In April, West Virginia went viral for the wrong reasons when MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle fact checked Justice about a bill he signed to ban transgender students from playing on the sports teams that align with their identity.
“Why would you take your time to do this? Let’s talk about other things that I can give you examples of in your state. According to U.S. News and World Report, West Virginia ranks 45th in education, 47th in health care, 48th in the economy, and 50th in infrastructure,” she said.
Pressed to give a single example of a transgender child trying to game West Virginia’s school sports system in order to have an athletic advantage, as Justice said he was concerned about, the governor couldn’t name one.
“I can tell you that we all know what an absolute advantage boys would have playing against girls,” Justice said on the national TV spot.
Brad Smith acknowledges that the image of the state since Trump’s presidency has been frustrating for someone who is trying to recast it.
“While our politics may have painted us a certain way, I would still say if my car broke down anywhere, I would want it to be in West Virginia,” he said. “That’s the version of West Virginia I want the rest of the world to understand. We’re trying to shine a light on the parts that don’t get a lot of airtime.”
He denies that Ascend is attempting to rebrand West Virginia into some kind of Blue-state replica. But it’s difficult to avoid that conclusion when the first three hand-picked cities eligible for the program are certainly not the stereotypical Trump Country.
Morgantown — a college town that is closer to Pittsburgh than the West Virginia town I grew up in — is in Monongalia County, which had the smallest percent of Trump voters in the 2020 election at 49 percent. Shepherdstown is also a college town, located inside the richest county in the state, and Lewisburg is near The Greenbrier, Justice’s resort where rooms can run up to $600 a night. While a majority of West Virginia voters voted for Trump last year, both Shepherdstown and Lewisburg are in counties with his lowest support.
During my visit, I tried to see my home state as the Ascend program wants its soon-to-arrive transplants to see it. I went whitewater rafting in the New River; I saw the country’s newest national park at the New River Gorge. I camped at Ace Adventure Resort and hiked in Kanawha State Forest. Even driving along the highway, I was dumbfounded that I ever took the scenery, and the feeling of being perpetually tucked inside a grand valley, for granted.
But it seemed impossible to see my state in only that way. For now, to talk about West Virginia to outsiders is to inevitably deal with Trump. During my visit, Trump was everywhere and nowhere. His name was still on red hats and flying alongside confederate flags and “F— Biden” signs on front porches, but he left West Virginia largely unchanged.
In historian and writer Elizabeth Catte’s book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, she writes that places like West Virginia have long been used by the rest of the country as a scapegoat. After all, West Virginia alone did not elect Trump. Neither did only blue-collar workers. Catte’s book came out before Ascend was an idea, but she speaks to the heart of West Virginians’ concerns about it.
“Defining Appalachian culture is often a top-down process, in which individuals with power or capital tell us who or what we are,” she writes.
Catte writes that Appalachia’s struggle with that “otherness” label from the rest of America started with the War on Poverty and the creation of the well-intentioned Appalachian Regional Commission.