November 20, 2020   7 mins

It’s one of the unexamined oddnesses of American life that “Hollywood” should be synonymous with liberalism – if not socialism – in so many people’s minds. Hollywood types certainly talk in nice liberal platitudes. Joan Didion captured the peculiar airiness of Left Coast politics in her essay Good Intentions: “The public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth”. That was 1970. Plus ça change, huh?

But they protest too much, these Hollywood liberals. In terms of end-product, Hollywood is the propaganda factory of American conservatism. Periodically, some opinionator will complain that the right-wing point of view is censored, barred, banned in popular culture today — perhaps pointing to some (largely market-driven) decision to cast a non-white lead in a superhero franchise, or some bit of awards ceremony handwringing. The counter-evidence would be: Fast & Furious 9, Toy Story 4, Avengers: Endgame, The Star Wars saga, Die Hard, Rocky I-V, Wonder Woman, Working Girl. Every western, every war movie, every film in which a determined individual rises above a mediocre/corrupt/unbelieving collective to impose their will upon their fate — usually with some homilies about the importance of family, an insistence on absolute Truth, and a bit of ultra-violence along the way.

Ron Howard’s adaptation of JD Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy — streaming on Netflix from Tuesday — is quintessential. It’s the sentimental tale of a bright kid from a bad town who lifts himself, by his bootstraps, no less, to personal success. In her role as “Mamaw”, the foul-mouthed heart-of-gold Appalachian matriarch, Glenn Close even commits to wearing bad teeth — which means she is now seen as a dead cert for an Oscar nod. In fact, the only thing that distinguishes Hillbilly Elegy from basic Hollywood fare, other than its off-the-charts Ron Howardian mawkishness, is that its source material is explicit in its conservatism. For the real-life Vance is a proud representative of the white working class, who once described Donald Trump’s message as “an oasis in the desert” for his people.

Back in the 1960s, Vance’s hillbilly grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw), became internal immigrants, moving 100 miles from rural Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, in search of work at the Armco steelworks. Even when work was plentiful, violence, alcoholism and a general cussedness were features of daily life. When the jobs disappeared in the 1970s and 80s, poverty, drugs and despair were added to the mix. But one child believed… and Vance made it out, first becoming a Marine, then a Yale Law School graduate, then a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, then a bestselling author at 31.

Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t mention Trump — but the timing was apt. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Vance was presented as a sentinel of not only the hillbillies (whom he describes as his people; quite specifically Scots-Irish farmers who settled in the Appalachians), but also the white working class en masse.

“You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading JD Vance,” wrote Rod Dreher in an interview that crashed the American Conservative website. “His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.”

So Hillbilly Elegy became a set text for modern conservatives, the book that — as a commenter on the Times website recently put it — “explains exactly why Trump was needed and is still needed”. Vance toured the news channels as a sort of thinking person’s deplorable and helped reframe identity politics for the only minority in America (as Mamaw had taught him) whom it was socially acceptable to insult. And for liberals, back in 2016, reading Hillbilly Elegy became an act of imaginative penance.

The book is deeply moving. Vance writes with clarity and empathy and captures, as few are able, the experience of family dysfunction from the perspective of a child. You cannot help but root for him — and wince at the bloody noses and black eyes, the Pepsi that his mother put in his bottle from nine months, the dim comments from the privileged people he meets when he finally breaks into those elite coastal enclaves. Hell of a family, the Vances. Mamaw literally set fire to her husband as a punishment for falling asleep drunk on the sofa — and she was the stable one. Vance’s father abandoned the family to become a Christian fundamentalist; 15 stepfathers came and went. When JD was 11, his drug-dependent mother (Amy Adams in the movie) lost her temper while driving and floored the accelerator, threatening to kill them both. When the case eventually arrives before a family court, JD looks around and realises that all the other families look like his.

The scene is presented a little differently in the film, but in the book it’s where the personal becomes political. “They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T-shirts. Their hair was a bit frizzy. And it was the first time I noticed ‘TV accents’ — the neutral accent that so many news anchors had, the social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected to it were not.”

But having written about the litany of failures in education, healthcare, the labour market, the justice system and wider American culture, Vance makes a fairly unconvincing turn. I read hoping to find out what lies beyond terms like “white trash”; Vance seemed to be saying to me — yeah, we are kind of trash. The fact that Vance is honest about his conflicted feelings doesn’t really help to iron them out. He sets great store by “hillbilly justice” (i.e. pointing guns at family members) — which “never failed me”. But he also wonders. If family honour is so important in his community, why are domestic abuse and family breakdown so rampant? If hillbillies are so hardworking, why do we give up on good jobs and moan about the economy on Facebook? And despite his purported pride in his people, he proves deeply resentful when any of his peers receive any crumbs of his success.

It would be inaccurate to characterise Vance as a cheerleader for Trump. He’s actually smarter than that. In his interview with Dreher, Vance warned — prophetically — that while Trumpism offered a cheap thrill, the man himself offered nothing to treat the root causes of American despair. He’s the OxyContin of Presidents. At best, he made people understand that their pain was economic as much as cultural. But Vance’s real disappointment with Trump — “the tragedy of his presidency” — is that he encouraged white working class voters to blame others for their problems.

The book turns out to be rather more old-fashioned: a diatribe against what Vance terms “learned helplessness”. Its broadsides at “welfare queens” have been mainstream in American politics since at least the Nixon era (when they were commonly directed against African-Americans). And its celebration of individual uplift is pure Hollywood. If he could change one thing about his community, Vance says, it’s the feeling people have that their choices don’t matter. They do — I am living proof of that, he says. “These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, only we can fix them.”

Well, sure. We all need to feel that our choices matter. But the fact that Vance only made it out by the skin of his teeth — and hillbilly VCs remain a rare breed — suggests that merely exhorting the people of Middletown, Ohio, to make better choices isn’t going to do much. As his book makes clear, a poor kid only needs to make a handful of bad choices to fail and 100 good choices to become a success. The opposite is true for rich kids: three of four decent choices all-but guarantee success; you need to continually mess up to truly mess up.

Instead of questioning the nature of those choices, Vance doubles down on those who made bad choices. That is, who lack his combination of intelligence; a hard-as-nails Mamaw; Amy Chua — the actual Tiger Mom of legend — stepping in as his mentor; and so on. Luck in other words. You need luck. Can’t we do better than luck?

The part that conservatives often quote with a triumphal “YOU SEE?” is where Vance dismisses naive attempts to improve his people’s lot through education — despite the fact that education provided his own route out. “As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, ‘They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.’”

But that’s not the end of the conversation. It’s the beginning. OK, so what can be done to improve parenting? Infrastructure investment, job creation, paid parental leave, basic healthcare, nutrition programs, wage protection, income support? The sort of protections that American politicians have systematically dismantled over the last 40 years or so? Might be worth a try? And maybe a problem like the opioid epidemic was created by governments and corporations. This isn’t to deny the agency of Vance’s mother, who fell prey to heroin-addiction. It’s merely to admit that fixing it might involve more than just telling people to make less trashy choices. It may not turn wolves into lambs. But it might save a lot of kids unnecessary pain.

The message I took from the book was rather darker than the one that Vance purports to offer. What he seemed to be saying is: these people neither want nor deserve your sympathy or your help. And what a comforting message that must be for those who have outsourced jobs, dismantled social security and widened the economic divide over the years. And there’s a further implication too. These opiate-ridden post-industrial communities may hate big city liberals; but not nearly as much as they hate Billy down the road, who cheats on his food stamps; or Marcie next door, who has five kids by five different fathers; or Duane who pulled his gun on his wife in the restaurant.

It’s hopelessness internalised. Easy to stir up if you’re a cynical enough politician. It’s often forgotten that Tories only really started making in-roads in the “Red Wall” towns not with Brexit but with George Osborne’s “Skivers vs Strivers” speeches circa 2013 which went down a storm in post-industrial British towns.

As for the movie. I suspect conservatives will hate it as it does that thing Didion describes, of pretending irreconcilable political differences don’t exist. Liberals will hate it too as it does  that “sickeningly irresponsible” thing (as one review had it) of asking audiences to sympathise with a conservative. But let’s not pretend its combination of schmaltz and violence, of myth and identity is anything other than purest Hollywood, the absolute mainstream of American culture. It’s the water and we are fish — we don’t even notice it.

Richard Godwin is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics and technology