Hillbilly Poverty: Trump’s Appeal to Poor Appalachian Whites

TPOHStaff

The discussion of “hillbilly poverty” — a deep and abiding poverty that has been prevalent, but overlooked, for generations in the Appalachian region — seems to keep coming back to the fore, particularly this election season.

It may be because white poverty is a blind spot to many Americans who are either white, but don’t live in poverty, or are non-white and unaware of or too preoccupied with their own identity struggles to worry about the white underclass. Or maybe most Americans are aware, but feel helpless to do anything about it.

J.D. Vance, a former Marine, Yale law school graduate, and author, recently wrote a book on this distinctly American phenomenon, describing an amazing, resilient, hardened group of people that lives in in large swaths of poverty, but who are frequently overlooked in politics and policy. In a recent interview, he explains why Donald Trump may appeal to those who live in “hillbilly poverty,” and that it has little or nothing to do with race or fear.

Here are two snippets of the interview with Vance by Rod Dreher, himself a successful journalist who rose out of the poor South. It’s a long interview but almost every response is well “worth the paper it’s printed on.”

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.
From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.
Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.
The last point I’ll make about Trump is this: these people, his voters, are proud. A big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia, and the Scots-Irish honor culture is alive and well. We were taught to raise our fists to anyone who insulted our mother. I probably got in a half dozen fights when I was six years old. Unsurprisingly, southern, rural whites enlist in the military at a disproportionate rate. Can you imagine the humiliation these people feel at the successive failures of Bush/Obama foreign policy? My military service is the thing I’m most proud of, but when I think of everything happening in the Middle East, I can’t help but tell myself: I wish we would have achieved some sort of lasting victory. No one touched that subject before Trump, especially not in the Republican Party. …
Many elites just don’t know a member of the white working class. A professor once told me that Yale Law shouldn’t accept students who attended state universities for their undergraduate studies. (A bit of background: Yale Law takes well over half of its student body from very elite private schools.) “We don’t do remedial education here,” he said. Keep in mind that this guy was very progressive and cared a lot about income inequality and opportunity. But he just didn’t realize that for a kid like me, Ohio State was my only chance–the one opportunity I had to do well in a good school. If you removed that path from my life, there was nothing else to give me a shot at Yale. When I explained that to him, he was actually really receptive. He may have even changed his mind.
What does it mean for our politics? To me, this condescension is a big part of Trump’s appeal. He’s the one politician who actively fights elite sensibilities, whether they’re good or bad. I remember when Hillary Clinton casually talked about putting coal miners out of work, or when Obama years ago discussed working class whites clinging to their guns and religion. Each time someone talks like this, I’m reminded of (my grandmother’s) feeling that hillbillies are the one group you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon. The people back home carry that condescension like a badge of honor, but it also hurts, and they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders. If nothing else, Trump does that.”

Read the rest of the interview with J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.

The discussion of “hillbilly poverty” — a deep and abiding poverty that has been prevalent, but overlooked, for generations in the Appalachian region — seems to keep coming back to the fore, particularly this election season. It may be because white poverty is a blind spot to many Americans who are either white, but don’t live in poverty, or are non-white and unaware of or too preoccupied with their own identity struggles to worry about the white underclass. Or maybe most Americans are aware, but feel helpless to do anything about it. J.D. Vance, a former Marine, Yale law school graduate, and author, recently wrote a book on this distinctly American phenomenon, describing an amazing, resilient, hardened group of people that lives in poverty in large swaths across this nation, but who are frequently overlooked in politics and policy. In a recent interview, he explains why Donald Trump may appeal to those who live in “hillbilly poverty,” and that it has little or nothing to do with race or fear. Here are two snippets of the interview with Vance by Rod Dreher, himself a successful journalist who rose out of the poor South. It’s a long interview but almost every response is well “worth the paper it’s printed on.”

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below). Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.
From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.
Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.
The last point I’ll make about Trump is this: these people, his voters, are proud. A big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia, and the Scots-Irish honor culture is alive and well. We were taught to raise our fists to anyone who insulted our mother. I probably got in a half dozen fights when I was six years old. Unsurprisingly, southern, rural whites enlist in the military at a disproportionate rate. Can you imagine the humiliation these people feel at the successive failures of Bush/Obama foreign policy? My military service is the thing I’m most proud of, but when I think of everything happening in the Middle East, I can’t help but tell myself: I wish we would have achieved some sort of lasting victory. No one touched that subject before Trump, especially not in the Republican Party. …
Many elites just don’t know a member of the white working class. A professor once told me that Yale Law shouldn’t accept students who attended state universities for their undergraduate studies. (A bit of background: Yale Law takes well over half of its student body from very elite private schools.) “We don’t do remedial education here,” he said. Keep in mind that this guy was very progressive and cared a lot about income inequality and opportunity. But he just didn’t realize that for a kid like me, Ohio State was my only chance–the one opportunity I had to do well in a good school. If you removed that path from my life, there was nothing else to give me a shot at Yale. When I explained that to him, he was actually really receptive. He may have even changed his mind.
What does it mean for our politics? To me, this condescension is a big part of Trump’s appeal. He’s the one politician who actively fights elite sensibilities, whether they’re good or bad. I remember when Hillary Clinton casually talked about putting coal miners out of work, or when Obama years ago discussed working class whites clinging to their guns and religion. Each time someone talks like this, I’m reminded of (my grandmother’s) feeling that hillbillies are the one group you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon. The people back home carry that condescension like a badge of honor, but it also hurts, and they’ve been looking for someone for a while who will declare war on the condescenders. If nothing else, Trump does that.”

Read the rest of the interview with J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.

Comments (2)
lafillefrancaise
lafillefrancaise

There is something to be said for white, working class people being turned off by liberals "condescension." However, if liberals change the way that they approach voters in the Appalachian region and talk to them as equals and not as "country bumpkins," then the voters in this region will realize that their best interests lie in Democratic policies.


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