I consider myself a pretty well-read, open-minded person. I travel; I read; I surround myself with people who are different from me. But every once in a while, a book comes along that shows me a brand new perspective…
I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy a couple of weeks ago for the same reason many of my fellow blue-bubble people did; in an effort to understand how on earth a man like Donald Trump could gain any support at all, much less enough to win the presidency. (I’m still a little ill over it, but I’ve gone on about that enough. For now.)
I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the plight of Appalachia and the rural poor. I’d read a good amount of articles on it, not to mention this fantastic book a couple of years ago. But I hadn’t yet read anything that could make me truly understand what was going on until I read this book.
The summary from Goodreads:
From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.
Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.
Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.
At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.
Most of the time, I’m aware of how good I have it, in terms of privilege. White, straight, Christian, American, able-bodied; the only thing I don’t have going for me is “male”. I was also aware that I was lucky in terms of my upbringing, having come from a stable, loving middle-class home–but I don’t think it fully hit me until reading this book how much of an impact my upbringing had on how I turned out.
The most important lessons I learned from this book:
The impact an unstable childhood has on people cannot be overemphasized. We all love stories of people who “came from nothing”, “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps”, “turned their lives around”, etc. This is actually the story of one such person: the author himself. But what generally doesn’t get enough attention in these stories is for every child who overcomes the odds, there are countless others who don’t. Who fall into the same patterns of substance abuse, of failing to complete their education, of having kids too early, of falling on hard times in terms of employment, that marked their own childhoods.
In his memoir, Vance does an admirable job of showing what could have easily happened to him without the support of his grandparents, because it’s the same fate that befell not only his mother, but other people he knew. This is not a story of “look how far I came”; it’s a story of “look at all these people left behind”.
How does this translate to the election? Like this:
There are people out there who were taught, throughout their entire childhoods, that none of their choices mattered. They were well-behaved kids who did well in school, but then their fathers left anyway, their parents abused them anyway, they went hungry anyway. Being taught over and over that your own circumstances are outside your control leads many to eventually stop trying. So when things don’t go well for them, instead of looking at their own choices and trying to make better decisions, they cast blame: on minorities, on the left, on the government. They don’t see their own choices as a place to look for understanding, because growing up it was drilled into them over and over again that their own choices didn’t matter.
So when a man came along who echoed their sentiments and fears–that everything was the fault of the minorities, of the left, of the government–it’s really no wonder these people, many of whom have fallen on hard times, latched on to his message.
Am I angry at the people for voting someone who is so clearly not the answer to their prayers into office? Of course I am. But at the same time, I have to remind myself of all the things I have that they don’t. I have a stable childhood where I was taught that my choices mattered. I have parents who helped send me to college, and thereby, got me out of my small(ish) town and mindset–which was a way bigger town and mindset than they come from. I have the perspective of having grown up near a city where diversity was celebrated, not feared. I have never lived in a place where jobs are scarce.
These people are white, Christian Americans–just like me. But we could not be more different from one another.
I’m not trying to say with this that I assume every single Trump supporter falls in the same bucket. I know there are those out there who are truly racist and scary (one may even call them “deplorable”), others whom voted on the pro-life issue, others whom found Clinton to be even more flawed than Trump (don’t get me started), and still others who simply stayed loyal to their party. I don’t pretend to know the mind of everyone, or even anyone. But if it is to be believed (and many who know better than I do say it is), this book did a really great job of bringing me into the mindsets of a great deal of Trump’s base.
Do I feel better knowing all of this? A little, because at least I understand it. Does it make me feel better about the next four years? The opposite, in fact. I strongly believe (and I do so hope I’m wrong) that Trump has no idea how to fix the economy, will do virtually nothing to help the people depending upon him, and that once it becomes apparent that their lives will not be getting better under a Trump presidency, these people could become further incensed. They could further misdirect their anger towards minorities. The ranks of white nationalism could swell. (Anger is a great tool for radicalizing people; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised AT ALL if the KKK and Isis turned out to be identical when you pull away the window dressings).
Is this memoir flawed? Of course. Besides the fact that the prose isn’t the most brilliant (but it’s still good, don’t get me wrong, I just have a high standard when it comes to prose), Vance is a little too apologetic of his people. He claims they disliked Obama because he was simply too elite for them to relate to, without mentioning any of the appalling racism that some opponents threw at him throughout his presidency. Racism is barely mentioned in the book at all. I would have definitely liked more insight into that side of things.
So what to do, how to help? I don’t have all the answers yet. Personally, I’m looking to get involved more at the local level when it comes to politics, even though I live in a blue city in a blue state in a blue area of the country. (Case in point; I went to contact my senators and my representative about Bannon’s appointment, and found out they had all already denounced him. Job done.) So short of moving to Appalachia (I don’t want to do that) I don’t know what would be most effective for me, personally, to do.
But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. And neither should you.