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J.D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America

The bestselling author of "Hillbilly Elegy" has emerged as the liberal media's favorite white trash–splainer. But he is offering all the wrong lessons.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

J.D. Vance is the man of the hour, maybe the year. His memoir Hillbilly Elegy is a New York Times bestseller, acclaimed for its colorful and at times moving account of life in a dysfunctional clan of eastern Kentucky natives. It has received positive reviews across the board, with the Times calling it “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass.” In the rise of Donald Trump, it has become a kind of Rosetta Stone for blue America to interpret that most mysterious of species: the economically precarious white voter.

Vance’s influence has been everywhere this campaign season, shaping our conception of what motivates these voters. And it is already playing a role in how liberals are responding to Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, which was accomplished in part by a defection of downscale whites from the Democratic Party. Appalachia overwhelmingly voted for Trump, and Vance has since emerged as one of the media’s favorite Trump explainers. The problem is that he is a flawed guide to this world, and there is a danger that Democrats are learning all the wrong lessons from the election.

Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles. “Our religion has changed,” he laments, to a version “heavy on emotional rhetoric” and “light on the kind of social support” that he needed as a child. He also faults “a peculiar crisis of masculinity.” This brave new world, in sore need of that old time religion and manly men, is apparently to blame for everything from his mother’s drug addiction to the region’s economic crisis.

“We spend our way to the poorhouse,” he writes. “We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being.”

And he isn’t interested in government solutions. All hillbillies need to do is work hard, maybe do a stint in the military, and they can end up at Yale Law School like he did. “Public policy can help,” he writes, “but there is no government that can fix these problems for us … it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”

Set aside the anti-government bromides that could have been ripped from a random page of National Review, where Vance is a regular contributor. There is a more sinister thesis at work here, one that dovetails with many liberal views of Appalachia and its problems. Vance assures readers that an emphasis on Appalachia’s economic insecurity is “incomplete” without a critical examination of its culture. His great takeaway from life in America’s underclass is: Pull up those bootstraps. Don’t question elites. Don’t ask if they erred by granting people mortgages and lines of credit they couldn’t afford to repay. Don’t call it what it iscorporate deceptionor admit that it plunged this country into one of the worst economic crises it’s ever experienced.

No wonder Peter Thiel, the almost comically evil Silicon Valley libertarian, endorsed the book. (Vance also works for Thiel’s Mithril Capital Management.) The question is why so many liberals are doing the same.

In many ways, I should appreciate Elegy. I grew up poor on the border of southwest Virginia and east Tennessee. My parents are the sort of god-fearing hard workers that conservatives like Vance fetishize. I attended an out-of-state Christian college thanks to scholarships, and had to raise money to even buy a plane ticket to attend grad school. My rare genetic disease didn’t get diagnosed until I was 21 because I lacked consistent access to health care. I’m one of the few members of my high school class who earned a bachelor’s degree, one of the fewer still who earned a master’s degree, and one of maybe three or four who left the area for good.

But unlike Vance, I look at my home and see a region abandoned by the government elected to serve it. My public high school didn’t have enough textbooks and half our science lab equipment didn’t work. Some of my classmates did not have enough to eat; others wore the same clothes every day. Sometimes this happened because their addict parents spent money on drugs. But the state was no help here either. Its solution to our opioid epidemic has been incarceration, not rehabilitation. Addicts with additional psychiatric conditions are particularly vulnerable. There aren’t enough beds in psychiatric hospitals to serve the regionthe same reason Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D) nearly died at the hands of his mentally ill son in 2013.

And then there is welfare. In Elegy, Vance complains about hillbillies who he believes purchased cellphones with welfare funds. But data makes it clear that our current welfare system is too limited to lift depressed regions out of poverty.

Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer reported earlier this year that the number of families surviving on $2 a day grew by 130 percent between 1996 and 2011. Blacks and Latinos are still disproportionately more likely to live under the poverty line, but predominately white Appalachia hasn’t been spared the scourge either. And while Obamacare has significantly reduced the number of uninsured Americans, its premiums are still often expensive and are set to rise. Organizations like Remote Access Medical (RAM) have been forced to make up the difference: Back home, people start lining up at 4 a.m. for a chance to access RAM’s free healthcare clinics. From 2007 to 2011, the lifespans of eastern Kentucky women declined by 13 months even as they rose for women in the rest of the country.

According to the Economic Innovation Group, my home congressional districtVirginia’s Ninthis one of the poorest in the country. Fifty-one percent of adults are unemployed; 19 percent lack a high school diploma. EIG estimates that fully half of its 722,810 residents are in economic distress.

As I noted in Scalawag earlier this year, the Ninth is not an outlier for the region. On EIG’s interactive map, central Appalachia is a sea of distress. If you are born where I grew up, you have to travel hundreds of miles to find a prosperous America. How do you get off the dole when there’s not enough work to go around? Frequently, you don’t. Until you lose your benefits entirely: The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), passed by Bill Clinton and supported by Hillary Clinton, boots parents off welfare if they’re out of work.

At various points in this election cycle, liberal journalists have sounded quite a bit like Vance. “‘Economic anxiety’ as a campaign issue has always been a red herring,” Kevin Drum declared in Mother Jones.If you want to get to the root of this white anxiety, you have to go to its roots. It’s cultural, not economic.”

At Vox, Dylan Matthews argued that while Trump voters deserved to be taken seriously, most were actually fairly well-off, with a median household income of $72,000. The influence of economic anxiety, he concluded, had been exaggerated.

Neither Drum or Matthews accounted for regional disparities in white poverty rates, and they failed to anticipate how those disparities would impact the election. Trump supporters were wealthier than Clinton supporters overall, but Trump’s victories in battleground states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio correlated to high foreclosure rates. In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, Trump outperformed Mitt Romney with the white working class and flipped certain strategic counties red.

But Matthews was right in at least one sense: Trump Country has always been bigger than Appalachia and the white working class itself. You just wouldn’t know this from reading the news.

In March, Trump won nearly 70 percent of the Republican primary vote in Virginia’s Buchanan County. At the time, it was his widest margin of victory, and no one seemed surprised that this deeply conservative and impoverished pocket in southwest Virginia’s coal country handed him such decisive success. And no one seemed to realize Buchanan County had once been a Democratic stronghold.

A glossy Wall Street Journal package labeled it “The Place That Wants Donald Trump The Most” and promised readers that understanding Buchanan County was key to understanding the “source” of Trump’s popularity. The Financial Times profiled a local young man who fled this dystopia for the University of Virginia; it titled the piece “The Boy Who Escaped Trump Country.” And then there was Bloomberg View: “Coal County is Desperate for Donald Trump.” (The same piece said the county seat, Grundy, “looks as if it fell into a crevice and got stuck.”)

And then Staten Island went to the polls. A full 82 percent of Staten Island Republicans voted to give Trump the party’s nomination, wresting the title of Trumpiest County away from Buchanan. The two locations have little in common aside from Trump. Staten Island, population 472,621, is New York City’s wealthiest borough. Its median household income is $70,295, a figure not far off from the figure Matthews cites as the median income of the average Trump supporter. Buchanan County, population 23,597, has a median household income of $27,328 and the highest unemployment rate in Virginia. Staten Island, then, tracks closer to the Trumpist norm, but it received a fraction of the coverage.

No one wrote escape narratives about Staten Island. Few plumbed the psyches of suburban Trumpists. And no one examined why Democratic Buchanan County had become Republican. Instead, the media class fixated on the spectacle of white trash Appalachia, with Vance as its representative-in-exile.

“A preoccupation with penalizing poor whites reveals an uneasy tension between what Americans are taught to think the country promises—the dream of upward mobility—and the less appealing truth that class barriers almost invariably make that dream unobtainable,” Nancy Isenberg wrote in the preface to her book White Trash. If the system worked for you, you’re not likely to blame it for the plight of poor whites. Far easier instead to believe that poor whites are poor because they deserve to be.

But now we see the consequences of this class blindness. The media and the establishment figures who run the Democratic Party both had a responsibility to properly identify and indict the system’s failures. They abdicated that responsibility. Donald Trump took it up—if not always in the form of policy, then in his burn-it-all-down posture.

No analysis of Trumpism is complete without a reckoning of its white supremacy and misogyny. Appalachia is, like so many other places, a deeply racist and sexist place. It is not a coincidence that Trumpist bastions, from Buchanan County to Staten Island, are predominately white, or that Trump rode a tide of xenophobia to power. Economic hardship isn’t unique to white members of the working class, either. Blacks, Latinos, and Natives occupy a far more precarious economic position overall. White supremacy is indeed the overarching theme of Trumpism.

But that doesn’t mean we should repeat the establishment failures of this election cycle and minimize the influence of economic precarity. Trump is a racist and a sexist, but his victory is not due only to racism or sexism any more than it is due only to classism: He still won white women and a number of counties that had voted for Obama twice. This is not a simple story, and it never really has been.

We don’t need to normalize Trumpism or empathize with white supremacy to reach these voters. They weren’t destined to vote for Trump; many were Democratic voters. They aren’t destined to stay loyal to him in the future. To win them back, we must address their material concerns, and we can do that without coddling their prejudices. After all, America’s most famous progressive populistBernie Sanderswon many of the counties Clinton lost to Trump.

There’s danger ahead if Democrats don’t act quickly. The Traditionalist Worker’s Party has already announced plans for an outreach push in greater Appalachia. The American Nazi Party promoted “free health care for the white working class” in literature it distributed in Missoula, Montana, last Friday. If Democrats have any hope of establishing themselves as the populist alternative to Trump, they can’t allow American Nazis to fall to their left on health care for any population.

By electing Trump, my community has condemned itself to further suffering. The lines for RAM will get longer. Our schools will get poorer and our children hungrier. It will be one catastrophic tragedy out of the many a Trump presidency will generate. So yes, be angry with the white working class’s political choices. I certainly am; home will never feel like home again.

But don’t emulate Vance in your rage. Give the white working class the progressive populism it needs to survive, and invest in the areas the Democratic Party has neglected. Remember that bootstraps are for people with boots. And elegies are no use to the living.