What we learned this election

A Trump presidency means more watchdogging – and more listening.


On Tuesday night, Donald Trump claimed the presidency with the support of a wide swath of rural America. Much of his support came from the Rust Belt, which has been abandoned by industry and jobs in recent decades even as its people are fighting to recover from the 2008 financial collapse. He also got a lot of votes across the white, rural American West. When we writers and editors gathered in the High Country News office to watch the results on Election Night, we were, like many, shocked as they came in. But we should have been better prepared than we were. After all, we’ve been covering the struggles of this part of the West for decades.

We failed to fully understand this election because, in the midst of campaign fever, we, like most media, failed to listen to a wide enough variety of people. A solid democracy depends on solid journalism — on curious, articulate reporters who gather facts, seek out and listen to many voices, and work to deliver thoughtful, fact-based stories to the electorate, all in the hopes that folks will make wise decisions. That is very much the role of High Country News, and I’m proud of the work we have done in recent years to tell the stories of deeply under-represented communities of color in the West. We’ve also done some solid coverage of rural angst, including the armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge and the local opposition to the proposed Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. However, as the election drew closer, we neglected the voices of one critical segment of the West — rural white conservatives. 

Donald Trump takes the stage in front of thousands of supporters during a campaign rally in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he went on to win 64 percent the county's vote.
Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

I am personally disappointed in this oversight because these are, in fact, my people. I grew up in a small ranching town, Pinedale, Wyoming, and went to high school in the larger mining town of Rock Springs. One of my grandfathers was a cattle brand inspector. The other was a hunter and trapper, a mechanic, and general hardscrabble entrepreneur. His wife, my maternal grandmother, ran a nursery and greenhouse in the cold high plains, a feat that I now, having tried a garden of my own, find astounding. My father worked on rigs in the oil boom of the 1980s, and more recently in the gas fields, only to be put out of work when the wells dried up. Throughout my family runs a deep mistrust of the federal government and the establishment, the very sentiment that propelled Trump’s campaign. And yet I failed to understand the depth of that sentiment, or its political might. (And that’s not even considering the race and gender questions that this race brought to the fore.) And so, as I consider what will happen next, I have questions. But that’s OK. I’m a journalist. I’m supposed to have questions.

If this election taught me anything, it’s that we’ll need to be asking a lot more of them. Now is the time for robust journalism, and we are up to the task. Many people think of High Country News as an environmental magazine. We are more than that. We tell the stories of the entire American West, which must include not only the region’s natural splendors, but also its resource-based economies and communities; not only Indian Country and ranching communities, but cities and suburbs, too. And not only the human world, but the non-human one — the trout and tanoak, wolf and willow, bear and bristlecone, desert tortoises, muddy salamanders, and even the pesky mosquitoes. We do all this because the American West is one of the last great places where a broad democratic experiment is under way, one that mixes all manner of people and their values with a natural environment whose magnificence is unmatched. We do it because the American West is a great place to break down the barriers between Others. We are the watchdogs of Wallace Stegner’s geography of hope, and we take that job very seriously. You can expect in coming weeks and months ferocious watchdogging of the new administration, which, by all indications, will not prioritize environmental protection or address one of the greatest threats to the planet, and especially our corner of it: climate change. 

But to be good watchdogs, we must be good listeners. And in this election cycle, I ask myself whether we have done as much listening as we could. What, I ask, are we missing? As with much of the media, we are playing catch-up. But in all fairness, High Country News is playing less catch-up than most. Much of our on-the-ground political coverage added nuance to a confusing election cycle.

We’ll need even more of that kind of reporting going forward. Our job now is to understand what a Trump administration means for the West. Will it actually mean more jobs for the angry electorate that brought Trump to power? Will communities of color suffer vitriolic attacks and further divisions of race and class? Will environmental protections be cast aside in favor of unfettered extraction on our public lands? To stay on top of all this, we are going to have to work very, very hard — and to pay close attention to every corner of the West. That includes you, our readers, and your neighbors. We’re listening. 

Brian Calvert is the managing editor of High Country News.

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