The Capitol riot and the danger of depicting rural America as only right-wing

Consider law enforcement’s differential treatment of armed insurrectionists compared with demonstrators calling for racial equity and the end of police brutality. Take note of the race and class divisions at the heart of the rioters’ discontent. The unchecked violence, looting and destruction during the siege exposed unhealed wounds that date back to the founding of the United States.
Elizabeth Catte and Leah Hampton are both well versed in the dangers posed by classist depictions of America’s rural denizens as a monolithic body of right-wing White racists. Both Catte, public historian and author of “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” and Hampton, author of “F*ckface,” a collection of short stories about diverse Appalachian people and their threatened landscape, work to dismantle the misleading caricatures of rural America in favor of actual reckoning with societal inequities.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: You’ve both written about the complicated realities underlying the notion of the “forgotten” White working class. What does the attack on the US Capitol tell us about the dangers of that stereotype?

Leah Hampton: The danger we always have in this country is erasure. Just look at the circumstances: Two Senate seats get flipped in Georgia, specifically because of the consciousness raising and the footwork largely by women of color in the South.

Instead of that becoming the dominant conversation, the insurrection knocked the story of successful progressive organizing out of our political discussions, once again centering this toxic White supremacist identity and ideology. That’s dangerous not only because the insurrection was physically dangerous to the people at the Capitol. It also diminishes attention on the reality that it wouldn’t be that hard to replicate what happened in Georgia in progressive communities across the South and in red states overall.

Elizabeth Catte: Some of the danger comes directly out of Capitol attack coverage. Trash pieces like the one by Caitlin Flanagan describing the insurrectionists as arriving with “bellies full of beer and Sausage McMuffins, maybe a little high on Adderall” fixated on the image of a bunch of rednecks.
Elizabeth Catte is author of "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia."

That kind of coverage means we have ended exactly where we started from, with this idea that this moment has been given to us by White, poor, rural people. Such stories erase complicity by upper-middle-class White people and reveal the tendency to turn up our noses at any nuanced portrayal of complicated issues of race, class and power that are actually at play here.

The reductive, monolithic hillbilly narrative sucks the life out of the work, the organizing spaces and even the imaginations of progressive people in Appalachia. The glossy magazines spout punditry claiming that bad things are happening to our democracy because pockets of “White trash” people across the country are behaving in antisocial ways. That is just not the case.

Hampton: Another really big danger is when White people say, “This is not who we are.” It is who we are. It has always been who we are. Elizabeth talks in her book about the cheap stereotypes of the Scots-Irish tradition in Appalachia, designed to satisfy a “stunningly ahistorical … exploitative … fetish” of the bourgeoisie. One of the dangers of these myths is that it allows the more genteel White toxicity to feel better about itself. This narrative, as she writes, “unburdens the white viewer from the fatigue of thinking critically about race.”

CNN: Some commentators have challenged the portrayal of rioters at the Capitol as “deplorables rising up from the muck of Rust Belt trailer parks” driven by economic anxiety. Elizabeth has written that these characterizations are a strategic “sleight of hand” in which working-class people are used to “illustrate the priorities and voting preferences” of middle-class and affluent White people. How does that ploy function?
Hampton: All privileged people across the political spectrum profit from the economic anxiety myth, from energy CEOs — guys like Bob Murray — to the ecotourism industry and universities in the region by superficially distancing themselves from White supremacist ideology while also often preserving those same systems for their own benefit.

When you talk about who profits, you also have to think about how this country glorifies work — particularly hard physical labor by White men. We’re the only country who thinks it’s cool to work a 60-hour week, especially if you’re White. That’s culturally embedded. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie put on the mask of the working class. I just want to point out that January 6 was a Wednesday. I don’t know anybody who could take a Wednesday off work to fly to Washington for an insurrection!

A lot of people at the Capitol were wearing very expensive camouflage gear. Parked on the National Mall were a lot of bright, shiny pickup trucks that had never seen dirt.

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This masking is very dangerous and it worries me, because it erases the people who actually do most of the work in this country, while centering a very narrow, heteronormative view of masculinity. That makes it super easy for all the good-hearted liberals on the coasts to dismiss rural spaces and say, “Well, that’s where the beef comes from; I don’t eat beef.” I think economic interests are tied up in this really old-school heteronormative sense of masculinity, and that plus capitalism equals profit.

Catte: The tendency to blame rural places comes because Appalachia isn’t actually powerful. A state like West Virginia carries just five electoral college votes. The fact is that Appalachia and other rural places tell a story that is very pleasing to capitalism: That some people are willing to die for their work. We’ve always had this pseudo-patriotic notion of sacrifice. It has served the military and now we extend it to police and first responders. But there is also a brutal story happening in rural places, especially with an extractive economy.

About two years ago, there was a resurgence in Appalachia of a particularly aggressive form of black lung disease. Reporters would interview people suffering and ask, “Knowing what you know now, would you still go and work in a coal mine?” They wanted people to say yes. And people often did say yes because that work gave them the chance to provide for their families. What they never ask these individuals is, “If you could live in a world where coal didn’t exist, would you want to live in that world?”

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In this country, we seem to have a morbid need to find examples of people who happily sacrifice themselves for work. And, of course, the lives that are most valued in this country are those of White men. The magic of these two forces meeting creates a very powerful story.

CNN: During the inauguration, President Joe Biden called for national unity. From where you’re both sitting, how likely is unity? What might make it more possible?

Hampton: Part of how you create that unity is by unifying an activist, voting force that’s larger than the plurality of active White supremacists in this country. We need to increase participation of the vast majority of people in the country who, polls tell us, do not agree with what happened at the Capitol.

Leah Hampton's "F*ckface" explores the diverse Appalachian people and their threatened landscape.

Practically speaking, we need to make sure the census is properly counted and make sure that rural progressive organizations are funded and have grant access. In terms of enfranchisement, we need to pass voting rights bills on the national and state levels. We need to grant less attention to the grievances of White supremacists and instead dispel the myths that those grievances have any basis in reality.

Catte: The idea that we can flip a switch and be unified is absolutely ridiculous. That work is hard. We need a reorientation of perspective that helps us to see through the expeditious narratives that are so often sold to us. We need people with large platforms to do more active listening and examine the power systems. Consider what workers are trying to tell you, versus what the bosses are trying to tell you.

I keep plugging this idea: We need to bring back the Federal Writers’ Project. We can’t move forward as a country if we’re seeing people as stereotypes; but reversing that requires actively calling upon people to change their perspectives. Just as it did in the 1930s, a Federal Writers’ Project could help Americans to understand the country that we are living in, in all its terrible but also its beautiful iterations and forms.

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