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Appalachia as America: How hillbillies helped Trump shake politics

Understanding each other

In an interview with the Monitor, J.D. Vance, author of 'Hillbilly Elegy,' talks about why 'his' people – overlooked and dismissed – have struck back against the political establishment. 

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    An image of presidential candidate Donald Trump is displayed at dusk on a billboard of a business in Bluefield, W.Va.
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    J.D. Vance's book 'Hillbilly Elegy' provides a vivid tour of Middletown, Ohio, which was hit hard by a steelmaking company's decline, as well as his family's home eastern Kentucky.
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This presidential election needs J.D. Vance, it would seem.

Technically, the New York Times bestselling author’s book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” is about Appalachia and the “desperate sadness” that has gripped the working class whites whose grandparents poured the steel that built the nation, but who have since seen their livelihoods diminished by technology and global trade.

But in that tale is a story for the nation, too.

This election, with the Trump phenomenon pointing to a deeper rebellion among white voters, Appalachia offers an important portrait of America.

Today, there are more whites in deep poverty than any other group, with some 4.2 million children living in “extreme poverty neighborhoods.” Working-class whites are also the most pessimistic of any American subgroup, to the point where 42 percent say they’re doing worse than their parents – in other words, they’re living the opposite of the American dream, according to the Pew Economic Mobility Project.

They feel in decline, because decline is all around them. Yet what has really crushed spirits is what Mr. Vance sees as a shattered sense of community – the diminution of the church in a culture that already goes to church less than most people think; the loss of anchor industries to a global workforce; the appeal of drugs and drink to soothe mental and physical hardship.

Vance has seen America from both sides – as a Kentucky “hillbilly” turned United States Marine and as a graduate of Yale Law and a 30-something San Francisco financier. And he sees in “his” people a group that appears forgotten and ignored by the coastal liberal elite.

J.D. Vance's book 'Hillbilly Elegy' provides a vivid tour of Middletown, Ohio, which was hit hard by a steelmaking company's decline, as well as his family's home eastern Kentucky. HarperCollins Publishers/AP

“Hillbilly Elegy” is “a book about being invisible,” writes syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., likening it to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” It is “a compelling and compassionate portrait of a people politicians seldom address and media seldom reflect.”

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“They love Trump because he sees them,” Mr. Pitts adds.

Vance spoke to the Monitor about his unique view on a unique moment in American politics. 

“Over the long-term, if we want to live in a country less characterized by the divisions we’ve seen in 2016, we have to better integrate these people not just into the economy but in the broader culture,” he says. “That starts when you actually care about these people enough to think about ways to help them.”

The following questions are paraphrased, and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Why does Trump’s anti-immigration stance resonate in places like your Appalachian Kentucky hometown that see relatively little immigration?

There is a perception that lower-skilled immigrants compete with lower-skilled whites for jobs, and that perception isn’t totally false. At the same time, it’s more a specter … than something they see personally in their own lives.

But what’s probably more relevant, and which affects conversations among friends and family, is a sense that basically different sets of rules apply to different people. Part of it comes from not knowing many immigrants or recognizing that they’re by and large incredibly good people who just want to earn a decent wage. But what they sense is that elites look down on us but they don’t look down on this other group even though they’re violating the law.

An underappreciated part of this election cycle is the fear that some groups of people are playing by different sets of rules – maybe your neighbors, maybe immigrants, political elites, the wealthy and powerful. When I got into Yale Law School, somebody asked me, “Did you pretend to be a liberal?” It’s actually so ingrained in people’s minds that unless you pretend to be part of another crowd the gatekeepers are going to keep you out. It’s a very real feeling.

Q: You write about the failures of the Democratic Party to protect the working class, but you also take on conservative figures who have promulgated what you call in your book “a kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers.” How is this reflected in the campaign?

It’s relatively easy to reduce a lot of these people’s fears and frustrations into a single issue or a couple of issues. But it’s a lot more complicated. It strikes me that there needs to be a level of introspection and self-reflection in my own community for problems to get better. And it’s not just behavior that needs to change, but the way that politics itself is conducted: Is it fundamentally being conducted in a constructive way or is it being conducted in a way that focuses on and is critical of things that maybe actually don’t have a lot to do with the problem? In other words, I don’t think Trump’s calls to build a Mexican wall would have a whole lot of salience among this group of people if they accepted the nature of the problem.

Q: The book paints a vivid portrait of a “crazy hillbilly” family where meanness, loyalty, and love combusted at times to produce situations that could go from “zero to 100 in one second,” as one of your relatives explained. One walking contradiction is your fireplug of a grandmother, Mawmaw, who spews invectives like a Marine Corps drill sergeant. You write that she was part radical conservative, part European-style social democrat. Your book goes a long way toward breaking down stereotypes. Why is it important to see people as they really are versus the stereotypes? And how important is the ability to express oneself without fear of reprisal?

You don’t really know someone unless they feel comfortable sounding like an idiot around you. Seventy-five percent of what my grandma said was thoughtful, 25 percent of it was simplistic. But that’s how people actually feel, not perfectly formulated. That’s one of the things that appeals to people about Trump. It’s not pure filtered political wisdom. It’s a combination of really astute personal observations and really ridiculous personal feelings that don’t make any sense. But that’s how actual conversations proceed when you’re among friends and people you care about.

Q: You write a lot about your own cultural and political frustrations, including, as a teenage grocery store cashier, resenting the fact that people would game the food stamp system. How can we create systems that help those who need it but don’t breed resentment?

People see the mother who maybe needs addiction treatment instead of legal punishment, but doesn’t get it, and then there’s the guy buying a T-bone steak with food stamps when you can’t even afford that. It’s a recognition that life is really complex, and policymakers should keep in mind that they way they administer certain programs can create either trust or resentment, because you see the people who need it and those abusing it. And if you live in these hillbilly communities, you can’t help but see both.

Q: Your grandparents were pioneers on the Hillbilly Highway, Route 23, that led out of the mountains to jobs in places like Middletown, Ohio, the home of Armco Steel. But much of the generation that you write about in your book has taken a different path. Talk about that.

My grandparents and members of their generation were very willing to move for opportunity, but data today tell us that we’re much less mobile now than we were 20 or 30 years ago. Part of it is definitely a reluctance to move to new opportunities. But it’s a story complicated by the fact that moving isn’t always a great thing, especially for those left behind when the brain drain sends the talent to Atlanta or Denver and those who are left are people really struggling to get by.

It’s true that these areas would be better off if folks were moving to new opportunities. It’s also probably the case that the volume of new opportunities is less than what it was for my grandparents.

After all, in the 1940s, multiple industrial firms were so desperate for people that they were recruiting in Kentucky and offering to bring whole families north. Today, it’s probably a lot more expensive to train workers for new opportunities in advanced manufacturing. It’s a different skill set than working in a coal mine or steel mill, and I wonder if we’ve quite figured out how to actually train people in a way that makes them attractive employees. We haven’t done a fantastic job with … this middle area of skilled labor.

Hopefully, the lesson from 2016, when the dust clears, is a recognition that our politics can’t continue as usual, because if it does these problems only get worse. My worry is that the Republican Party settles into the role of opposition and the Democratic Party settles into the role of governing successfully, and there’s no recognition that something has to change. If that happens, then in 2020 and 2024 we’ll probably get an even scarier version of what we have in 2016.

[The politics of detachment] actually speaks to the way people lose faith in government and in programs. My people, they’re not pro- or anti-wealthy as an ideological matter. They think government should help those who need it and not the people who don’t need it.”

Q: Critics have said you place too much blame for white working class pessimism on your own people. But you also clearly love and respect them, and your book goes a long way toward breaking down stereotypes of the American hillbilly. How do you think others can help?

It’s definitely the story of the election. The tendency of people whose lives are going well to ignore this huge chunk of the population whose lives are not going well has been bubbling for going on 20 years, and it finally sort of exploded in 2016. It’s exploded in a lot of different ways. From my corner of the world, there are a lot of social anxieties about how things are going, and then there are protests in our various urban centers around police violence. [Their complaints have] been facts of life for a long time. But if you ignore frustration for too long it finds its outlet.

I’m not sure if there is a really easy policy shift. I think it really comes down to a broader cultural recognition that we don’t know many people from the other side of the proverbial tracks, which has to change, or we’re going to continue to have this really tribalistic rhetoric that we have right now.

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