FIGHTING Mad ... at Somebody

"Hillbilly Elegy" examines rural Appalachian life but doesn't explain Trump's election


When J.D. Vance’s uncle was a child he was kicked out of a drugstore after playing with a toy. The manager who expelled him was concerned the toy might be broken.

When his parents arrived, they threw one of the toys against the wall, slammed another into the ground and started smashing other merchandise. They demanded to know why their child was kicked out of the store.  

Vance’s grandmother screamed for his grandfather to assault the manager. His grandfather leaned into the manager’s face and told him, “If you say another word to my son, I will break your fucking neck.” The manager apologized and the grandparents “continued with their Christmas shopping as if nothing had happened.”

J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis offers a view into the lives of working class, working poor and just plain poor white families who live in the cities and towns of the Appalachian Mountains.

Vance realizes his grandparents did not react like a normal middle-class family. He explains, “That’s what Scots-Irish Appalachians do when people mess with your kid.” His grandparents were “like everyone else in our family, they could go from zero to murderous in a heartbeat.”

Many readers have sought out Elegy to understand the rising popularity and eventual presidential victory of Donald J. Trump. Published in 2016, the book spent 29 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and was the top seller for three weeks.

In 2004 former U.S. Senator James Webb wrote a book on the Scots-Irish from the Appalachian region called Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. Some reviewers believed the book helped explain George W. Bush's presidential victory in 2004. Its author, Webb wrote that the Scots-Irish represented a “GOP secret weapon.”

But if Webb’s book venerated the fighting spirit and patriotism of the Scots-Irish of Appalachia, Vance’s work offers an unvarnished view into an increasingly dysfunctional part of the country.

Vance was born in Jackson, Kentucky, and moved to Middletown, Ohio.  An average to below average high school student, Vance joined the Marines, served in Iraq and learned to apply discipline in many aspects of his life. After the military, he graduated from Ohio State and earned a law degree at Yale. The book is about his unlikely ascension from a dysfunctional family in Appalachia to a venture capital job in Silicon Valley.

Elegy peels back the silence of those unwilling or unable to talk candidly about the problems of the abject poor and working poor in small town America. He dispels some myths that this community tells themselves and the outside world regarding their shortcomings.

Among the myths are the protestations of hard work. He cites a friend of the family who has never worked yet complains, “It’s impossible for hard working people to get the help they need.” He explains, “People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown” yet many are “completely unaware of their own laziness.”

Drug addiction, alcoholism and physical abuse are rampant; gainful employment and reliable work habits are rare.

Although many have described the book as a defense of conservative working class white folks, Vance doesn’t pull any punches. He writes:

Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents.  Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers…(T)he message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government fault.

Vance describes his experience as a member of an evangelical church which taught the “(t)heological battle lines were drawn, and those on the other side weren’t just wrong about biblical interpretation, they were somehow unchristian.” He says, “I felt like a persecuted minority. I heard more about the gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any particular character that a Christian should aspire to have.”

The most constant presence and beloved person in his life is his grandmother, whom he called “Mamaw.” But while he was a member of the church, he explained, “Mamaw fell from favor because her religious views” did not condemn President Bill Clinton.

This persecution complex causes larger problems as well. Vance explains, "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."

According to Vance, another sign of the victim mentality among non-college educated whites was reflected in a Pew Economic Mobility Project poll, which found that while college educated whites, blacks and Latinos expect their children’s economic prospects will be better than their own, 42 percent, “by far the highest number in the survey,” of non-college educated whites believe the economic prospects of their children will be worse than their own.

Since the publication of Elegy, an economic study was published that provides some justification for these concerns. An interest group promoting the voices of young voters called, “Young Invincibles,” used Federal Reserve data to determine how well millennials (ages 20 to 36) are doing compared to their baby boomer parents.

While Caucasians earn more than their minority peers, they are doing far worse than their parents. The data show that among millennials, Latinos earn nearly 29 percent more than their parents, blacks earn about the same and whites are doing 21 percent worse.

Vance’s use of academic literature about dysfunctional families and the impact they have on intellectual and emotional development of their children is enlightening. He discusses the impact of adverse childhood experiences and how they create abandonment issues, low trust and learned helplessness.

Vance explains that the dysfunction found in hillbilly families is not a race-specific phenomenon. He finds stunning similarities between his environment and that of inner city blacks described in William Julius Wilson’s book, The Truly Disadvantaged.

Wilson explains that when factories of major employers shut down, jobs are lost and property values evaporate.  Working class folks with little savings outside of the equity in their homes lack the resources to move and become trapped in places with little to no employment opportunities.

Interestingly, Wilson’s book chips away at an article of faith among political conservatives. According to the conservative hymnal, people don’t work because there are no jobs; rather, they are discouraged from seeking work because their welfare benefits are too generous. According to this thinking, folks choose to live in decaying communities and abject poverty rather than move to nicer communities or find gainful employment.

Vance also embraces the work of the Heritage Foundation’s Charles Murray, a leading proponent of the overly generous welfare benefits theory. This inconsistency leads to conclude that either Vance learned nothing from Wilson or, as a conservative, felt the need to cover his right flank.

His least compelling argument is his attempt to explain that hillbillies’ dislike for President Obama is not related to race. He explains that hillbillies couldn’t identify with Obama because he didn’t have an accent, which doesn’t make sense - neither Ronald Reagan nor George H.W. Bush spoke with an accent. He also asserts that the Scots-Irish of Appalachia could not identify with a man who had two Ivy League degrees. George W. Bush had degrees from Harvard and Yale.

He is remarkably open about his shortcomings as a husband and genuinely works to change his behavior. The agency he takes in changing his habits and reactions may be the most remarkable part of the book.

The stories Vance tells about his family are fascinating, shocking and sometimes heart-breaking. It is well paced as the reader follows Vance through his setbacks and remarkable achievements.

If a reader is looking for an explanation of Donald Trump’s election, this may not be the book. But Hillbilly Elegy does spin a colorful story and trenchant analysis about the real lives, habits, patriotism and hopes of Scots-Irish peoples in Appalachia, whom the author lovingly calls his fellow “hillbillies.”

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