By DOMINIC SANDBROOK
J. D. Vance (pictured), is a former U.S. Marine who served in Iraq, studied at Yale Law School and now works for a big Silicon Valley investment firm. This article is a review of his book Hillbilly Elegy in which Vance reveals the grinding poverty of his early years in small town America. It helps to explain why America’s underclass voted en masse for Donald Trump.
We are barely four weeks into the presidency of Donald Trump yet already it has led to enough dramatic incidents to last a full term.
Perhaps never in American history, and certainly not in living memory, has a new presidency opened amid such controversy, with protesting crowds on the streets of cities across the world.
Yet tempting as it is to join the chorus of execration, it is surely a much better idea to try to understand how on earth America — and by extension, the Western world — got here in the first place.
There is, after all, another America beyond the great cities of New York and Los Angeles that most liberal commentators and foreign visitors completely miss. This is an America where more people back Mr Trump’s immigration ban than oppose it, and where car workers, shop assistants and small businessmen will go out of their way to tell you how much they approve of him.
Many of us may be appalled by the man they chose as their President. But the plain fact is that these are not bad people. Indeed, many are not so different from the millions in Britain who have deserted the mainstream political parties and voted for Brexit last June.
Why did so many Americans turn to a man with so little political experience? Why were they prepared to overlook his manifest failings? And why, despite all the controversies, do millions of Americans still see him as the only man who will speak for them?
The answer, I think, lies not in anything Mr Trump has said or done, but in a book that does not even mention him. And it offers some intriguing clues, not just to how Mr Trump was elected, but to why his presidency is doomed to failure.
Hillbilly Elegy is the story of J. D. Vance, a former U.S. Marine who served in Iraq, studied at Yale Law School and now works for a big Silicon Valley investment firm.
To describe him this way, however, is to miss the bigger picture.
Vance was born and raised at the very bottom of American society, in the depths of the underclass.
He grew up in the dying town of Middletown, Ohio, the Rust Belt of the American Midwest, with violent, alcoholic grandparents, a heroin addicted mother and an absent father.
His family were originally hillbillies from the poor and remote Appalachian Mountains that run from Pennsylvania to Alabama. Like most Appalachians, they came from what Americans call Scotch-Irish stock.
They were warm, working people, but they were also violent, self-destructive and intensely conservative.
As Vance writes of his grandmother, Mamaw, she ‘came from a family that would shoot at you rather than argue with you’.
In the years after World War II, when the American economy was booming, Vance’s grandparents moved to Middletown, then a thriving steel-producing centre.
Today, this is blue-collar Trump territory; Middletown backed him in the presidential election by two to one.
Back then, cities such as Middletown were Democratic heartlands. People such as Vance and his family looked to the government for aid and support.
Their values were hardly liberal — ‘the Christian faith stood at the centre of our lives,’ writes Vance — but they saw the Democrats as the party of the common man.
By the time Vance was born in 1984, the American Dream was turning sour. Jobs were disappearing overseas, steelworks were closing across the Midwest and Middletown was in terminal decline.
It was against this background he grew up, and his description of his childhood makes for horrifically memorable reading.
His ancestors — share croppers, coal miners, steelworkers — had always been poor; poverty was a ‘family tradition’.
But this was worse. His mother, who had at least five husbands and countless boyfriends, was addicted to prescription drugs.
His grandparents effectively raised him. His grandfather, Papaw, was a violent drunk who carried a gun, while Mamaw was given to blinding rages.
Once, when Vance was a child, she served her drunken husband a dinner made up of rubbish from the bin — leftover food fished out of the trash can. On another occasion, she doused him with gasoline after he got back from a drinking session, lit a match and dropped it on his chest. He survived, Vance notes laconically, ‘with only minor burns’.
But their violence was not confined to home.
Before Vance was born, they took his uncle Jimmy to a mall. When Jimmy was thrown out of a shop for playing with a toy, they stormed in and began ransacking the place, throwing toys on the floor and stamping on them.
‘Kick his f***ing ass! Kick his f***ing ass!’ Mamaw shouted at her husband. In response, Papaw leaned towards the terrified assistant and said: ‘If you say another word to my son, I will break your f***ing neck.’
Most of us, I suspect, would regard them as utterly unsuitable people to bring up a child. Indeed, to many liberal Americans they would appear quintessential ‘white trash’: drunken, violent, boorish and irresponsible.
But though she may have seemed an unlikely saviour, Mamaw was the key to Vance’s escape.
Vance with his grandparents, ‘Papaw’, a violent drunk, and ‘Mamaw’, a firebrand given to violent rages.
A fierce believer in family values, Mamaw despised the chaos, self-pity and self-destruction of her daughter’s life.
She was appalled by its effect on Vance, who was starting to go the same way, skipping school and getting into fights.
Taking charge, she put a roof over his head during his teenage years and laid down a terrifying brand of discipline.
On discovering some of his friends were smoking drugs, she told him if she saw him hanging around with them, she would run them down in her car. Her regime was one of self-respect and self-reliance. ‘Quit your whining,’ she would tell him.
And there were three strict rules: ‘Get good grades, get a job and get off your ass and help me.’
Her influence changed everything. For the first time, Vance learned what could be achieved by hard work — at home, at school and in his part-time job.
And with her encouragement, he was able to see how welfare dependency had reduced his community to hopelessness, inertia and despair.
Their broken lives were part of a broader trend. In Middletown in the Eighties and Nineties, as Vance notes, the rates of family breakdown, drug abuse, alcoholism and unemployment were heading through the roof.
But he sees the plight of the underclass as the result not just of globalisation and economic change, but of a wider and more pernicious culture of debt and dependency.
As he puts it, speaking for his fellow hillbillies, ‘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.’ Perhaps above all, he thinks the welfare programmes designed by liberal administrations since the Sixties have trapped the white working class in a terrible cycle of dependency, allowing millions to live off the dole while blaming the government for their disappointments in life.
In one memorable passage, the teenage Vance, working in a grocery store, watches in mute anger as welfare recipients use their food stamps to buy gigantic crates of fizzy drink before selling them on for a profit.
His drug-addled neighbours spend their welfare money on T-bone steaks, while his own family, relying on his hard-earned wages, struggle to get by.
‘They’d regularly go through the checkout queue speaking on their cell phones,’ he writes.
‘I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off government largesse enjoyed trinkets I only dreamed about.’
For political observers trying to understand why so many blue-collar Americans were attracted to Donald Trump’s aggressively anti-welfare message, those words ought to be required reading.
But as Vance explains, there is another side to hillbilly culture that played even more clearly into Mr Trump’s hands.
Apart from their Christian faith, he writes, there was only one thing his family believed in: their country. ‘Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.’
As a young man, Vance would start crying during patriotic hymns, and he would always go out of his way to shake military veterans’ hands.
It was little wonder, then, that after he left high school — propelled in part by the iron will of his frankly terrifying grandmother — he joined the Marine Corps.
The military was the making of him, teaching him duty and discipline, and later paying for him to go to Ohio State university.
Yet when Vance went to college, he was shocked by the attitudes of his fellow students.
In a class on foreign policy, he listened in horror as a ‘19-year-old classmate with a hideous beard spouted off about the Iraq War’. His classmate, who had never been to the Middle East, thought the Marines were red-neck idiots who enjoyed butchering Iraqis.
Yet Vance knew that many of his Marine comrades had been decent, liberal-minded people, trying to do their best in an appalling situation.
He thought of his friends who had been injured or killed — ‘and here was this dips*** in a spotty beard telling our class that we murdered people for sport’.
Nothing, I think, better captures the gulf between two different kinds of America.
On the one hand, Vance’s America: conservative, religious and intensely patriotic, devoted to family, faith and flag.
On the other, the America of his classmates at Ohio State and Yale Law School: the liberal, metropolitan, hand-wringing world of Edward Snowden (the former National Security Agency employee who leaked top-secret government information), the Left-wing activist group Black Lives Matter and transgender toilets. Against this background, is it really so shocking so many blue-collar Americans turned their backs on Hillary Clinton and the Washington elite?
Is it surprising so many of Vance’s community, trapped in welfare dependency, drug addiction and family breakdown, cast their vote for the aggressive, boorish but hyper-patriotic Donald Trump?
It is telling that Vance did not. Instead, he voted for independent conservative Mormon Evan McMullin, who has worked for the CIA and Goldman Sachs, and won just 0.5 per cent of the national vote.
And given the lessons of his book, I am not surprised.
Hillbilly Elegy describes a social, cultural and economic disaster that can’t be fixed by a single politician, no matter how loudly he boasts about his greatness.
Indeed, Vance repeatedly argues that family is more important than the state. Too many white working-class Americans, he believes, look to Washington for help when they should be trying to change their lives themselves — as he did.
After all, had it not been for the strength and willpower of his grandmother, he might never have fought his way out of the despair that had engulfed so many others in his home town.
The tragedy, however, is that millions of Mr Trump’s voters have projected their hopes and anxieties onto a man who, in terms of his temperament, experience and political style, is, I think, utterly unfit to address them.
After all, although J. D. Vance may be a walking advertisement for the conservative values of hard work, self-discipline and self-improvement, the same could never be said of Donald Trump, who inherited his fortune from his father and has conducted himself with staggering moral irresponsibility.
I think Mr Trump’s supporters are deluding themselves if they believe he can change things with the flourish of pen. As Vance puts it: ‘Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.’ That sounds fair enough to me.
Indeed, whenever Mr Trump tells his audiences he is going to bring jobs to places such as Middletown and turn the clock back to the boom years of the Fifties, my heart sinks, because I can foresee the scale of disappointment to come.
But do I blame the people of Middletown for putting faith in a man who will let them down?
Not really. How many of us can honestly say that if we had been raised in such an environment, deprived of family, community, prosperity and hope, we would have been able to see through a political conman such as Donald Trump?
My fear is that when Mr Trump fails to bring the kind of miraculous economic revival for which his hillbilly supporters are hoping, he will double his aggressive, demagogic and often xenophobic rhetoric, which has already done so much to poison U.S. politics.
That would be a betrayal not just of the optimism and openness that have always been such attractive American qualities, but of blue-collar Americans themselves. As J. D. Vance’s book shows, they have suffered enough already.
What a tragedy, then, that they now find themselves with a leader who will surely let them down.