White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance
White Trash: the 400 year untold story of class in America, by Nancy Isenberg. Vikings, 2016
Hillbilly Elegy: a memoir of a family and culture in crisis, by J. D. Vance. HarperCollins, 2016
When Donald Trump stepped on the political stage more than a year ago, few took him seriously. Then he won the Republican nomination for president. Just about everyone I talk to is incredulous or infuriated. What we know about Trump is what we see in the news. On The Media calls him a “dangerous demagogue” who makes false claims, inflammatory accusations and outrageous promises to gain a following. The Economist considers Trump a “post-truth” exponent who makes puissant assertions void of factual basis to embolden his supporters.
In explaining his phenomenon, pundits of different political slants mention two books: “White Trash” and “Hillbilly Elegy.” I decide to take a read and find them complementary. Isenberg traces the sweeping class struggles in America history. Her sub-title is an exaggeration. Other researches on classes have preceded hers. Vance gives an intimate account of a “hillbilly” family. It is a troubling memoir of a sub-culture that is in decline and in crisis.
Isenberg concurs that a classless American society is mythic. Since the Jamestown settlement in 1607, class consciousness is ubiquitous in the new world. The British saw the colonies as a place to dump their “human waste.” The indigents, criminals, vagrants and religious malcontents were among the new arrivals. The cultural elites, including many founding leaders, held the common view that the inferior classes were congenital. Their inferiority is cultural, social, economic and racial. Throughout American history, impoverished inner cities and de-industrialized rural conclaves smolder in disenfranchised disenchantment. This class disparity is especially pronounced after the 2008 great recession. While upper classes have recovered and gained economically, the under class has not. In fact, it is in serious crisis.
Vance’s autobiography of a poor, white Appalachian family’s struggles with cultural, social, religious and economic anxieties illustrates this crisis. It is a portrait of a dysfunctional clan that is poor, religious, violent, abusive and angry. Somewhere along the way, it has misplaced the American dream. Many like Vance’s family resent the egregious betrayal by the federal government who favors special interest groups – blacks, immigrants, women and gays. They have elbowed ahead in the queue toward economic and social equality. And the working class feels abandoned and left behind.
The less educated and poorer Americans believe they are good citizens who love God and country. Then candidate Obama incensed them with this insensitive caricature. Explaining why he could not win the working white votes, he gibed, “it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to their guns, religion and antipathy. . . .” The working poor, including many Evangelical Christians, feel like political exiles in their own country. Harping on this malaise, Trump roars mendaciously about making America great again – by erecting a huge wall along the Mexican border, expelling all Muslims, dissing blacks and women and strong-arming the Chinese to return manufactures to this country. His callow animus strokes the working poor’s diffidence into an invidious political movement. Irrespective of the irony that Trump personifies the very pseudo-aristocracy of wealth that the working class so resent, his rise in popularity has unleashed a ferocious class struggle American history has never seen before.