Commentary Upfront Blog

America’s other refugees

Regardless of Trump’s policies, it is important to understand why his words resonate – and to acknowledge that, in many cases, the problems they are bringing to the surface point to people who feel left behind.

HAZARD, KY., IS COAL COUNTRY, AND TRUMP COUNTRY.
DAVID STEPHENSON/AP/FILE
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Needham Street is hardly the most prestigious address in my hometown of Newton, Mass. There is nary a Pottery Barn or Lululemon in sight, and the dirty brown cube of a building that once held Newbury Comics is still dirty and empty after a year.

Yet it is a hive of activity. At one end, there’s a new organic burger restaurant. At the other, plans for a 950-unit apartment complex. In the middle, the steel skeleton of a new outdoor shopping center pokes through the last remainders of the late-March snow.

But driving along this street, passing the occasional Tesla, I wonder what the people of Hindman, Ky. – the subject of this week’s cover story on revitalizing Appalachia – would think of this comparatively modest stretch of suburban Boston.

If the economic opportunity in Hindman matched that of Needham Street, that town would probably be hailed as a model of a new Appalachian spring. The economic vitality that seems like little more than background music here could dramatically reshape lives and communities across many parts of rural America.

So it is perhaps no wonder that those Americans ask, Why not us? I work hard. I give to my community. I pay taxes. Don’t I matter? Does anyone care?

Last November, rural America staged a successful political coup. Donald Trump’s presidential victory had many intertwined causes, but one of the starkest was the upswelling of support across rural Red America.

Those in Hindman and their kindred spirits across Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania are one major reason why Mr. Trump sits in the White House.

Since that election, the United States has had a wrenching conversation about refugees and “America first.”

Around Newton, there are yard signs in English, Spanish, and Arabic saying that all are welcome. And “America first” can sound like a veiled threat in a neighborhood where the elementary school multicultural festival is standing room only and only three of the kids in my daughter’s fourth-grade class come from homes with two native English-speakers.

In Hindman and other parts of rural America, however, “closed” signs and shuttered buildings send a different message. They say that America has its own kind of refugee – refugees from a coal industry in decline, refugees from manufacturing jobs cut because of automation or overseas competition, refugees from an economy that once produced far more well-paying jobs and financial security for blue-collar workers. Refugees who might be inclined to say, What about us? Who might be inclined to hear “America first” and hear something completely different.

So far, there is little to suggest the Trump administration is offering solutions for places like Hindman. And Zack Colman, in his cover story, examines how corners of Appalachia are finding some measure of prosperity by taking the initiative themselves – not waiting for Washington.

But regardless of Trump’s policies, it is important to understand why his words resonate – and to acknowledge that, in many cases, the problems they are bringing to the surface point to people who feel left behind.

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