Kermit, West Virginia, is a four-hour drive from here. It’s a community of less than 400 in Mingo County. In 2016, Mingo voted for Donald Trump by a nearly 80-point margin over Hillary Clinton. It is, as the saying goes, deep red.
A week ago Friday, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren showed up at the Kermit fire station, where she addressed the opiod crisis, which is blazing a trail of death and destruction across a good bit of the country, especially in places like Mingo County, West Virginia, and Fayette and Greene counties, Pennsylvania. She has a plan to put a stop to it.
Some 150 people were on hand for the non-partisan discussion. Nearby, local Donald Trump supporters organized a protest rally, which really seems stupid. A protest rally against a serious proposal to end the scourge of prescription drug addiction?
Of course, the protesters had Warren in their crosshairs. The president of the United States, in typical high-minded fashion, calls the Massachusetts senator “Pocohantis.” It’s Trump’s way of mocking her claim to Indian kinship.
By all accounts, Warren did well in Kermit. It was a rare sighting: I bet there hasn’t been a Democrat running for president in Mingo County since Jack Kennedy in 1960.
As one of those in attendance told Zak Hudok of CBS News, “Nobody stops here.”
With her advisers apprehensive about the reception she would receive, Warren went ahead anyway. Afterward, she told a reporter for Politico, “A lot of people told me, ‘You’re in the reddest of red here.’” But, she added, “I like it here.”
Good for her. She came, she spoke, and even if she didn’t conquer, she’s showing other Democrats why it’s important to visit regions of the country - like Appalachia - that her party has largely written off as lost to Republicans and the gun lobby and the anti-abortion movement and racial and coal politics.
“I believe in an America that works not just for those at the top but for everyone else also, and that’s why I’m here,” Warren told the gathering in Kermit.
“She’s a good ol’ country girl like anyone else,” said LeeAnn Blankenship, 38, of Warren, who grew up in rural Oklahoma. “She earned where she is, it wasn’t given to her. I respect that.”
LeeAnn, who voted for Trump in 2016, told Politico reporter Alex Thompson that she just might support Warren in 2020.
For far too long, Democrats have snubbed voters like LeeAnn Blankenship and places like Tug Valley West Virginia (where Kermit is located) and Mon Valley Pennsylvania. The coastal-based Democratic party, with its most conspicuous outposts in Hollywood and Manhattan, has been absent without leave in locales throughout the Rust Belt, up and down Appalachia, and in the countryside and small towns of the Midwest.
Liberalism’s absence and Democratic neglect of these communities helped create the toxic mix that brought about the rise of President Trump, who remains, as Roger Cohen has written, “the savvy messenger of a groundswell.”
Trump was borne aloft and has been kept aloft by the anger and raging discontent of people who feel, Cohen argues “like nobodies”, whose “very language has been anesthetized by all-knowing elites more at home in global capitals than in the provinces of their own country.” Cohen believes that even more profound than “inequality of wealth” as a driver of resentment is “inequality of recognition.”
For sure, the disappearance of middle income jobs, the hollowing out of towns and even whole regions, and the astounding growth in the wealth gap are real problems; dangerous ones, in fact.
The first two are reflected in the opioid crisis, the rising number of white female suicides, and the decline of life expectancy in the rural reaches of the country.
The second takes a variety of forms, from the college admissions scandal and the cascade of money corrupting Congress and the broader political culture to the collapse of upward mobility: in America anyone can climb the ladder of success. Well, not any more.
But Cohen’s crisis of exclusion maybe counts the most.
“Democracy,” writes Marilynne Robinson in Harper’s, “assumes (people) have the wisdom to govern the nation. They are not valued sufficiently to sustain democracy ... (if) their expectations and hopes can be lowered by fiat.”
“The basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people,” Robinson said, on another occasion.
“Nobody stops here,” uttered the man at the Warren fire hall event.
Maybe the reason Democrats running for president don’t come any more to precincts outside of Pittsburgh is they can’t stand us. Or they are convinced we are immaterial to their electoral success.
I’m almost to the point of declaring that the first Democratic wanna-be who does show up has my vote. But I’m not betting on any of them. Except maybe Elizabeth Warren.
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.