[Originally published in 2017 except for the last paragraph]
The arc of history sounds a bit pompous, but an ignorance of it is far-reaching in its consequences. When the Scotch-Irish hit the American shore, they did not cluster in the cities but rather bowled through the Cumberland Gap on their way to Appalachia. Colin Woodard labels Greater Appalachia a swath of American extending from upper New York state to East Texas. It is among these folks that Trump gets a huge amount of support.
How have these people been characterized? Fiercely independent is one common epithet. I would say a “screw you” attitude. A good deal of internecine violence occurs, distinguishing them from the culture of the Deep South. The two cultures must be differentiated, though it is a bit hard to do so. Both cultures have spread into the rest of American culture, the latter culture acquiring the tag, “The Southernization of American Culture”. The culture of Appalachia, trucks and NASCAR, pervades entertainment. I think that sometimes, when writers refer to the Southernization of American culture, they really mean this Appalachian culture they associate with Tennessee and Kentucky, West Virginia, the Ozarks, etc.
Black culture derives more from Southern culture; Appalachians/Scotch-Irish were not big-time slave holders. Their little plots and cabins were not conducive to slave labor. They were poor, too, and slaves were expensive. Most slave lived in small groups of 4-10 and the huge plantations with 50-100 slaves were few though influential. The overlap between Appalachian and Southern culture is extensive and is reflected in Black culture as well. Only in the 20th century did a significant number of Blacks leave the South. Neither the Blacks nor the Whites are anxious to admit this admixture, but it’s obvious. For one thing, it created one of the world’s greatest musical traditions.
So when Trump supporters gripe about immigrants, it is ironic since they were not well received and are still looked down on in so many ways. It must rankle, and it does. Their speech, dress, music, dancing, humor, pastimes, literature, family life, food and drink(ing) are all routinely parodied in the media. Southern culture is, too. But Black culture is celebrated and parodied only by other Blacks. Can you imagine some of the skits on In Living Color being performed on a show directed by Whites? Holy Hell would break loose. In many ways, the Scotch-Irish, in their subsequent reflex as Appalachians, still incur the opprobrium heaped on them at their initial appearance in America as refugees from the Border Lands wars and feuds. Nevertheless, so much of their culture has seeped into American life that we are tempted to portray the typical American as manifesting a tone of that culture. The book, Hillbilly Elegy, portrays the current state of that culture and the hard times it has fallen on. All we need now is self-driving trucks to destroy its subsistence base.
CNN will put on a program about Trump voters Aug. 14. We’ll see how that turns out. The arguments rage: is it economic, lost jobs? Is it cultural, fly-over country striking back? Is it nostalgia, a longing for the fifties? Is it a racist backlash against a two-term president who put the folks in the trailer parks in debt to a Black guy? Is it the decline of a great nation as depicted in Francis Fukuyama’s two-volume work on the inevitable cycles (or nearly inevitable) all civilizations go through? England isn’t what it was in the 18th century, France what it was in the 1600s, Germany what it…… well, it wasn’t even a nation until 1871; but these nations aren’t too shabby now; even Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece have their charms. There is no shame in decline, but we are in no mood for it just now.
Feb. 19, 2020 A quote from Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein paraphrased: after the Republican National Convention in 1964 shouted down resolutions condemning extremism and supporting civil rights, a Texas delegate said that the South had just shoved the Mason-Dixon Line all the way to Canada.