I first glimpsed a rumble of populism at 25 years old when was reading a book about food. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle recounts her journey of moving from Arizona to a farm in southern Appalachia. The chapter “Life In A Red State” perfectly encapsulates the tensions that have been bubbling in the USA for many years that have finally exploded in this election. I have thought a lot about this chapter over the years and especially in the last week. In my opinion Trump is a racist, sexist, xenophobic, nationalist who has consistently shafted honest, hard-working people his entire career. It is also true that there are serious, systemic issues and abuses that we have all been ignoring in this country for too long. Today, my heart is even heavier because I cannot help but feel that we are reaping what we have sown.
At time of writing her book (early 2000’s), farmers in Kingsolver’s town in Southern Appalachia were already feeling that they constantly dealt a losing hand. To make any kind of living, farmers would partner with large food distribution companies, run by Wall Street. Their tidy Excel spreadsheets and forecasts for exponential growth of crop yields had little to no correlation with realities on the ground like droughts, pests, and unpredictable or destructive weather. When farmers are unable to deliver due to these aforementioned factors, they are penalized with revoked contracts or decreased payments. (Farmers already make less than .16 cents on each food dollar.) When the small farms tried to empower themselves by forming small collectives to sell local, certified organic grown produce (certification takes 3 years) directly to supermarkets they would be undermined by large chains reneging on their agreements and buying produce shipped in from large industrial farms in California that were a few dollars cheaper.
Another example: In 2014 Wired Magazine reported on a North Carolina based farmer named Craig Watts who blew the whistle on Purdue for essentially forcing him into raising chickens in conditions that are, “injurious to animals and bad for eaters.” Additionally, Watts was fighting against Perdue’s vertically integrated business model that heaps all the risk on the shoulders of the farmer. These kinds of contract farming agreements have been hugely problematic for many farmers across the country, leaving them in crushing debt, sometimes even homeless, with very little (if any) recourse.
I think there is also a clear parallel here with NAFTA – the neoliberal trade agreement that allowed companies to shutter factories, ship jobs overseas, slash pay and benefits, and renegotiate with unions. Essentially, that deal put profits over people. Entire communities suddenly lost their standard of living with no clear path on how to get back on track. As Kingsolver puts it in her book, “urban-headquartered companies come to the country with a big plan – whether the game is coal, timber, or industrial agriculture – the plan is to take out all the good stuff, ship it to population centers, make a fortune, and leave behind a mess” (Kingsolver: 2008, 210).
The political class in this country that consistently allies with big companies and Wall Street to the detriment of people like Kingsolver’s neighbors and Craig Watts. Certainly, it is also true that a percentage of the people who voted for Trump are bigoted, misogynistic, hateful people, but that far from the whole story. This was also a protest vote and it is wake up call. My wonderful uncle said it best in an email this morning, “As we look ahead, let us move forward with the anger for the America that was betrayed, but with determination to understand why and fill the void. One without the other is insufficient.”