On Donald Trump, J.D. Vance, and the white working class

Thanks for the opportunity to guest blog here at Concurring Opinions. Though I am a law professor on a law faculty, I plan to spend much of the time and space afforded by this blogging invitation to write more about politics and culture than about “law” in a narrow sense. Indeed, a great deal of my scholarship over the past decade has drawn heavily on politics and culture, and I’ve even had the opportunity to engage in some political punditry post-Election 2016.  I plan to write some posts about rurality, yes, but I’m also going to write a series of posts about low-income, low-education whites, a population with which we as a nation have a newfound fascination following the election of Donald Trump, who drew considerable support from this demographic segment. I hope readers will provide some feedback on these musings, as I am engaged in ongoing, more substantial writing about this population as a critical race project, exploring what is at the particular intersection of white skin privilege with socioeconomic disadvantage and distress.

I’m going to begin with some musings on J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HarperCollins 2016), a book that has been widely reviewed—and nearly as universally praised—since its publication early last summer. If you think you’ve read all you need to know (or all you can stand!) about this bestseller, bear with me.  I’m not going to join the resounding chorus of praise you’ve you already consumed regarding Hillbilly Elegy.  Further, what I find interesting about the book is less its content than the elite, coastal reaction to it. (Yes, fellow law professors, when I say “elite,” I’m talking about us, you and me, along with the media and other privileged institutions of the narrating classes/interest public.)

Let me preface my comments by outing myself as a class migrant and a hillbilly. Vance grew up in Appalachia; I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, both high and/or persistent poverty white regions. I’m a first generation college graduate (and, as a law graduate, a first generation professional), and I’m not sure if Vance also is, given that his mother was a nurse.  Nevertheless, we’ve both migrated from being low-income, low-status whites to being higher status whites, largely by virtue of access to and consumption of a great deal of higher education.

Shortly after Hillbilly Elegy was published, one of my former law professors asked me, only partly tongue in cheek, if I had written the book—then quickly added, maybe “you should have written it.” (This makes for an interesting reminder that I was apparently not class passing very effectively back in law school). You get the idea: my own life story shares many similarities with Vance’s (though I’m two decades older, and upward mobility for po’ folk has declined over the 20 years that separate me from J.D.), sans the elite law degree (my J.D. is from the University of Arkansas, Vance’s from Yale).  This latter distinction may be quite significant in any number of regards, and I hope to return to that point in a subsequent post.

While I have reflected on my own class migration in some law review articles (here and here), I did not reach for the brass ring of a popular press book contract. So, alas, J.D. Vance is a millionaire, best-selling author who appears regularly on television as everyone’s  favorite “white trash ‘splainer” and I continue to toil away in the obscurity of my Ivory Tower.  All of this means, among other things, that if you think I’m too hard on Hillbilly Elegy, you can write it off as sour grapes.

Let me begin, though, by telling you what I liked about Hillbilly Elegy. First and foremost, before I started reading it, I loved the fact that someone had written a book about this milieu—my people, too, I assumed—and that the media outlets I consume (mostly liberal, all elite) were paying attention to it. I sent lots of affirming Tweets, cheering on the new book.  Second, once I finally started reading the book, I found that the memoir parts (as opposed to the social science blurbs and policy suggestions) of the book rang authentic, so much so that I found myself both laughing and crying at the tales of Mamaw and Papaw. I, too, grew up in a family of straight-talking folks who often expressed themselves in colorful language, delivered at high volume, sometimes with guns. Many of the vignettes resonated strongly with me based on my own hillbilly upbringing.

Third, I thought Vance provided an occasional insight into his people, who seem closely akin to “my people.”  For example, Vance talked about their attitudes toward Obama, noting, among other things, that “[h]is accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign; his credentials are so impressive they’re frightening…he conducts himself with the confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was meant for him.” With this passage Vance contrasts the knowledge in his Ohio community—a realization that hit at about the time “Obama came on the scene”—that “the modern American meritocracy was not built for them.” (p. 191).  Ah, yes, meritocracy, shmeritocracy.  Guinier refers to The Tyranny of Meritocracy, a title that speaks volumes.  “Meritocracy” has actually come to be for only a select few, and they are not by and large the children of Appalachia and the Ozarks.  Read more here.

My read is that Vance is opining that the disaffection of the white working class is not so much about race as the mainstream media seem to have concluded. It is more about a growing sense that working class whites’ prospects are declining, and this has happened more dramatically as elites have come to dominate both the Democratic and Republican parties.  I also give Vance credit for calling our attention to white working class distrust of the mainstream media—even before the election made it an undeniable force. Indeed, Vance notes–months before the election of 2016–the significance among hillbillies of Alex Jones and others who perpetuate what we now call “fake news.” (p. 192)

Yet contrary to many reviewers’ opinions, I did not find Hillbilly Elegy especially well written—even acknowledging that it would take extraordinary skill to write about a life permeated by such sensitive and stigmatized matters, e.g., domestic violence, drug abuse, gun toting grandmothers. Nevertheless, a much stronger memoir of a low-income, dysfunctional white family and the author’s escape from it is Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ (1998). A much more compassionate depiction and far more incisive commentary about this milieu can be found in Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (2007). Among tales of class migration, Alfred Lubrano’s Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams (2005) is superb. I don’t recall those books garnering nearly as much media attention as Hillbilly Elegy, but that may be because the one thing Vance got most “right” was his timing.

So why have so many reviewers been complimentary of Vance’s writing? I have two theories. First, reviewers may be surprised that anyone who grew up with so much childhood and adolescent trauma—in Appalachia no less—is capable of writing a solid sentence, let alone a solid paragraph.  (Yes, I’m suggesting a best selling memoir should require more than that).  Alternatively, reviewers may give any graduate of Yale Law School a free pass—that is, Vance may enjoy a presumption that he is a good writer because he earned a law degree at Yale. Vance does in the book’s latter chapters acknowledge the extraordinariness of his elite education and the doors it opens (chapters 12-13).

Hillbilly Elegy is also made less readable by Vance’s distracting practice of peppering policy prescriptions (e.g., food stamps (SNAP) are bad because poor white folks abuse them (p. 139); unregulated payday lending is good because it gives poor folks choices (p. 185)) awkwardly amidst his first-person narrative. Sometimes these are accompanied by social science or other evidence to bolster a point, or to explain the psychology of a phenomenon he has experienced by virtue of his traumatic upbringing. Sarah Jones, writing in the New Republic, called the book mostly “a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” (Indeed, I recently published an essay arguing that our nation increasingly views these two populations similarly, showing no more sympathy (or empathy) for poor whites than for poor blacks.) Even more problematic, to my mind, is Vance’s use of those myths to advance a regressive policy agenda.

In my next post, I’ll return with a more substantive critique of Hillbilly Elegy–and, implicitly, a commentary on the book’s fans.

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1 Response

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Looking forward to the rest of your posts.

    It’s been a while since I read the book, but I recall it as quite well-written. As I recall it, Vance has a knack for describing what he saw and then reflecting on the meaning of it in a direct and earnest way. That’s really hard to pull off, and it manages to both earn the reader’s trust and paint an in-color picture of a world most of his readers haven’t seen.