A conservative friend of mine sent me this article from American Conservative magazine. It’s an interview with J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Legacy, a recent memoir. Vance came from a dirt-poor Appalachian family, and eventually graduating from Yale Law School. Fascinating interview, and a must-read book. And an interesting look at the political phenomenon of our day, the Donald Trump candidacy.
Trump’s strongest demographic is white men, and especially white men without college educations. It’s a group of people easily demonized. I’ve been reading Nancy Isenberg’s terrific historical study, White Trash; when I finish, I’ll review it here. But in short, the history of our nation is the history of class tensions, and the wholesale denigration of poor white people. We know, of course, that America’s prosperity was built, in part, on the backs of slaves. But Isenberg makes a persuasive case for an equally insidious dynamic; the deliberate division of American whites into social classes. And that remains partly true today.
The Vance interview adds a fascinating perspective on class, as it played itself our in his life and career. And I was fascinated by his political insights. After some moving descriptions of the desperate circumstances poor whites face all over the country, Vance says that neither major party has anything to offer the rural poor. Democrats offer ‘smug condescension,’ exasperation over people voting against their own economic self-interests, plus some handouts, which folks don’t much want. Republicans, of course, offer deregulation, tax cuts, plus free trade. Then, this:
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.
I understand that. Trump’s candidacy resonates with a group of people who have been ignored, discounted and insulted. Trump’s rudeness, his thin-skinned inability to let any criticism go unchallenged, his willingness to break with what we have come to regard as the civilized norms for political discourse, all that makes him more, not less popular with his base. They share that sense of resentment, of having been put down and discounted. Trump speaks to them, precisely because he ‘tells it like it is.’ What strikes most of us as rhetorical excesses resonate with his supporters.
Vance uses the word ‘elite’ a lot. And that’s become an important word in this election season. It’s ‘the elites’ who rigged the election for Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders, ‘the elites’ who negotiated terrible trade deals that hurt the Rust Belt, ‘elites’ who condescend to and put down everyone who is not ‘elite.’
Vance talks about people he knew at Yale, who had never met a member of the white underclass, a professor who said that Yale should never accept students from state universities. Trump, says Vance, is the one guy who actively seems to fight elite sensibilities.
I get that. I understand that resentment, that feeling that people look down on you, or put you down. And I certainly think that Democrats can seem condescending.
But the ‘elite’ tag is most often applied to Hillary Clinton in his campaign. And I don’t get it. Yes, she’s a former First Lady; yes, she graduated from Yale. But her family background was anything but elite. Hillary’s kin were Pennsylvania coal miners. Her Dad got a football scholarship to Penn State, and was able to get an education. He became a moderately successful businessman, but Hillary’s childhood was hardly one of luxury and privilege. Bill Clinton’s family was dirt-poor. Okay, through a combination of hard work, good grades and scholarships, both Bill and Hillary made it to Yale Law School. (As did Vance). I wouldn’t say either of them come from ‘elite’ backgrounds.
An elite background would look more like this: a millionaire father, elite prep schools, Wharton School of Finance, and then a million dollar loan to start his business. Like, say, Donald Trump.
So, this season, we seem to be inhabiting a topsy-turvy world in which the Clintons are ‘elite’ and Trump is ‘champion of the working man.’ How do we liberals, we Democrats, we progressives reach out to those voters? How do we begin a conversation with this group of fellow Americans?
And at this point, I start to feel pretty pessimistic. I can think of lots of strategies that won’t work; I can’t think of any that might. We could, for example, do a point by point comparison between Trump’s policies (to the extent that he has any), and those of Secretary Clinton. Hard to see how that wouldn’t come across as kind of smarty-pants, in a ‘if you were smarter, you’d realize how bad Trump’s policies are’ kind of way. Or we could carefully explain to folks how much we enlightened Democrats can do for them. Mansplainin’ works so well when it’s men talking down to women; I’m sure it’ll work just fine if it’s urbansplainin’ to rural voters.
If Trump wins, we’ll have a stronger case to make. His policies will be disastrous, especially for the working poor; once the economy collapses again, we’ll have a case to make to fix things. But if (as I hope) Hillary wins, it’ll be time to really show what we can do. How about a major jobs effort in economically depressed areas? We have to do something. Because the kind of poverty Vance grew up with is not acceptable.