Kevin D. Williamson’s new book — Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Woolly Wilds of the “Real America” –– came out on November 17.
Over the last decade, Williamson has been a roving correspondent for National Review, the magazine which has been at the cutting edge of American conservatism since it was launched by William F. Buckley in the mid-1950s.
During this time, he has travelled across the United States and reported on an eclectic range of cultural and social developments at the grass-roots level of American society.
He has also established himself as the best conservative writer in the country. Lots of writers cover issues to do with poverty and social or economic breakdown, but nobody does it better than Williamson: an irreverent, iconoclastic libertarian-conservative and Catholic convert who refuses to bow to conventional wisdom spouted by either the Left or the Right.
Big White Ghetto is drawn from some of his best long-form reportage, and its publication comes at a good time for anyone looking to understand what has been going Stateside.
In a similar fashion to what occurred in 2016, the better-than-expected performance by President Donald Trump and his Republican Party in the November elections has people asking questions about what is going on in the country. Reading Big White Ghetto would certainly help them to understand.
Unsurprisingly given the title and Williamson’s own hardscrabble upbringing in West Texas, there is a big focus here on the challenges facing the white working class.
In the opening chapter, the author details his trip to Owsley County, Kentucky, which has long held the distinction of being the poorest county in the US, as measured by income per household.
American poverty is a curious thing. Foreign observers mostly think of this as being a black and minority phenomenon, and one which is concentrated in the inner cities of the major cities.
That is far from being the full story, as rural Appalachia contains many overwhelmingly white communities which are even more disadvantaged.
The shock election in 2016 (and the publication of J.D. Vance’s brilliant Hillbilly Elegy memoir that year) forced people to pay attention to what was happening among this demographic, as part of an attempt to explain why a destitute place like Owsley County would give 83 percent of its votes to candidate Trump.
The problems afflicting low income Americans have not gone away over the last four years. Large rates of alcoholism, opioid addiction and heroin use have meant that life expectancy rates in the US have been falling.
More and more Americans are finding themselves cut off from society and trapped in communities where jobs are scarce and social problems are plenty.
With little to live for, many are turning to political extremists of different stripes.
For people alienated from their neighbours and seeking a cause, the far-left militancy of Antifa or white nationalist groups can be an attractive outlet, and Williamson writes here about his experiences of seeing demonstrations held by such groups up close.
Other lost souls seek companionship in more exotic locations, as shown in the author’s accounts of attending the “Porn Oscars” (the Adult Video News awards) in Las Vegas and a Flat Earth convention in Dallas.
Some of the chapters are not based around first-hand reporting, but instead capture Williamson’s thoughts about current developments in his country.
One of the best chapters is titled “Death of a F_____g Salesman”, where Williamson argues that the appeal of Donald Trump to many voters is similar to the dark charisma exhibited by Alec Baldwin’s brash and vulgar character in the iconic movie, Glengarry Glen Ross.
A generation of young men have looked at Baldwin’s salesman (“You see this watch? That watch cost more than your car”) as a role model to emulate, one who gets what he wants by exalting himself at the expense of those around them. Trump does it, they like to watch him do it, and they would like to act out the same role as well.
One of the most admirable features of Williamson’s work is the refusal to take any simplistic explanations as a given. How he describes the complexity around issues of poverty and dysfunction is a great strength of his writing, even though it is bound to frustrate those whose political beliefs revolve around adopting whatever consensus viewpoint seems most suitable to their pre-existing beliefs.
Examples of his independent thinking abound as he looks at what is happening in the American underclass and asks “‘why”?
The Appalachian poverty he writes about is stark, but the low crime rates there suggest that the commonly-heard leftist explanations for violence in inner-city America are incomplete. Nor is family breakdown the only problem: as Williamson notes, rural Appalachia remains quite conservative in its social mores.
He does not just challenge the beliefs of others: he also challenges his own preconceptions.
Though a committed libertarian who supports the legalisation of drugs and gambling, Williamson includes chapters looking at the adverse consequences of such moves in various parts of the US.
Not all of what he writes is bad news. Interesting chapters are included about the increasing strength of the American energy sector, where working-class Americans can still find well-paid work (the Democratic Party’s hostility to this industry is yet another part of the explanation as to why Trump grew his support base between 2016 and 2020).
He is scathing about the current state of political conservatism, which he believes has degenerated from the traditional Burkean vision (created by 18th-century Anglo-Irish writer, philosopher, and politician Edmund Burke, generally considered the founder of the Anglo-American conservative tradition) which appealed to the intellect, to what is now being offered to the voting public under the brand name of Trumpism.
Nor does he pull any punches when writing of the fecklessness and irresponsibility all around him, where participants in court hearings string together words like “the domestic event that happened” rather than acknowledge when they have done wrong.
Everywhere he looks, people in a post-Christian society are looking for something to believe in. One of the funniest incidents outlined here occurred when he attended an Antifa march in Portland and hung around with a crowd of far-left activists.
When Williamson began to walk away, a group of demonstrators began to follow him, ”pumping their fists and chanting, until they figured out that I wasn’t leading them anywhere…Of course they followed me. They’d follow anything that moves”.
Elsewhere, he recalls how attendees at the Flat Earth gathering were bound together by their shared conversion experience, and that they expressed sorrow when a fellow believer apostatised.
These people want hope and something to belong to. They also want an easy answer to why their lives are not working out — whether that be trade, immigration or a betrayal by the rich and powerful who are in charge.
Typically, Williamson does not go along with this.
“They failed themselves. I know, I was there, and I saw it…Nothing happened. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the absolute incomprehensible malice — of poor white America,” he writes.
Those are hard-hitting words, the sort of words which have gotten Williamson into hot water before.
Given his upbringing, he is well-placed to tell the story. Born to a teenage girl in the early ’70s, then adopted by a couple who quickly divorced before being raised in a violent home, Williamson knows what he is talking about, and does not care if people disagree with him.
The worst journalism reinforces what is being said in the echo chamber.
Kevin D. Williamson’s journalism is that of the open-minded sceptic who asks questions wherever he goes and writes the truth as he sees it.
And nobody writes better than he does.