If you want to make sense of this insensible election year, lend a hillbilly your earby Diane Roberts / October 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
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Americans—white Americans, anyway—used to cherish the fantasy that the United States doesn’t have a class system. Your parentage didn’t matter. Your accent didn’t matter. Where you went to school didn’t matter. If you had talent, gumption and a rock-ribbed work ethic, you, too, could get rich. Or become President. You could reinvent yourself, turn James Gatz into Jay Gatsby or change your name from Drumpf to Trump, in the way that America reinvented itself, transforming from a fractious British colony to God’s chosen nation, the indispensable, exceptional country free from the social shackles of the Old World.
That was the story. The truth is, the American class system has always been with us, however much we clung to the ideal of what Alexis de Tocqueville optimistically called our “equality of conditions.” In times of relative peace and prosperity, class is overlooked. When people feel forgotten, overwhelmed by market forces, or let down by their institutions, then the flimsy red, white and blue bunting falls off our democratic edifice, revealing that America is as stratified as any European palatinate.
It happened when Andrew Jackson was elected as the seventh President in 1828, riding an upswell of populist scorn for the Virginian gentlemen and New England intellectuals of the old republican ascendancy. Jackson was famous for his military prowess—and his indifference to the rule of law. He set off an international incident in 1818 when he invaded the Spanish territory of Florida, attacking native villages and summarily executing two British traders accused of helping the Seminoles. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, it may be happening again. A rich man with a talent for channelling the resentment of working-class whites towards a government that they feel ignores them is promising to up-end convention and speak for “forgotten Americans.” As Trump has taken to saying at campaign appearances: “I will be your voice.”
It didn’t matter in the 1820s that Jackson was a prosperous slave-trader and plantation owner; his followers claimed him as one of them and called him “Old Hickory” for being as tough as the wood. He might have had money, but he remained rough-hewn and proud of it. It doesn’t matter that Trump was born into privilege and made several fortunes in property deals, writing his name in gold letters on skyscrapers all over the world. His macho confidence and gleeful vulgarity endear him to those who feel oppressed by political correctness; he harks back to an America that bestrode the world like a colossus, a country in which white men were men, white women were ladies, and people of colour knew their place.
The mechanics of privilege can be harder to read in the US than in the UK, where you can damn yourself by saying “toilet” instead of “loo.” Americans are masters of the egalitarian gesture: George W Bush—the second president Bush, that is—three of whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower, released photographs of himself “clearing brush” on his Texas estate. Despite America’s cherished self-image as a meritocracy, few working- class people make it to the White House: six of the first 10 presidents were plantation owners (the others were lawyers), and the last four hold degrees from Harvard or Yale. Every member of Congress claims to be an “ordinary” American, but more than half are millionaires. The US media are traditionally uncomfortable with class and politicians who mention the word get slapped down. During the 2012 Republican primary campaign, Mitt Romney, a plutocrat worth hundreds of millions of dollars, tried to make a point about the middle class and was reprimanded by Senator Rick Santorum: “There are no classes in America.” Even to use the word “class” foments the dreaded, socialist and disturbingly European (if undefined) idea of “class warfare.”
In 2016, however, it is impossible to deny that American class conflict is rife. According to a recent Gallup survey, the number of Americans identifying as middle class has declined since 2008, with 48 per cent now identifying as working or lower class. Not that Trump personally invokes class much, but at his rallies thousands of Americans, mostly white, mostly without college education, turn up to rail against the “elites”: the media, the government, feminists, leftists, gays, intellectuals, environmentalists. All of whom have somehow deprived his followers of their imagined birthright: the America of their parents and grandparents, an America the rest of the world fears, an America in which white privilege is as unremarkable as air, an America where Christianity goes unchallenged, where you can go from high school to a good job at the mill, the factory assembly line, or down the mine. An America where marriage means a man and a woman, and minorities might have rights but not power.
Working-class people feel that the country is no longer organised to benefit them. They have reason: economists say that the typical family income has stagnated for 25 years. All the politicians have pledged to create jobs and expand opportunity, from Bill Clinton’s “The economy, stupid!” to Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” to Barack Obama’s “hope and change.” But for too many, the economy is still lousy, there is no compassion and little hope. Wages are low and outsourcing has pushed much traditional manufacturing work overseas. Many cannot buy a house or afford the college education that might help them join the prosperous America seen on television. They are told that the country has recovered from the recession, but it doesn’t feel that way, not to them. Inequality is growing: the top 1 per cent now control 40 per cent of America’s wealth. People who assumed they would be upwardly-mobile find themselves heading down. Moreover, demographic trends mean that America will soon no longer be a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation but a “majority minority” one. European-Americans will become—as blacks, Latinos, Asians and Muslims have long been—objects of study. Perhaps it is not surprising that so many Americans support a presidential candidate who articulates their rage about America no longer being “great.”
In Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, JD Vance gives us a personal take on the roots of this anger. He doesn’t so much study the white working class as commemorate it—the word “elegy” implies something has died—as he recounts growing up in the shadow of Appalachia. He was born in 1984, the year of Reagan’s second landslide, and his age is material in various ways. For a start, his infancy took place in the shadow of the great industrial shakeout of the early 1980s, and he was barely at school before another job-destroying recession would hit communities like his hard. More fundamentally, unlike a working-class child of—say—the 1950s or 60s, Vance did not grow up with the assumption that wages would rise year-in and year-out, and still less with any illusion that a benign Washington would over time eradicate poverty. More than other generations of hillbillies, in other words, Vance’s had reason to feel that their communities were the places that the American economy was leaving behind. A feeling that is shared, of course, with many followers of Trump across the poorer parts of the US.
Vance depicts his people as at once loving and bellicose, reckless and generous, loyal—and mean as hell. Attached to their ancestral homes in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, only a few manage to succeed in modern America. Largely descended from Ulster Scots (Andrew Jackson’s parents were Presbyterians from County Antrim) who migrated to the mountains of the upper South at either side of the turn of the 18th century, the “Scots-Irish” remained isolated, suspicious of outsiders, unconvinced by the American dream. As Vance puts it: “I may be white but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day labourers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and later machinists and mill workers. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbours, friends and family.”
Vance got out—but it was hard. His maternal grandparents moved his family from Kentucky to Ohio, along with so many others that Middletown, where he lived as a teenager, is nicknamed Middletucky. For the Vances, their real home was the small town of Jackson in “the heart of southeastern Kentucky’s coal country.” His mother Bev, a promising student, got pregnant at 18 and JD (James Donald) was born in 1984. She gave up education for a fleeting marriage, then another. And another. Vance’s life was a series of stepfathers and quasi-stepfathers, frequent moves and increasingly erratic behaviour by his self-medicating mother. Bev could be loving, encouraging her children’s education—when she wasn’t trying to kill them. She once blew her stack while driving with her son, stomping on the accelerator and claiming that she was going to crash the car. Luckily, she changed her mind, pulling over to slap him around. This gave young JD a chance to escape and call the police. Bev was charged with domestic violence, only avoiding jail because her parents, Vance’s grandparents, “Mamaw” and “Papaw,” scraped together enough money for a lawyer and encouraged him to lie. Not that they let their daughter off the hook. The kid would live with them, not her: “If Mom had a problem with the arrangement, she could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun. This was hillbilly justice,” writes Vance, “and it didn’t fail me.”
Mamaw—Bonnie Blanton Vance—was the one solid adult in young JD’s life, his champion and source of unconditional love. She was no cuddly granny. A Marine Corps recruiter once told Vance: “Those drill instructors are mean. But not like that grandma of yours.” Married at 13 to James Lee Vance (who was 16), she was foul-mouthed, belligerent and usually armed. Her favourite television show was The Sopranos. Dedicated to defending her family’s honour, she and her husband once smashed up a shop because the clerk was “rude” to their son. Outsiders must never be allowed to criticise the family. But within the family, it was a different matter: Vance calls his grandfather a “violent drunk” who sometimes beat his daughters. Vance’s grandmother was a “violent nondrunk” with a combustible temper. She’d hide her husband’s wallet from him or serve him plates of rubbish for dinner as protests against his boozing. She finally told Papaw that if he came home drunk again, she’d kill him. The next time he arrived back plastered, collapsing on the living room sofa, Mamaw—a woman of her word—doused him with petrol and lit a match. Somehow he survived. He also quit drinking.
“The next time Papaw arrived back plastered, Mamaw doused him with petrol and lit a match. Somehow he survived”
All this inspires nice, sheltered readers to clutch our pearls in dismay, but Vance’s story resonates profoundly at this moment in history when divisions between black and white, university graduates and the “poorly educated” (as Trump called them), and especially the urban and rural, have deepened alarmingly. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have shown that while life-expectancy for middle-aged African Americans and Hispanics is rising, whites in their forties and fifties are dying younger of suicide, liver disease and drug and alcohol poisoning. They are living more and more in ill health, too, with chronic pain both physical and mental, opioid abuse, obesity and diabetes. For a rich nation not engaged in a full-scale war, this is unprecedented.
Vance is unsparing in his depiction of the self-destructive behaviours ravaging working-class whites, especially in his family, and their feelings of being at once abandoned and belittled, helpless and furious. Judging from the Trump surge, these feelings are widespread. Stability is in short supply: marriage rates are declining, fatherless families are on the rise, and though President Obama has positive ratings, Americans despise government in general. Three-quarters of Americans describe themselves as religious, but adherence to organised religion is sinking. About the only institution that still commands the respect of most US citizens is the military: a poll in June showed that 73 per cent of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in their armed services. Only nine per cent felt the same way about Congress.
Vance was always looking for stability. Living with his grandmother got him through high school, but he didn’t feel ready for college. When his cousin Rachael, a Marine, told him that joining the Corps would “whip your ass into shape,” he signed up. Once a fat, unfocused kid, the Marines got him fit, confident and committed to healthy eating. Food in America, as in the UK, is loaded with class significance. There’s an Appalachian phenomenon called “Mountain Dew mouth,” bad teeth and gums resulting from babies and small children being fed fizzy drinks instead of milk. Vance’s mother put Pepsi in his bottle. A diet of menthol cigarettes, drugs, and high-fructose corn syrup can kill you. Still, you have to sympathise with Mamaw, who was probably puzzled when her grandson started asking about saturated fat in her fried chicken and looking askance at her blackberry cobbler.
Violence, alienation and rapid economic shifts can kill you, too. Vance cites sociologist William Julius Wilson, whose book The Truly Disadvantaged, about African Americans who migrated north to escape segregation and find jobs in manufacturing, helped him to understand his people’s situation. Communities, “vibrant but fragile,” are established then fractured when the factories shut. People can’t find decent jobs, and can’t afford to leave. They’ve lost the cultural and social bonds of home: the church, the extended family. Deracinated, they become self-destructive. Vance deserves credit for taking on class in America with rare and refreshing honesty, and not pretending that it is a figment of the divisive Democratic imagination. He knows that many “in my corner of the demographic world” have suffered repeated childhood trauma: abuse; alcoholism and/or drug abuse in the family; living with depressed, violent, or suicidal adults. He cites an academic study showing the effects of “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs on Americans. And he accepts that grabbing those bootstraps and pulling up hard doesn’t always work. Sometimes you need help.
At the same time, as a conservative, he worries that government programmes and sweeping social policies are not the answer. He is torn, paying homage to the psychological damage and at the same time, blaming the “learned helplessness” of hillbillies who don’t seem to think that their decisions matter, that it is always somebody else’s fault: “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese.” He also blames “the welfare state” (insofar as America has one) for rewarding freeloading, and resents those who don’t have his self-discipline and drive. In high school, Vance worked in a supermarket and saw recipients of welfare buying junk food with their food stamps and re-selling it for cash, then spending the cash on beer and cigarettes. “I could never understand,” he says, “why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.”
After the Marines, Vance went to Ohio State University and then Yale Law School. Now an executive at a Silicon Valley investment firm, he is now a certified success, indeed, by most measures a member of the elite he disdains. He has learned to navigate posh America, with its sparkling water (the first time he tastes it, Vance thinks it’s gone bad), wine snobbery and esoteric dinners with forks for each course lined up like little silver soldiers. Determined to crack the class code, he resembles a latter-day Dickensian hero, making his way in a contemporary America that seems hell-bent on recreating Victorian inequality. You’re pulling for him; you want him to succeed and leave behind the despair of the hillbilly world, to shrug off what he sees as the condescending compassion of progressives, and reward his grandmother’s faith in him.
Vance refuses to indulge in the mean-spiritedness of some on the right who divide the world into “makers” and “takers,” though he can get a little judgmental about people who make bad choices: the neighbour who leaves her bath running, then gets so high that she calls the landlord to complain about her leaky ceiling before collapsing. And he seems to discount the importance of race, observing that Barack Obama “feels like an alien” to people from his town, not because of his race but his class—“he is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor which, of course, he is… he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing the modern America meritocracy was built for him.” But that ignores the reality that many whites see blacks as irredeemably “other”—around 60 per cent of Trump supporters say they think Obama is a Muslim and a foreigner—as well as the black citizens killed by the police, postcode prejudice by banks and the frequently unjust incarceration of young black men.
Conservatives often divide the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving:” Vance resists, and resolves instead to make sense of the hopelessness of hillbilly culture, including his own mother, who starts using heroin, the “Kentucky Derby of drugs.” He says America is “the greatest country on earth,” then details how this great country fails to help people like his family. Vance really wants to believe in the grand old American virtues of self-reliance, personal responsibility and individualism, and can’t help thinking those no ’count people who assume the world (or at least the federal government) owes them a living, should get up off their backsides and get a job. He is courageous enough to admit to his frustration as he carries on doing the best he can, fearing the self-destructiveness inherited from generations of hillbilly rage, hoping that he can beat back the monsters of his childhood and make his way in an unjust world. With this book, he has put class front and centre. And America will not become “great again” until we recognise how it cripples the aspirations of so many of its citizens.