Hillbilly Elegy is an extended meditation on cultural and social capital. It asks seriously – and answers truthfully – this question: ‘what makes the upper-middle-classes different?’
D. Vance (‘Jaydot’ to his friends) has written the best book about class by an American. It explains everything from the rise of Donald Trump to Leave’s win in the Brexit Referendum to One Nation claiming four Australian Senate seats. In answering the above question, Vance has also performed an inestimably valuable service to those of us engaged in public policy and political commentary: reading his book will teach you the folly of making rules – as my father often said when I was a child – ‘for people not like you’.
Vance is an Appalachian hillbilly, but also a graduate of Yale Law School. His ‘white trash’ upbringing was as dysfunctional as that of many children in remote Australian Aboriginal communities or the slums of Glasgow: drug addiction, domestic violence, alcoholism, a revolving door of more or less useless father figures. His foul-mouthed, Tony Soprano-like grandmother (called Mamaw, pronounced ma’am-aw) saved him from the gutter and kept him looking at the stars, using any and every means possible.
Her husband, Vance’s Papaw, was a drunk. Mamaw warned Papaw that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him. He did, and she doused him with kerosene and set him on fire. Fortunately, Papaw didn’t die. He did, however, give up the bottle, and in time became a model of decent, humane masculinity.
Like many of his Scots-Irish kin, Vance joined the Marines, grateful not only for the GI Bill (which funded his time at Ohio State), but also because more senior Marines and recruiters did things like show him how to balance a chequebook while steering him away from taking out a whopping 21 per cent loan for his first car. The Marines also taught him how to eat healthily (breaking an addiction to refined sugars) and helped him lose 45 pounds.
His description of a toffee-nosed law firm recruitment dinner at Yale – where he had to ask his upper-middle-class girlfriend (he called her secretly, while hiding in the loo) how place settings work (‘What do I do with all these damned forks?’) – should be savoured as one of literature’s great comic scenes.
His personal story aside, Hillbilly Elegy also discloses the extent to which Vance’s people – the ‘poor whites’ now forming the bulk of Donald Trump’s base – are not like the people who have spent fifty years making rules for them.
Vance is careful to avoid playing the Oppression Olympics common among spokespeople for disadvantaged minorities. He makes it clear his mother – who, by the end, collapses in a sleazy, spider-infested roadside motel with a needle in her arm – can only use entrenched adversity to get a moral get-out-of-jail-free card for so long. He views other hard-up hillbillies – in his own family and outside it – with the same unsentimental eye. At some point, the excuses have to stop.
One of the book’s most arresting accounts concerns Vance’s biological father, who turns to an extreme form of Evangelical Christianity to straighten himself out. The straightening proceeds apace: he stops cheating on his new wife, quits the drink, stops fighting all and sundry. This is coupled with a passionate devotion to the apocalyptic Left Behind series, and a hysterical fear of evolution, ‘the Gay Agenda’, and Bill Clinton.
This same man also gives Jaydot up for adoption on the basis of three signs from God. ‘I have never felt comfortable with the idea of leaving your child’s fate to signs from God’, Vance observes drily.
Nevertheless, the sense that these are people who are done to, who are denied agency – by governments, crackpot religion, even their country (the extent to which both US and UK militaries depend on people of Celtic origin is staggering) – is palpable. If you have spent time (I have) singing paeans to free trade, Vance’s description of the post-industrial US ‘Rust Belt’, its decimated town centres filled – as they are in England’s North – with betting-shops, pay-day lenders, and cash-for-gold stores, may give you pause.
Policy wonks (I am one) are in the business of aggregation, making decisions and proffering advice on the basis of statistical averages and population-level data. This high-handed process relieves us of the burden of thinking about what our rules will do to individuals on the receiving end. In its own way, this is a species of dehumanisation; when people rebel at the ballot box, we are shocked.
Brexit and Trump and Hanson are shocking: poor whites, people who are not like us, have raised a single digit rampant in the face of their rule-making ‘betters’, giving us a giant ‘f–k you’.
Of course Trump and Leave are a policy-free zone. That tends to happen when people are systematically denied access to the levers of power. Confronted with the Bridge of the Starship United Kingdom or the Starship United States, they don’t know where to start. Much of the nastier commentary at the expense of ‘Trumpkins’ and ‘Brexiteers’ focuses on this singular lack of expertise.
However, we hollowed out their cities and denied them a slice of the growing prosperity pie everyone else enjoyed thanks to globalisation.
Vance makes few policy suggestions, most of them mild. However, his account of a debate in the Ohio Senate on a Bill to curb payday lenders is salutary.
He points out – with his poor credit history – that he has had recourse to payday lenders. On one occasion, he avoided a large overdraft fee. Without a payday lender, he’d have been forced to go to a loan shark – which, given the drug culture among poor whites, could have been injurious to his health.
‘The legislators debating the merits of payday lending didn’t mention situations like that,’ he notes. ‘The lesson? Powerful people sometimes do things to help people like me without really understanding people like me’.