Need an explanation for Donald Trump’s rise? Look no further, many pundits are saying, than a popular new book, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir chronicling the author’s journey from a struggling childhood in Appalachia to earning a degree at an Ivy League law school.
“What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are,” Vance told an interviewer, “and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns — we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.”
The problem, Vance says: Neither Democrats nor Republicans have offered much to help such people out.
What to make of Vance’s book? How should Democrats and Republicans respond? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.
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Liberals have some amends to make.
We haven’t always been kind to the people Vance affectionately calls “hillbillies,” and when we’ve used that word, there’s generally been little affection. Vance complains that Democrats offer his folks “smug condescension” — and he’s not entirely wrong: President Obama famously suggested rural whites “cling to their guns and religion,” and Hillary Clinton’s recent “basket of deplorables” statement seemed to confirm the problem.
But if there’s been a breakup between the once-solidly Democratic white working class and the Democratic Party, it’s been a two-way street — one that Vance, it seems, takes pains to avoid acknowledging. Why don’t these folks like Obama much? According to Vance, it has its roots in the president’s Ivy League education.
“He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor – which, of course, he is,” Vance writes of the president. “Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent — clean, perfect, neutral — is foreign; his credentials so impressive that they’re frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing the modern American meritocracy was built for him.”
You know who else that paragraph describes: Franklin D. Roosevelt, a rich, Ivy League-educated New Yorker with a patrician accent to end all patrician accents – and also, according to Vance, a hero to his underclass family. What’s the difference? Race is unavoidably part of the estrangement between Democrats and the white underclass.
Vance also says his people don’t want “handouts,” but the truth is that government is critical to his own rise in the meritocracy. He first escaped his roots by joining the Marines – which calls to mind how government jobs, like those at the post office, have been a ticket to the middle class for many black families. At Yale Law, he received need-based financial aid.
The choice isn’t between handouts or hard work. Vance used both to rise above his station. Let’s hope that path is available to others who would try to follow.
Trump’s name appears nowhere in Vance’s book. But to read the 31-year-old Vance’s memoir is to understand better why the billionaire real-estate mogul has won the hearts (and likely votes) of millions of American sons and daughters of the soil.
Without question, white working-class voters have suffered under the past two presidential administrations. While Hillary dismisses many of them as “irredeemable” — racist, sexist and the usual litany of offenses against left-wing pieties — Trump speaks to them like no other politician in recent memory.
Globalization and the great recession helped hollow out the economy, driving out good businesses and solid blue-collar jobs and replacing them with pawnshops and cash-for-gold establishments, welfare and food stamps, drug addiction and suicide.
And beyond that? The story Vance tells is largely one of self-inflicted wounds.
“We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake,” he writes. “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness.”
Vance doesn’t profess have any profound answers.
“But,” he writes, “I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”
The answer, in part, boils down to keeping families intact and fostering a culture that values education, perseverance and hard work. Vance grew up without his mother and father. What he had instead were a tough “Mawmaw” and “Pawpaw,” who were often quick-tempered and violent but who also helped set him on the right path.
A president is neither a “Mawmaw” nor a “Pawpaw,” which is why placing too much hope in the upcoming election is folly.
Not that Trump could fix any of the problems afflicting the white working class. And besides, the “hillbilly vote” is far too small to propel Trump into the White House.
But Trump seems to understand their plight better than the Democrats do. They aren’t “deplorable.” They’re just desperate.
Joel Mathis is an award-winning writer in Kansas. Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness. Reach them at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.facebook.com/benandjoel.