This addition to our series examining different cultural representations of flyover country takes a look at the inspiration behind the series
As Donald Trump rose to political prominence in 2016, Americans searched for someone who could explain his success.
They found that person in JD Vance, a 30-something, softly-spoken graduate of America’s top law school, Yale – exactly the sort of elite insider the populists were rebelling against.
But his breathtaking and eloquent first book, Hillbilly Elegy: a memoir of a life and culture in crisis, just goes to show you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It remains the single best introduction to the poor, white, working-class lives and world views of the people who put Trump in the White House. And it’s told through Vance’s own life story.
Vance was raised in a broken, single-parent household in a declining industrial town in southwestern Ohio. Neither his parents nor his grandparents attended college. Crucially, this family had emigrated from, but remained deeply tied to, rural Appalachia. This, where the hillbillies hail from, is ground zero for fervent Trumpism. It’s what Stoke or Sunderland were for Brexit; Henin-Beaumont for Marine Le Pen. Understand the people who live here, and you understand their political movements.
Appalachians, seen through Vance’s eyes, are a study in contrast. At times militantly self-reliant, at times abjectly fatalistic; they are capable of deep, tribal violence and acts of supreme self-sacrifice and compassion. Above all, Appalacians are proud. They desperately seek to control their own fates even if time and again their poor choices or shortcomings cause them to fail.
Vance has painted vivid portraits of these contradictions and virtues in his mother and grandmother, Mom and Mamaw. Both are very troubled women. Mamaw swears constantly and fights violently with her husband, setting him on fire after he comes home drunk. Mom is unstable, going through husbands (five), boyfriends (numerous), and jobs at a staggering rate while cycling through addictions to painkillers and alcohol.
Yet both are devoted to the betterment of Vance: they encourage him to do well, take him to the library, and help him with his schoolwork. Mamaw is frequently his surrogate mother, giving him a measure of love and stability in a highly unstable family. When she dies, he is devastated.
Vance’s problems are not unusual – this is simply a microcosm of Appalachian life. In Jackson, Kentucky, where his family came from intense family pride and compassion exists side by side with a glorification and practice of violence. The area is so violent that the county Jackson is located in has a nickname: “Bloody Breathitt”. It’s desperately poor and awash with addiction.
Here, troubles are rooted in culture and psyches, but they go hand in hand with the decline of the community. Middletown was once a thriving manufacturing town with one large employer at its heart, Armco Steel. Mamaw and her husband left Kentucky to finally end up working at the Armco plant. Hundreds of thousands of hillbillies did the same thing, leaving towns like Jackson to take factory jobs throughout the American Midwest. But by the 1980s competition with foreign manufacturers had taken its toll on Middletown and similar communities.
Vance’s Middletown is deteriorating, its Main Street businesses boarded up and drug-induced blight spreading. The people who didn’t get out are falling behind, and government-funded community rehabilitation efforts do nothing to stop the decline rooted in the lack of middle-class employment.
Many people think it is this economic decline that is the root cause of Appalachia’s angry populism. Bring back the jobs, they say, and the problems solve themselves. Vance doesn’t entirely dismiss this. He currently co-directs an investment fund, Rise of the Rest, with AOL founder Steve Case which identifies entrepreneurs worth investing in who live in places such as Middletown. But economic failure isn’t the whole story.
There’s a strong moral undercurrent to how things work which outsiders haven’t understood. They are confused by many populist figures’ and parties’ blend of Left and Right: like Donald Trump, many populist figures will simultaneously call for cutting taxes and supporting government-funded welfare programs for the aged, sick, and poor. Like Trump, they can be both traditionally Christian and open to social changes like same-sex marriage. In today’s politics this nuanced ideology can seem like an incoherent hodge podge.
But Vance shows that far from incoherent, this mixture of views inherently flows from working-class experiences. Often being poor or near poor, they value social transfer payments in a way that the better off on the Right rarely do. Yet, working in the private sector economy also gives them an insight into the values of business, often leading them to support deregulation where it doesn’t directly remove protections like workplace safety that they directly benefit from.
They also resent welfare programs that flow to the indolent or the cheat. Vance talks about his first job as a grocery store clerk seeing people game America’s food stamp system to live better without working than he or his family could through work. Vance’s grandmother swears a blue streak about these people but doesn’t oppose the idea of helping the struggling on principle. It’s the idea that people who don’t work support people who do that makes her blood boil. Against this moral backdrop, it’s no surprise that the working-class around the world often resent policies that favour – and often provide more direct financial benefit to – those from whom often nothing is expected in return.
But the failure to find a way out their troubled communities isn’t solely because of economics. It’s also because the young aren’t pushed to do the hard work needed to succeed. Public schools don’t make up for this lack of pressure at home or in the community. And the families simply don’t have the social networking skills or ‘sharp elbows’ that better educated parents provide. Time and again Vance describes things that confuse him, such as his first exposure to college finance forms, shopping for a car loan, or even table etiquette. Without a person or institution that teaches working-class people how to navigate these waters, even the brightest stumble and fail.
Ultimately, the people who make it are those who have been taught to expect more from themselves, to overcome obstacles, and have someone, usually a close family member, to provide direct emotional support when the going gets tough. That’s why public policy that ignores the vital role played by the family is doomed to fail.
Hillbilly Elegy wasn’t written as a guide to global populism. But in its clear depiction of working-class life, it has helped bridge the massive chasm of understanding between political and financial elites and the people fueling populism’s rise.