Tribune Of Poor White People: An Interview with J. D. Vance, Author of “Hillbilly Elegy”

“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis” is an American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths.

Interestingly, both in my conversations with poor blacks and whites, there’s a recognition of the role of better choices in addressing these problems.  The refusal to talk about individual agency is in some ways a consequence of a very detached elite, one too afraid to judge and consequently too handicapped to really understand.  At the same time, poor people don’t like to be judged, and a little bit of recognition that life has been unfair to them goes a long way.  Since Hillbilly Elegy came out, I’ve gotten so many messages along the lines of: “Thank you for being sympathetic but also honest.”

 

I wrote last week about the new nonfiction book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, the Yale Law School graduate who grew up in the poverty and chaos of an Appalachian clan. The book is an American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. With the possible exception of Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, for Americans who care about politics and the future of our country, Hillbilly Elegy is the most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance. His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.

This interview I just did with Vance in two parts (the final question I asked after Trump’s convention speech) shows why.

RD: A friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy” tells me why. Explain it to people who haven’t yet read your book.

J.D. VANCE: The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time.  Donald Trump at least tries.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, 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.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on.  And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades.  From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below).  Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth.  Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis.  More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.

Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

The last point I’ll make about Trump is this: these people, his voters, are proud.  A big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia, and the Scots-Irish honor culture is alive and well.  We were taught to raise our fists to anyone who insulted our mother.  I probably got in a half dozen fights when I was six years old.  Unsurprisingly, southern, rural whites enlist in the military at a disproportionate rate.  Can you imagine the humiliation these people feel at the successive failures of Bush/Obama foreign policy?  My military service is the thing I’m most proud of, but when I think of everything happening in the Middle East, I can’t help but tell myself: I wish we would have achieved some sort of lasting victory.  No one touched that subject before Trump, especially not in the Republican Party.

I’m not a hillbilly, nor do I descend from hillbilly stock, strictly speaking. But I do come from poor rural white people in the South. I have spent most of my life and career living among professional class urbanite, most of them on the East Coast, and the barely-banked contempt they — the professional-class whites, I mean — have for poor white people is visceral, and obvious to me. Yet it is invisible to them. Why is that? And what does it have to do with our politics today? 

I know exactly what you mean.  My grandma (Mamaw) recognized this instinctively.  She said that most people were probably prejudiced, but they had to be secretive about it.  “We”–meaning hillbillies–“are the only group of people you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon.”  During my final year at Yale Law, I took a small class with a professor I really admired (and still do).  I was the only veteran in the class, and when this came up somehow in conversation, a young woman looked at me and said, “I can’t believe you were in the Marines.  You just seem so nice.  I thought that people in the military had to act a certain way.”  It was incredibly insulting, and it was my first real introduction to the idea that this institution that was so important among my neighbors was looked down upon in such a personal way. To this lady, to be in the military meant that you had to be some sort of barbarian.  I bit my tongue, but it’s one of those comments I’ll never forget.

The “why” is really difficult, but I have a few thoughts.  The first is that humans appear to have some need to look down on someone; there’s just a basic tribalistic impulse in all of us.  And if you’re an elite white professional, working class whites are an easy target: you don’t have to feel guilty for being a racist or a xenophobe.  By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe.  So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.

A lot of it is pure disconnect–many elites just don’t know a member of the white working class. A professor once told me that Yale Law shouldn’t accept students who attended state universities for their undergraduate studies.  (A bit of background: Yale Law takes well over half of its student body from very elite private schools.)  “We don’t do remedial education here,” he said.  Keep in mind that this guy was very progressive and cared a lot about income inequality and opportunity.  But he just didn’t realize that for a kid like me, Ohio State was my only chance–the one opportunity I had to do well in a good school.  If you removed that path from my life, there was nothing else to give me a shot at Yale.  When I explained that to him, he was actually really receptive.  He may have even changed his mind.

What does it mean for our politics?  To me, this condescension is a big part of Trump’s appeal.  He’s the one politician who actively fights elite sensibilities, whether they’re good or bad.  I remember when Hillary Clinton casually talked about putting coal miners out of work, or when Obama years ago discussed working class whites clinging to their guns and religion.  Each time someone talks like this, I’m reminded of Mamaw’s feeling that hillbillies are the one group you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon.  The people back home carry that condescension like a badge of honor, but it also hurts, and they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders.  If nothing else, Trump does that.

This is where, to me, there’s a lot of ignorance around “Teflon Don.”  No one seems to understand why conventional blunders do nothing to Trump.  But in a lot of ways, what elites see as blunders people back home see as someone who–finally–conducts themselves in a relatable way.  He shoots from the hip; he’s not constantly afraid of offending someone; he’ll get angry about politics; he’ll call someone a liar or a fraud.  This is how a lot of people in the white working class actually talk about politics, and even many elites recognize how refreshing and entertaining it can be!  So it’s not really a blunder as much as it is a rich, privileged Wharton grad connecting to people back home through style and tone.  Viewed like this, all the talk about “political correctness” isn’t about any specific substantive point, as much as it is a way of expanding the scope of acceptable behavior.  People don’t want to believe they have to speak like Obama or Clinton to participate meaningfully in politics, because most of us don’t speak like Obama or Clinton.

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