Most Interesting

As one who has pondered the question why so many would follow a figure like Donald Trump I found this analysis most interesting and pass it along for your consideration. It is important, I think, for us to understand the “Trump Phenomenon” as I have called it, since it seems we are now playing a totally different political game. The rules have changed and new players have emerged, many of them rather frightening.

In June, not long after Donald Trump wrapped up the Republican nomination, an unusual book by a first-time author named J.D. Vance entered the national conversation. Hillbilly Elegy was, in part, a captivating memoir — of an Appalachian childhood in an impoverished family he describes (with some exceptions) as shiftless and dysfunctional, and his improbable escape to Yale Law School and a business career in Silicon Valley. But it was also an exercise in explaining the milieu in which he was raised to the people who were now his peers — to whom a poor white boy from Kentucky is a being almost as exotic as (and considerably less sympathetic than) a Somali herdsman or a Bolivian peasant. And as one result, Vance has become the go-to source to answer the question that has echoed at cocktail parties all year from East Hampton to West Hollywood: What do those people see in Donald Trump?

And the answer is, they see a reflection of their own rage at a privileged world that is leaving them behind, that sneers at their parochial loyalties, their lack of education and refusal to take part in the global rat race. Disputing much of the commentary on the 2016 election, Vance told Yahoo News, “I resist the idea that this is a reaction to economic dislocation. What’s really going on is if you take rising rates of divorce and the heroin epidemic and everything else, there’s this sense of malaise. … Trump is the first person to recognize that there’s a lot of opportunity to exploit people’s frustration and sense of alienation.”

This message defies traditional left-right analysis: Vance is equally dismissive of the economic determinism of liberals and the “culture of poverty” rhetoric from the right, usually directed at minority families in big cities. Trump, Vance has written, brings out the worst in both sides; he “inflames the tribalism of the Right” and “encourages the worst impulses of the Left.”

“My sense is that most of the people that are voting for him at this point — it’s not really about him, it’s [a] cultural protest vote,” he told Yahoo in mid-October. “At the end of the day, we really have two cultures: the culture that I grew up in and the culture I encountered when I went to Yale Law School. My sympathetic view to where I grew up is that it’s not totally unjustified to say the elites of the country are really disconnected from or condescending to the pejorative ‘flyover country.’ It doesn’t give a lot of room for people to switch their vote to Hillary Clinton.” — By Jerry Adler

With all due respect to Mr. Vance there may be a sound reason why the “elites” (among whom I must include myself) have looked down on the “other culture.” They are not only angry and frustrated, they are also armed and dangerous. But, in the end, it is imperative that we try to understand one another if we are to live together and in this regard I thank Mr. Vance for this insight into another world.


5 thoughts on “Most Interesting

  1. I’ve read a little bit about this book, too, and about Vance. It seems he’s maybe clumsily, but correctly, getting at a deeper truth about the country. Trump isn’t the first candidate to speak to it, which Vance says. Bernie Sanders did, as well, and so did Obama in 2008. Obama brought in many new voters, especially among the young who’ve demanded change from the money-flooded, corrupt system in D.C., and who also are saddled with crushing college debt, also those in economic straits, and minorities who often have felt disenfranchised. It’s flowing from many channels, left and right, or nonpartisan, as Vance said — the dispirited, no matter their political leanings.

    So much of it stems from the vast income gap, which not only divides the superrich from most of the rest of the country, but leaves so many — including those “hillbillies” Vance writes about, inner-city minorities, the angry middle-income Fox viewers, those protesting at Standing Rock, etc. — feeling as if they have no chance to improve their situations or that standing up for the common good is pointless if it gets in the way of big money. It’s the first time in a long, long time that feeling has been so deep and so real.

    The trouble with a big core of Trump backers — the first big group he actually mobilized in 2015, the white nationalists/supremacists — is that they are, indeed, armed. Organized and armed.

    But, as you write, Hugh, we have to understand that world better, just as we do the other subcultures that feel left out or feel as if they’ve been thrown out of what was once the American Dream. We’ve been fortunate so far — and I’m often surprised by it — that there has not yet been the big, violent upheaval that has historically occurred in nations where the divisions have grown so wide, the distrust so dark, and the hopelessness/pointlessness so dispiriting that people feel they have no options left. The street protests we have seen after racial shootings, the thuggery of Trump’s second-tier security forces (white supremacists at his rallies) are just little ripples compared to what could occur. I fear, as you do, that they may become more than ripples after next week.

  2. Hugh, I am reading the book right now. It is well worth it. Before the 2012 election, I started reading about how more than one-half of the GOP party was voting against their economic interests and had no idea they were. The party did not care. Policies that would help the rural GOP voters were spurned – infrastructure investing, asset based community development, solar and wind energy development (as are in rural areas), and even the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which several studies said would help people, rural hospitals and the state economies. A study was just completed that said the voters in the states that need the most federal government help are reluctant to embrace it.

    Jill Dennison had a post a couple of days ago that quotes from Thomas Friedman. I know you read it, but it speaks to this issue that manufacturing is up, but technology is what killed the jobs moreso than anything else.

    Great post, Keith

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