“I am a hill person,” writes J D Vance at the start of his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. “So is much of America’s white working class. And we hill people aren’t doing very well.” In a US election year dominated by Donald Trump’s open appeal to nativism, Vance’s bestselling book has attained the status that every author secretly hopes for. It is the book, the touchstone for a particular debate – in this case, whether deindustrialisation, economic anxiety and inequality are the reasons for Trump’s success, or something darker and dirtier.
Vance grew up in Ohio, a swing state in the US electoral college, but his family’s roots are in Kentucky. The “Great Migration” of the mid-20th century – in which African Americans left the South for urban areas in the Midwest and north – also brought Vance’s maternal grandfather to the Rust Belt with a pregnant teenage wife and a desire to escape the rural poverty of his birth. Even now in Jackson, Kentucky, so many youngsters have rotten teeth from consuming sugary drinks that the condition is known locally as “Mountain Dew mouth”.
“Papaw” ended up at Armco, a steel manufacturer that offered working-class men status, routine and a secure job – which many took for granted, assuming that it would always be there. (Armco survived thanks to a merger with Kawasaki.) Yet the real hero of Vance’s story is “Mamaw”: a hardbitten, swear-word-spitting hillbilly who raises her teenage grandson after her daughter’s prescription-drug addiction spirals out of control. Mamaw is no saint – when Papaw comes home drunk one night after promising to quit drinking, she calmly pours petrol over him and lights a match. (He gets away with only minor injuries.) But she offers stability as Vance’s mother goes through 15 partners. Living with her, the young J D is always on edge. Eventually, Mom is found ranting in a towel on the pavement after going to work high. She goes into rehab.
For Vance, his salvation is first Mamaw’s house, where there is someone to check on his homework and give him the tough-love message that he won’t get anywhere without working for it. Second, there’s the US marine corps. He enlists before college and the military teaches him how to seek health care, how to talk to strangers, and how not to get ripped off by loan sharks. Vance believes that without that structure and training in self-reliance, he wouldn’t have made it through Yale Law School, where so many of his classmates seemed to come from a different world – one where people knew which fork to use and that you needed to wear a suit to a job interview.
For liberals, his book makes uncomfortable reading. Vance disputes the conventional left-wing view that the chaotic lives of hillbillies are primarily a result of failures of government. He wants families to be stronger: the unpredictability of life with his mother and her revolving cast of boyfriends disrupted his teenage years irreparably. After growing up in violent households where disputes often led to screaming, he has nightmares that cast him as the monster, hurting those around him.
Vance also has harsh words for the “learned helplessness” of many of those with whom he grew up, which he sees as an inevitable but stultifying response to feeling that the deck is stacked against you. Trump vindicates these feelings of victimhood and offers a revenge fantasy; as Vance explains, his Kentucky family strongly believed that any insult should be answered with violence. Trump, who lashes out when criticised, seems more authentic than cool, cerebral figures such as Barack Obama.
Ultimately, however, Vance makes an appealing case. Anyone who has argued that politicians should better reflect the people they represent will appreciate his criticism of policymakers who demand that those who look after their nephews, nieces and grandchildren have childcare licences; they are making it harder for hill people to rely on their own extended families. His story is also an unspoken case for universal benefits, because anything that makes the lives of the poor different from those of the rich creates a barrier to upward mobility. (Paying for food with food stamps marks you out; claiming tax credits doesn’t.)
If Trump wins, it will be by appealing to disillusioned white folk such as the hillbillies – the one group, Vance argues, that everyone feels OK about looking down on. “The people back home carry that condescension like a badge of honour, but it also hurts, and they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders,” he told the American Conservative magazine. “If nothing else, Trump does that.”
This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph