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Is this an ‘Accident’?: How one-dimensional media portrayals of ‘Trump Country’ hit close to home

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Recently, I picked up our morning copy of The Washington Post to see “Accident, Md.”, my tiny home town, on the dateline. A Post reporter ventured into far western Maryland, so-called “Trump Country” in the heart of Appalachia, to find out how Trump voters feel about the new Administration. On the front page above the fold, some of our hometown’s long-time residents were saying something to the effect of: ‘Things are fine, he’s doing what we want him to do, everyone should just relax.’

I am a scientist and long-time federal employee who came to D.C. to work in the Obama White House on science policy. My “liberal elite” status belies my rural conservative background; I was born in West Virginia and grew up in far western Maryland. Some of my close friends and colleagues have been exchanging messages about our experiences talking with family and friends who supported Trump, as well as our own inability to understand how we became who we are — so removed and estranged from those who were close and shared our upbringing.

One of our friends is a columnist for The Post. She has been writing about similar small towns. When I mentioned I was from Accident, she asked “Was the article accurate? Are the people really like that?”

I answered that it was painful to read this story because it makes our community seem one-dimensional, fearful, xenophobic, out of touch and easily duped by some con man spouting divisive and reassuring cliches.

I also told her that it was equally painful to read the comments from presumably well-educated, progressive and erudite readers, who ridicule those from Accident as dumb, terrified, bigoted hicks who, through their ignorance and their votes, have imperiled our nation. We know these folks. They are not dumb, hateful bigots, or one-dimensional like the story implies. They are caring, giving souls. And I noted there are some progressive-minded locals with different views.

There have been a lot of articles about other Accidents since the election. Books like “Hillbilly Elegy” and “Strangers in their Own Land” have, literally, hit close to home. I’ve previously commented that the folks portrayed are so familiar, like the very ones I grew up around. Then my own home town takes its turn, another article about another town that reinforces opinions on both sides.

People who live in places like Accident like their life and want things to stay the same. Except they don’t like the direction the country is headed and want things to change. 

They don’t mind people who are different. Except they demand to be protected from people who are different from them.

They are critical of those who call them uneducated. Yet they do not seek to be informed.

They criticize those who kneel as they sing of “The home of the brave.” But they voted in a prevaricating bully who convinced them to fear foreigners, fear the unknown, fear…everything.

They blame others for making poor choices and for being lazy. Yet they cast themselves as victims.

It appears that most in Accident — and in similar towns across the American countryside — fail or perhaps choose not to grasp the complexities — or that they are being manipulated and used for the benefit of others and at great cost to our Nation. How do we say this without coming across as elite and demeaning, even as I am certain it is the reality of today’s America? How do we discuss our differences without offending? How do we try to make our point, perhaps inform or enlighten, without condescension? How do we consider other perspectives or become enlightened within our own bubble of certainties? 

And how do we challenge the lies, the attacks and attempts to roll back the principles many of us hold dear? The principles we learned in our youth in a community that now seems alien and counter to what I believe is right. We’ll continue to do our jobs, try to foster dialog, challenge our leaders and take to the streets.

Before I saw the printed version, my daughter had already emailed me the link to the Accident story. She saw this article in Taiwan. So, I tell my family and friends that their words and viewpoints are being read far beyond their mountain home, literally halfway around the world. The whole world is watching, listening and judging.

Frank Schwing is an oceanographer with the federal government and served as a senior science policy advisor in the Obama White House. He has over 130 scientific publications and has spoken extensively to the public and in the media about climate change. Frank and his wife have two grown children and live in Washington, D.C. Although he was raised in Maryland, went to college in South Carolina and Nova Scotia, and lived in California for over 20 years, Frank is foremost a West Virginian. 

Header photo by Jimmy Emerson via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic) License.