead to a fulfilled life. Coal miners and their families have a pride in the coal mining culture, the bonds that it created and the area of the state where it was such an important part of life. When Hillary Clinton says she wants to do away with coal miners, she is saying to them that she wants to do away with their way of life. That is a big deal and it is not surprising that when repeated with such brazenness, it will cause strong animosity. It is one thing to disagree with someone…it is another to mock and degrade them and Clinton’s comments did just that.
Contrast that with Trump…most people I know that support him realize he is not exactly a bastion of truth telling. Unlike the four rubes in the video who express their undying loyalty to him, most I speak with aren’t huge fans of him as a person and they acknowledge he doesn’t share their values, especially the moral ones. But what they appreciate is an acknowledgment that they and their way of life matter and exist as something beyond a group that can still be mocked in a PC culture. I think most Trump supporters genuinely WANT him to succeed but I am not sure they genuinely believe he WILL succeed. If their healthcare is taken away with no better alternative, if his budget ends the Appalachian Regional Commission and if coal jobs are not regenerated or replaced with something new, I don’t think Trump support will be ubiquitous. Trump made lots of promises and I do think his Kentucky supporters will expect him to deliver.
However so long as the other side is represented by the mindset showcased in the SNL skit, they won’t be an alternative considered. If portrayals of Kentuckians continue to be that of naive rubes the disdain for elitist liberals will only increase. So long as the true reason for their support is not understood, that Trump has at least given lip service to respecting them and their way of life, other alternatives won’t be considered. There are Democratic politicians who get this…people ranging from Joe Biden to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. When they talk about the legitimate concerns of the working class, they do so with an understanding of those they are speaking about and in a non-patronizing tone. Unfortunately their reward for that is often disdain from liberals and their numbers in Washington are rare.
It is just one skit on Saturday Night Live. And in many ways, I agree with the overall premise of part of the skit’s tone. Trump has told the working class one thing and his policies that he is attempting to enact are often the complete opposite. But in making that point, the SNL writers made the easy target, Trump supporters, the butt of the joke. The reason why they did it is simple. Those writing such material don’t know anyone like the people they are portraying and mocking condescension is easier than true understanding. For all the talk around political circles about what working class white people think and the celebration of the memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” (which I did like, but is a memoir, not a piece of sociological research), the correct answer is the simplest. So long as working class people are not represented in Washington, either by corporate Republicans who only care about the top 1% (like Mitch McConnell) or candidates who speak with disdain about their culture (like Hillary Clinton), individuals will always gravitate to those who affirm their worth. This was Trump’s greatest trait and the reason his support in such areas was so strong.
When I was a clerk on the DC Circuit, I took my three co-clerks home with me to Middlesboro one weekend. All three were very liberal, one from New York, one DC and one LA. Needless to say, they had never been anywhere like Middlesboro before. I think they went in part as something of an anthropological experience, and were likely ready to laugh at what they saw. One even said to me with glee before we went, “I want you to take me to the weirdest places in the mountains that you can.” Whatever they came into the experience hoping to see, they left with something else. I introduced them to friends who quizzed them about their hometowns and what it was like growing up in an urban area. They accompanied me to my church where complete strangers hugged and welcomed them in a very handsy mountain way. My mom and I took them driving deep into the hollows of Bell County, where she described the lives of people that no one in Federal (and State) Government even seems to acknowledge exist. My Mother and Grandmother cooked for them, we hiked to the Pinnacle and even went to the Oasis for country music night with my great friend BoBob. As we drove back to DC one of my friends, a gay, Howard Dean supporting liberal from New York, said to me, “I have never been to a more welcoming place in my life. The people were just so kind to me. I wish the rest of the country could see what I did.” I do too. People from the mountains, and Kentucky in general, are some of the most friendly, caring and loving people in the world and their reward for those traits is all too often the mocking disdain of an elite class that knows nothing about them. That has to change and it won’t until those in politics or comedy writing start seeing them as more than just a punchline.