Hillbilly Elegy: People Who Look to Trump for Salvation

One of the more eye-opening books I have read recently is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly

Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The book club at my church read and discussed it. Some, like me, read it in the context of trying to wrap our heads around what to many of us was Donald Trump’s unexpected triumph in the 2016 presidential election.

Vance, now a Silicon Valley investment lawyer, began life in rural Kentucky a little over thirty years ago. His childhood family was what one could call a textbook “dysfunctional family”. He shuttles back and forth between his ne’er-do-well mother who is addicted to prescription pain medication and prone to hysteria, and his grandparents – Pawpaw and Mawmaw – plagued by alcoholism, rage, violence . . . and, it must be said, love.

After barely graduating high school, Vance enlists in the Marines, where he begins a life transformation. When he returns to civilian life, Mawmaw provides surprising encouragement for her grandson to continue his education. She feels he can transcend the “dead end” environment and lifestyle that his classmates embrace, thoughtlessly and almost by inertia. From Ohio State University, he proceeds to Yale Law School, where he succeeds despite feeling like a fish out of water. At the dean’s dinner in the first week of his Yale career, for example, he needs to be shown by a fellow student which fork to use first.

But Vance “made it”, despite what he calls “skyscraping odds”.

During his childhood and youth, his family relocated some 100 miles north to Middletown, OH. There the men take jobs at the local steel plant, which was going great guns in the 1950s (though not so much in later decades). With the generous steel industry wages at the time, the family achieves the material comforts of the middle class for the first time. Vance, however, discovers that the family had brought their Appalachian values with them into the suburbs. Some were wonderfully positive, like fierce family loyalty, profound love of country and respect for the military. But others, like a tendency towards verbal abuse and violence as the default method for resolving differences that were inimical to family life.

As he grows in years, Vance lives increasingly in two cultures: the hillbilly culture, for which he has a love-hate relationship, and the new upwardly-mobile worldview of white privilege in New Haven and San Francisco (more about my own white privilege in a future post).

It struck me in reading Vance’s tale that the “hillbilly culture” is not terribly different from that of blue collar working class and former mining communities in northeastern and northwestern Pennsylvania, the “Rust Belt” and poor, former mill towns in the South.  A primary quality of hillbilly culture is what Vance describes as a kind of “learned helplessness”: economic insecurity and poor self-image caused by an inescapable reliance on jobs in the mines, mills, and factories, which of course in recent decades have gone the way of 78 rpm records and manual typewriters. “My friends and relations are convinced that the mainstream media lies unabashedly; that politicians lie; there are no jobs; and the universities are rigged in favor of the city “elites” and against the likes of us.” “What’s the point of trying and making an effort when it’s useless? Nothing can be done to change our lot.” So those around Vance reason understandably.

Until Donald Trump, that is. Vance wrote his book before Trump declared his candidacy for president. But a reader in 2017 feels his presence, nonetheless.

You’ll recall that Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky were in the Trump column this past November. It seems to me that the populations of Appalachia, the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt are easy targets for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” contrivance. Though the private-schooled, Penn-and-Wharton-educated Trump is as “elite” as they come, somehow he has duped Vance’s people and others into looking to him to resurrect the coal mines, for example, and reopen the shuttered factories, make all the vanished blue-collar jobs come back from China, and like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the bursting dike, hold back the inexorable, decades-long swelling tide of globalization and mechanization in the workplace (robots).

False, cynical promises. False, naïve hopes.

Until next time, live each day to the fullest.  JAS

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