Two different people recommended Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance, to me, so I read the book with great interest. I see also that it was chosen by The Times as one of “6 books to help understand Trump’s win”.
Vance describes his early life growing up in Kentucky (he freely admits to coming from a solidly hillbilly background), and then his family moved to the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio. Somehow, against the odds, he made it through a very difficult childhood to go to university, join the marines and eventually become a Yale Law School graduate. Precious few people with his background manage to do this. At primary school, his grades were not good, and he was probably headed for a pretty bleak future, but then things started to turn around for him, thanks largely, and surprisingly, to his gun-toting granny.
However, this book isn’t a “Didn’t I do well” memoir. Vance, in telling us about his upbringing, delves deep into the heart of the Rust Belt and it’s background. Many of those who ended up in Ohio and elsewhere moved there from States to the south, such as Kentucky, in an attempt to escape poverty. For a while they did just that, but then the industries that employed them began a long, slow downturn, companies closed, often because of competition from Asia, and the so-called Rust Belt was the result. Folk who had staunchly voted Democrat for generations looked elsewhere for solutions to their new distressed economic situation, and many of them eventually turned to Donald Trump. Trump appeals to poor whites, and Vance shows why.
The ‘hillbillies’ in question were often descendents from Scots/Irish immigrants. Their communities were fiercely loyal, yet frequently had elements of violence and heavy drinking. More recently, serious drug issues have become commonplace. Vance’s mother was a typical example.
In September, I wrote a post about Interstate, by Julian Sayarer, which covered vaguely similar ground, and which told about blue-collar workers who seem to have lost most of their purpose in life in modern-day USA.
For those of us who look on aghast from a distance at current US politics, it’s important, I feel, to understand the appeal of someone like Trump. Vance’s book certainly helps in this respect. Many Trump supporters have little to lose, and the President’s numerous utterings, which to us often seem so strange, actually make sense to a heartland of poor white voters.
As Vance writes, about such followers of Trump, “We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance. When groups perceive that it’s in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals. It’s obvious why: If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?”
I haven’t visited the States in question myself, but yesterday spoke to a couple who have several times made trips in this area of the US, going from Canada down to the south. They said that away from the bigger cities, the landscape is often beautiful and there is still a decent rural economy. It’s in the towns that there are the most problems.