Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance's memoir of his Appalachian upbringing, is required reading for understanding why Americans rejected Hillary
When J.D. Vance first opened the Word document that eventually became this book, he thought he was writing his long goodbye to the rotting white America that seemed no longer to make history. In fact, he was writing a book that has become an essential guide to Donald Trump’s astonishing election victory. This is a moving memoir about the people Hillary Clinton called “deplorables” and Trump (echoing FDR) called the forgotten man. In decades to come, when politics undergraduates study Trump’s rise, it will feature at the top of the reading list, so crucial is it to understanding why these Americans rejected her.
Vance was born in broken-home poverty in Middletown, Ohio, the son of a violent and abusive clan of hillbilly transplants, gun-toting folk lured in the 1950s from the valleys of rural Kentucky to the steady wages of the factories. Today he is a San Francisco resident and successful venture capitalist, and is seen in Washington as one of conservatism’s brightest young thinkers. But his memoir does much more than trace his steps out of poverty. “The coolest thing on paper I’ve done is attend Yale Law School,” writes Vance. “I’ve written this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me.” This is a clearly written, tightly controlled, but still furious epistle to the Beltway influencer class who can only conceive of poverty in infographics of wage stagnation and inequality rates.
Vance holds up a mirror that reveals the true face of a white America — small-town, rural, uneducated — that swung the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan for Trump. Where Vance grew up, mouths stink of what dentists call “mountain dew”, the deep rot from gallons of sugary drinks. He was nine months old when his mother first started putting Pepsi in his bottle. By the time he was 16 had accumulated 12 step-siblings as his drug-addicted mum shuttled him through half-a-dozen new “dads”. Nobody in the family could make head nor tail of the financing or the forms for him to apply for university, so Vance threw himself into the Marines, with whom he served in Iraq. At Yale Law School he felt more out of place than wealthy foreigners, and the chief value he had been brought up with — “to shoot a gun, and shoot it well” — was despised.
The hero of Vance’s memoir is “a violent non-alcoholic” — his hillbilly grandmother, to whom he manages to cling tightly enough for just long enough to make it successfully through college. “My grandparents embodied one type of American values: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hard-working. My mother, and increasingly the entire neighbourhood, another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.” This is an America that no longer dreams, thinks the system is rigged, and hates Obama. “I regularly hear from acquaintances or distant family members that Obama has ties to Islamic extremists, or is a traitor, or was born in some far-flung corner of the world.”
What is going on? This memoir hammers home one unnerving point. The white working class in the rural hillbilly and rustbelt states of Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and beyond, are not experiencing economic or ethnic “anxiety” to be cooled with a political Panadol. This is much more than a malaise. Tens of millions of white Americans are living in the aftermath of full-scale sociological collapse. Vance believes the decline of industrial America has spiralled into the collapse of every social institution in the rustbelt — from Main Street to the family home — that tied these communities together: “In the 1980s Middletown had a proud, almost idyllic downtown: a bustling shopping centre, restaurants that had operated since World War Two and a few bars where men like my Papaw would gather for a few drinks after the steel mill . . . Middletown today is little more than a relic of American industrial glory. Abandoned shops and broken windows line the heart of downtown.”
Life expectancy is falling in white America, while black and Latino life expectancy is rising despite them being on average much poorer. Working-class whites are now the most pessimistic people in America — even more pessimistic than black or Latino Americans who experience constant prejudice. A white American epidemic of prescription drug abuse and alcoholism is now out of control. “Bad neighbourhoods no longer plague only the inner city,” says Vance. “The bad neighbourhoods have spread to the suburbs.” Incarceration rates for white women are on the rise, white youths are more likely than their peers from other groups to die from drug overdoses, and rates of divorce and domestic chaos have skyrocketed. “Taken together, these statistics reveal a social crisis of historic proportions.”
The collapse of the American factory town has become a collapse of the American family. In France, the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners is 0.5 per cent, in Sweden 2.6 per cent. In the United States the figure is a shocking 8.2 per cent. This is how Vance explains “Mom’s revolving door” of father figures. It is a story from Ohio, but the implosion is very similar to Siberia, where the collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by a collapse of the factory, the family and men’s sense of dignity — a sense of victimhood and hatred of cosmopolitan Moscow elites relentlessly stoked by Vladimir Putin.
Vance’s America has no heroes any more. “There is something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession,” he writes. He laments that his people have nobody to look up to. Failed wars have given America no George S. Patton, or Middletown any returning war heroes. The space programme, long a source of pride, has faded into history along with working-class celebrity astronauts. America’s new heroes looked nothing like Middletown. “Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society.” Until Donald Trump.
Vance loves his people, but is deeply ashamed of them. They have Pillsbury cinnamon rolls for breakfast, Taco Bell for lunch and McDonald’s for dinner. The white working class, he says, are now lazy: “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness.” But these “are the lies we tell ourselves to solve our cognitive dissonance”.
Vance’s people are not the Christians they claim to be in surveys — “In the middle of the Bible Belt actual church attendance is low.” The church, he says, has become deinstitutionalised. “They may watch megachurch broadcasts or join prayer circles on Facebook, but they largely avoid the pews on Sunday.” The white church is “largely missing in action”.
Trump says China, Mexico and Nafta have “bled our country dry”; but Vance has no silver bullet “to Make America Great Again”. His people have to take responsibility for their own lives, one sensible credit plan, evening class and home-cooked meal at a time. It is a moral as much as an economic crisis. “We spend our way to the poorhouse. 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. Thrift is inimical to our being.”
Vance’s politics are very different to Trump’s. For him, Middletown needs austere self-help and moralism. He sees “no solutions”, and warns: “There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and this movement gains adherents by the day. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives encourage a kind of detachment — it’s not your fault you’re a loser. It’s the government’s fault.” This is the movement that has made Trump president.
Trump was one of the first to speak directly to hillbillies, who voted for him in droves. “I am your voice,” he said, over and over again, as he campaigned across Ohio. “I am fighting for everyone who doesn’t have a voice. And I am going to bring back your factories and bring back your jobs.” If the Democrats ever want to return to the White House they will need to study this elegy.