FRANKFORT – House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s audacious appointment of a committee to investigate Republican Gov. Matt Bevin for being too hard-nosed with Democratic legislators showed the desperation of Democrats to run against Bevin.
Stumbo and crew are throwing whatever lifelines they can think of, in an election where Donald Trump seems likely to create an electoral wave that will give Republicans control of the House – and Bevin a mostly clear path to enacting historic policy changes.
The stats-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight.com say Trump has a 98.8 percent chance of carrying Kentucky, making it his seventh strongest state, and there’s anecdotal evidence that he will bring to the polls many Kentuckians who haven’t voted before, or in a long time. The News-Enterprise in Elizabethtown reported heavy voter registration and changes in party affiliation in Hardin County as Monday’s deadline approached. It’s safe to say that few are acting because they like Hillary Clinton.
But why is Donald Trump so popular in Kentucky?
First, elected Republicans have largely accepted his hostile takeover of their party, turning a blind eye to his outrageous behavior and suppressing some of their longtime principles such as free trade in hopes of regaining power. The recent letter from 30 former Republican members of Congress, including former Rep. Geoff Davis of Northern Kentucky, labeling Trump “manifestly unqualified” and his candidacy disgraceful, will matter little to voters who take their cues from those in office.
Trump has yet to articulate a coherent position on many issues, but his simple solutions to complex problems – make Mexico pay for a wall, renegotiate trade deals, end crime and violence, and “give you everything” – are enough for voters fed up with government, the Clintons and other elites. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 93 percent of Trump supporters said they didn’t think their interests are represented in Washington. The number in Kentucky is surely similar.
As in many elections, issues matter a lot less than attitude and cultural affinity. Trump is a New York billionaire but speaks in simple terms that appeal to voters who haven’t been to college. Only 22 percent of Kentuckians have four-year degrees, 47th in the nation, and the lower-ranked states are also strong Trump states. To be sure, Trump has many educated supporters, but he does better with the lesser educated.
While education level seems to be a major indicator of voters’ choice in presidential polls, in Kentucky it’s probably more about our dominant culture.
Trump is the candidate of Greater Appalachia, one of the major historical-cultural regions defined by journalist Colin Woodard in his 2012 book, American Nations. It stretches from southwestern Pennsylvania to the eastern border counties of New Mexico, but only Kentucky has all its counties in the region.
We are mainly descended from “settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England and the Scottish lowlands … a culture formed in a state of near-constant danger and upheaval, characterized by a warrior ethic and a commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty,” Woodard wrote. “Intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike, Greater Appalachia has shifted alliances depending on who appeared to be the greatest threat to their freedom. It was with the Union in the Civil War. Since Reconstruction, and especially since the upheavals of the 1960s, it has joined with Deep South to counter federal overrides of local preference.”
This is a male-dominated culture. In a poll in March, 18 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in Kentucky said a woman wasn’t capable of being an effective president and commander-in-chief. The number was 28 percent among men and 9 percent among women.
The popular interpreter of the truly Appalachian segment of this culture this year is J.D. Vance, whose book Hillbilly Elegy traces his recent upbringing in southern Ohio by grandparents from Breathitt County and a drug-addled mother. He understands why his people like Trump.
“A big part of it is the way that he conducts himself. He is relatable in a way that you might talk about politics around the dinner table,” Vance said on PBS NewsHour last week. “There’s also a sense that people just feel ignored by the political class. They feel like their communities have really been struggling in a lot of different ways for 20 or 30 years and nobody’s really cared, and Trump is the first person to at least see these communities, even if you think as I do that he doesn’t have all the solutions.”
No analysis of Trump’s appeal in Kentucky would be complete without a look at the “basket of deplorables” that Clinton said a month ago holds half of Trump’s voters, “to just be grossly generalistic … the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it.”
Racism was apparent in exit polls on Obama and Clinton in Kentucky’s 2008 primary, which indicated that about 15 percent of the electorate cast a racist vote. And a poll last year showed a majority of Kentuckians disagreed with the Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage.
PBS’s Judy Woodruff asked Vance if Clinton’s remark was off base, or on point. “It’s probably both,” the Yale Law School graduate replied. “There is definitely an element of Donald Trump’s support that has its basis in racism or xenophobia, but a lot of these folks are just really hard-working people who are struggling in really important ways.”
These are the high-school graduates who no longer have enough education to get a good-paying job in a globalized economy. They are the coal miners, most of them now laid off, who once voted reliably Democratic but now see Democrats as their enemies. They are the small-town folks who see their values increasingly dissed by popular culture. Trump is not one of them, but he is their tribune.
Al Cross, former C-J political writer, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.