Hard Times in Trump Country

December 18, 2017

“They should take his phone away from him,” she says. “He posts stupid shit all the time.”

In a series of interviews that stretched over a year, Stewart was ambivalent when pressed about the president’s accomplishments or any promises he might have kept. “I don’t really pay attention,” she says. “I don’t have time to give a shit.”

Since Trump astonished himself and the world on election night last year, observers have scrambled to figure out people like Stewart, Middle America’s “white working class.” Why did they vote as they did? And were they going to do it again?

“Economic anxiety” quickly became the default explanation — which, as some have since pointed out, doesn’t account for the economic anxiety of nonwhites who didn’t vote for Trump or consistent support for the president among whites across class and income. “This is not a working-class coalition,” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote in a detailed analysis of the vote. “It is a nationalist one.” Those who argued that the anxiety was more racial than economic called Trump’s election a “whitelash” and a “temper tantrum.” Others saw it as “political nihilism,” “the revenge of the forgotten class.”

A year into his dysfunctional presidency, Trump hasn’t delivered much — certainly not in the corner of West Virginia where Stewart lives. Her relatives and neighbors worked in the state’s coal mines for generations and are struggling to find work.

Stewart works as a customer service manager at Walmart — though not enough hours to receive benefits or health insurance from her employer. She is raising her 10-year-old autistic son, Wyatt, mostly alone.

Poor and working-class voters are facing only growing uncertainty as their access to health care and public services comes under attack. Their taxes are about to get higher. Black and brown working-class and poor voters face those same threats, plus emboldened racism that has been enabled from the very top, while immigrant communities are being torn apart at even greater rates than before.

Kentucky-born photographer Stacy Kranitz, who has a long history documenting life in Appalachia, visited Jamie Stewart five times over the course of a year, conducting interviews and photographing Stewart as she intersected with relatives, friends, and neighbors. As women descended on Washington to protest Trump’s inauguration and white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Viriginia, and as the president threatened to wage nuclear war on North Korea, and Republicans tried time and again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Stewart’s views offer a glimpse into a community that might think of itself as being far removed from the country’s politics, but in fact, lies at their very core.

Stewart is not your MAGA hat-wearing Trump voter. She put no signs in her yard. Her family, she says, are “union members” and “diehard Democrats.” She prefers the “Today” show to Fox News — “They do a lot of nice things for people and stuff. I like to see the good in the world not the bad.” She thinks the border wall is stupid and marijuana should be legalized.

Stewart voted for Obama in 2008 and thinks he “wasn’t a horrible president.” She didn’t like Obamacare, but she loved Obama’s relationship with first lady Michelle. “They love each other and you don’t see that much.” She doesn’t remember whether she voted in 2012.

Stewart said she had no illusions, when she voted for Trump, that things would get better. “Trump came in, promised West Virginia bigger and better things,” she said. “Something so bad, you can’t make great overnight.”

Today, she doesn’t regret her decision, nor does she try to justify it or apologize for it. “It just seemed like the best choice,” she says. “Better than Hillary, that’s what everybody was saying, so that’s what we went with. A lot of my family was just like, put anybody in that office other than that bitch.”

“We have the right to vote either way,” she added. “I think that’s what people forget, to respect other people and their decisions, whether they’re right or wrong, whether they work out or not.”

“I don’t want a bunch of backlash online of people calling me just an ignorant, racist, redneck. I’m a quiet, small-town girl.”

Stewart feels much more strongly about the media than she does about the president. “Every little decision, every little thing that’s done in politics that’s released to the public — it’s made a big deal of,” she says. “Even if he does something good, they portray it in a way to make it seem negative against him. Everybody’s against Trump, it seems like.”

Overall, Stewart says she doesn’t have time to keep up with politics. “I just work so much. That’s all I do.”

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