Culture

What Hillbilly Elegy Reveals About Trump and America

Trump signs at a rally in Westchester, Pa., in April. (Dominick Reuter/Reuters)
A harrowing portrait of the plight of the white working class

J. D. Vance’s new book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis couldn’t have been better timed. For the past year, as Donald Trump has defied political gravity to seize the Republican nomination and transform American politics, those who are repelled by Trump have been accused of insensitivity to the concerns of the white working class.

For Trump skeptics, this charge seems to come from left field, and I use that term advisedly. By declaring that a particular class and race has been “ignored” or “neglected,” the Right (or better “right”) has taken a momentous step in the Left’s direction. With the ease of a thrown switch, people once considered conservative have embraced the kind of interest-group politics they only yesterday rejected as a matter of principle. It was the Democrats who urged specific payoffs, er, policies to aid this or that constituency. Conservatives wanted government to withdraw from the redistribution and favor-conferring business to the greatest possible degree. If this was imperfectly achieved, it was still the goal — because it was just. Using government to benefit some groups comes at the expense of all. While not inevitably corrupt, the whole transactional nature of the business does easily tend toward corruption.

Conservatives and Republicans understood, or seemed to, that in many cases, when government confers a benefit on one party, say sugar producers, in the form of a tariff on imported sugar, there’s a problem of concentrated benefits (sugar producers get a windfall) and dispersed costs (everyone pays more for sugar, but only a bit more, so they never complain).

In the realm of race, sex, and class, the pandering to groups goes beyond bad economics and government waste — and even beyond the injustice of fleecing those who work to support those who choose not to — and into the dangerous territory of pitting Americans against one another. Democrats have mastered the art of sowing discord to reap votes.

Now they have company in the Trumpites. Like Democrats who encourage their target constituencies to nurse grievances against “greedy” corporations, banks, Republicans, and government for their problems, Trump now encourages his voters to blame Mexicans, the Chinese, a “rigged system,” or stupid leaders for theirs.

The problems of the white working class should concern every public-spirited American not because they’ve been forgotten or taken for granted — even those terms strike a false note for me — but because they are fellow Americans. How would one adjust public policy to benefit the white working class and not blacks, Hispanics, and others? How would that work? And who would shamelessly support policies based on tribal or regional loyalties and not the general welfare?

As someone who has written — perhaps to the point of dull repetition — about the necessity for Republicans to focus less on entrepreneurs (as important as they are) and more on wage earners; as someone who has stressed the need for family-focused tax reform; as someone who has advocated education innovations that would reach beyond the traditional college customers and make education and training easier to obtain for struggling Americans; as someone who trumpeted the Reformicon proposals developed by a group of conservative intellectuals affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute and the Ethics and Public Policy Center; and finally, as someone who has shouted herself hoarse about the key role that family disintegration plays in many of our most pressing national problems, I cannot quite believe that I stand accused of indifference to the white working class.

I said that Hillbilly Elegy could not have been better timed, and yes, that’s in part because it paints a picture of Americans who are certainly a key Trump constituency. Though the name Donald Trump is never mentioned, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that the people who populate this book would be enthusiastic Trumpites.

But the book is far deeper than an explanation of the Trump phenomenon (which it doesn’t, by the way, claim to be). It’s a harrowing portrait of much that has gone wrong in America over the past two generations. It’s Charles Murray’s “Fishtown” told in the first person.

The community into which Vance was born — working-class whites from Kentucky (though transplanted to Ohio) — is more given over to drug abuse, welfare dependency, indifference to work, and utter hopelessness than statistics can fully convey. Vance’s mother was an addict who discarded husbands and boyfriends like Dixie cups, dragging her two children through endless screaming matches, bone-chilling threats, thrown plates and worse violence, and dizzying disorder. Every lapse was followed by abject apologies — and then the pattern repeated. His father gave him up for adoption (though that story is complicated), and social services would have removed him from his family entirely if he had not lied to a judge to avoid being parted from his grandmother, who provided the only stable presence in his life.

Vance writes of his family and friends: “Nearly every person you will read about is deeply flawed. Some have tried to murder other people, and a few were successful. Some have abused their children, physically or emotionally.” His grandmother, the most vivid character in his tale (and, despite everything, a heroine) is as foul-mouthed as Tony Soprano and nearly as dangerous. She was the sort of woman who threatened to shoot strangers who placed a foot on her porch and meant it.

Vance was battered and bruised by this rough start, but a combination of intellectual gifts — after a stint in the Marines he sailed through Ohio State in two years and then graduated from Yale Law — and the steady love of his grandparents helped him to leapfrog into America’s elite. This book is a memoir but also contains the sharp and unsentimental insights of a born sociologist.

As André Malraux said to Whittaker Chambers under very different circumstances in 1952: “You have not come back from Hell with empty hands.”

The troubles Vance depicts among the white working class, or at least that portion he calls “hillbillies,” are quite familiar to those who’ve followed the pathologies of the black poor, or Native Americans living on reservations. Disorganized family lives, multiple romantic partners, domestic violence and abuse, loose attachment to work, and drug and alcohol abuse. Children suffer from “Mountain Dew” mouth — severe tooth decay and loss because parents give their children, sometimes even infants with bottles, sugary sodas and fail to teach proper dental hygiene.

“People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown [Ohio],” Vance writes. “You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than 20 hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.” He worked in a floor-tile warehouse and witnessed the sort of shirking that is commonplace.

One guy, I’ll call him Bob, joined the tile warehouse just a few months before I did. Bob was 19 with a pregnant girlfriend. The manager kindly offered the girlfriend a clerical position answering phones. Both of them were terrible workers. The girlfriend missed about every third day of work and never gave advance notice. Though warned to change her habits repeatedly, the girlfriend lasted no more than a few months. Bob missed work about once a week, and he was chronically late. On top of that, he often took three or four daily bathroom breaks, each over half an hour. . . . 

Eventually, Bob . . . was fired. When it happened, he lashed out at his manager: ‘How could you do this to me? Don’t you know I’ve a pregnant girlfriend?’ And he was not alone. . . . A young man with every reason to work . . . carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him.

The addiction, domestic violence, poverty, and ill health that plague these communities might be salved to some degree by active and vibrant churches. But as Vance notes, the attachment to church, like the attachment to work, is severely frayed. People say they are Christians. They even tell pollsters they attend church weekly. But “in the middle of the Bible belt, active church attendance is actually quite low.” After years of alcoholism, Vance’s biological father did join a serious church, and while Vance was skeptical about the church’s theology, he notes that membership did transform his father from a wastrel into a responsible father and husband to his new family.

Teenaged Vance did a stint as a check-out clerk at a supermarket and kept his social-scientist eye peeled:

I also learned how people gamed the welfare system. They’d buy two dozen packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with the food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash. They’d regularly go through the checkout line speaking on their cell phones. I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about. . . . 

Perhaps if the schools were better, they would offer children from struggling families the leg up they so desperately need? Vance is unconvinced. The schools he attended were adequate, if not good, he recalls. But there were many times in his early life when his home was so chaotic — when he was kept awake all night by terrifying fights between his mother and her latest live-in boyfriend, for example — that he could not concentrate in school at all. For a while, he and his older sister lived by themselves while his mother underwent a stint in rehab. They concealed this embarrassing situation as best they could. But they were children. Alone. A teacher at his Ohio high school summed up the expectations imposed on teachers this way: “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”

Hillbilly Elegy is an honest look at the dysfunction that afflicts too many working-class Americans. But despite the foregoing, it isn’t an indictment. Vance loves his family and admires some of its strengths. Among these are fierce patriotism, loyalty, and toughness. But even regarding patriotism (his grandmother’s “two gods” were Jesus Christ and the United States of America), this former Marine strikes a melancholy note. His family and community have lost their heroes.

We loved the military but had no George S. Patton figure in the modern army. . . . The space program, long a source of pride, had gone the way of the dodo, and with it the celebrity astronauts. Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. 

Conspiracy theories abound in Appalachia. People do not believe anything the press reports: “We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs.”

Conspiracy theories abound in Appalachia.

Sound familiar? The white working class has followed the black underclass and Native Americans not just into family disintegration, addiction, and other pathologies, but also perhaps into the most important self-sabotage of all, the crippling delusion that they cannot improve their lot by their own effort.

This is where the rise of Trump becomes both understandable and deeply destructive. He ratifies every conspiracy theory in circulation and adds news ones. He encourages the tribal grievances of the white working class and promises that salvation will come — not through their own agency and sensible government reforms — but only through his head-knocking leadership. He calls this greatness, but it’s the exact reverse. A great people does not turn to a strongman.

The American character has been corrupted by multiple generations of government dependency and the loss of bourgeois virtues like self-control, delayed gratification, family stability, thrift, and industriousness. 

Vance has risen out of chaos to the heights of stability, success, and happiness. He is fundamentally optimistic about the chances for the nation to do the same. Whether his optimism is justified or not is unknowable, but his brilliant book is a signal flashing danger.

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