It is a popular belief that the white working class is responsible for the election of Donald Trump, and that their vote constituted a sociological backlash—a “whitelash” as CNN commentator Van Jones called it—against the coastal elite. Although many Trump deniers are venting their frustration through marches, and searching their souls for a way to hate the new president without either hating or validating the people who voted for him, some have sought corrective reading, whether as hair shirts of genuine penance, or as medicine — however much like crow it must taste.
Fortunately, several books have emerged over the past ten years that have defined the identities and values the Trump campaign so successfully rallied. The most recent and popular is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis (2016), the autobiography of an American man who grew up in Appalachia and the Rust Belt and went on to become a Yale Law School graduate. Vance’s story has become a touchstone for class awareness in the Trump Era. Since being published in June, it has become a #1 New York Times bestseller, and has catapulted its author into the role of cultural spokesperson.
Mercatornet has recently published a review of Hillbilly Elegy, which emphasizes the role of family and spirituality in the success or failure of its individuals. While the review ties the book to the Trump movement, it also recognizes the coincidental timing of its publication. Hillbilly Elegy is a brief and highly personal memoir, and likely was not written to address the heaviest questions that its author has been made to answer. While it sheds some light on the challenges faced by a segment of the American white working class, there are books that tell us much more about these challenges, and how they might have made their communities so influential in the last election. Furthermore Hillbilly Elegy might even provide an excuse for the white working class and liberal elites to continue living in their respective bubbles, and not to address the cultural issues that divided America long before Trump’s election brought them nose to nose.
Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams (2005) outlined the challenges the children of working-class parents face in seeking to join the middle class, and paints a picture of upward mobility in America much more turbulent than the American Dream might suggest. Foremost a collection of anecdotes, Limbo gauges the culture shock of class emigration, illustrating how values and behaviour fundamental to blue-collar life draw scorn in white-collar circles. One story tells of an aspiring academic who knew he would never achieve tenure after he opted for an American draft beer rather than wine among his faculty colleagues. When one of his would-be peers sneeringly asked if he needed a glass for his drink, the class climber doubled down and drank it from straight from the can. Another account is from the daughter of a manual labourer who felt so ashamed of her “desk job” that she atoned for it by hitting the gym harder and harder, eventually becoming so muscular she repulsed her white-collar colleagues. These accounts are heartbreaking, but not as readily comprehensible to outsiders as Vance’s story of addiction, violence, and poverty.
The most authoritative commentary on America’s current class divisions is probably Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 (2013), which looked at the widening financial and sociocultural disparity between working-class whites and the gentrified tiers of society by which American whiteness is much better known. Murray splits white America in two—into white collar Belmont and blue-collar Fishtown—and shows through powerful statistical data how Belmont has thriven while Fishtown has become impoverished. In well-to-do Belmont the marriage rate stabilized in the 1980s and stayed at 83 percent, while in Fishtown the rate has continued in freefall, and stood at just 48 percent of adults in 2010.
Though much more scholastic than Lubrano and Vance, Coming Apart is more tragic. The dissolution of family, education, faith and respectability reveal a widening and potentially unbridgeable gap between America’s upper and lower tiers. Murray has commented on the election of Donald Trump, and recently spoke with Evan Solomon on Ottawa talk radio CFRA . Despite the staid tone of his written work, he was direct in assigning blame, pointing to a lovefest between liberal elites and minority groups, at the expense of the white working-class communities whose traditional self-interest has been ignored and vilified as prejudice and bigoted.
Hillbilly Elegy was published in 2016, but not before another book which offered a sweeping investigation of the socioeconomic legacy Vance’s ancestors inherited. Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America is a historical study which begins with white slavery in the 17th century, and follows white underclasses into the present day. Among Isenberg’s emphases are the Scots-Irish, the eventual “hillbilly” stock, who came to America as an itinerant class of labourers. The comparable experiences of certain pockets of white and black populations in American history is, for example, what makes John Henry a working-class hero and not only an African-American one.
As the work of a serious historian, Isenberg’s framework is too wide and dispassionate to compete with the raw perspectives of Lubrano, Vance, and even Murray, but it shows how longa split has existed —from the beginning, in fact— between the upper and lower classes of white America.
When Hillbilly Elegy appeared last June the Trump movement was well underway and had created a maelstrom of punditry. Vance’s story was sucked into this vortex and the author appeared on American network television to discuss the campaign, even though Hillbilly Elegy makes no mention of Donald Trump and is far more concerned with one family’s struggles than with identity politics or prescriptions.
Although Hillbilly Elegy has been received as the sociological angstskrieg of the typical Trump voter, much of the book’s demographic framework is contemplated and moved past in the first nine pages, where Vance identifies himself as a descendant of Scots-Irish labourers, and distinguishes their stock from the standard American WASP. “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,” he writes. “I call them neighbors, friends, and family” (3). However bold a declaration of solidarity this might seem, it never grows to threaten the book’s palatability for liberal audiences, nor does it jeopardize the pathos of the communities he describes. Justly or not, it has become required reading for those who claim not to understand the Trump phenomenon, particularly among liberal elites. It even appears prominently on top of Oprah Winfrey’s stack of must-reads in her latest Weight Watchers commercial.
A sanitised white working class?
It is an important criticism of Hillbilly Elegy – and its success ‑ that the white working class portrayed there seems just rinsed enough of the stigmas liberals have ascribed to the culture to qualify it for the status of victimhood. By this measure it misses the opportunity to establish any new forms of understanding, and class divisions remains unbridged. There is drug abuse, violence, divorce, indolence, and poverty, but political tribalism is avoided in Hillbilly Elegy, and neither Vance nor his Mamaw has anything against gays or illegal immigrants. Although the author served with the Marines in Iraq, radical Islamic terror is a non-issue. Anger towards urban blue states, and even Obama, is framed as scapegoating.
While Vance’s memoir indeed portrays some recklessly outspoken people, they seem either to lack or to have overcome the specific prejudices and bigotry for which this cultural group has long been disparaged, and which would no doubt pose dealbreakers for the middle class sympathies the book has won. As for spirituality, Vance admits to having benefited from evangelical Christianity as a youth, but also declares he abandoned faith once he began to question its theology (99).
The real question that remains after reading these books is whether liberal elites will ever come to view the white working-class cultural identity as anything but a slopbucket full of prejudice and phobias. As a challenge to identity politics, the tension pulls back the curtains on the stewards themselves.
Bruce Bawer’s Victims Revolution (2012) argues that the American civil rights movement foundered when many of the things minority groups marched to overcome instead became enshrined in their cultural identities. They clung to what made them different, however unhealthy those differences were. The white working class, in their search for cultural recognition, faces a similar dilemma—how best to tell their values from their dissatisfaction with the status quo, or, in other words, how to tell the baby from the bathwater. The only difference for them is that their arbiters, who are the same colour as they are, will not acknowledge a difference.
There are few solutions in Hillbilly Elegy, much less easy ones. Vance’s attitude to where he grew up and its people staggers unsteadily among affection, pity, and condemnation. His advice, implicit from start to finish, is to get out. An elegy is a lament, after all.
What makes the memoir a better bellwether than a touchstone is how readers respond to it, which will depend almost entirely on their own class upbringing. In Coming Apart, Charles Murray presented readers with a questionnaire, “How Thick is Your Bubble?” which gauges their detachment from working-class experiences and populations. The test, which can be found online, would likely also predict whether a reader is at all shocked by the dysfunctional experiences described in Hillbilly Elegy, and whether he or she sympathizes with Vance’s positions.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com/