What the hell has happened to Trump Country? That vast imaginary region of hate-fueled, white-trash Donald Trump dittoheads – a joint creation of hillbilly-bashing memoirist J.D. Vance, The New York Times, and coastal liberals who need somebody to blame – has been behaving very strangely of late. Kansans electing progressives and raising taxes? Yep. Teachers in West Virginia walking out for two weeks in the first mass strike that America has seen in eons? Uh-huh. Republican governors in deep-red Kentucky, Arizona and Oklahoma being publicly humiliated and forced to pony up billions of dollars for schools, health care and public employees? Believe it. The Resistance is fully underway in Trump Country, and it’s a humdinger – not to mention a serious mind-fuck for people on both the right and the left.
In retrospect, we could have seen it coming. Ever since November 2016, Democrats have been racking up victories in red-state districts where they haven’t even bothered to field candidates for years, with some spectacular turnarounds: In a Kentucky House district where Trump won 72 percent of the vote, for instance, a Democrat won a Republican seat with 68 percent this year. In eight special elections held in Oklahoma, Democrats outperformed Hillary Clinton’s share of the 2016 vote by a whopping average of 32 percent. (In a pair of Kentucky special elections, the spread was even higher.) Something weird was happening here, though nobody much took notice. White people in Trump Country weren’t supposed to be part of any Resistance. This was not part of the script.
But when West Virginia teachers shut down every school in the state and refused to go back to work until every public employee, from sanitation workers to prison guards, got a juicy raise, it became hard to look away – even if cable news was mostly too obsessed with Trump, Trump, Trump to pay much notice. Suddenly, amassed at the state capitol in Charleston, were tens of thousands of “Trump Country” denizens, demanding higher pay for teachers and state workers. It was a spectacle, a sight for sore eyes. “Imagine the world’s largest PTA meeting sprinkled with some dudes with tattoos in camo hats,” reported organizer and journalist Krystal Ball. They taunted billionaire Governor Jim Justice with a most excellent chant (“Tax your friends!”). They lustily cheered their new hero, a progressive populist and military vet named Richard Ojeda who’s running for Congress, as he hollered such apostasies as, “I don’t give a shit about Big Energy!” And they won, big-time.
Nothing creates chaos like a teacher strike. Hundreds of thousands of West Virginia parents suddenly had no free child care during school hours. But for two long weeks, as teachers rejected fig leafs and empty promises from the governor, the parents – conservative, liberal, moderate, Democratic, Republican – continued to raise hell alongside the teachers and public workers. Their elected officials, like those in other red states, had used the Great Recession as an excuse to slash spending on schools and public services while continuing to give massive tax breaks to coal companies. And now, Justice insisted, there was just no money to meet the teachers’ demands. Until, suddenly, after nine days of no school, those funds magically manifested – voila! – and every state employee got a minimum three-percent raise.
Teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado and Arizona took note – and soon launched protests and walkouts of their own. On Monday, after nine days of shutting down most of the state’s schools (also illegally), Oklahoma’s 40,000 teachers went back to work with a $6,100 raise and $500 million in new education funding; that same day, teachers in Colorado began walkouts of their own. Kentucky teachers, infuriated by years of deep cuts to both school funding and public-employee health insurance, have organized two “sickouts” thus far – in the process, driving the state’s Trump-y governor, Matt Bevin, best known for imposing draconian work requirements for Medicaid recipients and decimating state universities, to completely lose his small mind. “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody to watch them,” Bevin sputtered last Friday when the teachers called in sick again. “I guarantee you somewhere today, a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were left alone.” Bevin’s idea of school reform involves arming teachers, not paying them.
Republican governors and lawmakers in all these states have been utterly, and often comically, undone by this wave of strikes. In Arizona, whose woefully paid teachers are voting today and tomorrow on whether to stage a “long-term walkout,” the “Red for Ed” campaign – which began, as all things now do, with a tweet – has brought out hundreds of thousands of protesters in red T-shirts, in right-wing and liberal-leaning places alike, surrounding public schools to demand greater funding. Governor Doug Ducey has done everything his hero Donald Trump might do in such a situation: He’s decried the protests as “political theater,” not to mention a “political circus.” He’s told big lies about the state raising teacher pay – when it’s actually dropped to the lowest in the nation for elementary teachers. He’s personally picked on one of the protest leaders, a 23-year-old music teacher who, according to Ducey, just “wants to play games.” And he’s made big, vague promises about doing better by teachers – to which the teachers and their supporters, which seems to be almost all of Arizona, have responded in unison: “Show us the money.”
So why aren’t liberals out in the streets cheering on the Red State Resistance? Why are these historic protests not lighting up left-wing Twitter and getting scads of airtime on MSNBC? After all, it has been generations, not just decades, since America has seen such a massive wave of labor disruptions. Longtime labor journalist Harold Meyerson had to reach all the way back to 1934, a raucous and bloody year when “there were general strikes in San Francisco and Minneapolis, and wildcats all over the map,” to find an analogy to what’s now going down in so-called Trump Country.
The reason liberals seemingly don’t care is the very same reason these protests are so powerful – the same reason they constitute, as journalist Corey Robin writes, the single “profoundest and deepest attack on the basic assumptions of the governing order” that this country has seen in a very long time. These actions aren’t partisan. They’re not all about electing Democrats. They’re not being organized by national labor groups or Indivisible. They lack the sentimental appeal of the student-led campaign against the National Rifle Association. What they’re protesting – 40 years of austerity politics – lacks sex appeal. And thus far, by and large, this is a rebellion of white middle and working-class people – that irredeemable bunch of morons who wouldn’t abandon the Orange One if he shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, those toothless white trash trailer-dwellers in MAGA hats too strung out on opioids and prejudices to even notice what’s happening to them. The folks who’ve long since been written off by pollsters and pundits and everyone else in liberal America (and conservative America as well) as mindless, Fox-watching reactionaries.
“Perhaps,” suggests Krystal Ball, “it’s time cable-news outlets rethink their one-dimensional story-lines about how citizens have become partisan automatons who just do whatever their team tells them to do.” And perhaps it’s time Democrats wake up to the opportunities they have – not by catering to red-state prejudices, but by offering radically progressive solutions to red-state problems – in the 2018 midterms and beyond. What the Trump Country Resistance is showing is that there was some truth, after all, to the notion that some non-wealthy white people switched from voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 to backing Trump in 2016 because of something other than tribal hatreds and passive, ingrained stupidity. They were sending a message, many of them, as loud and clear as that of the teachers on strike: We’re not buying the same old bullshit anymore, period.
Nobody wants to hear that, though. We much prefer our neat and clean binaries: Republican versus Democrat, Trump versus non-Trump, the enlightened versus the ignorant. Democrats don’t want to be reminded that in states like West Virginia and Oklahoma, it was them – the party that held sway until fairly recently – who began the long and bloody process of gutting social services, cutting taxes for the rich, passing trade agreements that impoverished American workers, and demolishing public education in the 1980s and ’90s. But people in these states remember. They aren’t just imagining that Democrats and Republicans have conspired together to impoverish formerly middle-class Americans and starve the public sector; they goddamn well know it, from hard-earned and bitter experience.
The victorious strikers in Oklahoma and West Virginia are now redirecting their efforts toward unseating tax-cutting conservatives in November. But national Democrats have largely – conspicuously – stayed on the sidelines of the strikes, offering only tepid support, and the party has long been divided between “education reformers” championing school choice and those who embrace the party’s old, full-throated support for public education (and other social programs). More broadly, if Democrats really want to give Trump Republicans the whooping they so richly deserve, they’d better take some cues from these red-state insurrections, and find an answer to what has become the unofficial slogan of the strikes: “We’ll remember in November!”